Race for Commission Chair Exposes Regional Rifts Within the African Union

Race for Commission Chair Exposes Regional Rifts Within the African Union
African Union headquarters, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Dec. 8, 2013 (Photo by Albert González Farran, UNAMID, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

The African Union held its 27th summit in Kigali, Rwanda, earlier this week, where it had planned to elect a new chairperson of the African Union Commission, the executive office of the AU. But in Kigali, all three candidates fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed to secure the position. As a result, attendees agreed to extend the tenure of the current chairperson, South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, by six months. The postponement of the elections reveals the complexities of regional politics in Africa, but also indicates some continent-wide uncertainty about the role and direction of the AU.

Three candidates from the AU’s 54 member states were competing for the chairpersonship at the summit: Botswana’s foreign minister, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi; Equatorial Guinea’s foreign minister, Agapito Mba Mokuy; and Uganda’s former vice president, Speciosa Wandira Kazibwe. The winning candidate would have needed at least 35 votes to reach the two-thirds majority, but no candidate even came close. In the first round of voting, Venson-Moitoi received 16 votes, Mokuy 12, and Kazibwe 11, with at least 15 abstentions. In the second round, Kazibwe dropped out, and Venson-Moitoi received 23 votes, but there were an estimated 28 abstentions. In other words, the bulk of the AU’s members expressed no confidence in the entire slate of candidates.

One reason for this de facto no-confidence vote is the influence of West Africa, which had no candidate in the race and was, according to some accounts, unable to insert a last-minute nominee. During the lead-up to the vote, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) reportedly asked the AU Commission to postpone it, arguing that the candidates were unqualified. Although the AU Commission denied the request, ECOWAS’ 15 members numbered among the abstaining members. ECOWAS may be hoping the post will eventually go to one of its own. One likely candidate for the next election is Senegal’s Abdoulaye Bathily, a former Cabinet minister who currently serves as special representative of the United Nations secretary-general for Central Africa.

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