The 19th African Union Summit – a Call for Compromise

On July 15, the African Union (AU) Assembly will seek to elect a Chairperson of the AU Commission. This will be the second attempt at this by African leaders after their initial attempt during the last Summit in January 2012 ended in a deadlock.

The last six months have been characterised by uncertainty, numerous policy prescriptions and unresolved dialogue on this electoral impasse. Accordingly, it seems that the best hope for consensus rests solely on the ability of member states to accommodate their divergent and sometimes conflicting interests through political negotiations and compromises for the sake of Africa's unity.

The putative unity of African states has historically been built on the accommodation of divergent interests. The birth of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 was an outcome of the reconciliation of deeply polarised views between the immediate 'unionists' and 'statists' camps. On the one hand, unionist leaders led by former Ghanaian and Ugandan Presidents Kwame Nkrumah and Milton Obote promoted a negotiated political and economic integration that would ultimately lead to a United States of Africa.

On the other hand, the statist countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast and Senegal favoured the preservation of state sovereignty (or at best a gradualist approach to integration) as a prerequisite for continental unity. Similarly, the possibility of a political union espoused by the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on the eve of the establishment of the AU was also diluted to an incremental normative and institutional foundation for the promotion of economic integration. Earlier Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie argued that there may be no agreement on the question of the union of African states but "if we wait for agreed answers, generations hence, matters will be little advanced, while the debate still rages".

The deadlock that characterised the AUC elections during the AU Summit in January has received various – not necessarily mutually exclusive – interpretations. To some analysts, it represents a strong desire for positive change that would lead to a more effective AU. This school of thought tends to draw parallels between the unprecedented nature of the AUC election and the sweeping wave of revolution experienced in North Africa. A second perspective is the idea that the electoral deadlock is a crisis because it may create a 'lame-duck' AU Commission.

The final perspective suggests that this is an opportunity to revisit the regional representation policy and modify extant rules of procedure governing the AU Commission elections in order to prevent a future electoral quagmire. Irrespective of the strengths and weaknesses of these analyses, it appears that the most important ingredient for the promotion of consensus primarily rests upon the AU Assembly.

The AU Assembly is composed of Heads of States and Government or their duly accredited representatives. It is regarded as the supreme organ of the AU that performs a range of key functions. This includes the appointment of the AUC Chairperson, his or her deputies and Commissioners. The Assembly is also required to determine the functions and terms of office of these appointees in accordance with relevant constituent instruments.

During the January 2012 AUC elections, the AU Assembly breached extant rules of voting procedure for the election of the AUC Chairperson. The electoral deadlock was because the contestants – Mr. Jean Ping, the incumbent AUC Chairperson and Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – both failed to secure the required two-third majority votes. In such an event, Rule 42(5) of the Rules of Procedure of the Assembly of the Union requires that "the Deputy Chairperson shall take over the Chairmanship of the Commission on an interim basis until new elections are held". Clearly, this procedure was ignored and the Assembly decided to simply extend the mandate of the current leadership until July. The violation of existing rules of procedure illustrates how political determinants could sometimes characterise or influence the interpretation of existing legal frameworks on AUC elections.

Despite the perceived differences in political interests within the Assembly that may have led to the electoral deadlock, there is a strong basis for negotiation, compromise and consensus. Recurring, emerging and 'new' security challenges in Africa require sustained engagement by African states. Since the January summit, there have been cases of unconstitutional changes of government through military coups in Mali and Guinea-Bissau. This has partly been caused by and, consequently led to the expansion of insecurities especially in the Sahel region. Instability continues in some of the so-called 'liberated' countries in North Africa following the revolutions. It is with these challenges in mind that former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo recently remarked at the TANA High-Level Forum on Security in Africa that, "more than ever before, Africans need to speak with a common and strong voice".

Even though these security threats persist, Africa continues to make significant progress in its economic performance. Sustainable continental prosperity requires the building of strong economic partnerships between African states aimed at boosting intra-Africa trade. For this to happen, African states must invest political capital to promote cooperation and inter-dependence within the continent. Although the electoral deadlock is of a transient nature, it arguably constitutes a setback on the path of realising an economic union.

Additionally, division between AU member states on the AUC elections is inconsistent with attempts to promote a common voice in the pursuit of continental justice. The current embattled relationship between the AU and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has re-emerged following the decision by the government of Malawi to cancel initial plans to host the Summit in Lilongwe. This decision was informed by the insistence of the AU to invite Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir to the Summit despite the existence of an ICC warrant for his arrest for alleged war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. During the summit, there will be a consideration of the draft Protocol on the African Court of Justice and Human Rights.

The latter will include consideration for the expansion of the mandate of the court to include criminal jurisdiction. This significant development is an outcome of a process initiated by Rwanda which led to the 2009 AU Assembly decision on the abuse of the principle of Universal Jurisdiction (Assembly/AU/Dec.213(XII)). The realisation of such an African-led solution on the question of justice within the continent will garner momentum, receive credibility, and most likely succeed through the unity of Africa's voice.

In conclusion, the common denominator and opportunity created by unity significantly outweigh the interim problem of an unresolved electoral deadlock. The continuation of political rivalries, rigid positions and lack of consensus do not give an impression of an AU intent on promoting the full interests of African peoples. Specifically, it contradicts the recent branding campaign of the AU as an institution of African peoples – a campaign that is guided by the decision of the AU Assembly (AU/Dec.151 (V111)).

Besides, the promotion of the AU Strategic Plan (2009-2012) (EX.CL/501(XV)), which includes the implementation of Shared Values can only be achieved through the cooperation and collective solidarity of AU member states. As Nkrumah suggests, divisions will only "limit our horizons, curtail our expectations, and threaten our liberty". Therefore, when the AU Assembly of Heads of States and Government converge at the Summit, the promise of Africa's unity should inspire the accommodation of divergent interests for the sake of African peoples.

Jide Martyns Okeke is senior researcher in the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis division of the ISS in Addis Ababa.

After the deadlock of January 2012 Africa Union seeks to elect a new leader.

The African Union (AU) Assembly will seek to elect a Chairperson of the AU Commission on Sunday July 15.