Africa: Competition for the AU Commission Leadership Intensifies

The African Union's (AU) Eight-member Ad hoc Committee of Heads of State and Government (Committee of Eight) met in Cotonou, Benin on 14 May 2012, to discuss the election of the Chairperson, Deputy Chairperson and members of the AU Commission.

During the 18th AU Summit in January, the two candidates – Jean Ping of Gabon, who has served as the AU Commission Chairman since 2008 and Dr.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, South Africa's Home Affairs Minister – failed to secure the two-third majority required to win and therefore the election was postponed till July. There was a call for consensus on the elected candidate to ensure that the AU as an organisation is united in addressing the challenges on the continent. The outcome of the election was due to multiple factors including the nature of the relationship between Nigeria and South Africa and South Africa's approach to the campaign for the chairmanship position.

The differences in foreign policy positions of Nigeria and South Africa may have contributed to the lack of consensus during the AU elections.

This stems primarily from differing views by both countries on the international responses to the Libyan and Ivorian crisis. There are also claims by pro-Ping supporters (including Nigeria) that South Africa may be breaching the so-called 'unwritten rule', which requires regional powers not to occupy the position of AU Chairperson.

Besides, there are growing perceptions by some African states that South Africa has projected itself as the voice of Africa. Further, Nigeria is certainly one of the countries who feel that South Africa's aggressive campaign strategy for Dr. Dlamini-Zuma was unacceptable.

Questions are also being raised about the manner in which South Africa's current leadership is pursuing its foreign policy goals. For example, under the leadership of Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki it seems the quest for morality and African renaissance were central to South Africa's foreign policy, respectively.

In contrast, there are perceptions that the foreign policy position under President Jacob Zuma has been unclear, inconsistent and is sometimes opposed to the views of other African states. This foreign policy disposition of South Africa seems to have overshadowed the benefits of Dr. Dlamini-Zuma as a potentially strong leader for the AU Chairperson owing to her experiences as a former Foreign Minister.

If Dr. Dlamini-Zuma is not elected, it would be a huge blow for South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), in general. This would, however, allow South Africa to rethink its foreign policy implementation strategy and importantly its relations with other influential African states.

Although relations between South Africa and some other African states might be affected for a short while, it will not last for long as the relations are based largely on strong trade ties, which cannot be badly hampered by the competitive nature of elections and politics at the AU level.


If Dr. Dlamini-Zuma wins, there are speculations from opponents of South Africa's candidacy that there could be a potential abuse of power. Even if South Africa wanted to, the structure and rules of the AU clearly stipulates the roles and responsibilities of the chairperson and will not permit any attempt by South Africa to use the opportunity to enlarge its power base.


  • Institute for Security Studies (Tshwane/Pretoria)
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