Should ‘small’ states chair the AU?

Comoros’s election to chair the AU was among the key outcomes of the 36th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and Government. Succeeding Senegal, the appointment is historic as no island state has ever chaired the continental body.

While the country appears poised to lead, low expectations about the capacity of ‘small states’ to make a meaningful impact are creating apprehensions in some policy circles. Many wonder whether the AU will experience robust achievements with Comoros at its helm. The question often asked is whether size matters.

Defining small

Even though sovereign equality underpins the international system and all forms of multilateral engagement, the belief is established globally that some states are small. The criteria for determining smallness derive from various quantitative and qualitative elements and vulnerabilities. Quantitively, geography, demography and economics are bases for classification, while qualitative factors include equality and soft power.

Small states grapple with common development concerns, including minute domestic markets, volatile economic growth, massive internal and external financial pressures resulting in debt burdens, and limited populations. Consequently, despite their internal strengths, they are susceptible to external shocks and influence.

Criteria for determining ‘small’ range from geography and economics to equality and soft power

These variables imply that small states are those whose geographic, economic or demographic conditions contribute to a perceived weakness and exposure to threats in an international setting. Therefore, were African countries assessed strictly on these criteria, separately or cumulatively, most could be considered small, given that all would fall short in one aspect or other.

Yet, in Africa, defining a country as small or big seems more about the ability or inability to project capacity through soft, smart or hard power than about population and economic size. Countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa are perceived as big powerhouses based on their soft power, towering economies and populations and ability to portray themselves as influential continentally.

Others, including Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Tanzania and Rwanda, have earned their influence not through economic power or population size but primarily by using soft-power diplomacy to champion particular causes. Overall, countries with lower capacity to do so are labelled small. All these elements feed the AU’s small-state debate.

Competing arguments  

Those in policy circles who support small states chairing the AU argue that the criteria determining a state’s ability to lead and deliver regionally and continentally supersede size. The ability to mobilise collective action is a better determinant of capacity. Hence, a country’s size cannot be a standalone criterion for choosing a chair. Some see Comoros’s chairship as an opportunity to bring more attention to island states' vulnerabilities and enhance climate security, which Comoros aims to champion.

Its appointment, thus, brings attention to countries with similar challenges needing a response. Small island developing states in the global south have sought to reframe themselves as ‘large ocean states’ using soft power to show leadership in multilateral engagements. Comoros could take the examples of Seychelles and Mauritius, which have combined economic exclusive maritime zones equalling an area larger than India to sell the potential of the blue economy in Africa.

The main argument against small states’ chairship is their ability to deliver on continental issue

However, the main argument against small states’ chairship is their ability to deliver on continental issues. Comoros’s domestic challenges and limited resources might constrain its capacity to build the infrastructure to deliver continentally and drive Africa’s global agenda. Indeed, the strength with which South Africa championed Africa’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic tells how a strong state can lead the continental response.

Does size matter?

The Maltese initiative on the law of the sea at the United Nations (UN) is a prominent illustration of small states’ ability to influence international affairs. In 1967, Malta used the seabed initiative to put itself boldly on the world map. It built a robust foreign policy on sea issues, rallying financial, human and material resources to prepare and defend the initiative despite being considered a small state in global multilateral circles.

Its efforts culminated in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the universal legal regime for ocean governance. Recently, small island developing states led the call for the threat of rising sea levels to appear on the UN Security Council (UNSC) agenda. Taking over the UNSC rotating presidency in February 2023, Malta presented climate change as a threat to global peace and security for debate in its first letter to the UN Secretary-General.

Rwanda recently demonstrated its capacity to champion ongoing AU reform and spur continental resolve. It did so through its solid diplomatic structure and projection of soft power on crucial matters such as climate security and doing business in Africa. This reveals the imperative of the quality of a country’s diplomacy in its ability to project and sustain itself as capable. Yet, the AU chairship is a ceremonial role rotated among the continent’s east, south, north, west and central regions.

On one hand, regional consensus is crucial in the chair’s election. On the other, driving the continental body is more about influence. Therefore, a small state in Africa often refers to one not influential enough or unable to better sell the continent’s image. Equatorial Guinea’s chairship was criticised by many observers for not only its size but also its non-compliance with international human rights policies. Sudan was denied AU chairship in 2007 due to the Darfur crisis and its humanitarian fallout.  

But capacity depends on preparation, support from counterparts and the ability to establish a solid diplomatic structure. In addition, articles 3(a) and 4(a) of the AU Constitutive Act place sovereign equality as a central principle. AU founders, thus, sought to make quantitative criteria such as geography, population and economy subservient to state equality in the organisation’s workings as a harmonised, solid entity effectively meeting continental goals.

Size becomes relevant when considering that a chair shoulders enormous costs and responsibilities

The AU must build a support infrastructure and create a conducive environment for all helm holders, regardless of size, to guarantee success, as all member states are entitled to lead the organisation. However, given the need for more capacity building to support and amplify the role of chairs, the question of size becomes relevant as a chair shoulders enormous costs and responsibilities.

Success for all chairs

The AU is expected to build a robust internal democratic system that allows free and fair involvement of all member states in managing the institution. Articles 2(1), 2(2) and 3(1) of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance promote member states’ adherence to democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights and democratic principles respectively. 

By adopting the charter, the AU embraced equality of opportunity, inclusion and free participation. These are commendable goals for African countries, but charity begins at home, within the AU itself.

Chairing the AU is a learning process. Some countries are less experienced than others, so capacitation should be implemented to facilitate experience-sharing, especially between outgoing and incoming chairs. This could benefit new and future bureaux and help build a robust AU system that efficiently drives the continent, regardless of which member is in charge.

Nurturing interdependence would strengthen the AU and ease participation, in line with AU Constitutive Act article 4(c), irrespective of the size or capacities of its chairs. The AU should leverage this to provide equal support to all chairs. Member states could be bound to work together to achieve common goals and safeguard the AU as a common good.

To this end, the institution's principles and values should referee relations among member states. Firm support and actions toward the 2023 AU Assembly bureau would demonstrate states' commitment to the rule of law and their acceptance to jointly fulfil the demanding task of steering the AU. This will help the bureau manage the workload and bring unity and solidarity. Indeed, the AU belongs to the member states responsible for driving it. 

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