5 February 2012

East Africa: An Undecided AU Hands Jean Ping Six More Months


The failure to elect the chairman of the African Union Commission in a meeting last week is an indication of the changing power dynamics in Africa, analysts say.

There are fears that some powerful Western nations, especially France, are seeking to influence events at the AU, but are meeting strong resistance from Anglophone countries led by South Africa.

After four rounds of voting, incumbent chairman Jean Ping failed to get two-thirds majority, after South Africa influenced countries from Central Africa such as Equatorial Guinea, Congo Brazzaville and Chad, plus French-speaking Mali, to support Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, South Africa's former foreign minister.

Such was the lobbying and horse trading that instead of following the tradition of handing over the commission's leadership to the next senior official in the commission, the deputy chairperson Erastus Mwencha, the assembly decided to extend the term of Mr Ping's team for six months.

Outgoing AU chairman Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea accused external powers of wanting to perpetuate their influence in Africa. There was suspicion among other African states that France was supporting Jean Ping.

South Africa seems to have seized the opportunity presented by the absence of former Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi to become the centre of power in the AU, raising anxiety about the Big Brother syndrome.

The Zuma campaigns split West Africa and Central Africa, which were initially on Ping's side.

In East Africa, Tanzania and Uganda voted for Zuma, while Kenya led the campaigns for Ping. Notably, Ping was last year a great supporter of the Kenya government's efforts to defer the cases at the International Criminal Court.

Diplomatic sources say that Ping was confident of winning, banking on French-speaking West Africa that has the majority bloc, and Central Africa. But things changed two days to the elections following intense lobbying by some powerful nations.

Mr Ping got lip service from his home country Gabon, despite President Ali Bongo Ondimba having sent a delegation to President Robert Mugabe when he heard that Zimbabwe was likely to vote against Zuma. Ping's campaign was weighed down by the internal politics in his country of birth, Gabon.

The elections were unlike 2008, when Ping won in the first round. None of the candidates could garner the required 200 votes.

Major influences

Diplomatic sources from Addis Ababa argued that the voting was influenced by three geopolitical issues. The first was the feeling that some powerful English speaking countries in the West were supporting South Africa, against the unwritten rule that that economically powerful countries should not contest for leadership.

Again, some Western powers are anxious about the new China-AU partnership that saw the Asian economic giant finance the new $200 million headquarters in Addis Ababa. There is a growing feeling that AU could become too independent of its traditional donors under the influence of China.

Then there is the argument that Ping has not been entirely in charge of the continental body and that Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi has too much influence on the activities of the organisation.

Alpha Oumar Konaré, a former president of Mali was the first chairman of the commission.

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