South Africa’s bid to flex its foreign-policy muscle by capturing the African Union’s top post may be thwarted by nations resentful of its already dominant role on the world’s poorest continent.
South Africa initially failed to back the 54-nation body’s demand last year that Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo cede power to Alassane Ouattara following a disputed election. It also clashed with members Gabon, Nigeria and Ethiopia, which recognized Libya’s National Transitional Council even as President Jacob Zuma was persuading the AU to delay recognition.
“South Africa’s handling of the Libya fallout has hurt it badly on the continent,” Chris Landsberg, a politics professor at the University of Johannesburg, said in a phone interview. It “may be unsuccessful in its bid.”
South Africa generates a third of sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product, is the only African member of the Group of 20 industrialized nations and holds the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council. Its home affairs minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, is seeking to depose incumbent AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping of Gabon at this weekend’s meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
Ping has the support of West Africa and North Africa, said an Ethiopian Foreign Affairs Ministry official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the election, in a telephone interview.
Gabon will back Ping’s re-election, Foreign Ministry spokesman Etienne Nguema said in a phone interview from Libreville, the capital. Kenya will support the incumbent, the Nairobi-based Daily Nation reported on Jan. 22, citing Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister Richard Onyonka.
African countries bought 34 percent of South Africa’s manufactured goods in the third quarter, more than any other region, according to central bank figures. South African International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane says her country is seeking the post to ensure the union plays a more forceful role in world politics and is run more effectively.
The AU has refused to confront the leaders of several member states accused of flouting democracy and human rights violations, including Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. The grouping last year elected as its ceremonial head Equatorial Guinea leader Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in power since 1972 and whom Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, accuses of plundering his nation’s oil riches.
African Union mediation efforts during the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt last year came too late to have any effect, while its attempts to restore calm in Libya were overtaken by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombings that helped topple Qaddafi.
On March 10 last year, as NATO sent ships to the seas off Libya, the AU’s Peace and Security Council said it rejected any foreign military intervention and urged the international community to support its negotiating team of five African presidents, including Zuma.
A week later, South Africa backed UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians. U.S. and coalition forces began military action against Libya on March 19 and Qaddafi’s regime was deposed in August.
President Zuma later said the bombing campaign constituted an abuse of the UN resolution, which was supported by the Security Council’s other two member states: Nigeria and Gabon.
South Africa also differed with French-speaking African countries last year, saying the International Monetary Fund should be headed by an emerging-market candidate while such countries as Ivory Coast supported France’s Christine Lagarde.
A medical doctor, Dlamini-Zuma is the ex-wife of the president, who has rallied support for her candidacy. She served as South Africa’s foreign minister between 1999 and 2009, when she was appointed to her current post, and would be the first woman to head the continental body since it was founded as the Organization of African Unity in 1963.
“She will make a very good executive secretary,” Landsberg said. “She knows the continent inside out. She has tremendous foreign policy experience.”
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki touted Dlamini-Zuma as his successor. Her nomination challenges a tradition that the top AU post go to a smaller state to offset the political and economic dominance of South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, Libya and Egypt, said Siphamandla Zondi, director of the Institute for Global Dialogue in Pretoria.
“Whoever wins will win by a very close margin,” Zondi said in a phone interview. “South Africa could cause resentment and feelings that it is throwing its weight around and looking after its own interests.”
The commission runs the AU’s day-to-day affairs, while a largely ceremonial chairmanship of the union rotates annually among the leaders of its members. Ping, Gabon’s former foreign minister, has led the commission since 2008.
While Dlamini-Zuma may be able to address the AU’s administrative difficulties, she would have little scope to deal with its other shortcomings, said Nomfundo Ngwenya, an analyst at the South African Institute for International Affairs.
“It’s not the commission that determines the AU line, it’s the heads of state,” she said in an interview from Johannesburg. “I don’t think you can necessarily put a South African there and expect them to dictate to the rest of the countries on how to be more efficient or more forceful or more assertive.”
Heads of state from the 15-nation Southern African Development Community, a regional trading bloc that includes South Africa, have declared their support for Dlamini-Zuma, Nkoana-Mashabane said. Still, Malawi, a member of the group, has not taken a position, Information Minister Patricia Kaliati said in a phone interview.
Voting is scheduled to take place on Jan. 29 and the result will be announced on the same day, the AU said on Jan. 24. The winner requires a two-third majority.
“Countries are at liberty to vote and vote according to their convictions,” minister Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters at Bela-Bela in South Africa’s Limpopo province on Jan. 18. “We are very, very confident that we’ve got the requisite support.”