Africa Confidential

South Africa finally won the battle for the AU Commission chair, amid high hopes for reform and more effective interventions

Security crises in five countries and pressing economic problems confront the new Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Although she has three months to wind up in South Africa, where she is Home Affairs Minister, before moving to the AU in Addis Ababa, her transition programme is already under way.

After a fairly bitter election campaign, senior officials are urging the defeated candidate and incumbent, Gabon’s Jean Ping, to work for a smooth handover. Since the veteran diplomat is searching for another international posting, he may want to protect his legacy. Over the coming months, the AU will play a central role in negotiations on Congo-Kinshasa, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Somalia, and South Sudan and Sudan.

The style will be easier to change than the substance. At her swearing-in, Dlamini-Zuma quoted the late Jamaican civil rights activist and writer Marcus Garvey; at Ping’s departure, he quoted Shakespeare. Lauded for her administrative record and conciliatory approach to politics, Dlamini-Zuma can rely on considerable goodwill, in the early months at least.

Talk of a Francophone-Anglophone split and poisonous regional rivalries is overblown. The voting on 15 July (see A diplomatic coup in Addis) saw Dlamini-Zuma win over substantial numbers of French-speaking governments, such as Algeria, Chad, Congo-K and Senegal. Her main opponents – Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria – face too many demanding internal matters to want to sabotage her tenure. They are likely to respond to her conciliatory gestures, especially if she can offer some backing for them in their respective regions. Between them, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria dominate the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which leads calls for intervention in Mali but requires support from both the AU and United Nations.

Ethiopia and Kenya (alongside Uganda, which backed Dlamini-Zuma) are the key players in the intervention in Somalia. As this enters a critical stage, with the expected battle for Kismayo next month and the Transitional Federal Government due to hand over to a still unknown successor on 20 August, coordination with the AU will be vital here, too.  Read more…