/ 20 January 2017

It’s East vs West Africa in battle for AU chair

Self-serving: The AU headquarters in Ethiopia.The summit later this month is meant to be about the youth but it will be dominated by who will head the ­African Union Commission.
Self-serving: The AU headquarters in Ethiopia.The summit later this month is meant to be about the youth but it will be dominated by who will head the ­African Union Commission.


The 28th ordinary session of the African Union, which will take place on January 30 and 31 with the theme “Harnessing the demographic dividend through investments in the youth”, will be overshadowed by the election of an AU Commission chairperson to replace Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Although the theme of the meeting is pertinent, given that Africa is a young continent with more than 60% of its citizens under the age of 30, there is no doubt that the elections will steal the limelight.

After failing to elect Dlamini-Zuma’s successor at the 27th summit in Kigali, Rwanda, in July last year when she tendered her resignation, some leaders, particularly from the powerful Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), expressed their dismay at the “lack of stature” of the little-known candidates from Botswana, Equatorial Guinea and Uganda.

Although elections eventually took place only to satisfy procedure, 28 of the 54 member states abstained from the final round of voting, thus forcing the election to be postponed and Dlamini-Zuma’s term to be extended.

Judging by recent elections, specifically of Dlamini-Zuma, this is going to be a tough battle. She had to fight bitterly for the position and, after deadlock in January 2012 resulted in postponement, she still needed a fourth and final round in July that year to unseat Gabonese commissioner Jean Ping and deny him a second term.

The fierce battle exposed political fissures between the South Africa-led Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Ecowas, led by Nigeria (with the backing of France, the dominant former colonial master of most of the region), and its consequences continue to threaten continental political unity.

Backed by their countries or the AU’s regional economic communities, five people have since been confirmed as candidates for the post. They are Pelonomi Venson Moitoi (Botswana), Moussa Faki Mahamat (Chad), Agapito Mba Mokuy (Equatorial Guinea), Amina Chawahir Mohammed (Kenya) and Abdoulaye Bathily (Senegal).

Of the five, Moitoi and Mba Mokuy were the finalists who could not make it in Kigali. Only a miracle will see them snatching the jackpot in a more contested field.

With the backing of the SADC region, which had painstakingly lobbied for Dlamini-Zuma, it was for Moitoi to lose, with analysts arguing that her country was not viewed favourably after openly going against some of the positions taken by the AU.

A clear example is Botswana’s president, Ian Khama, who hardly participates in AU meetings and has openly declared his support for the International Criminal Court when most of his counterparts, including South Africa, are not only against it but also leading efforts to withdraw from the Rome Statute that established the court.

Mokuy, who, at 51, is the youngest of the five contestants and most in line with the theme of the summit, will not make it this time round either. Although his country’s president, Obiang Nguema Basongo, often uses his oil-rich country’s resources to assist the AU — at the expense of its poor people — it lacks the political gravitas to influence the vote.

The real battle will be between Kenya’s Mohammed and Senegal’s Bathily, pitting the East African Community against Ecowas. The candidates are seasoned politicians and international diplomats who have served in their countries’ governments and have done duty with the United Nations. It will count in their favour in a world undergoing fundamental geopolitical changes as a result of Brexit in the European Union and the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

With Mohammed, the AU has a chance to set a new precedent, replacing a woman with another. It would be an important gesture in this second half of the African Women’s Decade, which continues until 2020.

But the patriarchal “old boys’ club” of leaders — there is only one female president, Liberia’s Sirleaf Johnson — is likely to vote for Bathily.

The 70-year-old Senegalese pan-Africanist scholar and politician has worked with the AU and its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity. He has previously been head of the AU election observer mission in several countries and was a member of the team of experts on AU strategy. He is availing himself to head a system he helped to establish, with the full blessing of Ecowas.

If there is deadlock between these two competent candidates, a dark horse might be elected as a compromise, which would be Mahamat, Chad’s minister of foreign affairs.

He is a lawyer and a seasoned politician who once led the Economic, Social and Cultural Council of the AU, which brought him close to its corridors of power.

Africa has many examples of where the pursuit of politics and power blurs reason. The election of the new chairperson at this summit, if not done dexterously, will overshadow important discussions about how to use the continent’s demographic age dividend, which, if not harnessed, will remain a ticking time bomb.

It is also ironic that very few youths will take part in discussions about their future — which is not surprising because 21 of Africa’s 54 heads of state and government are more than 70 years old.

Dr Webster Zambara is the senior project leader of the Justice and Peacebuilding Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town