A Timbuktu Moment for the African Union

African Union Commision
Desalegn and Zuma, the African Union’s new leadership

AFRICANGLOBE – The standing ovations and the glad-handing were genuine.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s first African Union (AU) summit as chair on 27-28 January was a much-needed success at a time when Africa’s fractious politics seemed to be out of sync with much brighter economic news.

The trains ran on time, meetings started and finished on schedule, the predicted Anglophone-Francophone split did not happen and economic development matters rose up the agenda, all allowing foreign ministers and presidents to leave Addis Ababa with some sense of accomplishment.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was elected as chair of the AU Assembly.

Desalegn and Dlamini-Zuma make a businesslike duo.

They share the opinion that the AU should be doing more to bolster development and regional integration while taking a clear-eyed view of the organisation’s priorities.

In a pointed opening speech to the Peace and Security Council, Dlamini-Zuma asked: “Should we not at this stage consider providing sufficient time, capabilities and tools to implement and assess the impact of the decisions we have taken?”

It was a diplomatic rebuke to those delegates who insist on pushing resolutions for ever more ambitious and costly pan-African institutions and initiatives.

Dlamini-Zuma then touched on still more delicate ground, paying tribute to the “contribution by the international community, in particular France, to the urgent need to restore the territorial integrity of Mali”.

A pragmatic statement given that the AU was hosting a post-summit conference on the Mali crisis to attract funds for the African intervention and national rebuilding plans.

A year previously, Dlamini-Zuma’s government was in full-throttle opposition to France and Europe’s interventions in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya.

Indeed, South Africa backed Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy for the AU’s top job against Gabon’s former foreign minister Jean Ping because he was seen as too compliant with the cellule africaine at the Elysée Palace in Paris.

Yet President François Hollande’s first meeting with Dlamini-Zuma after her AU victory went well.

Last November in Paris, they discussed concerns over the deepening crisis in Mali and, apparently, France’s willingness to operate militarily in tandem with a West African force.

When France sent its ground troops and fighter jets to Mali in mid-January – ostensibly in response to a request from Mali’s President Dioncounda Traoré – Hollande discussed the matter first with Dlamini-Zuma and South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma.

“We supported the decision of France. There was no alternative,” President Zuma told Radio France Internationale.

Although the AU delegates’ response to the French intervention in Mali was not as fulsome as the reception Hollande received in Timbuktu the following Saturday, most agreed with Zuma’s assessment.

However, outgoing AU Assembly chairperson, Benin’s President Boni Yayi, raised two important questions.

Why should Africa, with its plans for a 30,000-strong standby force dating back more than a decade, have waited for a French-led initiative before launching an intervention?

Secondly, Yayi asked who should speak for the AU on security matters: the chair of the AU Assembly, the chair of the AU Commission or the commissioner for peace and security?

Yayi said it was time for his fellow heads of state to revisit the AU’s constitution.

No clear answers emerged to either question at the summit.

More nationalistic delegates, especially from Southern African states, insisted that the launch of the African Standby Force should be accelerated, but there was no breakthrough on financing or ground rules.

Some delegates quietly argued that professional and accountable national security forces would be a better investment.

Yet the Mali crisis will echo through the corridors of the AU, with delegates arguing over what role for West Africa’s regional grouping in tandem with the AU itself, and also for the UN, now under pressure from France to send in a peacekeeping force.