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The race is on again to find a new AU chief
16 August 2016

The deadlines are rapidly approaching in the hotly contested elections of a new African Union Commission (AUC) chairperson. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s successor will be elected at the 28th AU summit in Addis Ababa in January 2017.

The AUC has warned African Union (AU) member states they should hand in their candidatures in time, or else forfeit the opportunity to participate. Botswana’s candidate, Foreign Minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, was unable get enough votes at the recent AU summit in Kigali – but Botswana has announced that her name will be thrown into the hat once again.

In a statement released last week, the AUC said that member states should submit names for the positions of chairperson and deputy chairperson by 30 September. The candidates for the position of the eight commissioners have to be submitted to the AU’s electoral regions by 19 August; and to the AUC by 16 September.

The AUC’s warning about timely submissions is hoped to prevent another situation where states wake up at the last minute before submitting their candidatures – as had been the case for the July 2016 elections deadline.

A few weeks before the vote, the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS) tried to submit a candidate after the deadline had expired. After obtaining legal advice, the AUC refused. The excuse for the missed deadline was that Dlamini Zuma didn’t reveal whether she would try to stay on at the AUC until the last minute.

Member states must submit their candidates for the AUC chairperson by 30 September
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In an unhappy twist – and after heads of state in Kigali rejected another proposal by ECOWAS for a postponement – many countries decided to abstain from voting in the elections. In the last round of voting, 30 states abstained. This prevented the leading candidate, Venson-Moitoi, from getting a two-thirds majority. In some circles this mass abstention was described as the result of a ‘boycott’ led by ECOWAS.

Even before the vote in Kigali, many heavyweight states and individuals in AU circles questioned the quality of candidates on the table. So what makes Venson-Moitoi believe that she could fare better this time round?

Her confidence might be bolstered by the fact that Dlamini Zuma ran again after she had lost against the outgoing chairperson Jean Ping at the January 2012 elections in Addis Ababa. Ping didn’t gain a two-thirds majority either, and the two fought it out again six months later – with Dlamini Zuma walking away with the prize. South Africa, however, threw all its weight behind the former South African minister and sent emissaries to the far corners of the continent to campaign for her.

Venson-Moitoi told media in Botswana last week that she already has a plan for her renewed campaign, but said that she couldn’t reveal her strategy in case rivals might attempt to copy her.

Some commentators blamed her lack of success in Kigali on the absence of Botswana’s President Ian Khama, who did not attend the 27th summit. Venson-Moitoi, however, defended her president in the run-up to the vote.

Many countries abstained from voting in the July elections at the Kigali summit
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According to the South African weekly, the African Independent, she said that Khama is not the only African president who doesn’t attend AU summits, and that Botswana always pays its dues to the organisation – which is not the case with many others.

Botswana makes no secret of its strong support for the International Criminal Court (ICC). The perception that Botswana is not committed to the AU, given this wayward stance, has also been raised as a reason why the majority of AU states refused to support her.

First, however, Venson-Moitoi has to get the official backing of the southern region. Because of complicated overlapping membership to regional economic communities (RECs) within the AU – where one state can belong to two RECs – the region has fewer states than those that comprise the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Tanzania, for example, is part of SADC – but for the purposes of submitting candidates and voting at the AU elections, it is part of East Africa.

There is speculation that Tanzania’s former president, Jakaya Kikwete, might be the candidate for East Africa. This is not official, however. The region’s previous candidate – Specioza Wandira Kazibwe from Uganda – fell out in the first round of voting in Kigali, with the least number of votes.

Venson-Moitoi seems confident that she will once again have the southern region’s support – especially since her candidature was approved during the full Ministerial Committee of the SADC Organ on Peace and Security in Maputo on 6 August. This is expected to be confirmed at SADC’s annual summit, set to be held in Swaziland at the end of August. She is likely to be up against tougher opposition in Addis Ababa since the heads of state decided that candidatures would be re-opened, which was not the case in 2012.

AU member states are increasingly conscious of the key role played by the chairperson
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Senegal, which is increasingly throwing its weight around at the United Nations (UN) and the AU, has already announced that it wants the former Senegalese minister, Abdoulaye Bathily, to run the AUC. Bathily is currently the UN Special Envoy for Central Africa.

Bathily enjoys the full support of Senegal’s President Macky Sall, who was chairing ECOWAS until March this year. Sall has been very vocal on key issues facing the AU. He is a strong supporter of the re-entry of Morocco into the AU and was leading the call in Kigali against a proposed collective withdrawal from the ICC.

States like Kenya and Sudan would like the AU to impose such a withdrawal on all its members, but this was shot down. In this respect, Senegal is in the same camp as Botswana.

One of the major outcomes of this renewed battle for the AUC chairperson is that member states and citizens are increasingly conscious of the key role played by the chairperson in shaping the direction that the continent is taking. Local and international media are also taking note of the importance of the AUC elections, as was evident from the interest in the outcomes of the voting in Kigali.

In the few weeks between now and the end of September, any number of new candidates might put their names forward. A compromise candidate might emerge, who would satisfy both Western and Southern Africa.

Algeria’s Foreign Minister, Ramtane Lamamra, has been a favourite for a long time. His name was frequently mentioned when speculation around this position started in January 2016. Lamamra, a former AU commissioner for peace and security, however, decided not to run. North Africa has never headed the AU and if Lamamra were to run, Algeria would have to sacrifice the current commissioner for peace and security – the highly respected Smaïl Chergui, also from Algeria.

Another compromise could be to elect an AUC chairperson from a small country with technical experience, which could break the deadlock between regions and linguistic blocs. Whatever the case, the CVs of the candidates are likely to be scrutinised very closely ahead of another interesting race for the top job in Addis Ababa.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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