Monitoring the Monitor: Elections at the African Union

2011-11-28

Mehari Taddele Maru, Programme Head, African Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Addis Ababa Office

With the many elections held in 2011, Africa witnessed what one may call a ‘generational progression on democracy’. Ironically, the nominations for the elections at the African Union Commission (AU Commission), which takes place in January 2012, reflects no such trend.

Africa`s progress in holding more democratic elections constitutes the single most important driver of the consolidation of democratisation in Africa. In this regard, the AU and other institutions of international governance played, and will continue to play, a very meaningful role by supporting and monitoring elections in many African countries.

Now it is time to closely monitor the election monitor—the AU itself.  A very important agenda item of the January 2012 AU Summit is the election of the Chairpersons and Commissioners of the AU Commission. Given that the Commission is increasingly emerging as one of the key players in Africa, this election could make a significant difference in the consolidation of democracy and peace in Africa.  Indeed, if the right persons are elected as leaders, the Commission could easily become the driver of change we would like it to be. Without a fundamental change in governments, Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and the AU, the achievement of the AU vision of a peaceful, prosperous, and integrated Africa will remain elusive. Of course, this is only if the necessary consideration and diligence is accorded to the election process within the AU. Rather, the current election process indicates the opposite. 

The first step in the election process of the chairpersons and the Commissioners is for the member states of the AU to forward the names of their candidates in response to calls by the Legal Counsel of the Commission. The Counsel then prepares a list of nominations from the member states. Based on this list, pre-selection processes at regional level are conducted to identify candidates for each region. The elections are based on the famous AU regional geographic distribution formula. Each of the five regions of Africa is entitled to propose two candidates for the ten portfolios of the Commission. At least one of the candidates for each region should be a female candidate. This makes a total of twenty candidates of which at least ten must be female. The regions, from which the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson are nominated, can only propose one candidate each for commissioner positions. These selected regional candidates form the continental pool of candidates, which the Legal Counsel prepares with a team of consultants. The team of consultants is composed of two independent experts from each region who verify if the candidates fulfil the required criteria and other elements such as the regional geographic distribution. A central pre-selection process begins with the consideration of the pool of candidates and report of the team of consultants by a ministerial meeting composed of two ministers from each region. The ministerial meeting in turn submits the list of candidates for election by the Executive Council and the Assembly. Currently, a ministerial meeting is considering the report of the team of consultants.

To the consternation of many observers, the number and qualifications of the candidates and the manner with which the member states proposed their candidatures indicates the minimal attention governments have placed on the election of the AU Commissioners. Despite repeated calls, by the Legal Counsel since August 2011, member states forward only 34 names of candidates. This includes 2 for the post of Chairperson, 1 for Deputy Chairperson, 8 for Political affairs, 7 for Social affairs, 4 for Peace and Security, 3 candidates each for Infrastructure and Energy, and Trade and Industry; 2 each for the remaining departments (Economic Affairs, and Rural Economy and Agriculture, Human Resources, Science and Technology). Some countries have nominated more than their share. Cameroon with 8 candidates, Botswana and Chad with 3 nominations each, and Zimbabwe with 2 candidates lead the most active group of countries seeking election for their candidates. Ethiopia, Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Benin, Ghana, DRC, Nigeria, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Seychelles, and Mali have each proposed one candidate. Cameroon, with the highest number of candidates, actually was forced to drop more than five of its nominees. Now, the team of consultants has selected 26 candidates out of the 34.

The increase in the number of nominations for the departments of the Political and Social Affairs creates optimism that African governments are taking shared values and social development seriously. For the first ten years of the AU, peace and security has taken pride of place on the AU agenda, far more than the remaining three strategic pillars. In this regard, the AU equated with the Department of Peace and Security. As justifiable as it is, the focus on the Peace and Security pillar should not be at the expense of other pillars such as Shared Values and Integration and Development, and Capacity Building of the Union. As revealed from the recent election-related violence and uprisings, ‘hard’ security is better achieved through ‘soft’ security such as pro-poor development, employment, justice, human rights, fair and free elections, trade and integration. The shift of focus from peace and security to shared values and development, without diminishing the importance of the other pillars, guarantees sustainable peace and security in Africa.

Without a contender, the Deputy Chairperson, Mr Erastus Mwencha, faces practically a vote-of-confidence. In order to stay in his post, he needs the support of two-third the members of the Assembly. If not, another call for nominations will be necessary. Chairperson, Dr Jean Ping, will face Dr Nkosazana Zuma, a long-serving minister from South Africa. Come January, the leadership of President Jacob Zuma and his foreign policy will be indirectly used as the basis for the election and put to the vote by African leaders. For many Africans, President Zuma’s foreign policy and leadership role in the AU was seen at best as surprisingly incoherent and at worst ‘disastrous’. It is to be recalled that many African leaders criticized President Zuma’s foreign policy direction as capricious particularly in relation to the Cote d’Ivoire crisis, the UN Security Council resolutions on Libya, multiplicity of voices of South Africa in Addis Ababa and New York, the response to the famine in the Horn of Africa, his leadership in supporting the AU missions in Somalia and Darfur among others. In addition to this, Dr Jean Ping enjoys the benefits of incumbency, and remains strong as he enjoys the support of most countries from Western, Northern and Eastern regions of Africa.  

Compared to the previous AU Commission elections, the 2012 election is the least competitive. In 2008, there were close to 47 candidates and 73 in 2004. These are symptomatic of the low consideration bestowed on the election. Some member states forwarded only the names of candidates without the necessary documentation, such as curricula vitae and statement of vision/purpose seeking to be elected. Most of the current candidates are consultants or staff members who have worked or are still working in some capacity at the AU Commission. As a result, most of the candidates are self-nominees. As revealed by countries like Cameroon, many member states approve personal requests of their nationals for nomination and forward names without due consideration of relevant rules such as limits on number of candidature. They also fail to take prospects for success into account. Member states and their RECs should have taken the AU Commission elections as an extension of their national and regional foreign policy direction. Symptomatic of the little importance member states place on the AU, the elections are considered inconsequential. In a nutshell, with such a lack of seriousness of purpose and urgency on the side of member states, the elections of the AU Commission will not be sufficiently competitive to bring out the best of African leadership. With substantive involvement of the RECs and a more stringent nomination process at national level, the AU organs may get the right leadership. In this regard, it is important for the African governments to note that an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa cannot be achieved without taking the AU Commission seriously  

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