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AU: A New Chair, A New Hope?

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the newly-elected chair of the African Union Commission, faces tough challenges ahead.
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Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma speaking the Durban climate change talks. Photograph by WWF@COP17.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s recent election to the chair of the African Union Commission, ahead of incumbent Jean Ping, has had mixed responses.

Some are optimistic that Dlamini-Zuma, the ex-wife of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and the first woman to lead the organisation, will fulfil her promises of reform and renewed efficiency in responding to crises.

Others are less positive. Dlamini-Zuma’s election followed months of bitter squabbling and some smaller countries argue that South Africa has violated an unwritten rule forbidding larger states from competing for the AU chair. South Africa’s robust campaign tactics have also led some to claim Dlamini-Zuma bullied her way to the top.

The next few months are likely to be tempestuous for the AU. Hesitation over crises in the Ivory Coast and Libya last year has led many to question the organisation’s relevance, and Dlamini-Zuma will face the tough challenge of trying to unite the organisation behind her.

A bitter campaign and the South African bully

The leadership contest was originally scheduled to be decided in January. However, in the vote, neither Dlamini-Zuma nor Jean Ping, the Gabonese incumbent, were able to garner the two-thirds majority necessary to win. It was decided that Ping would stay for a further six months until elections on July 15.

In those six months, the South African contingent waged an aggressive campaign to get Dlamini-Zuma elected and was accused of ‘economic diplomacy’ and ‘gift giving’. A private jet was allegedly made available to President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, and South Africa encountered criticism when it granted a $35 million loan to the government of Malawi immediately prior to the AU vote. South Africa also engaged in bilateral encouragement with senior officials visiting foreign capitals, particularly those that had previously supported Ping, to rally support.

Some claim South Africa is attempting to dominate the continent. The sensitivity of former President Nelson Mandela’s approach to Africa’s smaller states has arguably been replaced by Jacob Zuma’s more robust and ambitious approach to foreign policy, and the South African President was the first to express his delight at his ex-wife’s victory.

Voting motives

There a number of theories behind why certain countries voted the way they did. Some point to a francophone-anglophone divide in the AU. According to some reports, Anglophone African nations were concerned over French backing of the Ping candidacy. Some in South Africa, for example, view France’s interventions in the Ivory Coast and Libya as neo-colonialist meddling and this was reportedly a major reason for the registration of their own candidate. According to The Southern Times, “France's ambassador to Ethiopia, Jean-Christophe Belliard reportedly arm-twisted some countries to back Jean Ping against SADC's (Southern African Development Community) candidate Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.”

Such arguments have, however, been overstated. In reality, it is likely that it was more practical electoral issues that were responsible for Dlamini-Zuma’s success.

First of all, Guinea-Bissau and Mali were unable to vote after being placed under AU sanctions in response to coups earlier this year. Both would probably have backed Ping.

Additionally, neither President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria nor Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia attended the election. Both would likely have been important campaigner in a pro-Ping lobby.

A difficult road ahead

As well as healing the divisions in the AU created by an acrimonious campaign, Dlamini-Zuma will have to address questions around the AU’s effectiveness in responding to issues of peace and security after failing to intervene decisively in the Ivory Coast and Libya in recent years. The AU hesitated when conflict erupted following disputed elections in the Ivory Coast in early 2010, before a French-orchestrated intervention took the initiative. Similarly in Libya last year, the AU’s indecision meant that the AU ended up taking a back seat.

Dlamini-Zuma will face similarly tough challenges. Initially, Dlamini-Zuma’s attention will be focused on the rebellion in the north of Mali. ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) has convened meetings to create a government of national unity for Mali and may send 3,000-5,000 troops to aid the Malian army in its fight against Islamists and possibily Touareg nationalists in the North. Algeria and Mauritania have their own ideas about military intervention, however, and Dlamini-Zuma will need to consider both positions in finding an effective solution to Mali’s crisis.

Other challenging issues include continued AU military involvement in Somalia and recent violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Kinshasa and Kigali are pointing the finger of blame at one another. Talks between Sudan and South Sudan will also be an issue requiring skilful diplomacy. In fact, Dlamini-Zuma may have to be particularly sensitive given South Sudan’s distrust of former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who is overseeing the talks and who is the president Dlamini-Zuma used to answer to as South Africa's foreign minister.

The AU is also in need of rejuvenation in other areas. Its Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), part of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), in which African governments are reviewed by their peers on a range of governance criteria needs more funding and drive. African leaders, often concerned about their own governance record, have often been reluctant to embarrass their counterparts elsewhere.

The AU also suffers from problems of finance. The combined size of the AU’s economies is equivalent to that of the Netherlands and next year’s AU budget is $278.2 million. Compare that figure to the $1.8 billion spent by the UN on its peacekeeping mission in Darfur in 2011 and one gets a sense of proportion. Furthermore, only 40 % of the AU’s budget comes from Africa. The remainder will come from outside sources, predominantly China, the US and the European Union. With the state of the global economy as it is, this may not necessarily be sustainable.

A capable candidate

The AU’s challenges are numerous and complex, but the new chair seems as likely as anyone to overcome them.

Dlamini-Zuma is the first woman to be elected to the chair and her election has been hailed by many as a victory for African women all over the continent. That in itself should be a source of optimism. And while some are fearful of South Africa dominating the continent, Dlamini-Zuma was keen to assuage fears upon taking office by saying, “my election should not be seen as a personal victory but should be seen as victory for women and the African continent in general”

Dlamini-Zuma has an excellent record as a minister in South Africa. She was one of the first black ministers appointed by Mandela in 1994 and, after her stint as Minister of Health, became Minister of Foreign Affairs for a decade before serving as Minister of Home Affairs. Her record is strong and free from both scandal and corruption and The Economist describes her as “a polished performer on the international stage”.

She will have to draw on these skills and all her past experience if she is to fulfil her vision in what will no doubt be a difficult four years ahead.

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"The combined size of the AU’s economies is equivalent to that of the Netherlands"Netherlands economy is about the same size as South Africa (double SA's as 800 billion USD), Algeria and Egypt (2011) combined so not sure where you get this odd statistic.