BATTLING FOR THE CHAIR

By Yonas Abiye 

The race to lead the African Union Commission is entering a critical stage, as candidates to succeed outgoing AU Commission Chair

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (PhD) make their final pitches and struggle to overcome regional divisions and other pertinent issues that stalled the election process five months ago. The five contenders made their public appeals yet, in a first-ever televised debate broadcast from the AU’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on December 9, which marked an overt effort to popularize the organization across the continent. Pictured on the top from left are candidates Agapito Mba Moku, Equatorial Guinea’s foreign minister; Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s foreign minister; Abdoulaye Bathily, former UN special envoy to Central African Republic and Senegalese environment minister; Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi; Botswana’s foreign minister and Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chad’s foreign minister. 

Below an article published by The Ethiopian Reporter

Since the establishment of the African Union (AU) on 26th of May 2001 in Addis Ababa, the role of the continental organization on issues vital to Africa has gone up considerably. In line with this newly found importance, the position of the chairperson of the AU Commission has also become a highly sought after appointment in the continent. True to form, the battle between Jean Ping and Nkozasana Dlamini-Zuma (PhD), in the 2012 chairperson election was a unique phenomenon in many respects. However, four years down the road, the 27th AU summit in Kigali ended the without electing the next chair as none of the candidates could achieve the needed majority. And it seems that a trend is evolving in terms of how contested these elections are going to be in future, writes Yonas Abiye.

On July 18, 2016, the African Union’s (AU) 27th Assembly of Heads of State and Government ended in Kigali without arriving at a decision on the major agenda of the meeting – the election of chairperson for the African Union Commission. None of the three candidates who were on the ballot to replace Nkozasana Dlamini-Zuma (PhD), the first woman to chair the commission, was able to secure the required two-thirds majority votes from the AU’s executive council. Around 28 member states, out of the 53 represented, abstained from voting, resulting in no clear majority for any of the candidates. This has resulted in the postponement of the voting process to the following summit which is expected to be held next month at the AU’s headquarters in Addis Ababa.

In fact, Zuma came to the helm of the continental body following one of the most disputed chairperson elections in the organization’s recent history which pinned the former South African foreign minister against Jean Ping, the seasoned Gabonese politician and diplomat. In fact, the election back in 2012 also had to be postponed because of the failure of the two candidates to get majority votes from the executive council. At the Kigali summit, the three main contenders, Botswana’s foreign minister, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, her Equatorial Guinea counterpart, Agapito Mba Mokuy, and Uganda’s former vice president, Specioza Wandira-Kazibwe, have all been described as “lacking stature” by several African countries.

However, the number of contestants for the chairmanship job is the highest since the establishment of the continental organization in 1963. However, the number of names on the ballot has grown even further, now around 5, ahead of the AU meeting to be held next month.

Another three have put up their names for the chairmanship position since the Kigali meeting while one of the candidates, Wandira-Kazibwe, abandoned the race immediately after the Rwandan summit. The other two candidates, the foreign ministers of Botswana and Equatorial Guinea, have both announced that they would be staying in the race.

Venson-Moitoi is the front-runner in this race, securing the maximum number of votes in Kigali although it was short of the required minimum to get the job. In fact, she was only seven ballots short to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority.

The three politicians who have thrown their hats into the ring lately include Kenya’s Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed, minister of foreign affairs of Chad, Moussa Faki Mahamat, and Senegal’s Abdoulaye Bathily, currently the UN’s special representative to Central Africa.

The debate

Last week, Addis Ababa hosted a televised debate among the five candidates, one of a kind in the AU’s recent history. According to commentators, the format of the debate, however, left much to be desired. The debate started out as though it would follow the UN format for the election of a secretary general but many argued it slowly shifted to a mere job interview. It posed no real challenges to the candidates since the candidates were given a pre-approved list of questions to prepare on.

Highlighting the said shortcomings of the debate, a.k.a MjadalaAfrika, the questions posed by CCTV’s correspondent Girum Chala and Radio France International’s reporter, Alain Foka, were not challenging enough to the candidates.

Earlier, a South African media reported that Girum came to replace the South African journalist Karima Brown at the last minute. In fact, Brown had been introduced as one of the moderators in the AU press release which was issued late last month.

According to the same South African media outlet, a day after the debate session, Brown had been omitted from the program because she wanted to ask tricky questions during the debate, mainly related to ICC and other human tight issues.

 “We did not have much time to prepare. We were given a short notice but given that it was first, I think we did well,” Amina told the press after the debate. The debate, which was streamed live not just in Africa but all over the world, was expected to show what Africa is all about.

“Will this make any difference on the decision? Obviously not. But, this is a great opportunity for us to speak directly to the nations and allow people to understand what the AU actually does,” she added.

The debate was dominated by issues of women’s involvement in decision making, conflict resolution as well as youth participation in the AU, greater integration, financing for the AU, and to a lesser extent youth migration and how to curb it.

