African Union Commission elections and prospects for the future

The African Union (AU) will hold its 27th Heads of State Assembly in Kigali from July 17-18, 2016, as part of its ongoing annual meetings, during which time it will elect individuals to lead the AU Commission for the next four years. Given the fierce battle for the chairperson position in 2012; and  as the AU has increasingly been called upon to assume more responsibility for various issues that affect the continent—from the Ebola pandemic that ravaged West Africa in 2013-14 to civil wars in several countries, including Libya, Central African Republic, and South Sudan, both the AU Commission and its leadership have become very important and extremely prestigious actors. The upcoming elections are not symbolic: They are about choosing trusted and competent leaders to guide the continent in good times and bad.

Structure of the African Union

The African Union (AU)
came into being on July 9, 2002 and was established to replace the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The AU’s highest decisionmaking body is the Assembly of the African Union, which consists of all the heads of state and government of the member states of the AU. The chairperson of the assembly is the ceremonial head of the AU and is elected by the Assembly of Heads of State to serve a one-year term. This assembly is currently chaired by President Idriss Déby of Chad.

The AU’s secretariat is called the African Union Commission
and is based in Addis Ababa. The chairperson of the AU Commission is the chief executive officer, the AU’s legal representative, and the accounting officer of the commission. The chairperson is directly responsible to the AU’s Executive Council. The current chairperson of the AU Commission is Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma of South Africa and is assisted by a deputy chairperson, who currently is Erastus Mwencha of Kenya.

The likely nominees for chairperson

Dr. Zuma has decided not to seek a second term in office and, hence, this position is open for contest. The position of deputy chairperson will also become vacant, since Mwencha is not eligible to serve in the new commission.

Notably, the position of chairperson of the AU Commission does not only bring prestige and continental recognition to the person that is elected to serve but also to the country and region from which that person hails. Already, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Dr. Zuma’s region, is arguing that it is entitled to another term since she has decided not to stand for a second. Other regions, such as eastern and central Africa, have already identified their nominees. It is also rumored that some regions have already initiated diplomatic efforts to gather votes for their preferred candidates.

In April 2016, SADC chose Botswana’s minister of foreign affairs, Dr. Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, as its preferred candidate. Nevertheless, experts believe that even if South Africa flexes its muscles to support Venson-Moitoi’s candidacy (which it is most likely to do), it is not likely to succeed this time because Botswana has not always supported the AU on critical issues, such as the International Criminal Court, and hence, does not have the goodwill necessary to garner the support for its candidate among the various heads of state.

Venson-Moitoi is expected to face two other candidates—Dr. Specioza Naigaga Wandira Kazibwe of Uganda (representing east Africa) and Agapito Mba Mokuy of Equatorial Guinea (representing central Africa). Although Mokuy is relatively unknown, his candidacy could be buoyed by the argument that a Spanish-speaking national has never held the chairperson position, as well as the fact that, despite its relatively small size, Equatorial Guinea—and its president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema—has given significant assistance to the AU over the years. Obiang Nguema’s many financial and in-kind contributions to the AU could endear his country and its candidate to the other members of the AU.

In fact, during his long tenure as president of Equatorial Guinea, Obiang Nguema has shown significant interest in the AU, has attended all assemblies, and has made major contributions to the organization. In addition to the fact that Equatorial Guinea hosted AU summits in 2011 and 2014, Obiang Nguema served as AU chairperson in 2011. Thus, a Mokuy candidacy for the chairperson of the AU Commission could find favor among those who believe it would give voice to small and often marginalized countries, as well as members of the continent’s Spanish-speaking community. Finally, the opinion held by South Africa, one of the continent’s most important and influential countries, on several issues (from the political situation in Burundi to the International Criminal Court and its relations with Africa) appears closer to that of Equatorial Guinea’s than Botswana’s.

Of course, both Venson-Moitoi and Kazibwe are seasoned civil servants with international and administrative experience and have the potential to function as an effective chairperson. However, the need to give voice within the AU to the continent’s historically marginalized regions could push Mokuy’s candidacy to the top.

Nevertheless, supporters of a Mokuy candidacy may be worried that accusations of corruption and repression labeled on Equatorial Guinea by the international community could negatively affect how their candidate is perceived by voters.

Also important to voters is their relationship with former colonial powers. In fact, during the last election, one argument that helped defeat then-Chairperson Jean Ping was that both he and his (Gabonese) government were too pro-France. This issue may not be a factor in the 2016 elections, though: Equatorial Guinea, Uganda, and Botswana are not considered to be extremely close to their former colonizers.

Finally, gender and regional representation should be important considerations for the voters who will be called upon to choose a chairperson for the AU Commission. Both Venson-Moitoi and Kazibwe are women, and the election of either of them would continue to support diversity within African leadership. Then again, Mr. Mokuy’s election would enhance regional and small-state representation.

