A host of problems for South Africa at the AU summit


South Africa is hosting this weekend’s 25th ordinary assembly – or summit – of the African Union (AU) in Sandton, Johannesburg. But some of the critical issues on the agenda are probably not going to be to Pretoria’s liking. The most obvious of these is xenophobia.

At a press conference during the preparatory meetings this week, AU Commission Secretary General Jean Mfasoni diplomatically insisted that having xenophobia on the agenda was not related to ‘recent events’ in South Africa.

But no one was buying that. AU and member state officials had made it very clear before that the summit had to tackle xenophobia precisely because of the outburst of violence against mostly African foreign nationals during March and April this year.

The AU Peace and Security Council had explicitly debated the South African xenophobic attacks in a meeting on 30 April. There have also been suggestions that some heads of state would boycott the summit in protest – although South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane firmly dismissed such speculation on Monday. She described how President Jacob Zuma had taken the initiative in dealing with the African fallout from the xenophobic attacks. This included addressing them at a Southern African Development Community summit in Harare in April, and on visits to Mozambique and Nigeria since then.

ACIRC might now never be deployed, because this summit could kill it off

She suggested it was a gesture of goodwill from two countries whose nationals have experienced xenophobic violence in South Africa that Zuma had been invited on the first state visit to Maputo since the new President Filipe Nyusi took office, and to new Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s inauguration. In both places he had been received ‘with warm hands and hearts,’ she insisted.

The ISS’s Peace and Security Council Report said that the discussion on xenophobia would give Zuma an opportunity to explain to the whole continent what South Africa is doing about the problem. The debate could become heated if Zuma goes on the offensive, as some of his officials suggested he might, by tossing the ball back into the courts of the immigrants’ home countries and suggesting it is their poor governance which is driving their people out.

Another prickly issue for South Africa at the summit is the fate of the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC). As the Peace and Security Council Report pointed out this week, ACIRC – Zuma’s brainchild – has been theoretically operational for under a year, but has never been deployed. And now it might never be, because this summit could kill it off.

ACIRC was launched at the 21st AU Summit in 2013 as a force – to be assembled by volunteer states – that would enable the AU to deal rapidly with crises. It would in this way avoid repeating the embarrassment of having to rely on outside powers to deal with conflicts, such as those in Mali and Central African Republic.

ACIRC would bridge the gap because the AU’s African Standby Force (ASF) was taking so long to be established. But Pretoria’s rivals on the continent – notably Nigeria – were deeply suspicious of ACIRC, which probably contributed to the fact that it has never been deployed.

Women’s empowerment is likely to be eclipsed by more pressing conflicts

Though ACIRC is funded by South Africa and other volunteer states themselves – versus the ASF, which is funded by the AU – it is nonetheless perceived to divert energy and resources from the ASF. The Peace and Security Council Report says this weekend’s summit is expected to decide whether to keep it as it is, to dismantle it or to absorb it into the ASF as its rapid deployment capability.

The report suggests the last option is the most likely, not least to avoid embarrassing the host nation by dismantling ACIRC altogether. Liesl Louw-Vaudran, the report's editor, said at a briefing this week that Zuma would suffer considerable loss of face if that happened. The upside of South Africa hosting the summit, though, is that it should give it extra clout to influence such decisions.

Another major summit topic that is causing Pretoria some anxiety is the AU’s ambitious plan to become far more self-sufficient financially. AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma emphasised the importance of this issue soon after taking office in 2012, given her suspicion that foreign donors were exerting too much power over AU activities since they financed about 70% of its budget. The new plan envisages member states financing all of the AU’s operations, 75% of its programmes and 25% of its peace and security activities.

But that would considerably boost the contributions of member states, to US$600 million a year, to be phased in over five years. The original idea was to finance this with alternative sources of funding, such as taxes on airfares or hotel tariffs or text messages, and levies on lucrative natural resources such as oil.

However the member states that would be most affected by these measures shot down the proposals. The decision was made at the last summit, in January, to simply increase the contributions from member states and allow each to decide how to fund those. A new formula was agreed on for sharing the burden, with the richest states – South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Algeria and Egypt – paying the most. South Africa’s dues will rise sharply, from about US$17 million to US$60 million, a drain on the coffers that is not pleasing everyone in government.

The theme of the summit is women’s empowerment but, as in January, this is likely to be eclipsed by more pressing conflicts. The summit leaders will confront the usual daunting list of crises, some of which – such as Somalia, Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya, South Sudan and Boko Haram in Nigeria – are rapidly becoming perennials on the agenda. The International Contact Group on Libya is to meet on the margins of the summit to discuss what on earth to do about the country’s rapid descent to failed-state status, with two rival governments, in the historic capital Tripoli and in Tobruk, and constant warfare.

Third-termism has become the continent’s crisis du jour in the security domain

If all of that were not enough, 'third-termism' – as Nkoana-Mashabane’s adviser Eddy Maloka called it recently – has become the continent’s crisis du jour in the security domain. This follows on the violent street protests and coup attempt provoked by Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s determination to run for a third term in office, despite a constitutional two-term limit. Similar crises are looming in both Congos and in Rwanda. Their leaders have also begun manoeuvring in various artful ways to cling to power by bypassing two terms limits, as the ISS’s Stephanie Wolters and David Zounmenou explained at their pre-summit briefing.

They described how the frequency of coups was declining in Africa – in part, perhaps, because the AU has outlawed them – but how third-term bids are on the rise. They have become a major new source of conflict and instability on the continent, and Wolters described them in that regard as Africa’s ‘new coups.’

What the AU can or will do about them is unclear. On Burundi, the continent has backed off its initial strong stance that Nkurunziza should not run again. Zuma at first publicly enunciated that position. But now his officials seem to be prevaricating, wondering if the Burundi constitutional court’s decision to validate Nkurunziza’s third-term bid should be respected, for fear of undermining Burundi’s sovereignty and rule of law. And whether the AU will ever have the guts to tell Rwanda’s Paul Kagame to retire graciously remains highly doubtful.

Benin’s Yayi Boni was also mulling an unconstitutional third term. But, just before the AU leaders were gathering to ponder an African solution to third-termism, French President François Hollande seemed to produce a more traditional one. Boni visited him in Paris and emerged to announce his name would never be on the ballot again. One can only imagine what Hollande said or did to effect that volte-face. But it looked like France was once again upstaging the African Union.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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