Op-Ed: Choosing the Next Chair of the African Union Commission

Given questions about the experience of previous candidates in the search for a new chair of the African Union Commission, it will serve us well to reflect on the type of leader required to take this continent forward. By Professor CHERYL HENDRICKS of the University of Johannesburg.

The impending departure of Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma from the key continental position of chair of the African Union Commission (AUC) has generated a highly contested election campaign for a new leader.

Elections were held in Rwanda in July 2016 with three contestants: Dr Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi (Foreign Minister, Botswana) – Southern Africa, Mr Agapito Mba Mokuy (Foreign Minister, Equatorial Guinea) – Central Africa and Dr Specioza Naigaga Wandira Kazibwe (Former Vice-President, Uganda) – East Africa.

They failed to sufficiently inspire Member States who questioned their calibre. None could garner two-thirds of the vote and 30 countries abstained from voting. They asked for the submission process to be reopened and for elections to be postponed. These elections will now take place during the 28th AU Summit in the last week of January 2017.

Three new candidates have joined the race: Moussa Faki Mahamat (Foreign Minister, Chad) – Central Africa; Prof Abdoulaye Bathily (UN Special Representative, Senegal) – West Africa, and Ambassador Amina Mohamed (Cabinet Secretary, Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Kenya) – East Africa, while the candidate from Uganda graciously bowed out. In an unprecedented attempt to showcase the candidates, the AU held a widely televised debate, in December 2016, in which candidates provided us insight into their analysis and policy perspectives on key continental issues.

Given questions about the experience of previous candidates, it will serve us well to reflect on the type of leader required to take this continent forward. We can then ask how far the expertise, understanding of the issues and passion of these candidates match the leadership needs of this continent. However, voting for a new leader is not based solely on the perceived experience of the candidate national and regional interests play a significant role in the voting behaviour of Member States.

The new leader of the AUC will have to deal with both institutional and larger continental challenges. Institutionally, the need for reforming the AU has been longstanding. Reforms would require creating greater financial independence and sustainability of the organisation, effectively dealing with the bureaucratic inertia, bridging old Anglo/Francophone divisions, ironing out continued tensions between regional organizations and the AU and increasing the capability for timely and appropriate responses to the growing human insecurity facing the continent. The challenges include the youth bulge, high unemployment, low growth rates, election related conflict, armed conflict, service-delivery protests, leaders not respecting constitutions, term limits and human rights, unequal gender relations, corruption, climate change, and so forth.

AGENDA 2063 is a policy framework to address these human security challenges and will require that the chair of the AUC work towards:

  • Inclusive growth and sustainable development;
  • An integrated continent based on the ideals of Pan-Africanism and the vision of Africa’s Renaissance;
  • Good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law;
  • A peaceful and secure Africa;
  • Shared values and ethics;
  • People-driven development especially by women and youth;
  • Being a global player and partner.

The AU will need a leader with transformative and ethical leadership qualities to deliver on this extensive mandate. It needs a leader with the necessary analytical skills to understand and respond to the complexity, and interrelatedness, of peace, security and development. A leader with the passion and skill to reinvigorate the ideas that informed the formation of the OAU and AU: that of unity, pan-Africanism and regional integration. One with political acumen to navigate the power politics within the organisation and between it and the AU’s “partners” as well as to negotiate common positions and be the spokesperson for Africa in global forums. A leader who can bridge the regional and language divides, one who can rise above the factionalism and who is relatively independent from both national, regional and international (particularly ex-colonial) powers.

The need for cohesion and gender equality on the continent makes identity a salient issue in these elections. Women campaigned for the election of Dr Dlamini-Zuma and arguably may be concerned that the window for putting forward their interests and consolidating their gains under Dlamini-Zuma’s leadership may be closing. They would therefore be hoping for another woman and/or for someone who understands and supports the quest for gender equality and women’s meaningful participation in peace and security processes and structures to succeed her.

Youth voices are strong on the need to be included in the AU and for their concerns to be addressed. Africa’s 200-million youth (between ages 15-24) will double by 2045. A new leader should be relatively young and be committed to articulating the concerns of the youth; a Pan-Africanist and a humanist who can provide vision and policy orientation towards a united Africa that affirms the dignity of its people and who can bridge the language, geographic and ex-colonial divides and reassert ethics and agency in Africa.

The AU is sensitive to regional representation and has an unwritten rule that the chairperson should come from one of the small states (a rule that South Africa ran roughshod over in its election bid, much to the chagrin of the other big states). Given this precedent, will the other big states now follow suit or will they seek to reinstate the unwritten rule? Southern Africa and Central Africa have been recent occupants of this position and North Africa has not fielded a candidate (hoping to retain the Peace and Security portfolios).

Who among the five candidates would best meet the requirements?

Venson-Moitoi (65) is a seasoned bureaucrat and politician. She has held the position of Permanent Secretary and key cabinet portfolios, including currently that of Minister of Foreign Affairs. Her experience in national and regional governance is unquestionable, but she may lack continental and international dimensions. Her campaign focuses on gender equality and the restructuring of the AU. She appears to be more of the same that we found in Dr Dlamini-Zuma and thus may seem to some as a candidate for continuity. For those who liked Dlamini-Zuma’s leadership this will augur well: for those who did not, this may count against her. Many see this election as another opportunity to bring about a shake-up of the organisation – something promised, but not sufficiently delivered on, by the current chair.

