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ISS Seminar Report, Pretoria: The African Union Summit - a Retrospective
Date: 1 February 2012
Venue: ISS Conference Room, , Block C, Brooklyn Court, , 361 Veale Street, , New Muckleneuk


•  Dr. Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director, Institute for Security Studies (ISS)


•  Dr. Paul-Simon Handy, Research Director, Institute for Security Studies (ISS)

•  Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Editor of the Magazine, Institute for Security Studies (ISS)

From the start seminar participants and presenters, as well as all those who attended the 18th Summit of Heads of State of the African Union (AU) noted how it took place in a different context, particularly as the antics of former Heads of State such as the late Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi would no longer dominate proceedings and media reports. This enabled the conference to proceed in a more professional and business-like manner.

Despite the overarching theme of Intra-African Trade for the summit, there had been an unhealthy fixation with the commission election, which detracted from the work of the rest of the summit. Issues that risk being marginalised such as the plan to create a Continental Free Trade Agreement by 2017 in Africa were highlighted, enabling participants to appreciate the challenges facing the AU and African Regional Economic Communities (RECs) in attaining this goal.

The outcome of the commission election between incumbent president Jean Ping of Gabon and South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma did however provide a good indication of the evolving internal politics with the AU as well as the strength and loyalties of the various regional blocs on the continent. Despite the failure of the summit to produce a commission chairperson, the process and associated competition presented an image of democracy and accountability in action – certainly more open and transparent than those often seen with more mature institutions.

Eventually it is evident that African states and representatives attach great importance to the personage and office of the commission chairperson and remain unwilling to enable a larger African power such as South Africa to assume such a role.

Additionally the profile of the AU as a supranational organisation has been boosted which indicates that the organisation is seen both within the continent and elsewhere as the prime location for continental politics and as a stage for the expression of interests and issues.

Moreover, increasingly issue driven decision-making appears to have come to the fore, replacing the ‘big man’ politics of the past. This is an encouraging sign given the evolving global context within which the AU and its members operate, particularly in regards to transnational issues such as climate change and finding appropriate multilateral responses to complex challenges.

The election results are also an indication that whilst fracture lines amongst states persist, these cannot be reduced to a simple Anglophone/Francophone dichotomy, particularly in lieu of Nigerian efforts to lobby for Ping. Nigeria’s seeming inability to create an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) voting bloc to support Ping reflected the internal challenges of that country and a relatively weak regional position.

Amongst the lessons that can be drawn from the outcomes of the summit are firstly that the larger African powers could increase their contributions and support for the AU. This should not simply pertain to budgetary support, an unfeasible notion given the current underutilisation of both budget and staff by the AU, but capacity support through contributing skilled people.

Secondly, participants also noted that it was clear that the South African electoral strategy for Dlamini-Zuma was ineffective outside of the immediate Southern African region. Any future candidate will require support from key states, the majority of whom seem opposed to a South African bid.

Thirdly, attention must be paid to a thorough and nuanced assessment of the legacy of Ping’s chairpersonship to ensure that evaluations are not subject to divergent interpretations. Whilst Ping was unable to secure the necessary support to be re-elected as chairperson in what effectively amounts to a vote of no-confidence, a strong response to divisive issues such as the AU response to the Libyan crisis last year was negated by a lack of organisational capacity. The unwillingness of member states to transfer powers to the AU also continues to handicap the performance of the commission. A similar point was also raised regarding the Pan-African Parliament, as its continued marginalisation denies it the opportunity to achieve its objective of providing effective continental legislation. This largely leaves it largely unable to function as anything beyond an advisory body for decision-makers elsewhere.

The AU’s commitment to Human Rights was critically reflected upon, as participants noted the persistence of the perception that the AU remains indifferent to Human Rights violations. Furthermore the lack of clear links and communication between the security and governance architecture results in both a structural deficit in the AU and a continental-wide democratic deficit.

Participants noted that the Chinese-built AU headquarters was a prestigious and important contribution for continental politics, but speculated that at some point an African contribution by way of reciprocation would be expected. China-Africa studies should be assessed in a comparative manner with other actors in international relations such as EU-Africa relations. In addition future topics for discussion, such as the impact on ICC-Africa relations created by the incoming African ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda from the Gambia, were highlighted for future reflection and analysis.

Seminar Report compiled by Timothy Walker, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria Office.

ISS Conference Room

Block C, Brooklyn Court

361 Veale Street

New Muckleneuk

Tel: 012 346 9500

Fax: 012 460 0997
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