The tricky business of electing an AU Commission chairperson

The Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union (AU) is set to elect a new AU Commission (AUC) under its revamped structure at its 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.

Faki Mahamat took over from Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma following a hotly contested election. Voting was postponed from July 2016 to January 2017 after none of the candidates managed to get a two-thirds majority. Faki Mahamat only joined the race in the second round and ultimately established himself as a consensual candidate for African heads of state and government. 

A number of things worked in his favour, including the fact that the AU was then chaired by Chadian President Idriss Déby, and that Faki Mahamat also presided over the Executive Council of the AU in his position as foreign minister. Chad’s troop contributions to various peacekeeping operations and other military engagements was also of benefit.

Heads of state have to choose an AUC chairperson for the next four years, starting in January 2021. Although Faki Mahamat is set to run unopposed, it is necessary to look at the considerations in picking a new chair for the commission.

This is of particular importance in the context of the  many challenges facing Africa and the need for a chairperson with the acumen to lead the AUC in its bid to reach its goals.

What role for an AUC chairperson?

Technically, the chairperson of the AUC  is charged with the Commission’s administration and finances; promoting and popularising the AU's objectives and enhancing its performance; consulting and coordinating with key stakeholders like member states, development partners, RECs, etc; appointing and managing Commission staff; [and] acting as a depository for all AU and OAU treaties and legal instruments.

The Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) also allows him/her to use his/her good offices in the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts on the continent.

The AUC chair needs to be both technically sound in the management of the commission and a seasoned diplomat to deal with the various stakeholders in the diplomatic space

These duties imply that the AUC chair needs to be both technically sound in the management of the commission and a seasoned diplomat to deal with the various stakeholders in the diplomatic space. 

Navigating a tricky continental agenda

The past three chairs of the AUC were former ministers of foreign affairs and have, therefore, been people with a wealth of knowledge on continental challenges and associated priorities and commitments.

Their ministerial positions have also allowed them to build and sustain relationships across the continent and beyond. Given the central role of the chairperson, the importance of this mix of skills and experience cannot be overstated.

Continental priorities for the next AUC chairperson and the AUC as a whole include the implementation of the AU institutional reforms

Continental priorities for the next AUC chairperson and the AUC as a whole include the implementation of the AU institutional reforms. These reforms were approved by the AU heads of state and government and have been partially implemented, particularly in terms of issues of financial self-sufficiency and streamlining the various departments of the AUC.

It remains to be seen, however, how this will translate into a more efficient AU that serves the needs of the continent.

Another priority for the next commission and its chairperson will be the effective implementation of the agreement on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which was adopted in March 2018 and entered into force in May 2019.

Owing to challenges associated with COVID-19, trading under the AfCFTA has been postponed to 1 January 2021 (from 1 July 2020). The newly established AfCFTA Secretariat, headquartered in Accra, is entrusted with ensuring that the trading zone takes off and runs smoothly.

The full implementation of the AU institutional reforms will be the real test for the incoming senior leadership of the AUC, especially when it comes to the new structure of the AUC.

Continuity of work at the AU

Given that the head of state who is chosen to chair the AU has only a one-year term, the AUC chairperson plays an important role in ensuring the continuity of work at the AU.

The current AUC chairperson, for instance, took over the commission under the chair of President Alpha Condé in 2017 and has since worked under presidents Paul Kagame, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Cyril Ramaphosa.

Silencing the guns remains a priority

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, as well as the Lake Chad Basin, have fluctuated between complete deterioration and substantial improvement. Yet no lasting resolution has been found, even if the latest developments in Libya, Sudan and South Sudan allow a glimmer of hope.

In addition, political tensions are 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 commissioner for political affairs, peace and security play a pivotal role in continental peace and security, through, for instance, 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 in which the PSC has struggled thus far.

In essence, this all fits into the ‘Silencing the Guns by 2020’ agenda which, according to a recent study, has had only ‘marginal achievements’ owing to ‘institutional, conceptual, political and operational issues’ that severely complicate its implementation.

Indeed, the magnitude of peace and security issues on the continent makes it difficult for the AUC and its chairperson to solve them alone. But the AUC’s involvement could undoubtedly help make a difference in resolving them.

Managing the AUC

The primary responsibility of the AUC chairperson is to ensure the efficient and smooth running of the commission in discharging its mandate. The next AUC chairperson will have to ensure that the new structure succeeds.

Other crucial duties are addressing dysfunctionalities at the commission, as well as allegations of corruption and mismanagement, including cronyism, nepotism, and sexual and other forms of harassment.

Similarly, the AU (and other regional bodies) is still seen as an organisation of heads of state, far removed from the African people. This is owing to the AU’s principled positions, which often overlook people’s grievances while appearing to side with incumbents.

Bringing the AU closer to Africans will require bridging the gap between national governments and their citizens through more democratic, transparent and inclusive governance. 

Africa’s voice in the world

For the past few years there appears to be a new impetus in making Africa’s voice heard in the world. This is evidenced by a number of events, such as the AU–European Union (EU) summit in November 2017, and the rekindling of AU–United Nations (UN) relations with the signing in April 2017 of the Joint UN–AU Framework for Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security. This has been followed by regular meetings/consultations between the AU and the EU, as well as between the AU and the UN.

The AU’s failure to agree on a single platform for negotiations with the EU is a stark reminder of the challenges still to be overcome

However, the AU’s failure to agree on a single platform for negotiations with the EU – including the AU–EU agreement and the post-Cotonou agreement – is a stark reminder of the challenges still to be overcome. This is equally the case for divergences on African candidacies for positions in global organisations where consensus around a single African candidate has at times been difficult to find.

For Africa to be heard, it will have to overcome these divergences. The next AUC and its chairperson are expected to be at the forefront of this endeavour. The chairperson’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.

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