High expectations for the next AU Commission chair

The main task will be delivering an effective new structure that tackles internal dysfunction at the commission.

African leaders are set to elect a new African Union Commission (AUC) at the continental body’s next ordinary summit early in 2021. At the top of the commission’s hierarchy is the chairperson, a key position occupied since January 2017 by Chad’s former foreign minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat.

Heads of state have to choose an AUC chairperson for the next four years, starting in January 2021. Although Mahamat is set to run unopposed, what are the considerations in picking a new chair?

Africa is facing many economic and conflict-related problems. A leader is needed who can deal with these challenges but who also has the acumen to solve with the internal dysfunctionalities and allegations of corruption and mismanagement at the AU Commission.

Technically, AUC chairs are charged with overseeing the commission’s administration and finances, promoting and popularising the AU’s objectives and enhancing its performance. They’re also responsible for consulting and coordinating with member states, development partners, regional economic communities, etc.

The AUC chair’s good offices could help in conflict prevention, an area where the PSC has struggled

The chair must also appoint and manage AUC staff, and act as a depository for AU treaties and legal instruments. The protocol on the establishment of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) allows the chair to play a role in the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts in Africa. So the AU Commission chair needs to be a technically sound manager and a seasoned diplomat.

The past three chairs were former foreign affairs ministers with a wealth of knowledge on continental challenges, priorities and commitments. Their ministerial positions also allowed them to build and sustain relationships across Africa and beyond. This mix of skills and experience is vital.

A priority for the next AUC chairperson and the commission as a whole is the AU institutional reforms. These reforms were approved by AU heads of state and have been partially implemented, particularly those relating to the organisation’s financial self-sufficiency and streamlining the commission’s various departments. It remains to be seen how this will translate into a more efficient AU that serves Africa’s needs.

Another priority is kick-starting the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), alongside the newly-established AfCFTA Secretariat. Due to COVID-19-related challenges, trading under the AfCFTA has been postponed to 1 January 2021.

The next AUC chair needs to address allegations of corruption and mismanagement at the commission

But the real test for the AUC’s incoming leadership will be the roll-out of the commission’s new structure. The next AUC chair will have to ensure that the new structure succeeds, this will include addressing internal dysfunction and allegations of corruption and mismanagement at the commission.

Given that the head of state chosen to chair the AU has a one-year term only, the commission chairperson plays an important role in ensuring continuity of the AU’s work. One of the continent’s priorities – peace and security – remains a challenge.

Conflict and violent extremism in South Sudan, Sudan, Libya, Mali and the Sahel, and the Lake Chad Basin, have fluctuated between complete deterioration and substantial improvement. No lasting resolution has been found. Political tensions are also rife in many countries, including Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, where both incumbents have been re-elected in controversial elections.

Both the AUC chairperson and the commissioner for political affairs, peace and security could play a pivotal role in resolving these conflicts, through for example supporting the PSC, which holds the primary responsibility in these matters. The AUC chairperson’s good offices could also go a long way in conflict prevention, an area where the PSC has struggled.

The chair’s biggest task will be to ensure a smooth transition to the new AUC structure

In essence, this all fits into the AU’s Silencing the Guns by 2020 agenda, which according to recent research by the Institute for Securities Studies has had only ‘marginal achievements.’ This is due to ‘institutional, conceptual, political and operational issues’ that complicate its implementation.

The magnitude of Africa’s peace and security problems makes it difficult for the AUC and its chairperson to solve them alone. But the commission’s involvement could undoubtedly help.

The AU is still seen as an organisation of heads of state, far removed from the African people. This is largely due to the AU’s principled positions, which often overlook people’s grievances and appear to side with incumbent heads of state. Bringing the AU closer to Africans will require bridging the gap between governments and their citizens through more democratic, transparent and inclusive governance. 

The past few years have seen a new impetus to make Africa’s voice heard in the global multilateral system. Examples include the 2017 AU-European Union (EU) summit and the rekindling of AU-United Nations (UN) relations. Regular meetings and consultations now take place between the AU and EU, and AU and UN.

However the AU’s failure to agree on a single platform for negotiations with the EU is a stark reminder of the problems still to be overcome. This same goes for differences on African candidacies for positions in global organisations where consensus around a single African nominee has at times been difficult to find and uphold.

For Africa to be heard, it must speak with one voice. The next AUC and its chairperson are expected to be at the forefront of this endeavour. The chair’s biggest task will be to ensure a smooth transition to the new AUC structure so that it can effectively and efficiently implement the vast and complex continental agenda.

Mohamed M Diatta, Researcher, Institute for Security Studies, Addis Ababa

This article was first published in the ISS’ PSC Report.

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