Tensions between South Africa and Rwanda over African Union reforms threaten to derail plans to make the continental body more effective and self-sufficient.
President Jacob Zuma, as current chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), presented a list of objections to the reform process at the AU heads of state summit in Addis Ababa.
This sparked an angry reaction from Rwanda. President Paul Kagame was put in charge of the AU reform process 18 months ago. He is also AU chairperson this year.
Zuma told the summit on Monday that SADC objected to the lack of consultation about the reforms, and also complained that a note verbale to the AU Commission about this went unacknowledged.
There were also differences about converting the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), the brainchild of former president Thabo Mbeki, into a new AU development agency, and moving it from Johannesburg to the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.
In the note verbale from the South African embassy, seen by the Mail & Guardian, SADC complained about the fact that decisions taken during retreats by heads of state were considered to be binding, even though these decisions should be taken at the summit assemblies.
Among other objections, the note criticises the proposed 0.2% levy on specific imports into Africa, which is designed to raise funds for AU operations. This levy comes in response to the failure of some member states to pay their membership dues.
But the note said: “A majority of the member states have not been eager to implement the decision due to various reasons, including the fact that the decision is in direct conflict with constitutional provisions and national legislations of some member states, as well as global and regional trade obligations, such as those relating to the World Trade Organisation [WTO].”
South Africa also argued that any money raised from the levy that is over and above a state’s assessed contribution should be returned to the state in question, rather than held in a reserve fund.
It is understood that this matter was still under debate.
Zuma’s speech notes for the summit’s closed session to discuss the reforms focused on the lack of consultation and said nothing about the other issues raised in the note verbale.
Officials involved in the reform process brushed off SADC’s objections as baseless. “Mauritius and Malawi are already raising the levy,” a Rwandan official told the M&G after the session. “It’s not the whole of SADC that is objecting.”
The officials blamed the Permanent Represent-atives Council, made up of African ambassadors to the AU who are based in Addis Ababa, for the difficulties. “They want to be in control of the process, and sometimes all of them get together and act as a club,” the official said. “Zuma was humiliated in the meeting when he made that presentation.”
A member of the reforms team agreed. “Ambassadors here are feeling the work should have been done by them. They don’t like some of the things we have written, so they are trying to sabotage it. We decided not to allow them to sabotage the process,” he said.
He also said the objections about the WTO came from “those outside the continent” who wanted to see the financial reforms fail.
One of Zuma’s officials said there was unhappiness about the way Kagame was “trying to run the AU reforms in the same strongman manner as he does Rwanda”.
Kagame, however, has apparently already had consultations with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was elected as president of the ANC in December and who is widely expected to take over from Zuma as South Africa’s president.
Rwandan sources also said that they had suspicions about International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who was South Africa’s ambassador to India at the same time as General Kayumba Nyamwasa, the former chief of staff of the Rwandan Armed Forces who defected to the opposition.
He is now living in exile in South Africa, and the Rwandans consider him to be close to Nkoana-Mashabane, who is considered a Zuma loyalist.
Reform ‘is real’
During the summit, Kagame urged leaders to support the process.
Reform is “no longer a wish list. It is real, it is irreversible, and it is already making a difference, even as debate and argumentation continue”, the Rwandan president said at the meeting.
He said 21 member states were already implementing the 0.2% levy and 10 more indicated that they would too. He said there was enough flexibility to accommodate countries with “existing obligations or different characteristics of our economies”.
He added: “There is certainly not going to be respect for those who won’t keep their commitment or pay their own bills.”
South Africa’s ambassador to the AU, Ndumiso Ntshinga, has returned to South Africa for a bereavement and did not comment on the matter by the time of going to press.