AU Vote a Setback for South Africa

democracy governance elections Africa Union
Tuesday, 7 February, 2012 - 13:00

South Africa’s recent foreign policy blunders might have contributed to Home Affairs Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s failure to win the battle to become the chairperson of the Africa Union

The 18th Summit of the African Union (AU) that took place in Addis Ababa last week has led to a sudden surge of interest into the workings of the organisation. This is due to the intense battle for chairperson that was fought between the incumbent former Gabonese Foreign Minister, Jean Ping, and South African Home Affairs Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

The Constitutive Act of the African Union stipulates that the 10 key members of the AU Commission – effectively the bureau of the AU – will be elected every four years. The chairperson, deputy chair and commissioners can serve a maximum of two four-year terms with the chair and deputy chair elected by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government during a secret ballot, as was held on 30 January 2012. Each of Africa’s five regions may have two members on the commission (including chair and deputy chair), who are elected by the Executive Council (consisting of foreign ministers of member states) following the outcome of the vote on the chair and deputy chair.

Since its inception in 2002, the AU has had three chairpersons: former Ivorian Foreign Minister, Amara Essy, former Malian President, Alpha Omar Konaré, and Ping, elected in February 2008. Many had expected Ping to be re-elected to this position at last week’s summit, since he was generally seen as a relatively effective mediator and managed to find consensus among member states on a number of key peace and security issues. Some accuse him of not being strong enough to take a stand on issues like the controversial North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military intervention in Libya in 2011. In addition, the AU as an organisation still remains hugely lacking. It is understaffed, with 324 vacant posts, which is 48 percent of its staff compliment. Many departments also underspend massively on their budgets with an average budget utilisation of 37 percent.

South Africa’s bid to have its home affairs minister and former foreign minister Dlamini-Zuma elected to the position of chairperson was only announced late in 2011. However, SA’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoane-Mashabane, told the media at the summit, that the unanimous decision to put forward Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy was taken by all Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states at its summit in August 2011.

After much behind-the-scenes lobbying the Assembly proceeded with three rounds of voting and no candidate managed to achieve a two-thirds majority – the requirement for the election of chairperson. During the fourth round of voting, where Ping was the only candidate, he still failed to get two-thirds of the votes and the election was suspended. Ping, his chairperson, Erastus Mwencha, and the entire team of commissioners will now stay on until the next summit that will be held in Lilongwe, Malawi in June this year. It is still unclear whether Ping and Dlamini-Zuma will be allowed (or would want) to stand again for election to this position.

For SA and for its foreign policy, this is a serious setback. While the fact that Ping couldn’t achieve a two-thirds majority in the final round is indicative of a unified response from SADC member states, SA as a powerhouse on the continent was expecting to win this election, the voting also indicates that opposition to Dlamini-Zuma was similarly intractable.

One of the two main reasons for the outcome is undoubtedly the foreign policy blunders made by SA during the term of President Jacob Zuma, especially during 2011. In both major crises the continent faced last year, in Côte d’Ivoire and in Libya, SA was seen to act without due consultation and made a number of contradictory decisions when it came to peace and security issues. South Africa’s stance on the Ivorian crisis in early 2011, where it was seen to favour the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, especially angered Nigeria, the regional powerhouse. The fact that SA voted in favour of Resolution 1973 of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that authorised a no-fly zone against former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and soon afterwards strongly opposed NATO’s military intervention in Libya - was also extremely harmful to the country’s reputation. Key countries, the United Kingdom and France in particular, subsequently abused the UNSC resolution to pursue a regime-change strategy and SA was left to scramble for cover. Dlamini-Zuma, a fearless and strong willed politician, who is extremely highly regarded for her management skills and work ethic, was in this sense the victim of her country’s foreign policy, despite the fact that she was standing as a regional candidate on behalf of Southern Africa.

The second, and perhaps more important reason for her failure to secure the position – at least in this round – was the fact that SA had broken an unwritten rule in the AU that anchor states should not occupy the position of chairperson of the AU to prevent power plays from paralysing the continent. In fact, one could argue that the bid by SA and Nigeria’s strong opposition to it (supported by a large Francophone block), was what caused the stalemate during the voting. If Dlamini-Zuma had won the vote and Nigeria would decide to oppose everything the chairperson does during her term simply because she is South African, that in itself would be extremely harmful to the continent. Indications are that Kenya, Egypt, Senegal, Ethiopia and other larger countries also voted against Dlamini-Zuma possibly reflecting a common resistance to SA, or indeed possibly any of Africa’s powerhouse countries to stand for the position of chairperson.

The events at the AU Summit these last couple of days have raised the profile of the AU and the Commission and placed renewed focus on the importance of strengthening the leadership of Africa’s continental institution. This is certainly an important step towards creating a more effective and efficient AU. In addition, the election has given Africa’s regional powers an opportunity to test their strength, in all likelihood in preparation for the much bigger future battle for a permanent seat on the UNSC. And the key lesson is clear – despite its relative power and influence, SA should not take its African support base for granted and should not readily assume, at the G20 or elsewhere, that it speaks for the continent.

- Jakkie Cilliers and Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Executive Director and Associate Editor, ISS Pretoria. This article was first published on the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) website. It is republished here with the permission of ISS.   

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