Why the choice of the AU chair matters so much in today’s multipolar world

From left: Carlos Lopes, Donald Kaberuka, Ramtane Lamamra and Abdoulaye Bathily. They are seen as possible candidates for the African Union Commission chairmanship seat. ILLUSTRATIONS | JOHN NYAGAH |   NATION MEDIA GROUP 

The failure to elect a new AU Commission chairperson provides African leaders with a second chance to find a dynamic, bold and visionary candidate, but will they take it?

Heads of state, gathered in Kigali on July 18 for the African Union summit, were unable to choose a replacement for Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the outgoing chair of the AU Commission (AUC), who will step down after serving one term in office.

During seven rounds of voting, none of the three candidates nominated by member states — Uganda’s Specioza Kazibwe, Botswana’s Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi and Equatorial Guinea’s Agapito Mba Mokuy — were able to amass the two-thirds majority needed to secure victory.

The result came as no surprise. Ecowas, the 15-member West African bloc, took the unprecedented step of formally requesting a postponement of the election on the grounds that the nominees did not have the requisite qualifications for the job. This was a sentiment seeming shared by others in the AU — 28 countries abstained, an indication that some members agreed with many outside commentators that Africa could do much better.

Consequently, the election has been postponed until next January’s summit and the nomination process reopened. Former Tanzania president Jakaya Kikwete is often touted as a possible next chair — he was rumoured to have been interested in running this time around but was too late to be added to the ballot.

Prof Abdoulaye Bathily, a Senegalese politician turned diplomat who is currently the UN Secretary-General’s special representative for Central Africa, is another possible contender who missed the April deadline.

A firm favourite in Addis Ababa, the seat of the AU’s headquarters, is Algeria’s Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, a highly respected former AU Peace and Security Commissioner. Other names in the mix include Donald Kaberuka, the much-lauded former African Development Bank president, and Carlos Lopes, the charismatic intellectual at the helm of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

But why does it matter who will be the next AUC chairperson and what qualities should he or she ideally possess?

Likely candidates

At the AU’s founding, significant power was vested in the chair of the Commission, including the authority to institute measures to prevent and resolve conflict. And, like the UN Secretary General or the World Bank president, the AUC head shapes the long-term agenda and influences the decisions of the entire organisation. But member states have had a tendency to restrict the chairperson’s room for manoeuvre, meaning that the stature, experience and personality of the next Commission leader will have a significant bearing on their ability to fulfil their mandate.

Beset by seemingly intractable and bloody crises and conflicts at home, from Libya to South Sudan to Burundi and beyond, as well as the global security challenges posed by violent extremism, migration and climate change, the next AU chair will have to navigate an increasingly complex, multipolar international political environment.

Now, more than ever, it’s vital that the AU selects not just a suitable candidate but the best possible candidate to replace Dlamini-Zuma.

The new AUC chair should not only have a clear vision for a prosperous and peaceful Africa, but he or she must also have a strategy for how to achieve it and a proven track record for getting things done. An intimate understanding of the continental context is also a prerequisite, as is the intellectual and creative courage to seek bold and innovative solutions to conflict prevention and resolution.

It should be a given that the next AUC chair has a well-established international profile and truly feels at ease on the global stage. During the first four years of his or her tenure, the continent, with the help and support of the AU Commission, will renegotiate critical aspects of its relationship with both the EU (following the expiration of the Cotonou Agreement in 2020 and the reconfiguration of the African Peace Facility) and the UN (as the AU seeks to secure UN-assessed contributions for its peacekeeping operations and a permanent seat on the Security Council).

Recent crisis

The chosen candidate will also have to engage with a more activist China and a fractious Middle East. As Africa’s top diplomat, and the head of an organisation that is heavily reliant on external financial support, the chairperson must be able to make friends and influence people, and have a flair for building alliances and consensus both at home and abroad.

One further essential qualification is the ability and willingness to speak truth to power, however uncomfortable that may be. The AU is an association of independent states, and many of its members have enjoyed long stays in power and are unused to challenges to their authority or to their country’s hard-won sovereignty.

A confident Commission, led by a strong chairperson, can and should sound the alarm when member states step outside the bounds of good governance they have set themselves through the international and continental conventions they have signed. This may not, as the recent crisis in Burundi illustrates, move Africa’s leaders to effective action, but it is a necessary function nonetheless.

The question remains, however, whether African heads of states actively want a dynamic, bold and visionary leader for the AU Commission. The fact that two regions (North and West Africa) didn’t even bother to field candidates, and that the rest (East, South and Central) didn’t put forward their most qualified nominees, would seem to suggest they don’t, and highlights member states’ fear of an independently minded individual at the helm of the AUC.

Yet, the failure to elect a new chairperson and the decision to reopen the nominations suggests that at least some of the membership understand the importance of the role and provides hope that a better — if not the very best — candidate will be found.

Elissa Jobson is the African Union advisor for the International Crisis Group.

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