As it was observed, instead of debating on their individual differences regarding their leadership qualities, the candidates tended to directly address the audience and were largely in agreement about the continent’s outstanding and pressing issues they were presented with.

Hence, Senegal’s Bathily was urging for broader expansion of industrialization across the continent to address youth unemployment problem, which he said was the continent’s major challenge at this time. All the candidates also underscored the need to improve the level of intra-African trade.

“I would like to encourage member states to reform their visa regulations since most of these challenges are connected to visa restrictions,” Botswana’s Venson-Moitoi said.

Faki Mahamat on his part noted: “We can’t keep arguing about the same problems 60 years after independence. Still today, we cannot cross borders even if we have family on the other side of the border”. Similarly, another issue that was raised by the candidates was the lack of commitment from AU member states to finance their common institution. The issue of financial dependency on the outside world was widely addressed by the candidates noting that the continent had the potential to cover its expenses. In general, the historic debate has also allowed the five candidates to outline their vision for the continent and its people more clearly.

AU’s structural arrangement

The 54 member states will hold the 28th summit in Addis Ababa from 30 to 31 January 2017. This summit is expected to elect the next chair of the commission for a term of four years. As the AU has seen its role intensified on issues that affect the continent in recent years, chairmanship of the AU Commission has become a very important and extremely prestigious position. The upcoming election is not symbolic; it is about choosing a trusted and competent leader to guide the continent both in good as well as bad times.

The highest decision-making body of the AU is the Assembly of the African Union which consists of all heads and government of the member states. The chairperson of the assembly is the ceremonial head of the AU and is elected by the assembly to serve for a one-year term. The chairperson is elected from member states in turns. Currently, the assembly is chaired by President Idris Deby of Chad, whose term is also winding up next month.

AU’s secretariat is the AU Commission based in Addis Ababa and its chairperson is the chief executive officer, AU’s legal representative and the accounting officer of the commission. The chairperson is directly answerable to the AU’s Executive Council. Currently, the chairperson is Dlamaini-Zuma whose first term has already expired last June but she had to stay on at the office upon the request of the council. She, however, has decided not to seek a second term; hence, the position is open for contest.

Regional blocs and linguistic divisions

Notably, the position of the chairperson of the AUC does not only bring prestigious power and continental recognition to the individuals elected to serve but also to the county and regions which that individual represents. Already, some countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which was represented by Zuma and had held the position for four years, are arguing for having the legitimate right to field another candidate since Zuma actually had the right to run for another term. Meanwhile, other regions, mainly eastern and central Africa, have already identified their nominees. It was also rumored that some regions have already initiated diplomatic efforts to gather votes for their preferred candidates.

By tradition, the post rotates between Anglophone and Francophone countries. Dlamini-Zuma, from the English-speaking South Africa, succeeded in defeating French-speaking Jean Ping in 2012. Candidates from French-speaking Chad and Senegal will be in a prime position if this principle is observed once more.

Critics have rejected the notion that choosing a successor should be based on a rotational system, saying that the best candidate should be chosen irrespective of their origin.

Similarly, the linguistic divide, which candidates are clearly aware of, also plays an important role. According to political commentators, ultimately, it remains to be seen how much impact these debates will have.

The election of the AUC chairperson takes place through a secret ballot. That means, the endorsement that some candidates got from their regions – like Venson-Moitoi’s official support from SADC and Bathily’s endorsement by the Economic Community of West African States – cannot be seen as a guarantee of their strong regional support. Commentators also argue that it would be difficult to predict who would win come January.

Citing Dlamini-Zuma was an Anglophone, there are also some with the anticipation that it is now time for a Francophone AUC chairperson. Whoever wins in January, his or her face would at least be a bit more familiar to ordinary Africans than would have been the case before, according to a local journalist who has been covering AU-related events for over 20 years in Addis Ababa.

The ICC factor

For other analysts, there are far more divisive factors in Africa’s politics which they expect to cast their shadow on the upcoming election. Some of these issues include the International Criminal Court (ICC), migration from conflict areas such as South Sudan, and security.

For instance, according to critics, avoiding ICC from the debates agenda by itself tells how the Rome Statute still remains a contentious issue among  countries.

A number of reports show that the Hague-based ICC is still a prime divisive matter among African nations. One practical show case would be a recent report from Nairobi, Kenya indicating that the Kenyan foreign minister has actually threatened to walk out of the debates if the question regarding the ICC were to be incorporated.

According to critics, the ICC issue, however, is still one of the most important questions facing Africa today and would have clearly shown the continental divide. For example, Botswana and Senegal are firmly in favor of the ICC, while Kenya and Equatorial Guinea are against the court.

In a recent article on the AUC elections, the Institute for Security Studies’ (ISS) Peace and Security Council Report said that the ICC was likely to be one of the main issues that would determine the outcome of the election.

