The current African Union Commission (AUC) chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma's first four-year term ends in July this year, and speculation is rife whether she will be a candidate for re-election. Indeed, in the corridors of the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa, where the 26th AU summit was held in January, this was one of the questions on everybody's lips.
A lot is at stake - for Africa, the AU and South Africa. The tough battle fought by South Africa to have Dlamini Zuma elected in 2012 shows how important this position has become. As the commission in Addis Ababa grows and asserts itself on a range of issues, so too does the status of its chairperson. The commission currently employs just over 1 700 people, of which 700 are permanent staff.
Nominations for the candidature close three months ahead of the July summit, to be held in Kigali, Rwanda. 'I still have quite a bit of time to decide,' Dlamini Zuma told journalists on the last day of the January summit. She said she hadn't yet made up her mind whether she might stand for a second term. 'What do you think I should do?' she asked, clearly not divulging anything.
The question is not just whether she'd be in line to renew her AUC position, but also whether she'd return to South Africa and make herself available to succeed her ex-husband, President Jacob Zuma.
According to Gareth Newham, Division Head of Governance, Crime and Justice at the Institute for Security Studies, various groups within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) are pushing for her candidacy in the ANC leadership race.
This includes sections within the ANC Women's League, the ANC Youth League and some from the so-called 'premier league', a loose affiliation of ANC premiers heading the provinces of Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Free State. '[Jacob] Zuma himself has also said it is time South Africa had a woman president,' Newham added.
According to ANC convention, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa should succeed Zuma. However, this is far from certain, says Newham. It has been argued that Zuma's primary interest is to avoid going to jail for corruption after he steps down, and that he needs a successor who will protect him.
'The speculation is that Dlamini Zuma, who maintains a close relationship with Zuma, might be more likely to do so than Ramaphosa,' he says. 'Ramaphosa was involved in the writing of the constitution and he is independently wealthy, so the argument is that he is less likely to be corrupt, or to interfere in the institutions that are there to uphold our democracy and the rule of law.'
The succession race will soon heat up - especially after South Africa's local elections, which are likely to take place between May and August. A new ANC president will be elected in December 2017, and whoever leads the ANC in the 2019 general elections will then become president of the country. That is, of course, if the ANC again wins the elections, which is likely given its historical majority support.
If Dlamini Zuma does not step down, she will become the first AUC chairperson to serve more than one term. Since its inception, the AU hasn't seen any chairperson stay on for two terms.
The first chairperson - who succeeded the interim chair, Ivorian Amara Essy - was Mali's former president Alpha Oumar Konaré, who served from September 2003 to February 2008. He was succeeded by former Gabonese foreign minister Jean Ping, who was beaten by Dlamini Zuma in July 2012.
This single-term trend is contrary to what has almost become the norm for the United Nations secretary-general, whose role on a global scale is similar to that of the AUC chairperson in Africa.
Current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is stepping down at the end of this year, having served two terms of five years since 2007. His predecessor, Kofi Annan, also served two terms. The only secretary-general since 1961 who served only one term was the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who finished his term in 1996 and was not re-elected.
Once the candidates for the July 2016 election for AUC chairperson are known, lobbying will start in earnest. At the recently concluded summit, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra was often mentioned as a possible successor or opponent to Dlamini Zuma. There are some questions concerning his eligibility, however.
Lamamra has already served a total of six years as AU peace and security commissioner, from April 2008 to September 2013. The AU Constitutive Act stipulates that a commissioner may only serve two terms of four years. Lamamra didn't deny that he was running for the position. 'Let the speculation continue,' was all he told journalists at the summit. It counts in his favour that North Africa has never occupied the position of chairperson.
Some AU insiders say that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) might also be entitled to nominate another candidate if Dlamini Zuma steps down. Her candidature for chairperson was heavily supported and promoted by all SADC member states. 'If there is now a question mark over whether she will stand or not, what is the position of SADC on this?' asked one former SADC ambassador to the AU.
Together with the election of AUC chairperson, elections will also be held for the deputy chairperson and the eight other commissioners; of peace and security, political affairs, infrastructure and energy, social affairs, trade and industry, rural economy and agriculture, economic affairs, and of human resources, science and technology. Of these, the position of peace and security commissioner is currently the most visible and high-profile position.
Smaïl Chergui has been in this position since Lamamra left in 2013, so he could technically stay on. If Lamamra were to become AUC chairperson, however, Chergui - who is also Algerian - may have to give up his job given that one country is unlikely to be accorded two prominent AUC posts. According to the rules of the AU, commissioners have to be representative of the five regions of the AU. One representative of each region has to be a woman.
Currently, the chairperson is from South Africa, her deputy Erastus Mwencha is from Kenya and the commissioners are from Algeria, Nigeria, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Chad, Uganda, the Republic of Congo and Lesotho. Of these, only the deputy chairperson and two of the commissioners - for infrastructure and energy (from Egypt) and for rural economy and agriculture (from Uganda) - have completed two terms and are not allowed to put their names in the hat for re-election.
How important are these elections, however, and do they really have an impact on continental developments?
As the AU strives to become a more efficient organisation - and there are increasing signs that this is happening - the commissioners' track records will come under greater scrutiny.
At the summit, an AU training academy was launched to improve the quality of leadership in the organisation. Training on subjects such as programme management, policy dialogue, the history of the AU and integration are set to start this year. 'It is part of our plan to transform the AU,' the director for human resources and administration, Amine Idriss Adoum said at the summit. Adoum also said that recruitment at the AU is being streamlined to attract the best Africa has to offer.
Secrecy, regional and linguistic biases and a lack of transparency still plague the organisation, however. Dlamini Zuma's controversial election in 2012 was fraught with accusations of linguistic blocs taking sides. In the run-up to the commissioners' elections, these issues will likely be raised once again.
Francophone observers at the recent summit complained of the 'anglophone' bias, with both the AUC chairperson and the deputy chairperson coming from so-called anglophone Africa. The official language of Algeria is Arabic, but as a former French colony it could be seen as a good compromise country in the future elections.
The jury is still out whether Dlamini Zuma will stay on in Addis Ababa, return to South Africa or move to another position altogether. The next AUC chairperson will have a huge task to try and 'silence the guns'- an ambition the AU has set for 2020. He or she would also have to continue to strive for greater continental integration and follow the path set out in Dlamini Zuma's Agenda 2063 for a more prosperous Africa, where people are empowered regardless of gender, and harmful practices against women are abolished.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant