A fight for the African Union’s top position has split its members and undermined its ability to deal with crises in nations such as Mali, Sudan and Somalia, said former Nigerian and U.S. envoys to the region.
AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping will face South African Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in a vote by Africa’s 54 states at a summit that begins July 15 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. While Ping, 69, led the last election in January, he failed to win the required two-thirds majority, prompting the African Union to extend his term until this month.
“This impasse, unless it’s resolved, is really going to continue to make the African secretariat a lame-duck organization,” Olusegun Akinsanya, a former Nigerian ambassador to the African Union, said in a July 10 interview in Addis Ababa.
Among the crises that emerged since the January vote are military coups in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, renewed conflict between Sudan and South Sudan, and the spread of attacks by militant Islamist groups in northern Nigeria and the Sahel region.
“If this paralysis goes on for a long period of time it could have major consequences,” Andrew Natsios, the former U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, said in a phone interview. “The reputation of the continent is on the line.”
Dlamini-Zuma, 63, is backed by South Africa, which has the continent’s biggest economy, while Ping, from Gabon, enjoys the support of Nigeria, Africa’s top oil producer and most populous nation.
Since the leadership dispute emerged, the African Union has taken a back seat to regional groups mediating political transitions in Somalia and Mali, said Mehari Taddele Maru, who formerly worked as a legal expert for the African Union Commission.
In Somalia, while African Union troops are helping government forces battle al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab militants, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development of seven East African nations is spearheading peace efforts. In Mali, the Economic Commission of West African States has the lead role, Mehari said.
“Ping’s visits to Somalia were much more frequent before the January summit,” Mehari, the head of the African Conflict Prevention Programme at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said in an interview in Addis Ababa. “We would have hoped for the AU to play more of a role.”
African Union-mediated talks between Sudan and South Sudan haven’t resolved disputes over sharing oil revenue, borders and citizenship rights after the two nations’ separation last year that took them to the brink of war in April.
South Sudan shut down its 350,000 barrels a day of oil production after it accused President Umar al-Bashir’s government in Sudan of stealing $815 million worth of crude. Sudan said it was confiscated to pay unpaid transportation fees.
In Mali, rebel groups seized the remote north following the ouster of Malian President Amadou Toure in a March 22 coup.
Islamist rebels of the Ansar ud-Din group have been destroying historic mausoleums in Timbuktu that they regard as “idolatrous” and also seized the cities of Gao and Kidal after clashes with Touareg insurgents who declared independence in the area in April.
At the African Union, “there’s lots of room for improvement, just how it works, how it implements decisions,” Dlamini-Zuma, the former wife of South African President Jacob Zuma, said in a July 6 interview in Pretoria. “It’s a concern that we’re seeing a resurgence of coups again.”
Ping has criticized South Africa’s actions in Ivory Coast and Libya.
In Ivory Coast, South Africa supported President Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to leave office after the Ecowas group of regional states and the United Nations said he lost elections in November 2010. At least 3,000 people were killed in violence before Gbagbo was captured in April 2011.
South Africa backed the March 2011 UN resolution that authorized “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, and paved the way for air strikes by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that helped oust Muammar Qaddafi. The African Union was trying to negotiate a transition to democracy.
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.
“It is well known that it is the government of South Africa which impeded Ecowas’s efforts to settle the Ivory Coast crisis timeously and the same government that voted in favor of UN resolution 1973 that authorized the bombing of Libya,” Ping said in an e-mailed statement on July 10.
The Southern African Development Community asked Ping to apologize for his statement, saying he abused African Union resources for his personal election campaign, divulging confidential information on a member state’s position.
“This has the potential of sowing seeds of animosity and division among AU member states,” the group said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.
The AU has denied that it has been weakened by the leadership battle. The “institution is running” normally, Ping’s deputy, Erastus Mwencha, told reporters in Addis Ababa on July 10. “A disagreement yesterday does not mean a disagreement tomorrow.”
Eight heads of state, including from Gabon and South Africa, have met several times since the January impasse and will decide a day before the summit starts how to proceed with the leadership contest.
Options include introducing a consensus candidate, reducing the winning majority needed, or the “much more probable” step of prolonging the deadlock until the next summit, said Mehari of the Institute for Security Studies. That may result in the nomination of new candidates, he said.
“The hopes, the expectations are that this will not end in another impasse,” said Akinsanya, “because the implications will be very serious for Africa.”