High expectations, tough challenges for the next AU Commission chair 

The Chinese-built African Union headquarters building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Photo: EPA-EFE/STR)

The main task will be delivering an effective new structure that tackles internal dysfunction at the commission, on top of the continent’s many economic and conflict-related problems. 

First published by ISS Today

African leaders are set to elect a new African Union Commission (AUC) at the continental body’s next ordinary summit early in 2021. At the top of the commission’s hierarchy is the chairperson, a key position occupied since January 2017 by Chad’s former foreign minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat.

Heads of state have to choose an AUC chairperson for the next four years, starting in January 2021. Although Mahamat is set to run unopposed, what are the considerations in picking a new chair? 

Africa is facing many economic and conflict-related problems. A leader is needed who can deal with these challenges but who also has the acumen to solve the internal dysfunctionalities and allegations of corruption and mismanagement at the commission.

Technically, AUC chairs are charged with overseeing the commission’s administration and finances, promoting and popularising the AU’s objectives and enhancing its performance. They’re also responsible for consulting and coordinating with member states, development partners and regional economic communities, among others. 

The chair must also appoint and manage AUC staff, and act as a depository for AU treaties and legal instruments. The protocol on the establishment of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) allows the chair to play a role in the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts in Africa. So this person needs to be a technically sound manager and a seasoned diplomat.

The past three chairs were former foreign affairs ministers with a wealth of knowledge on continental challenges, priorities and commitments. Their ministerial positions also allowed them to build and sustain relationships across Africa and beyond. This mix of skills and experience is vital.

A priority for the next AUC chairperson and the commission as a whole are the AU institutional reforms. These reforms were approved by AU heads of state and have been partially implemented, particularly those relating to the organisation’s financial self-sufficiency and streamlining the commission’s various departments. It remains to be seen how this will translate into a more efficient AU that serves Africa’s needs. 

Another priority is kick-starting the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), alongside the newly established AfCFTA Secretariat. Due to challenges related to Covid-19 trading under the AfCFTA has been postponed to 1 January 2021.

But the real test for the AUC’s incoming leadership will be the rollout of the commission’s new structure. The next chair will have to ensure that the new structure succeeds; this will include addressing internal dysfunction and allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Given that the head of state chosen to chair the AU has a one-year term only, the commission chairperson plays an important role in ensuring continuity of the AU’s work. One of the continent’s priorities – peace and security – remains a challenge. 

Conflict and violent extremism in South Sudan, Sudan, Libya, Mali and the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, have fluctuated between complete deterioration and substantial improvement. No lasting resolution has been found. Political tensions are also rife in many countries, including Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, where both incumbents have been re-elected in controversial elections.

Both the AUC chairperson and the commissioner for political affairs, peace and security could play a pivotal role in resolving these conflicts, through, for example, supporting the PSC, which holds the primary responsibility in these matters. The chairperson’s good offices could also go a long way in conflict prevention, an area where the PSC has struggled.

In essence, this all fits into the AU’s Silencing the Guns by 2020 agenda, which, according to recent research by the Institute for Securities Studies, has had only “marginal achievements”. This is due to “institutional, conceptual, political and operational issues” that complicate its implementation. 

The magnitude of Africa’s peace and security problems makes it difficult for the AUC and its chairperson to solve them alone. But the commission’s involvement could undoubtedly help.

The AU is still seen as an organisation of heads of state, far removed from the African people. This is largely due to the AU’s principled positions, which often overlook people’s grievances and appear to side with incumbent heads of state. Bringing the AU closer to Africans will require bridging the gap between governments and their citizens through more democratic, transparent and inclusive governance. 

The past few years have seen a new impetus to make Africa’s voice heard in the global multilateral system. Examples include the 2017 AU-European Union (EU) summit and the rekindling of AU-United Nations (UN) relations. Regular meetings and consultations now take place between the AU and EU, and AU and UN.

However the AU’s failure to agree on a single platform for negotiations with the EU is a stark reminder of the problems still to be overcome. The same goes for differences on African candidacies for positions in global organisations where consensus around a single African nominee has at times been difficult to find and uphold.

For Africa to be heard it must speak with one voice. The next AUC and its chairperson are expected to be at the forefront of this endeavour. The chair’s biggest task will be to ensure a smooth transition to the new AUC structure so that it can effectively and efficiently implement the vast and complex continental agenda. DM

Mohamed M Diatta is a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, Addis Ababa


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