9 February 2012

Africa: What Do We Learn From the Ping-Zuma Stalemate?

In Addis Ababa, the 9th African Union summit is underway. Heads of State and Government are expected over the weekend to deliberate on and ratify a ... ( Resource: AU Summit Underway In Ethiopia )


The 18th ordinary session of the African Union Summit was marked by the failure of African leaders to elect a new chairperson of the African Union Commission. Behind the scenes, complex international and regional shenanigans led to the deadlock.

On Monday 30 January 2012 as I was discussing with some colleagues who were attending the just concluded 18th ordinary session of the African Union Summit about the failure of African leaders to elect a new chairperson of the African Union Commission, one point came up in our discussion. Since 1963, Central and West Africa have dominated the leadership of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)'s secretariat and of the African Union Commission since 2003. When I said that apart from the late Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kifle Wodajo, and the Tanzanian diplomat Salim Ahmed Salim, no other non Central or West African has ever been at the top of the secretariat of the continental organisation, a former Ugandan diplomat jokingly said: 'Southern Africans were not there.' That was his way of saying that more that two decades after the creation of the OAU, some of the Southern African countries, including Namibia and Zimbabwe, were not yet independent. It was not until 1994 that apartheid in South Africa was abolished. Indeed, one of the main objectives of the OAU was to liberate all African countries.

Last month, Southern African countries led by South Africa were resolute to break that cycle of being distant from the top leadership of the continental institution by supporting Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for the position of chairperson of the African Union Commission against the incumbent, Jean Ping. But, why did neither of the candidates win the support of the African heads of state and government to lead the Commission for the four coming years? Did the failure of Jean Ping to obtain the legally required two-thirds majority of the votes cast to get a second term in office amount to a vote of non-confidence in itself? Or did the rest of the continent fear the influence of Africa's economic power once their candidate got into office? While this article may not be able to answer the above questions, it will attempt to contribute to the broader debate on the failure of our leaders to unite behind one candidate. In addition, this piece will try to analyse lessons that African citizens can draw from that standoff.

To begin with, who are Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Jean Ping? Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is a South African politician and anti-apartheid activist born in 1949. She is a medical doctor by profession and is the current minister of Home Affairs in the cabinet of President Jacob Zuma, her ex-husband, after being minister of health and two times minister of foreign affairs respectively under Presidents Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe. Dlamini-Zuma is known for her 'competent management skills and stern personality', according to her former colleagues at the Ministry of Health.

Jean Ping is a Gabonese diplomat and politician born in 1942 of a Chinese father and a Gabonese mother. He holds a doctorate in Economics from the University of Paris. He began his career in 1972 as a civil servant at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Between 1984 and 2008, Jean Ping served in the Gabonese government and became one of the most powerful politicians under the rule of late President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba. In February 2008, Ping was elected chairperson of the African Union Commission to succeed former Malian President, Alpha Oumar Konaré, who had declined to run for a second term.

The opposition of Southern African countries to the candidacy of Jean Ping is not new. In 2008, the 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) supported the Zambian ambassador to the United States of America, Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika, for the position of chairperson of the AU Commission, but Jean Ping obtained 31 votes out of 46 in the first round, thus becoming the second chairman of the AU Commission. Four years later and after four rounds, Ping could only get 33 votes out of 53. In some corners, such a result could have led to an immediate resignation. But he accepted to continue at the head of the Commission until the next AU Summit.

There are different theories on why Jean Ping failed to win a second term in office. First of all, South Africa and its supporters were not happy at the fact that Gabon, the sponsoring country of Jean Ping's candidacy, recognised Libya's National Transitional Council while President Jacob Zuma was still persuading the AU to delay recognition in order to arrive at a negotiated solution between the then rebels and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. In addition, whereas the official position of the African Union (and that of Jean Ping) in the 2011 post election crisis in Côte d'Ivoire was that Alassane Ouattara was the winner, South Africa favoured a power sharing deal between Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who led the AU delegation to Côte d'Ivoire, said that 'coalition governments were damaging democracy'. Kenya supported Jean Ping probably because the AU had expressed its support for Kenya's bid to defer for some time the International Criminal Court's proceedings in the Kenya's post election crisis, not least because the win of Jean Ping would have assured Erastus Mwencha - a Kenyan - his second term as deputy chairperson of the AU Commission.

