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Choppy waters ahead as states vie for African Union chairship

North Africa may be frontrunner, but election of a new AU leader is far from a done deal.

The 37th ordinary session of the African Union (AU) Assembly, scheduled for 17 to 18 February 2024, will bring together Africa’s heads of state and government. A key outcome of the summit will be the election of the AU chair for 2024/25. The current chair, Comoros, is expected to hand over the reins to a new member state capable of leading the organisation amid complex and shifting global headwinds.

Based on the AU Constitutive Act and principles of equal representation, the chairship rotates annually across Africa’s five regions. Given that Comoros (east), Senegal (west), Democratic Republic of Congo (central) and South Africa (south) have chaired the last four times, a North African state is poised to take over in 2024.

Rising interest and competition should enhance the quality and merit of the chair. However, delays and contestations have often had the opposite effect. Internal regional struggles have complicated and prolonged the election, adversely affecting the incoming chair. A lack of regional solidarity and support at times has also hampered the chair’s ability to lead on thematic and country issues. Ahead of the 2024 summit, it is essential to understand these challenges and outline their implications.

Lack of regional consensus

Comoros’ AU chairship followed a contested process. It was the first appointment of an island state and robust discussions and debates occurred around Moroni’s capacity. Before, during and after the 36th ordinary session, several doubts were raised about its capacity to address the peace, security and governance challenges plaguing the continent. The question of whether size matters lingered over Comoros’ chairship.

Rising appreciation of AU member states for the chair’s role has increased competition

Concerns about capacity and impact pointed to diverging positions and views within the AU Assembly, particularly the East African region. Before the 36th summit, a tug-of-war unfolded between Kenya and Comoros in a region that comprises 14 member states. As a result of the proliferated regional economic communities and mechanisms, there is no overarching framework to guide criteria and rotation of the chairship.

The contest culminated in success for Comoros. However, there was much debate about whether chairing should be purely procedural, with each state granted an opportunity, or whether the ‘big states’ with resources, drive and capacity should be frontrunners.

This contention is likely to be repeated before and during the 2024 summit as persistent rivalries also plague North Africa. The region will have to decide which of its seven members is best suited for the role. However, protracted feuds and conflicts over the status of Western Sahara will pit Algeria and Morocco against each other, with states lobbying for a leader that advances their interests.

North Africa’s previous rotation was in 2019, when Egypt took the helm. Morocco had been readmitted in 2017 and trod lightly to establish its presence and engagement with member states and the AU Commission. With six years of AU membership and having served a second consecutive term on the Peace and Security Council (PSC), Morocco is making a solid bid to head the AU for the first time. Algeria is doing likewise, also in a bid for a first win.

Should chairing be purely procedural or should big, better-capacitated states be frontrunners?

With Algeria and Morocco displaying similar resources, strength and capacity, regional consensus will be a major determinant in the outcome. If states are unable to agree on either country, a compromise must be found from one of the member states (Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Tunisia or Western Sahara). If this is not achieved, the position will have to rotate to another region, probably southern Africa. States from both north and southern Africa should be prepared to step in.

Reasons for regional struggles

Competition in East Africa and North Africa over AU leadership is not limited to national and regional interests, but extends to the advantages of the role. As outlined in AU Constitutive Act Article 6(4), the seat allows the elected state to preside over the continent's trajectory. This comes with unusual prestige and visibility irrespective of the country’s size and capacity.

Member states view the tenure as increasingly strategic. The advantage may differ from one country to another, depending on the member state concerned. For big states, the position is often seen as an opportunity to further project power, as was the case for Egypt (2019/20) and South Africa (2020/21). For small states, it brings diplomatic clout, albeit for only 12 months. They seize the opportunity to voice concerns that are often neglected.

Comoros’ tenure, for example, was an opportunity to table island states’ concerns, such as rising sea level and the blue economy. The country hosted a ministerial meeting themed ‘Blue economy and climate action in Africa: islands and coastal states at the forefront’, which accelerated momentum on the issue. The yearly term has also afforded small states such as Congo (2006/07), Benin (2012/13) and Comoros (2023/24) worldwide recognition and diplomatic weight.

State rivalries stymie AU efforts to become more robust and integrated

States’ eagerness to take over the seat has exacerbated regional fractures and divides, observably in East Africa and North Africa. Barriers to consensus include absence of a robust regional organisation in North Africa, lack of a hegemon such as Nigeria in West Africa and South Africa in southern Africa and profound antagonisms. For example, the longstanding feud between Morocco and Algeria is evident in the Western Sahara conflict.

Implications for the AU

As mentioned, the rotating chairship was instituted to foster member-state participation in driving African agency internally and multilaterally. It was also meant to reinforce the spirit of African brotherhood that guided the creation of the Organisation of African Unity and the AU. Yet, regional struggles have left the AU bureau limping since 2022.

Struggles between Kenya and Comoros deprived Senegal of a vice-chair and a similar scenario is likely to unfold with Algeria and Morocco. Policymakers interviewed by PSC Report affirmed the countries’ persisting diplomatic tensions over Western Sahara and the ambition of each to position itself as North Africa’s hegemon amid fierce competition for the chairship. Although sources claimed that the absence of a vice-chair had not affected Senegal, the country’s workload would have been more bearable with a fully constituted bureau.

Given that chairship is a learning process for states, especially those needing capacitation and support, the absence of a vice-chair such as Morocco or Algeria was a missed opportunity for Comoros during its chairship. Similarly, not having a deputy impeded the sustainable institutionalisation of the troika arrangement. This requires the presence of the precedent, outgoing and incoming chairs to preserve institutional memory and ensure continuity in managing continental affairs.

If Morocco and Algeria do not reach consensus during the 2024 summit, the AU Assembly will be hard-pressed to choose between two options. The first is passing the baton to other countries in the region, namely Egypt or Mauritania. The second would be for North African states to agree to hand over their turn to southern African to elect a chair.

The latter would be unprecedented since rotation began in 2003. Both scenarios demonstrate how state rivalries threaten continental integration and jeopardise the AU’s emergence as a more robust body. Given the risks for cohesion among states and dire implications for the AU, the organisation should referee contestations. Adopting a framework regulating the accession to AU chairship and guiding regional decision-making on candidates would be a big win in sustaining the statutory tenure.

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