During the 34th Summit of the African Union (AU) on 6 February 2021, member states elected the new leadership of the AU Commission (AUC) for the next four years. These include the chairperson, deputy chairperson and four commissioners of the AUC. The election of two positions was postponed because the candidates did not fulfil the gender and regional representation requirements.
The new AU Commission is expected to ensure greater efficiency, deliver on the institutional reform process and implement key AU flagship projects, such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the extended mandate to ‘silence the guns’.
Member states showed more interest in nominating candidates for high-level AUC positions during the latest elections.
The only uncontested position was that of chairperson, which was won with 51 votes by incumbent Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat of Chad. According to insiders in Addis Ababa, he ran a good election campaign and has healthy relations with most African heads of state.
He is the first chairperson to be re-elected and the first to be elected almost unanimously. This has, to an extent, been attributed to the need for continuity in the AUC reforms. Central African countries also did not nominate candidates for any other position, in support of his sole candidature.
Faki’s almost certain win meant that a woman would be elected as the deputy chairperson. As such, the three candidates from Djibouti, Rwanda and Uganda who were up for election by the Executive Council were all women. The male candidate from Somalia was automatically disqualified when Faki was elected.
Four East African candidates’ competing for the deputy position indicates a lack of communication, regional strategy and consensus among these countries. This may be attributed to the absence of an active regional community to which all the countries belong. Open contestation was evident between Rwanda and Uganda for the deputy chairperson position. Uganda’s attempt to have the elections postponed a few days before the summit failed.
Once Dr Monique Nsanzabaganwa of Rwanda was elected to the position of deputy chairperson with 42 votes, all other East African candidates for commissioner positions were automatically disqualified.
Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states were similarly divided on which candidates to support. This is unusual for SADC, which is known for its ability to reach consensus, albeit through intense negotiations and compromise on various issues.
In total, the SADC region nominated six candidates for two positions, which were won by the two incumbents from Angola and Zambia. The four other candidates from Southern Africa were automatically out of the race, including the South African candidate competing against Nigeria for the position of commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security (PAPS).
West African states appeared more organised during the election process. They managed to reach consensus on which candidates to support at an extraordinary high-level summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on 2 February, just before the AUC elections.
The summit decided to ‘prioritise support for the candidature of Nigeria to the post of Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security’. It also decided to support a female candidate from Burkina Faso for the second commissioner position allocated to West Africa, which is still to be decided upon at a future meeting by the executive council.
As per the ECOWAS summit decisions, member states withdrew all candidates, and most notably that of the incumbent commissioner for Political Affairs from Burkina Faso, and all other female candidates.
Nigeria’s – and the region’s – drive to secure the PAPS position points to dissatisfaction with how peace and security has been managed within the AU. Increasingly, ECOWAS and the AU fail to see eye to eye on a number of peace and security issues affecting the region. Some of these include a proposal to deploy 3 000 troops to fight the terrorist threat in the Sahel region, as well as the AU’s response to the August 2020 coup d’état in Mali.
Focus on skills and competencies
For the first time in the history of the AU, the competence of candidates has been evaluated in a transparent manner. Previously, the political support candidates had mobilised took precedence.
The new selection process has also improved gender parity at the level of the senior leadership of the AUC, notably between the chairperson and the deputy chairperson. For the first time, a woman holds the position of deputy chairperson.
In the final shortlist of qualified candidates, women ranked among the top three candidates for all positions, except one. Therefore, the competence-based selection process has given the lie to the widely held notion that women have been taking leadership positions at the AU only to ensure gender parity, rather than on the basis of their qualifications.
Going forward, the new rules will increasingly force member states to nominate qualified women for leadership positions at the AUC.
The new process also highlighted the importance of quota systems in ensuring women are represented in decision-making positions. Therefore, the quota system should be applied at all levels across the AUC.
Establishing a harmonious working environment
There are high expectations for the newly elected commission.
The previous commission had been mired in rivalry amid clashing priorities. The expectation for the new commission is therefore first and foremost to reset a harmonious working relationship, and encourage unity among its members.
There are tremendous expectations for Faki to lead a bolder continental organisation, able to tackle some of the more prominent peace and security challenges in Africa.
The deputy chairperson, a Rwandese, is also facing colossal expectations to implement the AU reforms in the footsteps of President Paul Kagame, champion of the institutional reform process. At the same time, she is expected to maintain independence, which will be a tricky balancing act. Her role is expected to be clearly demarcated from that of the AUC chair, to look inwards and reform the financial and administrative systems.
High expectations for the PAPS commissioner
Newly elected Commissioner of Political Affairs, Peace and Security Bankole Adeoye, who got all 55 AU member states’ votes, served Nigeria for three years as its permanent representative to the AU and is well aware of the challenges facing him as commissioner.
In particular, member states expect him to take full control of peace and security priorities and activities at the AUC. He is also expected to mend the department’s fractured relations with the Peace and Security Council (PSC), improve communications and collaboration with the AUC chairperson, depoliticise the early warning data reaching member states and particularly the PSC, and improve relations with AU liaison offices across Africa.
Adeoye is furthermore expected to ensure more transparency in partner engagement – and in the financial support they provide to activities undertaken by the department. In addition, it is hoped that he will significantly improve the quality and timeliness of reports that reach member states, as well as the documentation and overall support provided by the department to member states.
This is on top of expectations for him to operationalise the merger of two departments: Political Affairs and Peace and Security. The two directors meant to lead these newly merged departments are yet to be appointed. A plethora of other activities must also be be undertaken, including developing a combined vision for the department, and a strategy for harmonising African Governance Architecture (AGA) and the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA).
The commissioner must also take the lead in ‘silencing the guns’, one of the AU’s flagship initiatives.
It is hoped that there will be significant improvements in the efficiency of doing business, collaboration among departments, and unity of purpose within the AUC. However, the election of the new top leadership does not change the fact that member states dictate the issues to be addressed by the continental body. Therefore, the election will not significantly change how and to which crisis situations the AU responds.