The fight to be commissioner of peace and security

Also open for contest are the portfolios of Peace and Security, Political Affairs, Infrastructure and Energy, Rural Economy and Agriculture, Human Resources, and Science and Technology. Many countries are vying for these positions on the commission in an effort to ensure that their status within the AU is not marginalized. For example, Nigeria and Algeria, both of which are major regional leaders, are competing to capture the position of commissioner of Peace and Security. Algeria is keen to keep this position: It has held this post over the last decade, and, if it loses this position, it would not have any representation on the next commission—significantly diminishing the country’s influence in the AU.

Nigeria’s decision to contest the position of commissioner of Peace and Security is based on the decision by the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari to give up the leadership of Political Affairs. Historically, Nigeria has been unwilling to compete openly against regional powers for leadership positions in the continent’s peace and security area. Buhari’s decision to contest the portfolio of Peace and Security is very risky, since a loss to Algeria and the other contesting countries will leave Nigeria without a position on the commission and would be quite humiliating to the president and his administration.

Struggling to maintain a regional, gender, and background balance

Since the AU came into being in 2002, there has been an unwritten rule that regional powers (e.g., Algeria, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa) should not lead or occupy key positions in the AU’s major institutions. Thus, when Dr. Zuma was elected in 2012, South Africa was severely criticized, especially by some smaller African countries, for breaking that rule. The hope, especially of the non-regional leaders, is that the 2016 election will represent a return to the status quo ante since most of the candidates for the chairperson position hail from small- and medium-sized countries.

While professional skills and international experience are critical for an individual to serve on the commission, the AU is quite concerned about the geographical distribution of leadership positions, as well as the representation of women on the commission, as noted above. In fact, the commission’s statutes mandate that each region present two candidates (one female and the other male) for every portfolio. Article 6(3) of the commission’s statutes states that “[a]t least one Commissioner from each region shall be a woman.” Unfortunately, women currently make up only a very small proportion of those contesting positions in the next commission. Thus, participants must keep in mind the need to create a commission that reflects the continent’s diversity, especially in terms of gender and geography.

Individuals that have served in government and/or worked for an international organization dominate leadership positions in the commission. Unfortunately, individuals representing civil society organizations are poorly represented on the nominee lists; unsurprisingly, given the fact that the selection process is controlled by civil servants from states and regional organizations. Although this approach to the staffing of the commission guarantees the selection of skilled and experienced administrators, it could burden the commission with the types of bureaucratic problems that are common throughout the civil services of the African countries, notably, rigidity, tunnel vision, and the inability, or unwillingness to undertake bold and progressive initiatives.

No matter who wins, the African Union faces an uphill battle

The AU currently faces many challenges, some of which require urgent and immediate action and others, which can only be resolved through long-term planning. For example, the fight against terrorism and violent extremism, and securing the peace in South Sudan, Burundi, Libya, and other states and regions consumed by violent ethno-cultural conflict require urgent and immediate action from the AU. Issues requiring long-term planning by the AU include helping African countries improve their governance systems, strengthening the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, facilitating economic integration, effectively addressing issues of extreme poverty and inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, responding effectively and fully to pandemics, and working towards the equitable allocation of water, especially in urban areas.

Finally, there is the AU’s dependence on foreign aid for its financing. When Dr. Dlamini Zuma took over as chairperson of the AU Commission in 2012, she was quite surprised by the extent to which the AU depends on budget subventions from international donors and feared that such dependence could interfere with the organization’s operations. The AU budget for 2016 is $416,867,326, of which $169,833,340 (40 percent) is assessed on Member States and $247,033,986 (59 percent) is to be secured from international partners.  The main foreign donors are the United States, Canada, China, and the European Union.

Within Africa, South Africa, Angola, Nigeria, and Algeria are the best paying rich countries. Other relatively rich countries, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and Cameroon, are struggling to pay. Libya’s civil war and its inability to form a permanent government is interfering with its ability to meet its financial obligations, even to its citizens. Nevertheless, it is hoped that South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Egypt, and Libya, the continent’s richest countries, are expected to eventually meet as much as 60% of the AU’s budget and help reduce the organization’s continued dependence on international donors. While these major continental and international donors are not expected to have significant influence on the elections for leadership positions on the AU Commission, they are likely to remain a determining factor on the types of programs that the AU can undertake.

Dealing fully and effectively with the multifarious issues that plague the continent requires AU Commission leadership that is not only well-educated and skilled, but that has the foresight to help the continent develop into an effective competitor in the global market and a full participant in international affairs. In addition to helping the continent secure the peace and provide the enabling environment for economic growth and the creation of wealth, this crop of leaders should provide the continent with the leadership necessary to help states develop and adopt institutional arrangements and governing systems that guarantee the rule of law, promote the protection of human rights, and advance inclusive economic growth and development.

[1] The AU consists of all the countries on the continent and in the United Nations, except the Kingdom of Morocco, which left the AU after the latter recognized the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara). Morocco claims that the Western Sahara is part of its territory.

[2] The AU Commission is made up of a number of commissioners who deal with various policy areas, including peace and security, political affairs, infrastructure and energy, social affairs, trade and industry, rural economy and agriculture, human resources, science and technology, and economic affairs. According to Article 3 of its Statutes, the Commission is empowered to “represent the Union and defend its interests under the guidance of and as mandated by the Assembly and Executive Council.”