The recent failure of Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to become chairwoman of the African Union (AU) Commission was predictable. SA does not appear to have given much thought to the traditions of diplomacy and has committed three key blunders.

First, SA ignored the "golden rule" of international organisations that nationals of large countries do not occupy the top post. This rule applies as much to the AU as it does to the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and the United Nations (UN). In the 38-year history of the AU/Organisation of African Unity (OAU), its nine leaders have come from Guinea, Cameroon, Togo, Niger, Tanzania, Cote d'Ivoire and Gabon. A Nigerian, Peter Onu, acted as OAU chief from 1983 to 1985, but was never confirmed in the post. In Sadc, the executive secretary has typically come from countries such as Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mauritius and Mozambique. The UN's eight secretaries-general have been nationals of Norway, Sweden, Burma, Austria, Peru, Egypt, Ghana and South Korea.

SA, Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria and Libya each provide 15% of the AU's operating budget and are considered to be among Africa's big powers. But even if some states are more equal than others, smaller countries always obsess about the sovereign equality of all member states. Suggestions that SA and Nigeria become veto-wielding permanent members of the 15-member AU Peace and Security Council were therefore rebuffed in 2004, while both regional powers failed to get their regions to support dropping the African insistence on a veto in order to expand the UN Security Council a year later. Africa's Lilliputians thus remain wary of overbearing regional Gullivers.

The second blunder was to challenge an incumbent that it assumed had become unpopular. In African diplomacy, damaged incumbents are typically convinced to step down while a consensus candidate is found. While Jean Ping has not covered himself in glory during his four years in office, one must acknowledge the limits of a position in which African leaders largely call the shots, while the chair of the AU Commission tries to co-ordinate the often divergent interests of its 54 members.

Ping's predecessor — the erudite former Malian president, Alpha Oumar Konare — failed as spectacularly as Ping to build a dynamic AU. Only two of the nine OAU/AU heads — Guinea's Diallo Telli and Tanzania's Salim Ahmed Salim — were re-elected. Both were impressive, but neither transformed the organisation's institutional deficiencies.

The third issue that counted against SA was its maladroit diplomacy over Cote d'Ivoire and Libya last year, and particularly the alienation of its previously close strategic partner, Nigeria.

In the first case, SA prevaricated after the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, tried to steal a presidential election. In the latter, SA failed to prevent a majority of African states recognising Libya's National Transitional Council. In both cases, SA found itself on the wrong side of history.

The problem with this debacle was not Dlamini-Zuma, who would doubtless have brought much energy to this post. The obstacles involved her nationality and SA's clumsy and heavy-handed approach in acting like a bull in a continental china shop. Attempts to portray the vote as a francophone-anglophone battle are too simplistic, as these are not monolithic voting blocs in which countries bleat like linguistic sheep. SA's reported celebrations after its candidate withdrew and Ping failed to be re-elected, were tactless and impolitic.

The fact that Dlamini-Zuma failed to achieve a simple majority in all three rounds and that the Gabonese diplomat was able to muster 60% of votes in the fourth, falling just short of the two-thirds required for re-election, means he will have many supporters that will be angry with SA's petulance. Having a lame-duck AU Commission for six months can be good for neither SA nor Africa.

SA will surely now be blamed not just for a rudderless continental body, but also for having divided the AU. It is important that SA urgently repairs this damage and perhaps throws its weight behind an able candidate from a smaller southern African country. If SA is interested in AU institutional reform, it could still target the deputy chairmanship in the future. Talk of putting up another South African candidate for the chair at the next AU summit would only add folly to this chronicle of a fiasco foretold.

Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution.


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