03 Aug 2012

Dlamini-Zuma's victory may turn out to be a pyrrhic one

Written by  Adekeye Adebajo

No. 220: Dlamini-Zuma's victory may turn out to be a pyrrhic one / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
3 August 2012

The recent success of Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in becoming chairwoman of the African Union (AU) Commission was an unexpected but impressive victory. The absence from the AU summit of key supporters of her opponent, Gabon's Jean Ping, such as the Ethiopian host, Meles Zenawi, Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan, Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaore and Congo's Denis Sassou-Nguesso, contributed to the outcome.

In their absence, Rwanda's Paul Kagame and others were unable to rally sufficient support for Ping.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) also ran a determined and disciplined campaign. Ping's failure to win a two-thirds victory in the first vote in February meant he was a damaged incumbent. Many AU members were keen to avoid another six months of a lame-duck commission and, with only one other candidate presented, were anxious to see the matter resolved.

This victory, however, carries great political costs. There is a widespread sense that the South African teenager — the youngest child in the African diplomatic village after South Sudan — has not taken the time to acquaint itself with the rules of the African political community before seeking to take charge of running it. In African tradition, established elders often take deep umbrage at such petulant hubris.

Dlamini-Zuma will need urgently to heal serious political divisions with Nigeria, central Africa and many Francophone countries. While she won an impressive 37 votes in the fourth round of voting, 17 other countries will still need to be won over. She will also need to have a clear strategy for how to overcome the labyrinthine, treacherous AU bureaucracy, which none of her predecessors have managed to master.

While Ping often struggled to shine during his four years in office, one must acknowledge that the role of the chair of the AU Commission is to co-ordinate the often divergent interests of its 54 members. When AU leaders were divided over Libya and Côte d'Ivoire last year, there was little Ping could do to impose a common position.

There are three dangerous consequences of Dlamini-Zuma's acrimonious victory. First, her efforts to lead the AU could be frustrated by powerful "spoilers" alienated by her divisive victory. Her position is, after all, one in which the 54 heads of state — and not its administrative chair — still call the shots.

Second, this victory could set a bad precedent of powerful countries seeking to monopolise the top position in the AU at the cost of wider representation.

Third, it is often said that every rumour in Africa is true. If persistent rumours of SA and allies such as Angola having "bought" this position through dispensation or promises of monetary inducements turn out to be true, then the worst practices of many domestic African political systems would have been exported to the continental level and we might in future be forced to ask: How much is the position of chair of the AU Commission worth? The spreading of largesse by Libya's Muammar Gaddafi to buy influence within the AU was, after all, a practice that was roundly condemned.

So what awaits Dlamini-Zuma in Addis Ababa? The commission is the secretariat of the body and is headed by a chair, a deputy, and eight commissioners. Its main tasks are to represent the AU and to defend its interests as mandated and directed by the assembly of heads of state and the executive council of foreign ministers; to initiate proposals for other AU organs to consider; to implement the decisions of these organs; and to co-ordinate and monitor the implementation of AU decisions in conjunction with the powerful permanent representatives committee of African ambassadors in Ethiopia. In practice, however, the AU Commission has struggled in the first decade of its existence to establish its independence and ability to take initiatives on behalf of its members. The eight other commissioners have often acted as if they were not accountable to the chair, with some arguing that since they were elected by the AU's leaders, they do not have to answer to the chair. Dlamini-Zuma must win over this fractious group quickly.

She will need to rely on two able and experienced incumbents — Kenya's deputy chair, Erastus Mwencha, and Algeria's Ramtane Lamamra. A Nigerian woman, Aisha Abdullahi, was recently appointed as the AU commissioner for political affairs, and it will be critical to win her support, especially as Dlamini-Zuma will almost certainly feel the need to replace John Shinkaiye, the Nigerian incumbent chef de cabinet in her office. Her early appointments will be closely watched to see how constrained she is by political debts accumulated during her long campaign.

Needing to distance herself from her country, Dlamini-Zuma will be unable to bring many loyal South Africans into a political environment in which ministers protect even their most junior and incompetent "deadwood" nationals. Unlike in SA's public service, Dlamini-Zuma will not be able to undertake many substantive reforms without encountering opposition that could render her a one-term chairwoman.

The AU audit report of December 2007, chaired by the former head of SA's African Peer Review Mechanism, Nigeria's Adebayo Adedeji, was scathing about the administrative and management failings of the commission. The report noted that the commission was operating with only 617 of 912 approved staff (60%). It also noted that only 50% of approved tasks were implemented in 2006, and most directorates under spent by 70%-90%. The AU's permanent representatives committee of ambassadors could be another stumbling block for Dlamini-Zuma. The plenipotentiaries have focused largely on oversight rather than substantive issues, leading to charges of micro-management from, and tensions with, the commission. Permanent representatives committee members have also been accused of seeking to recruit their relatives and nationals.

In fulfilling her tasks, Dlamini-Zuma will have to focus on five key priorities. Three peacemaking initiatives will be critical: first, strengthening the 8,000-strong AU peacekeeping mission in Somalia; second, supporting the Thabo Mbeki-led AU mediation effort between Sudan and South Sudan; and third, ensuring effective collaboration within the AU-United Nations (UN) operation in Sudan's Darfur region. A fourth priority is to strengthen the relationship between the AU and the UN. A final priority is to cultivate relations with actors such as the European Union, China and the US, which pay 40% of the AU's $260m annual budget.

On a visit to the AU Commission in Addis Ababa in 2004, I saw Dlamini-Zuma, as SA's foreign minister, chair a meeting of the AU Peace and Security Council. I was impressed by her energy, grasp of details, and authority: she clearly had the respect of her largely male colleagues and had mastered her brief. She will bring much-needed dynamism to this task. However, her long, bitter campaign and the AU's own institutional sclerosis may lead to her failing to achieve any more than Ping did in the past four years.

Overturning 50 years of African diplomatic practice that has forbidden large states from running the Organisation of African Unity and the AU may well turn out to be a pyrrhic victory for SA.

Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution and editor of The EU and Africa (Wits University Press, 2012).

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