Can Félix Tshisekedi successfully chair the African Union while trying to assert his power at home?
On 6 February, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) President Félix Tshisekedi will officially take over the rotating chairship of the African Union (AU) for 2021 – this as he manoeuvres to consolidate power at home.
He has broken off his alliance with former president Joseph Kabila and is trying to create a governing majority in Parliament. Tshisekedi’s ‘sacred union’ seems to be taking shape. He’s managed to have the speaker and president of the lower house, Jeanine Mabunda, as well as prime minister Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba removed by the National Assembly. Both belong to Kabila’s camp.
Tshisekedi seeks the appointment of a new and more loyal prime minister and government. His path is, however, not as clear as he would hope. The sacred union is a loose alliance that will be severely tested ahead of elections in 2023. Preparations for this poll may once again see the ambitions of DRC’s political elites, including Tshisekedi himself, taking precedence over the country’s political stability.
Faced with these internal political challenges, can Tshisekedi devote the necessary time and attention to the position of AU chair? And what about the fact that the DRC hasn’t ratified at least one key AU instrument – the Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union?
The DRC hasn’t ratified the AU protocol establishing the Peace and Security Council.
Chairing the AU comes with certain prerogatives captured under the duties of ‘representing the Union and promoting the objectives and principles of the AU’. This presents an opportunity for Tshisekedi, who can use the AU’s strategic importance to increase his stature in the multilateral space, and at home.
He ascended to power in the DRC under tumultuous circumstances that placed the AU and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) at loggerheads. This has given Tshisekedi first-hand experience of how crucial regional and continental organisations can be in one’s bid for power.
Chairing the AU also requires a solid and well-oiled diplomatic machinery. Tshisekedi has appointed a high-level panel to prepare for the task and help him during his 2021 AU chairship. The panel has a department for each priority area of his mandate.
He will focus on: the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and economic integration, Agenda 2063; the AU’s external partnerships such as with the European Union; health (particularly COVID-19); and culture (as part of the AU’s 2021 theme which is Arts, Culture, and Heritage: Levers for Building the Africa We Want).
It’s unlikely that Tshisekedi will have the standing to make pronouncements on election issues.
Tshisekedi will also push for the prioritisation of and investment in the longstanding Grand Inga Dam hydroelectric project on the Congo River. In its current form, the scheme could meet up to 40% of the continent’s electricity demand.
Dealing with COVID-19 and its effects will be high on Tshisekedi’s list of priorities. He’ll oversee the continental initiatives spearheaded by outgoing chair Cyril Ramaphosa, the AU Commission, and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Africa is grappling with the timely acquisition of vaccines, which is being coordinated by the Africa-CDC.
To execute these priorities, Tshisekedi will be counting on his foreign affairs minister, who has set up a task force for the chairship including the country’s ambassador to Ethiopia and permanent representative to the AU. Diplomatic capacity will need to be mobilised, and whether the DRC has it readily available is an open question.
The details of the DRC’s AU work for 2021 are yet to be revealed, but it’s unlikely that Tshisekedi will have the standing to make any pronouncement on election issues in Africa.
The AU could be a useful platform to bolster security, governance and development in the Great Lakes.
Preparations for the DRC’s role included a working visit to Kinshasa, on 5 December 2020, by AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. Tshisekedi also visited South Africa on 19 December, where, in addition to discussing bilateral relations with Ramaphosa, they covered AU-related matters as incoming and outgoing AU chairs. A budget prepared by Tshisekedi’s AU panel was presented for fundraising to the DRC’s partners in December 2020 in Kinshasa.
The DRC sits at the crossroads of many regions. It is a member of the Economic Community of Central African States, SADC and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. The country has also signalled its interest in officially joining the East African Community. This could work in Tshisekedi’s favour as he strives for consensus as AU chair.
Since coming to power, Tshisekedi has shown his willingness to work with neighbouring countries, including Angola, Uganda, Rwanda and Zambia, and could look to them for support as AU chair. This is no guarantee that he will automatically rally these stakeholders around his work, but it could help expand and consolidate diplomatic engagements.
The AU could be a useful platform to bolster security cooperation and promote good governance and development in the Great Lakes region. The continental body’s convening power could help foster coherence and unity in the way all stakeholders approach the region’s problems.
As one of the guarantors of the 2013 Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the DRC and the Region, the AU is responsible for helping to monitor its implementation. But the various AU representatives in the region – for DRC, Great Lakes and Burundi, and Central Africa – could play a more active role in tackling country-specific and regional challenges.
Whether Tshisekedi would want to use the AU as a vehicle for that endeavour remains unclear. The AU Commission and Peace and Security Council could also use Tshisekedi’s chairship to place the AU squarely at the centre of regional security, economic and development cooperation in the Great Lakes.
Tshisekedi has his hands full for 2021. His present and future political fortune will be in great part determined by how he balances his domestic goal of consolidating power with continental duties that could cement key regional ties for him.