Bridging the African Union’s divides

When the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was trying to cajole the rest of Africa into accepting his grand idea of a United States of Africa, it was rumoured that he offered Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma the job of prime minister if she would back him. At the time she was South Africa’s minister of foreign affairs.

A lot has changed since that summit in Accra, Ghana, in 2007 when a number of smaller African states gave in to Gaddafi’s bullying and buying of votes. Yet Dlamini-Zuma was duly elected as chairperson of the African Union  Commission by a majority of heads of state at its 19th summit in Addis Ababa on July 15.

In effect, she will be the prime minister of an institution that aims to be the continental decision-making body. Of course, things are complicated because she will not be reporting to one executive president but to 54, give or take a few, depending on how many coups there have been on the continent.

The way South Africa lobbied for votes since the last unsuccessful bid for the position in January will not make her job any easier. Some countries are accusing South Africa of using the same tactics of which Gaddafi was guilty.

When she takes up office in Addis Ababa in three months’ time, her first task will have to be an attempt at some radical improvements at the commission – an institution bogged down by inefficiency, understaffing and underspending. Only 52% of posts are filled and the average underspending is 37%.

A hardship post
On this score she will probably do very well, or at least better than her ­predecessors. Walking into the AU Commission cannot be much worse than walking into the portfolio of home affairs in 2009.

For a while, Addis Ababa has been considered by diplomats to be a hardship post – a perception reinforced by the strain of working in a country with terrible phone infrastructure, restrictive laws and very little to offer expats.

The Anglophone and Francophone divide at the commission is also a reality – the men in boubous (robes) do not sit at the same lunch table as the East Africans in suits – but she will be able to use her skills as a South African to convince bureaucrats from diverse backgrounds to work together.

Despite what the rulebooks say, she will probably have to define her role and relationship with the heads of state as things go along. This she has to do with the rotating head of state who gets the position of AU chairperson for a year – a title often confused with that of the commission chairperson. Benin’s President Yayi Boni has this job at the moment and is doing it relatively well, but sometimes the AU chair is largely symbolic, especially when it is occupied by leaders such as Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who filled this post last year.

Following the extensive battle to get Dlamini-Zuma elected, many are claiming that she will raise the profile of the AU. Certainly the drama between her and her predecessor, Jean Ping, has captured imaginations, but it will take much more than this to restore the credibility of the commission and of the AU. This is true of the union’s image internationally and among ordinary Africans.

Africa policy
Dlamini-Zuma will have the power and influence of South Africa behind her, but it will not always be an advantage given South Africa’s much-criticised Africa policy. Ping, also a former foreign minister, was unable to get heads of state to agree on almost anything and was decried for being weak.

Still, heads of state are unclear about how much power the commission chairperson should have. Former Mali president Alpha Omar Konaré clashed with many of his peers when he had this position. After his term ended the commission chair was again occupied by a minister, just as it was during the time of the Organisation of African Unity.

Consequently, when half of Africa’s heads of state at last year’s summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, decided to recognise the fledgling Libyan National Transitional Council and the other half – led by South Africa – refused to do so, Ping could not do much about it. The AU’s road map for Libya was completely ignored by Nato – a huge embarrassment for Africa.  

Earlier this year, when some agreed with Malawi’s president that the International Criminal Court arrest warrant against Omar ­al-Bashir of Sudan should be respected and the other half wanted the 19th AU summit (that just took place) to be moved to Addis Ababa, Africa again looked hopelessly divided.

These divisions and the stalemate that preceded Sunday’s election made some analysts fear a total breakdown of the institution. Some advised that the AU should abandon efforts to model itself on the European Union, but rather look at a loose structure, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, leaving integration up to the regions.

For now, the AU’s reputation has been salvaged and there is real hope for a more efficient commission with Dlamini-Zuma at the helm.

Constitutive act
A huge advantage for her is that she knows the AU commission very well. After all, she helped to implement its constitutive act in the early years after its creation in 2002.

“Your foreign minister doesn’t take no for an answer,” I remember a West African foreign minister telling me at an AU summit in Addis Ababa in 2003. It was during a marathon session on getting a resolution on gender parity pushed through the agenda.

At the time Dlamini-Zuma showed the same unwavering determination and work ethic she has become known for at home. It was not unusual for the media to be called to press briefings by Dlamini-Zuma at 2am or 3am to explain the latest AU decisions.

Ten years after its creation, things at the AU have not moved as quickly as what she and Thabo Mbeki, then her commander in chief, had envisioned. Funding remains a huge problem. More than half ($160-million) of its budget of $275-million for 2012 is paid for by external partners, mostly the European Union. An audit of the commission finalised in 2007 recommended vast reforms of it, but little of this has been implemented by Dlamini-Zuma’s predecessor.

An efficient AU will hugely improve its relations with international donors, especially now that this kind of money is getting scarce. Real action in solving peace and security issues will also improve the AU’s standing in the eyes of its citizens. But achieving credibility and raising the profile of the AU will ultimately depend not on the commission chairperson, but on the quality of leadership in its member states.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran
Liesl Louw-Vaudran
Liesl Louw-Vaudran is an independent journalist and Africa expert. She lived in Senegal for many years and has reported from over 20 African countries. She is a regular commentator on African issues in the local and international media. From 2002 to 2008 she was the Africa Editor at Media24 newspapers in South Africa and still contributes to newspapers such as the Mail&Guardian in Johannesburg. Liesl also works as a consultant for the Institute for Security Studies, notably as editor of the African Union Peace and Security Council Report.
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