ISS: What we want from the new AU Commission chairperson


The race is on to elect a new chairperson to replace the outgoing head of the African Union Commission (AUC), Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. There is some speculation that the elections, slated to take place on 17 and 18 July at the 27th AU summit in Kigali, will be postponed to allow new candidates to vie for the position.

Whatever the case, a new chairperson has to be found, since Dlamini Zuma has not put her name in the hat to run for a second four-year term.

Dlamini Zuma has not been particularly popular in some circles in Addis Ababa. French media recently quoted AU ambassadors who criticised her for having ‘accelerated the decline of the AU’. The French daily, Le Monde, slammed her as being ‘without vision, taciturn and not present enough in Addis Ababa’. The acrimony between Dlamini Zuma and some prominent francophone leaders dates back to her contentious election in 2012, when some felt francophone countries were forming a bloc to prevent her from taking the top position in the AU. The French media – to whom she very rarely accorded interviews – have also been fairly hostile to her throughout her tenure.

While her focus on issues like socio-economic development might not have endeared her to those who want to see immediate results, Dlamini Zuma’s supporters say that the continent will benefit over the long term.
‘She was the first woman president in 50 years; and she made us very proud,’ South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, told the media last week. It is a little more than 50 years if one considers the Organization for African Unity was founded in 1963. Clearly, Dlamini Zuma’s election was a victory for African women; and she did prioritise gender issues during her tenure.

According to Nkoana-Mashabane, her former colleague will also be remembered for turning around the working methods of the AU and for being action-orientated; referring to Dlamini Zuma’s flagship Agenda 2063 programme. Recent AU summits have been proceeding according to schedule, and heads of state are seeing more results from these gatherings than in the past.

This is also partly due to the absence of the former Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, who would arrive very late and then make long speeches about African unity at the opening session of the AU assembly.

One of the biggest criticisms against Dlamini Zuma is that she didn’t communicate enough on peace and security issues. She rarely travelled to conflict zones, and her comments over these situations were often restricted to statements expressing concern. She also failed to speak out clearly about abuses like the controversial move by several African leaders to extend their stay in power. To her credit, she did forge strong relationships with media that didn’t previously take notice of the AU. This includes the Chinese media – an increasingly important partner to the AU. Yet Dlamini Zuma didn’t always manage to effectively reach a wider audience.

What is clear at this juncture is the need for a chairperson with gravitas; someone who can provide leadership when it comes to weighing in on strategic decisions, and show that the AU Commission has real impact on what happens in Africa.

He or she would have to show member states that the AU is a worthwhile organisation which not only holds meetings, but also mediates successfully to end conflicts, mandates peace operations and warns member states of impending crises.

The new chairperson would also have to convince citizens that it is in their interest for the AU to mediate in conflicts and to warn about possible crises that can be prevented through early action. Continuing Dlamini Zuma’s plans for long-term development through Agenda 2063 should also be a priority.

The AUC must show that it can lead governments to increase women’s participation in political decision making (Dlamini Zuma’s gender scorecard can be useful here); that it can be instrumental in ridding the continent of archaic practices like child marriage and excision; and, of course, it must show the AU does have a role in promoting economic development, like boosting intra-African trade. These are not problems that can be solved overnight, but the AU needs to demonstrate that its many costly meetings and conferences are worthwhile.

In short, the new chairperson should be someone with superior knowledge and experience, but also someone who can be persuasive, diplomatic and act with charisma. He or she has to communicate well and show leaders and countries that the AU drives concrete steps towards peace, unity and improving the lives of Africans.

Why is this so important now? Apart from continuing to build on the vision of the founders of the AU, it boils down to bread-and-butter issues. To continue functioning and to carry out its ambitious plans, the AUC needs more money. To be credible, it also needs to be independent from outside funding. Yet this is not forthcoming.

At the 25th AU summit in Johannesburg last year, African leaders committed to increasing their contributions to the AU budget to reach 75% of the programme budget; and 25% of the peacekeeping budget. The aim is to achieve this by 2020. Meanwhile, the richest countries – like South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt and Angola – should up their contribution to 15% of the budget.

According to insiders, the AU is very far from reaching this goal. To the contrary, countries are simply not paying their dues and Dlamini Zuma has had no impact in this regard. Last week, an experienced South African diplomat said that the huge backlog in the AU contributions is partly due to the slowdown in the economies of the big, oil-producing countries. But this is no excuse. ‘They pay their dues to the UN [United Nations], why not the AU?’ he said.

Is it because African countries think the UN is more relevant than the AU? Certainly the global organisation, which is also electing a new secretary-general this year, has an important impact on issues of global concern.

The blue UN helmets are recognisable across the continent, and it intervenes to house refugees, feed hungry populations and give health services to the poor. Of course, the UN has more money to do this. The AUC’s annual budget is just over US$400 million (excluding for peace operations, which are almost totally funded by external sources), and it employs around 2 000 people. The UN has a budget of US$5.4 billion and employs 40 000 people.

For African countries, supporting the AU should be the first priority. It seems contradictory that states don’t pay their dues while many African states clearly recognise that their economies are simply too small to have any impact globally; and that continental integration is the way to go. No Brexit here. The only organisation that can ensure this slow process towards unity is the AU.

It is important to keep in mind that the AUC chairperson doesn’t have free rein to choose the direction the AU should be taking. He or she is constrained by the AU Constitutive Act, and is considered by some heads of state as merely heading the AU ‘secretariat’. Still, choosing a new chairperson with all the attributes needed would be crucial for the AUC to drive these ideals and demonstrate its relevance.

Written by Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.