African Union Enters New Era

To many observers, the election victory of Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma against the incumbent, Mr Jean Ping, as Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC) at the Summit in Addis Ababa on 15 July, came as a surprise.

After several delays to the original starting time for the elections, Dr Dlamini-Zuma secured a simple majority in the first three rounds before clinching the vote in the fourth and final round. Unofficial results indicate the following for Dr Dlamini-Zuma and Mr Ping respectively: 27-24 (first round), 29-22 (second round) and 33-18 (third round). In the confidence vote, during which the candidate with the least number of votes is required to withdraw, Dr Dlamini-Zuma achieved more than two-thirds with a respectable 37 out of 51 votes.

Commentators will continue to debate the reasons that explain something of an unexpected victory after the initial electoral deadlock during the January 2012 Summit of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa. For instance, it has been speculated that Dr Dlamini-Zuma's victory was an outcome of South Africa's (and SADC's) persistent bi-lateral efforts, involving extensive travel by senior officials to various countries across the continent.

There has been much speculation that South Africa used 'economic diplomacy' to muster support from states that initially supported Mr Ping, especially to gain support from Francophone Central and West Africa, and it is important that these perceptions be laid to rest as rapidly as possible. But eventually it was only necessary for two or three countries that had voted for Mr Ping in January to change their votes to Dr Dlamini-Zuma for her to triumph.

Whereas 53 countries voted then, only 51 were able to vote in July since an additional two countries (Guinea Bissau and Mali) were under sanctions and barred from participating in the elections. In addition, neither Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan nor Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, both opposed to the South African candidate, attended, possibly providing something of a leadership vacuum that eventually turned a potential stalemate to triumph for Dr Dlamini-Zuma.

Timing is everything and above all, African leaders provided the best possible outcome for a beleaguered AUC – a clear result that sees a highly capable, hard-working and respected female candidate assume the leadership of the AUC.

The outcome of the election is also positive for the global image of African states as it demonstrated that African countries were able to overcome some of the starker colonially inherited divisions that are often used to characterise the continent – particularly those between so-called Francophones and Anglophones. In the process South Africa was able to assert its role as a dominant voice in Africa, despite much commentary to the contrary.

Heads of State also did not amend or violate the Rules despite the claims that the failure to elect Commissioners following the initial electoral deadlock in January created a lame-duck AUC and strident calls by many to amend the Rules or to resort to a political solution that would have violated the same.

The election of the first female AUC Chairperson is a hugely positive development. It highlights Africa's commitment to the promotion of gender equality within the AUC and hence will impact nationally, where much work remains to be done in this regard. Eventually the election of two of the remaining Commissioners (Economic Affairs, and Human Resources, Science and Technology) was deferred because of the limited availability of male candidates for these positions and the need to maintain the AU's gender equality and regional representation.

Beyond these immediate gains, the election of Dr Dlamini-Zuma has set a precedent for the future interests of Africa's 'big powers' in putting forward their own candidates for the top position within the AUC. One such controversy was the unwritten rule that big powers do not seek election for the position of Chairperson of the AUC – a view contested by South Africa.

In the wake of the outcome it is possible that influential countries such as Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, Kenya and Senegal may nominate candidates for the 10 Commission seats in future elections. Therefore smaller countries may struggle for representation and relevance and have to seek more innovative ways to remain relevant within the AUC and the AU in general. This is a trend to watch in the future.

Accordingly, it appears that the foremost task confronting the newly elected AUC Chairperson is to promote reconciliation with AU member states that did not vote for her. Without doubt, such divisions contributed to the electoral deadlock that characterised the January Summit when South Africa led the anti-Ping alliance and refused to vote for Mr Ping even after he had gained more votes than Dr Dlamini-Zuma in each of the first three rounds. Eventually Mr Ping could only gather 32 votes during the fourth and final 'confidence round' – three short of the required 35. These divisions were compounded by allegations of negative campaigning by both camps.

Although Dr Dlamini-Zuma received the support of the majority of AU member states, the fourteen countries that failed to endorse her candidacy during the confidence vote constitute a significant minority. This limited support for Dr Dlamini-Zuma contrasted with the full endorsement by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government accorded to Mr Erastus Mwencha in his re-election as Deputy Chairperson of the AUC. Mr Mwencha, a Kenyan, was admittedly the only candidate and held in universal high regard, but his election violated, according to some, a second unwritten rule, namely that either the Chair or the Deputy should be Francophone – although this 'rule' has also previously been violated by the mercurial former AUC Chairperson Alpha Omar Konare. The spectre that haunts the AU is that linguistic divisions may be replaced by extreme regionalism.

Ironically one of the most celebrated qualities of Dr Dlamini-Zuma is that she is one of the few survivors from the era of the former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, who remains highly regarded in much of Africa. She has managed to connect with the two administrations despite the deep acrimony between the two leaders (President Jacob Zuma and former President Mbeki). Her pedigree as former South African Foreign Minister and the very effective current Home Affairs Minister suggests that she has much to offer in bringing both competent management and far-sighted political leadership to the Commission.

The practical challenge facing Dr Dlamini-Zuma is how to deliver on her reformist agenda that aims at achieving a more effective AU, and improve on the global representivity and voice of Africa. A priority in this respect is to promote the implementation of, and adherence to, the numerous policies formulated by the AU and its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) during the last half-century. In 2012, the AU celebrates the first decade of its existence, the OAU having existed for a previous 40 years.

In the past ten years, the continental body has made tremendous progress in the formulation of norms geared towards political stability and economic development in Africa. The AU has, however, not been able to effectively see to the implementation of many of its decisions and it remains to be seen if Dr Dlamini-Zuma will be able to improve on this poor record. Specifically, the emphasis of the anticipated AU Strategic Plan for 2014-2017 should focus on achieving the implementation and adherence of previous decisions and policies.

Perhaps, as some have remarked, the first decision of the next Summit of the Assembly in January 2013 would be not to take any more decisions until its previous decisions had been implemented.

Jakkie Cilliers and Jide Okede are, respectively, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies, and senior researcher in Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis, Addis Ababa,

Focus on the new era for African Union.