The Race for AU Boss Is On – Why Does It Matter?

Current A.U. head Jean Ping

The African Union will hold its 18th Summit in Addis Ababa from January 23-30. Kenyans have not-too-fond memories of last January’s summit — at which the so-called shuttle diplomacy against Kenya’s engagement with the International Criminal Court was launched.

And the region as a whole was focused on the implications of external intervention under the “responsibility to protect” — given the massive changes then underway in North Africa.

The theme of this January’s summit is rather tamer: Boosting intra-African trade. And, this time round, attention is likely not to be too focused on the ICC or even on the theme itself. For it is election time for the AU Commission — and lobbying is already well underway.

At the highest level, for the position of AU Commission Chair, the battle seems to have come down to the incumbent, Dr Jean Ping of Gabon, who is eligible for a second four-year term, against South Africa’s former foreign minister Dr Nkosana Dlamini-Zuma.

What does Ping have on his side? The support of Central and West Africa for one. The fact that he is francophone. However redolent of persistent colonial divides, this does matter in ways beyond the mere ability to communicate in both English and French.

But there are the issues that the Southern African Development Community have raised about his leadership on the peace and security front, particularly the handling of the Arab Spring and the fact that the AU seemed slow off the block in asserting its leadership with respect to Libya.

There is also growing annoyance within Africa over the ICC and external interventions justified on the basis of the “responsibility to protect.”

But peace and security is also the Achilles’ heel of Dlamini-Zuma. SA’s inability to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis is one problem. Its intervention in Ivory Coast is an even worse one. And it is also blamed for having supported the United Nations Security Council resolution that, ultimately, enabled Nato’s entry into Libya.

Coming to East Africa, despite Kenya’s recent alacrity with respect to matters pan-African, it is lying quite low.

Its only candidate is the incumbent Deputy Chair Erastus Mwencha. Burundi, Ethiopia and Uganda have one candidate each for some of the Commissioner posts.

At the Commissioner level, the most contested portfolios are unsurprisingly those of peace and security, political affairs and social affairs. Disappointingly, the competition is almost non-existent for the portfolios of economic affairs, infrastructure and energy as well as trade and industry.

The portfolios of rural economy and agriculture and human resources, science and technology are also under-subscribed.

Why does any of this matter? Well, leadership does matter. And it increasingly matters at the AU level for all of us as well.

Away from the scenes, our economies are opening up to one another and our militaries are co-ordinating. Whatever we see happen at the East African Community and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development feeds into and is part of the AU’s bigger plans for us all. In Kenya, we know how the AU mattered in 2007 / 2008.

We also know how Kenyan businesses are leaping ahead of the curve with respect to entering new markets.

We know too that Kenya’s now part of an AU mission right on our border.

We should have more public debate on Kenya’s intentions for the upcoming summit.

This is not just a matter for our executive.

It is a matter for us all.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is doing her graduate studies at L’Institut d’etudes politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris, France