Kenya had been lobbying hard for withdrawal from ICC since its president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his deputy, William Ruto, were summoned to appear before the court in relation to the country’s post-election violence in 2007 and 2008. But, the charges have since been withdrawn due to lack of evidence.

In a show of solidarity, South Africa, on its part, has supported the east African nation’s stance, especially following international pressure to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir last year, when he came to Johannesburg to attend an AU summit.

There were, however, no new applications for withdrawals since the move by Burundi, South Africa and the Gambia – an indication that the favor to withdraw from the tribunal was not universal in Africa. In contradiction to these nations, Botswana, for one, is in principle opposed to a mass withdrawal. Botswana has fielded its foreign minister, Venson-Moitoi, for the position of AU Commission chair. Adding to the complexities, South Africa is officially obliged to support SADC’s candidate, who is Venson-Moitoi.

Nevertheless, the ICC factor alone looks to be redesigning the cooperation and alliance architecture across the continent overriding even old connections and coalitions.

The Moroccan U-Turn

The recent effort by  Morocco to rejoin the continental bloc which it left some 32 years ago is said to be another factor which is expected to affect the outcome of the election in January. Morocco walked out of the OAU in 1984 following the recognition of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as one of its independent member states by the organization.

Morocco’s King Mohamed VI has recently been on the road forging relations with nations which are expected to be influential in country’s bid to rejoin the continental body. He has visited a couple of African states recently and has been putting money on the table. He has, for instance, allocated close to USD 3.7 billion in Ethiopia to build Africa’s biggest fertilizer plant. The North African nation has also inked over dozens of cooperation agreements with Rwanda and Tanzania as well last October.

Even some time before King Mohammed’s recent visit to five countries in the continent, he had attended AU’s summit in Rwanda in July. During that event, 28 African countries signed a petition for the SADR to be kicked out of AU and to open the door for Morocco to join.

As an insightful report by ISS Africa chapter noted recently, Morocco was pursuing a dual strategy of joining and working “from within” for de-recognition of SADR from the AU.

The same report also said that Morocco secured solid support mostly in Francophone west and central Africa. Meanwhile, it has sour relations with others taking the view that the outgoing AUC chairperson (South Africa’s Damini-Zuma), was hostile toward its return. If such arguments hold water, it may lead to imply then that Dlamini-Zuma was aligned to countries like South Africa and Algeria, Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea, that ISS says were determined that the issue of Morocco’s continued claim over Western Sahara be resolved before letting the north African nation join the AU once again.

Critics also claim that this might be why West Africa, which partly caused the deadlock at the Kigali July vote for AU chief by abstaining, had a candidate in the person of Senegalese Bathily, the former UN special representative for Central Africa. Senegal is one of the biggest advocates for Morocco’s membership and for expelling SADR.

The ISS report again points out that Mohamed of Kenya was also seen to be in favor of Morocco’s return. It, however, states that Mohamed probably would be denied the backing that she would gather from South Africa, Algeria, and Zimbabwe’s votes. Also, she would then split the pro-Morocco vote with Bathily in the first round, opening the chance for Botswana’s Pelonomi, who still maintains the solid vote of the SADC, to again emerge with the most votes in the first round.

After three years of threats, South Africa, Burundi, and the Gambia have been the first three African countries to formally start the process of withdrawal from the Rome Statute that established the court.

However, despite the anti-ICC uproar, the picture in Africa is complicated. At the 15th Assembly of States Parties (ASP) in The Hague in early November, among the countries that  were vocal and  most vigorously in favor of the ICC, it was the African nations, which in fact called for the Hague-based tribunal to be strengthened and for more countries to ratify the Rome Statute. Particularly, they included Botswana, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Lesotho, Mali, Nigeria, Tunisia, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire.

Hence, according to critics, unless Kenya moves clearly out of the leave-ICC column, now that it has become an issue, one can glean from how countries are lining up above, how west Africa would likely vote this time, if it comes down to Venson-Moitoi and Mohamed. It would go with Venson-Moitoi.

Also, more than half of the SADC would cast their vote for the latter should the finals be between Mohamed and Bathily. The small complication here is that the countries that have opted to leave the ICC – South Africa, Burundi, and the Gambia – are either a political mess or rocked by violence.

South Africa is, however, uneasy that Senegal might support the readmission of Morocco to the AU, while South Africa strongly supports Western Sahara’s independence from Moroccan rule.

The first round of voting – at the July summit in Rwanda – failed to produce a new chairperson because too many states abstained, with many saying none of the candidates was qualified enough. But the number of candidates even went higher than earlier which as a result stirred more questions as to how the upcoming 28th Assembly of States and Governments addresses such a head-to-head race to the chairperson post amid the issues dividing member countries. This definitely makes the January 31, 2017 summit in Addis Ababa the most awaited yet – for either its happy or regrettable outcome.

Yonas Abiye’s blog

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