French educated, Jean Ping also started his career in France. He was a protégé of President Omar Bongo and is one of the closest politicians to Omar Bongo's son (current president of Gabon), Ali Bongo. Considering the strong influence of France in Gabon and in its former colonies, some African leaders may have felt 'a foreign hand pushing for Jean Ping's continued tenure' at the AU Commission. In addition, many African leaders believe that France, after playing leading roles in the wars in Côte d'Ivoire and Libya last year, has now 'turned its attention to other parts of Africa including meddling in the Madagascar crisis that has seen the Indian Ocean island nation going for nearly three years without a functioning government'. According to the Southern Times, 'France's ambassador to Ethiopia, Jean-Christophe Belliard reportedly arm-twisted some countries to back Jean Ping against SADC's candidate Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.' President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was quoted as saying 'we fought imperialism and colonialism and forced them out of Africa...our founding fathers did not have the means, but they stood up and said "no"; but here we are absolutely silent...'

The Angolan minister of Foreign Affairs, Georges Chicoti, quoted by the Angecia AngolaPress before the election of a new chairperson, while denying accusing or criticising whomsoever, 'stressed that Africans do not want imposition, they want to decide their destination for themselves...a support for the continuity would be the worst option that Africa should avoid'. Even if Georges Chicoti did not point a finger at China, it could not be forgotten the way Jean Ping was influential as foreign affairs minister of Gabon in convincing Chinese President Hu Jintao to visit his country in 2006. This could have taken away some support of leaders who feared his strong ties with China, not least because of his Chinese fatherhood.

Nevertheless, Dlamini-Zuma's candidature did not magnetise African leaders either. According to the Sudan Vision, 'South Africa's attempt to flex its foreign policy muscle by capturing the AU's top post may be thwarted by nations resentful of its already dominant role on the continent'. Chris Landsberg, professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg, adds that South Africa's failure to back the African Union's demand last year that Côte d'Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo cede power to Alassane Ouattara after a disputed election and its handling of the Libya fallout 'has hurt it badly on the continent'. Those South African diplomatic decisions may have denied the much-needed support of some Central and West African nations that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma required for winning the election.

Other analysts saw the push by Pretoria to get their candidate elected as 'a violation of an unwritten agreement' that the chairperson of the African Union Commission should come from 'weaker African nations' like Gabon, Togo, Mali and Cameroon among others, whose nationals have led the secretariat of the continental organisation. Being a woman could also have played a negative role in denying Dlamini-Zuma the two-thirds majority of the votes. Until now, no woman has been elected chairperson of the African Union Commission and some African leaders may have not been ready to accommodate that change.

Now the big question remains this one: who is going to be elected come July 2012 in Malawi? The current deputy chairperson of the Commission, Erastus Mwencha, could probably be a compromise candidate. Other leading figures including former Burundian minister of foreign affairs, Antoinette Batumubwira, who once vied for the position, may think about giving it a second try. While it is not easy to speculate on who will submit their candidatures, it is clear that both Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Jean Ping will not run again.

The last point that this article is attempting to address is in relation to lessons that African citizens can draw from this stalemate at the continental level. One obvious thing is that Africa is still subject to colonial influence. France and England still have some influence be it political, economic or linguistic in their former African colonies. Jean Ping had the support of most French speaking countries while Dlamini-Zuma enjoyed the backing of most English speaking countries.

Secondly, the recent failure to elect a new chairperson emphasised the fact that most countries are more loyal to their regional economic communities. Both the Economic Community of Central African States and the Economic Community of West African States on the one hand and SADC on the other hand stood firmly behind their respective candidates. As a result, the project of continental integration may be a distant dream if there is no bold political will from African leaders to eliminate those differences between regions.

Thirdly, there is need for a strong uniting figure to lead the African Union Commission and drive the continental integration agenda. The aspiration of the new chairperson of the African Union, President Yayi Boni, that 'Africa is looking to establish a continental free trade area by 2017 in order to promote the economic development and integration of the continent', may not materalise if those differences between regional economic communities are not removed.

Fourthly, the influence of the 'big five' - Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa - on the continent may be eroding. With Colonel Muammar Gaddafi gone, the on-going revolution in Egypt and the fear of one in Algeria, South Africa and Nigeria are the only remaining among the big five that can have some influence on the continent. However, the former failed to have their candidate elected and the latter is dealing with multiple internal problems. In addition, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan was left out by ECOWAS in favour of Benin President Thomas Yayi Boni for the chairmanship of the African Union.

Finally, the 'less panAfrican' celebratory dances within the South African delegation to the African Union Summit when Jean Ping failed to get the two-thirds majority after the fourth round may have damaged the chances of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (or any other South African candidate for that matter) being ever elected to the chairmanship of the Commission in the near future. At least Zuma keeps her ministerial docket, but for Ping, June 2012 may be the end of his four-decade diplomatic career.

The opinion expressed in this article is solely that of the author, Yves Niyiragira, in his capacity as a commentator on African affairs and does not represent in any way the views of Fahamu.

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