"The other inaccurate analogy is with the UN, where the secretary-general is always selected from middling powers. The question when it comes to the AU is whether the continental powerhouse, which South Africa is, should additionally be crowned with the power of setting the agenda at the AU secretariat, which is what the AU Commission chief does."
Will Dlamini-Zuma sting Ping in battle for AU seat?
Kampala: The African Union is allergic to deadlock, even competition, when it comes to filling positions. It thrives on consensus. The January showdown over the AU Commission chairmanship between incumbent Jean Ping of Gabon and Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa was very much out of the script.
The fact that the face-off went all the way to multiple voting without a clear-cut winner provided the sort of drama rarely ever seen at AU summit meetings. As per AU rules, the contest resumes at the next full annual summit in Malawi in June.
From the beginning, analysts took the easy angle of a David-versus-Goliath confrontation, of mighty South Africa facing off with puny Gabon. By sheer size and power, the comparison is apt. But in other ways, it is imperfect.
For starters, oil-rich Gabon rates a higher per capita income than South Africa. And when it comes to pushing the envelope on behalf of countryman Ping, Gabon can more nimbly spread largesse among voting delegates at the AU than the lumbering giant down south which tends to be weighed down by its own laws.
The other inaccurate analogy is with the UN, where the secretary-general is always selected from middling powers. The question when it comes to the AU is whether the continental powerhouse, which South Africa is, should additionally be crowned with the power of setting the agenda at the AU secretariat, which is what the AU Commission chief does. The United States dominates the UN without ever having to post an American as secretary-general. It does so through its permanent seat on the Security Council and the veto it wields there (a privilege also enjoyed, but with lesser force, by Russia, China, Britain and France).
The AU power structure is completely different. For one, there is no provision for veto-wielding states. And even though South Africa (together with Nigeria, Egypt and Libya) have been the AU’s biggest financial contributors, that does not mean they can override the majority. The AU goes strictly by one country, one vote – whether the country is big or small.
That is why Muammar Gaddafi, with all his money, failed to railroad the bloc into effecting his dream of a United States of Africa. Both candidates – Dlamini-Zuma and Ping – have impressive resumes. Both have been Foreign ministers of their respective countries. Both have intimate family ties with the current presidents of those countries. In Dlamini-Zuma’s case, she is the ex-wife of President Jacob Zuma. As for Ping, he used to have a romantic relationship with the late President Omar Bongo’s daughter, Pascaline, despite being married to another woman who he had no intention of divorcing.
AU contests have traditionally been Anglophone-versus-Francophone affairs.
Ahead of the January vote, Ping had the solid backing of the Francophone zone concentrated in West and Central Africa. Ecowas had also formally endorsed him. Dlamini-Zuma came armed with the endorsement of SADC, an endorsement which was renewed in February. But knowing quite well that as a bloc SADC alone does not have enough votes in the 53-member AU, the South African is waging her campaign across language and regional zones. One selling point her country is using is that the AU Commission has been headed since its inception in 2002 entirely by West Africans. Before Ping, the organisation was run first by the Ivorian Amara Essy, followed by the Malian Alpha Oumar Konare.
No candidate from the SADC region has ever been at the helm of either the AU or its predecessor, the OAU. South Africa’s bigger selling point is that the perennially lethargic AU needs the voice of a globally influential country in an increasingly globalised world. And the only African country which qualifies is South Africa, principally because of its membership in the constellation of emerging economies called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Yet the BRICS card is cutting both ways.
Nigeria, which previously enjoyed unchallenged sub-Saharan dominance, is seemingly uneasy to cede ground to South Africa, and the recent spat between the two countries over travel visas may work in Ping’s favour. So could Zimbabwe’s current icy relations with President Zuma, which have opened a chink in the otherwise united front SADC has displayed on behalf of Dlamini-Zuma. Kenya, too, which is enjoying new-found clout as a regional focal point for eastern Africa, was widely reported to be uncomfortable with South Africa taking control of the AU.
Actually, the storyline of Ping the candidate being a hopeless underdog is not backed by facts. As an incumbent who has been in office since 2008, he has cultivated close and extensive contacts across member states. Ping has been busy calling in those chits. As for the actual vote in January, he out-performed Dlamini-Zuma (narrowly) at every stage of the voting – 28 votes against Dlamini-Zuma’s 25 in the first round, 27 against 26 in the second, and 29 against 24 in the third round. Still, he could not secure victory because AU rules require a winner to command a two-thirds majority vote at the minimum.
In a way, the fact that Ping was running as an incumbent and was unable to fend off Dlamini-Zuma can be counted as a defeat. For Dlamini-Zuma, the outcome was something of a plus considering her campaign had started late.
The AU is not unique among international bodies where networking and diplomatic channels matter more than straight qualifications in securing a candidate the top job. Nevertheless, the record Ping is defending is not bad at all. Despite some fumbling over the crises that hit Cote d’Ivoire and Libya, the AU under his watch has come out with top marks in its pacification efforts in Somalia, where the AU force – Amisom – has ridden the capital Mogadishu of al Shabaab terrorists.
Ping with Chinese ancestry
Even his ancestry (he is half-Chinese) has rubbed off well for the AU. It could not have but helped in negotiating deals with China, the most visible one being the AU’s spectacular new headquarters in Addis Ababa built by the Chinese at a cost of $200 million.
Dlamini-Zuma is an equally formidable foe quite apart from the fact of the weight her country carries. She sits in the inner sanctum of the ruling ANC party as a member of the national executive committee and is without doubt the most powerful woman in South African politics today. When she and Ping face off again in Malawi in June, it is unlikely either of them will score the two-thirds vote threshold necessary for an outright win.
What is more likely to happen is that the way will be opened for a compromise candidate who all AU members can be happy with. Nobody is quite sure what underhand influence outside powers are bringing to bear on the choice of who will be the AU Commission chief. But without doubt, France has historically been very keen on who runs the AU (and the OAU before it), and it is widely agreed that she is with the Francophone bloc in standing behind Ping. The US has tended to be a more benign hegemony when it comes to AU affairs, though it is being speculated she could take a more active interest if she feels China is pulling strings.
China, above all, is the wild card in this contest. As is her custom, she has kept a discreet silence. But that is not to say she does not command muscle on the continent, given the enormous contributions she is making in developing infrastructure across African countries.
In the end, it could be South Africa with the most to lose if things don’t go her way. Her claim to continental leadership, and primacy, will get a bad jolt if her campaign for the AU job flops. There are those who believe that with the complex challenges Africa faces in today’s world, the AU needs a star leader from a heavyweight member of the bloc. With Nigeria distracted by her own internal problems of terrorism, probably the last thing Africa needs is a South Africa which loses interest in continental matters because her bid for the AU Commission job was rebuffed.