A few hours before heads of state in Addis Ababa cast their votes for the new chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), Moussa Faki Mahamat was still the dark horse in the race.
His main rivals, Amina Mohamed, the Foreign Minister of Kenya, and Abdoulaye Bathily, former United Nations representative from Senegal, were the ones making headlines, being hashtagged on Twitter and distributing attractive pamphlets with their campaign messages.
And Faki apparently almost missed the entire election. A diplomat based in the Ethiopian capital maintains that Faki’s nomination came in just hours before the expiry date for candidatures in October last year. ‘They were going around the AU compound trying to find someone to receive his nomination,’ the ambassador told ISS Today the day before the vote.
To the surprise of more than one observer, Faki – Chad’s Minister of Foreign Affairs – emerged victorious on 30 January after a tight race against Mohamed. The Kenyan minister got 25 votes against Faki’s 28 in the run-off vote. In the seventh and final round, Faki managed to get 39 votes: more than the two-thirds he needed to win.
How did he do it? Clearly, while others were running high-profile media campaigns, Faki and his president, Idriss Déby, were lobbying heads of state behind the scenes. Faki was presented as a consensus candidate who was not as ‘unpredictable’ as either Mohamed or Bathily on key issues facing the AU. In the end, heads of state were the ones who did the voting, in secret – not their ministers, or press attachés, or their ambassadors.
Faki’s election should also be viewed within the context of his president’s rising status. In recent years, Déby has positioned himself as the leader of a military power eager to help countries plagued by war and terrorism.
‘Déby has clearly made combating terrorism in the region a key pillar of his foreign policy,’ says Omar Mahmood, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies’ Addis Ababa office.
Chad, which remains a very poor country despite its oil resources, has a long history of involvement in conflicts like those against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in the 1980s, and meddling in the various coup d’états and political infighting in the Central African Republic.
But it was after Islamic militants occupied northern Mali that Chad put itself on the map as the gendarme of the Sahel – sending more than 2 000 soldiers to the front in early 2013 to help the French Operation Serval against the al-Qaeda-linked terror groups. Altogether 36 Chadian soldiers died in that effort.
In January 2015, while AU leaders desperately tried to get together a regional force of the Lake Chad Basin Commission to fight the terror group, Boko Haram, Chadian soldiers marched over the border to Cameroon to help the fight. The Chadian boots on the ground were paraded in front of the cameras – a move that boosted Déby’s appeal internationally.
Increasingly, Boko Haram was also targeting Chadians, especially those in the Lake Chad area that borders Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon. Déby was therefore looking after Chad’s own security interests as well.
Mahmood says Chad has pledged 3 000 soldiers to the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram, which also includes Nigeria, Benin, Niger and Cameroon.
‘It was when things got really bad that Cameroon and Niger turned to Chad,’ Mahmood said, referring to a reliance on the nation’s military prowess to combat the militants through joint operations – such as after Boko Haram seized a major base in Bosso, Niger last June.
N’Djamena is the headquarters of the MNJTF, as well as of the French anti-terrorism operation in the Sahel, Operation Barkhane. Recently, Déby and his peers from Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso – the so-called G5-Sahel – announced that it would launch a rapid reaction force to fight terrorism in the region.
Chad is also one of the nations volunteering to participate in the floundering African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises, spearheaded by South African President Jacob Zuma. This grouping permitted Déby to forge links beyond his region, Central Africa and his natural base as part of the former French colonies in Africa.
At home, no one doubts Faki’s close ties with Déby.
Faki (56), is from the same Zaghawa ethnic group as Déby – and is known to be ‘une fidele parmi les fideles’ – the most faithful amongst the faithful. He did, after all, preside over the scrapping of term limits in Chad’s constitution in order for Déby to stay in power for 26 years; and to be re-elected for a fifth mandate in 2016. This happened when Faki was prime minister, from 2003 to 2005.
Yet Faki is not a military man like his president. While Déby underwent military training in France and came to power through a coup d’état in 1990, Faki was attending university in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, studying and teaching law. After that he occupied various administrative positions in Chad, was an advisor in Déby’s presidential team and became a minister for the first time in 2002.
After being sacked as prime minister (due to a ‘misunderstanding’, Chadians say), and before being appointed as minister of foreign affairs in 2008, he spent time in the United States studying English.
Faki’s CV, distributed at the AU headquarters, states that he speaks English, French and Arabic – definitely a plus for an AU chairperson. His predecessor, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, was strongly criticised for not even attempting to speak French to the many Francophone AUC staff members.
‘He’s a very good diplomat. He listens, he’s smart and writes good speeches,’ said a diplomat who was based in N’Djamena. ‘He changed a lot over the years and has got to know Africa well. Heads of states also got to know him.’
This was particularly true over the course of 2016, when Déby was the rotating chairperson of the AU and Faki chaired the Executive Council of Ministers in this capacity. The previous year he chaired the United Nations Security Council for a month while Chad was serving as non-permanent member.
It is clear that Faki knows about chairing meetings. But can he drive the AU forward?
In the short term, he is likely to focus on peace and security issues on the continent; notably the fight against terrorism, the crisis in Libya and the ongoing war in South Sudan. He knows these issues well and those victims of war are likely to be grateful for greater AU involvement.
In the last few years, Dlamini Zuma has tried to steer the ship in the direction of long-term socio-economic development through her Agenda 2063, but Faki will likely bring the organisation back on course to focus on the AU’s core mission.
The big question, going forward, is whether he would be able to separate himself from his home country and his patron when it comes to ensuring free and fair elections and democracy on the continent.
In his campaign pledges, Faki commits himself to ‘democratic governance’ and the fight against corruption. Then again, more or less all of the candidates pledged the same. At this stage, there is no indication that he would take on those leaders who voted for him when they trample on the democratic rights of citizens or rig elections.
Pro-democracy groups in Chad, who fought a losing battle against the muzzling of independent media and the crackdown against the opposition during the 2016 presidential elections, criticised Faki’s candidature as a ‘diversion’ strategy by Déby.
They believe the president is consolidating power at home by making sure he has support from Western nations. In all likelihood, it will take time before Faki shows full independence from his powerful president, if any at all.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant
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