Venson-Moitoi does not have a strong pan-Africanist articulation or appeal to the youth. She has the backing of SADC, but will struggle to obtain support from the other regions who deem southern Africa to have had its opportunity as chair. She was also not that inspiring in the televised debate. She is unlikely to gain more than the original 16 votes.

Mokuy (52) is the youngest candidate. He has held a senior position in Unesco, was a senior adviser to the president of Equatorial Guinea and is currently the Minister of Foreign Affairs, in which capacity he has hosted AU Summits for Heads of State and Government in his country. He is running a glossy media campaign that speaks to issues of youth unemployment, migration, regional integration, improving the working conditions at the AU and the need for AU’s financial independence. He is suave and articulate and speaks English, French and Spanish, but is relatively unknown as a Pan-Africanist advocate.

Amina Mohamed (56) very quickly appeared to be the candidate with the credentials we were all hoping for. She is a seasoned diplomat and politician with both national and international credentials. Her illustrious career includes that of Chair of the IOM and WTO as well as Deputy Executive Director of the UNEP. She has been on the executive boards of World Intellectual Property Organization, WHO, UNCTAD, UNHHCR and UNAIDS. In Kenya she has been Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice and National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs, Ambassador in Geneva and is currently Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

She has a strong campaign in which she clearly articulates why she wants to lead the AU and coherently expressed her views on the key issues facing the continent in the live debate. She calls for dignity for African citizens, securing Africa’s rightful place in the community of nations, deeper integration, a people-centred and financially independent African Union, a consultative approach within the organisation, gender equality, dealing with youth unemployment etc. She comes across as a strong, passionate leader.

She appears to have backing from Nigeria and Rwanda and has been travelling extensively throughout the continent in an attempt to garner support for her campaign. As a Somali Kenyan, she would be able to appeal to the support of the Greater Horn of Africa and has COMESA’s endorsement. However, Kenya is a large state and held the position of deputy chair for the past eight years. Amina is now also dogged by corruption allegations. On January 16, a damning allegation surfaced in the Kenyan Weekly claiming involvement in massive financial impropriety (Kenya Today also published an article on the January 22). Whether or not these allegations are true, they begin to impact on perceptions as ethics and integrity are important aspects for the Chairperson of the AUC.

Abdoulaye Bathily (70) is the oldest candidate and comes with a wealth of experience that spans academia, government and international organisations. Among African scholars, he is a well-known Pan-Africanist who has struggled for social justice and for the growth of African scholarship. He was a candidate for presidential elections in Senegal in 1993 and 2007 and has held various ministerial positions. Peace and security is a crucial part of the portfolio of the chairperson. The AU Peace and Security Council currently has its agenda full with a growing list of conflict. Bathily is a strong candidate on peace and security issues owing to his roles as Deputy Special Representative in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and as the UN’s Special Representative for Central Africa.

He is fluent in English and French and has actively worked across the linguistic divides. He supports gender equality and his humble, dignified manner will be much needed by the AU. Does he have the tenacity to deal with the many internal challenges of the organisation, and can he appeal to the youth? Only time will tell. West Africa is divided on a candidate and this may scupper Bathily’s bid for chair.

The dark horse in this race is Moussa Faki Mahamat (56) of Chad. He, too, is a seasoned national and international politician. He was Prime Minister of Chad, ran Derby’s presidential campaign, was permanent secretary of cabinet, held several ministerial portfolios and is currently Minister of Foreign Affairs and African Integration. Internationally, he was head of the UN’s Economic and Social Council, led Chad’s entry as non-permanent representative on the UN Security Council and chaired the council for the month of December 2015.

On the continent he has long experience on the AU’s Peace and Security Council, representing Chad in 2016 when they assumed the rotating chair. He was instrumental in the AU’s adoption of the Charter on Maritime Security, Safety and Development and on the decision’s around financing of the AU. In addition, his peace and security experience extends to that of the Lake Chad Basin and its fight against Boko Haram through the establishment of a multinational joint force. He was part of the negotiations in the Addis Abba Agreement for South Sudan, the Algiers Agreement for Mali and the Doha Peace Agreement for Darfur. He therefore has an exceptionally strong track record in the realm of peace and security and will personally know many of the key people needed to secure his vote. As former chair of the Council of Ministers of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), he will have strong backing from his region. He speaks three languages, English, French and Arabic, which would be an added attraction for his support from North African countries. Chad’s role in the Lake Chad Basin will also secure him some votes from the split West African region and he could very well secure some from East Africa.

Mahamat, given experience, will have an informed understanding of the AU and its challenges and his campaign is striking the right keys: reinvigorating African youth, empowering African women, strengthening governance, dealing with environment and migration challenges, restructuring the AU and equal partnerships. The fact that Central Africa has held this position relatively recently and that they have fielded two candidates may, however, negatively impact his chances.

These candidates all seem to have the necessary experience, some more advantageous than others. In the end it is who inspires trust and confidence, who has those transformative ethical qualities and who is able to secure sufficient support from the respective countries. We will know this sooner rather than later. Whoever emerges victorious has a huge responsibility to turn the tide on conflict, poverty, corruption and gender inequality on this continent. He/she must transform an organization that has lost much of its shine back into the beacon of hope it was for African citizens. DM

Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa with Chairperson of the African Union Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at XIV World Forestry Congress, 7 Sep 2015. (Photo: GCIS)


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