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Success in Addis Ababa: AU Commission Finally Elects a Chairperson

By John Mukum Mbaku 

Last July, during the 27th Assembly of the African Union in Kigali, Rwanda, the heads of state were unable to elect a replacement for AU Commission chairperson, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa, because no single candidate had captured the two-thirds majority needed to win. The elections were postponed until January 2017 and Dlamini-Zuma remained in office until a replacement was chosen.

That postponed election was held at the 28th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the AU at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from Jan. 30-31, 2017. Five candidates competed to replace Dlamini-Zuma. The first was Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s foreign minister and a well-known critic of the International Criminal Court. The second candidate was Abdoulaye Bathily, a Senegalese diplomat and academic. Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi and Agapito Mba Mokuy, Botswana and Equatorial Guinea’s foreign affairs ministers, respectively, both campaigned again after running as candidates in the unsuccessful Kigali elections last year. The final candidate was Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chadian foreign minister and former chair of the AU’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council. He had also served as prime minister of Chad under the AU’s outgoing chair, Idriss Déby. The latter’s support of Faki was considered enough to tilt the vote in his favor, especially given the enormous influence wielded by Déby within the AU. After seven rounds of voting, Faki emerged as the winner, capturing enough votes to give him the necessary two-thirds majority.

Faki will take leadership of an AU that has a severely dysfunctional bureaucracy and a continent facing a lot of problems. One is the issue of the Western Sahara, whose admission to the AU as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1982 resulted in the withdrawal of Morocco from what was then the Organization of African Unity. Continental heavyweights Algeria and South Africa have supported self-determination for the region, which Morocco claims is an integral part of its territory. Morocco’s application for re-admission was supported by 39 countries, while nine countries, including South Africa and Algeria, voted against. Many of the countries that voted in favor of Morocco did so in the hope that SADR will remain a member of the AU and that with Morocco as an “insider,” an opportunity would be created for a consensus on one of the continent’s longest conflicts. Morocco, however, believes that its return to the AU will provide it with the wherewithal to diplomatically lobby against SADR’s independence.

A second issue that the new AU Commission chairperson will have to confront is Africa’s deteriorating relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC). The court is considered by several countries to be a tool of Western imperialism. Three countries—South Africa, Burundi, and The Gambia—have officially indicated their intention to withdraw from the ICC, although it is likely that The Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, will reverse the announcement and allow The Gambia to remain. Nigeria and Botswana have argued that the ICC is a court of last resort for African countries that are either unwilling or do not have the capacity to fully prosecute those accused of committing international crimes within their jurisdictions. While impunity remains a major problem for the continent, at the January meeting, the AU called for the mass withdrawal of member states from the ICC. The resolution, however, was non-binding with Nigeria and Senegal opposing it.

Rising poverty is the third issue that the new AU Commission chairperson will encounter. When Dlamini-Zuma was elected the chairperson in July 2012, she promised to reform the AU’s dysfunctional bureaucracy and put in place policies to fight poverty and improve the livelihoods of the continent’s poor, especially women and children. Unfortunately, extreme poverty, especially among historically marginalized groups (such as women, children, rural inhabitants, urban youth, and ethnic minorities) remains a major problem for the continent.

Fourth, sectarian conflicts, many of them related to violent mobilization by ethnocultural groups that consider themselves marginalized by the policies of their governments, are a major challenge for the AU. The new leader will face continuing crises in Libya, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and several other countries where there are struggles between groups within these countries for control of the apparatus of state.

Fifth is terrorism and violent religious extremism, which are major obstacles to peace and security, nation building, economic growth and development, as well as the maintenance of democratic institutions. Violent activities by various extremist groups threaten to derail the efforts of many countries to transition to governance systems based on the rule of law, create the wealth that they need to deal with high rates of poverty, and significantly improve the living standards of vulnerable groups.

Faki comes into the job with significant political experience. Some observers believe that he was instrumental in getting Chad nominated to serve as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council in 2013. He is also credited with using his diplomatic skills to get the president of Chad elected AU chair in 2016. He has served in important positions within the AU and understands the workings of the organization well. In addition, he previously served as the prime minister of Chad and is currently the country’s foreign minister. He is a seasoned political operative who has been closely involved in many of the military and strategic operations that Chad has undertaken during the last several years, including activities in Libya, South Sudan, Mali, Central African Republic, and the Sahel and Lake Chad regions. Consequently, his supporters believe that he has the skills and experience to help the AU deal fully and effectively with issues of peace and security on the continent.

During the last decade, the AU has failed to confront major issues threatening peace and security in various parts of the continent. There is hope that Faki, who has gained significant experience dealing with terrorism during his chairmanship of the council of ministers of the G5 Sahel, which has been quite active in the war against terror, can provide the leadership needed to move the AU in the right direction. Some observers believe that Faki’s close working relationship with the EU and the United States in the fight against religious extremism in the Sahel could help him, as AU Commission chairperson, to secure resources for the continent’s peace and security efforts. Although he is Francophone and will be viewed by those countries as representing their interests, he is fluent in English, French, and Arabic and will be able to reach out to virtually all of the continent’s stakeholders. This is critical because dealing with the continent’s multifarious problems would require significant levels of consultation with all relevant groups. Nevertheless, some critics question whether he has the political will to democratize the AU and the continent, especially given Chad’s increasing authoritarianism—Déby has ruled Chad with a strong hand since 1990 and was reelected in April 2016 to a fifth term as president in an election that was considered by many international observers as not fair, free, or credible. Nevertheless, Faki has promised to prioritize development and stability and to undertake necessary reforms to render the AU more responsive to continental crises.

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John Mukum Mbaku is Brady Presidential Distinguished Professor of Economics at Weber State University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He also an attorney and counselor at law in Utah.

[Photo Courtesy of Embassy of Equatorial Guinea]

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