South Africa, Africa, World, Politics

Analysis: African Union & a delicate dance of competing egos

By Simon Allison 8 May 2012

A stalemate in the never-ending race to chair the AU Commission is inevitable unless someone can show some real leadership. It’s time for our diplomats to ditch their egos and find a compromise candidate, or it’s Africa that will be compromised – again. BY SIMON ALLISON.

The time is not so far away now when South Africa will once again be putting its diplomatic might to the test. In July, African heads of state will descend upon Malawi’s verdant capital, Lilongwe, to discuss all kinds of important things, from coups in Mali to war in Somalia, as part of the year’s second African Union summit. Looming largest on the agenda, however, is the issue they failed to settle at the first, in Addis Ababa in January: just who will lead the African Union Commission?

The race is between two very different candidates. Jean Ping, the incumbent, is an old-school Gabonese diplomat with close links to that country’s ruling dynasty, the Bongos. He has a reputation as an able technocrat, a steady and safe pair of hands on the tiller of that complicated, unwieldy African Union boat. One thing he’s not going to do is rock that boat.

The other candidate – our candidate – is a different story all together. We know Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma well, of course. As one of Jacob Zuma’s ex-wives and a distinguished politician in her own right, she’s been in the public eye for years. Of late, she’s attracted praise for her stewardship of the home affairs ministry, which is beginning to gain a reputation for something approaching efficiency.

The lessons she learnt at home affairs – how to clean up and revitalise a monolithic, stagnant institution – will no doubt serve her in good stead at the AU. Her reputation is just as good in Africa, where she is fondly remembered as the foreign affairs minister who led Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance, helping to introduce things like the Peer Review Mechanism and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, initiatives which seemed so exciting at the time but, without Mbeki’s enthusiastic involvement, have fallen into irrelevance.

No one – not even the countries that voted against her in the last round – seem to doubt that she is the best candidate to seriously reform the under-spending and under-performing AU.

So why, pray tell, is anyone voting for Ping? How did he, despite South Africa’s energetic campaigning, receive the majority of votes from the assembled heads of state in the last round of voting (unfortunately for him, the post requires a two-thirds majority)?

No one can answer definitively, but theories abound. It was the dastardly French who mobilised the Francophone countries in favour of Ping, in a desperate bid to maintain their waning influence, say some. South Africa blew it, say others, because our arrogance and presumption is a turn-off for leaders already weary of our economic and cultural dominance on the continent.

Still others point to more specific bilateral issues: South Africa’s unpopular support of the International Criminal Court and its arrest warrants against African politicians, which lost us Kenya and Sudan. There is also the perception that our foreign policy was too often on the wrong side of history, after a difficult 2011 in which we backed the wrong horse in both Libya and Côte d’Ivoire.

The bad news for South African diplomats is that, despite our best efforts, little has changed in the months since that stalemate in Addis Ababa. Both SADC and Ecowas, the West African regional bloc, have confirmed their nominations of Dlamini-Zuma and Ping respectively. From there, simple numbers mitigate against a solution. For either candidate to win, no more than 18 countries can vote against them. There are 14 countries in SADC, excluding Madagacar, which was suspended following a coup. There are 13 in Ecowas, excluding Mali and Guinea-Bissau, also suspended because of a coup. That leaves 24 countries in play, with only a handful of votes needed to prevent either candidate from reaching that two-thirds majority. Another stalemate is inevitable.

But there will be a winner. At least that’s what the AU has agreed, at a discussion in Mali before the coup (only just before – some department of international relations and co-operation staffers, waiting for a later flight than the minister, were stranded in Bamako for days as the coup leaders shut down Malian airspace). If voting fails, which it will, then negotiations will ensue until something gives.

SADC’s new strategy is premised on these negotiations, and the need to go into them with strength. Their theory is that as long as they overturn Jean Ping’s simple majority from the first round, preferably by a big margin, they will be in prime position to dictate terms. Chances are, however, that voting will remain relatively even – and in that case, “negotiations will be tough. Very tough”, said one Dirco source. And, as yet, there’s no plan B.

The obvious solution is to find another candidate. SADC and Dirco’s favourite argument in favour of Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy is that it is Southern Africa’s turn to lead the continental body, because they never have before. Unfortunately, this is not strictly true. Salim Ahmed Salim was secretary-general of the Organisation for African Unity from 1989-2001, the body’s longest-serving leader, and he was from a SADC country: Tanzania. But, despite their involvement in SADC, Tanzania is not seen as southern enough.

Observe international relations minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane’s delicate tap-dancing around the issue in a recent speech: “The election of Dr Dlamini-Zuma to this position will ensure that the southern region is also given an opportunity – for the first time in the five decades since the formation of the OAU and its successor, the AU – to contribute at the highest level to the affairs of our union,” she said, the first and only time she used the term “southern region” instead of SADC.

But if the “southern region” might feel the need to lead the AU, this shouldn’t mean their candidate has to be a South African. As noted above, thanks to our dominant position in Africa and last year’s foreign policy miscalculations, Dlamini-Zuma’s nationality is counting heavily against her.

So change that nationality. She’s not the only good candidate around. Surely, with a little bit of digging, somewhere in the whole of SADC – that’s 15 countries, remember, though it’s probably best to ignore Madagascans at this point – we can find another candidate capable of leading the African Union’s reform?

This candidate would be unburdened by a South African passport, and have the advantage of immediately representing compromise. Ecowas could potentially accept a new candidate without losing face, making a negotiated solution far more likely. And South Africa would still, thanks to our disproportionate influence in the region, retain a significant degree of control.

SADC (and Dirco, which is leading Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign) should prevent a farcical stand-off between competing national egos in Lilongwe, or the rest of the world will get yet another chance to laugh at the incompetence of African diplomats. A strong, empowered AU Commission with the potential to lead Africa’s development is in everyone’s interest.

They should think of someone else for the job, and do it quickly, before it becomes too late to back down, before Ecowas proposes their own alternative, which it would be very difficult to reject. Failing that, at least there should be a compromise candidate in mind before those “tough negotiations” begin, so that all sides can emerge from this sorry affair with at least some of their dignity intact. DM

Read more:

  • Analysis: South Africa is too American to lead Africa on Daily Maverick.

Photo: South Africa’s Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma speaks during an interview in Moscow May 23, 2008. Dlamini-Zuma said on Friday violence that has erupted in the past two weeks in townships is embarrassing for the government and creates a “very bad image” for the country. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov.


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