Election of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission: The AU at a crossroads

By Vijay S. Makhan*

 At the recent public ‘debate’, part from Senegal’s Prof Abdoulaye Bathily all the other candidates for African Union Commission Chair read from prepared scripts. They all had interesting things to say on the issues brought up, but clearly Bathily emerged as the more passionate and pan-Africanist candidate with a clear vision of what he would bring to the position.

Last Friday, 9 December 2016, the AU Conference Hall was the theatre of what was flagged to be a ‘first’ in the history of the African Union. On the evening of that day, a live broadcast of the first of its kind ‘debate’ among the five candidates vying for the position of Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union was programmed.

Indeed, there was a live broadcast. But what was covered can hardly meet the definition of a debate as we know it! But, let’s be fair. The organisers of the event, The AU African Leadership Academy, need to be applauded for their courage, given the circumstances, to launch such an initiative.

Rules were set and the format of the so-called debate were reportedly sent to the candidates, namely Abdoulaye Bathily, Moussa Mahamat, Amina Mohammed, Pelonomi Moitoi, and Agapito Mokuy, ahead of the scheduled event. Invitations to attend this ground-breaking initiative for the AU were launched. I happened to be in Addis Ababa at the time and having been very closely associated with the OAU and thereafter with the AU, I was privileged to receive an invitation.

Some time before the event kicked off, there prevailed an atmosphere of deflated enthusiasm. Corridor rumours had it that the ‘debate’ ran the risk of being cancelled for some of the candidates were not agreeable to the format, especially the Q & A segment! Questions had been expected to flow from the social media, duly filtered by the moderators, for responses from the candidates.

Though no contradictory debate was scheduled, as such, among the candidates themselves — a fact, therefore, that hardly met the criteria of debate — there was a legitimate expectancy among those present in the Hall to listen to the views of the candidates on issues of common interest to the Continent based on the questions put by the wider public. But it was not to be so. It was too good to be true! Such a possibility would surely have contributed to the movement of the African Union away from the perception of it being a States’ Union to one of a Peoples’ Union, which is what it is meant to be.

It later transpired that just before the event, at least two of the candidates insisted that there should be no Q & A segment. It appears that one candidate, Professor Bathily, insisted that it be placed on record that he was for such a segment and opposed having the rules of the game changed at the last moment. It emerged also that it was the Executive Council (Ministers) which was meeting in Addis Ababa for its pre-Summit Retreat that had taken the decision. This is a matter of concern, for it is not the role of the Council to invite and involve itself in matters related to the organisational aspect of such an event.

Be that as it may, a number of elements emerged from the presentation, for that is what it ultimately boiled down to being. The moderators — at least one of whom was changed twice from the one originally announced — were rather loud, not to say pompous, depriving the event of the solemnity it deserved. One of them even got his facts mixed up and referred to Bathily’s country of origin as Tchad! (Professor Bathily is from Senegal.)

The candidates, in turn, made their presentations, with an introduction about themselves, their vision for the Commission of the AU and their views on four thematic issues before concluding on what made them think that they should be at the helm of the Commission. The four questions related to: (a) the free movement of people; (b) the issues concerning youth and women in the context of building a Peoples’ Union; (c) the financing of the African Union and resource mobilisation for the African development agenda; and (d) ‘silencing of the guns’ by 2020 and the resolution and prevention of conflicts.

While the candidates elaborated on these issues, it was noteworthy that, apart from Abdoulaye Bathily, all the other candidates ( Foreign Ministers of their countries) were, more or less, reading from prepared scripts. They all had interesting things to say on the issues brought up, but clearly Bathily emerged as the more passionate and panAfricanist candidate with a clear vision of what he would bring to the position. His wide-ranging experience was clearly no match for the others who were more at home on specifics and therefore went on to advertise what and how their countries had or were contributing to advance the cause of the AU. Clearly, the point was missed that their candidacy, strictly speaking, should be individualistic and not country-based, a point that only Bathily managed to put across, with his coherent approach to, clear grasp of and vision to tackle the issues of concern to the Continent. One candidate was more interested in drumming home that she wanted the ‘job’ while another managed to convey the message that, left to him, there would be no place, or hardly any at the Commission, for anyone beyond 40 of age.

The AU is at a crossroads. The world’s political landscape and economic platform are undergoing serious changes. The AU needs to have a no-nonsense person to head its premier institution, the Commission, and who, in close consultation with the Heads of State and Government of member countries, will usher the Continent in this new era, the contours and depth of which, are yet to be fathomed. These are indeed challenging times and we, as true and concerned Africans, cannot afford to allow politics to call all the shots and end up losing another four years by installing someone not adequately equipped at the helm of the Commission. Our external partners are awaiting earnestly to have somebody of the right calibre with whom to engage on the various aspects of the changing development paradigm.

We should be careful and do everything possible to elect a Chairperson at the upcoming Summit in Addis Ababa next January. Rumours have it that some countries, having propelled some candidatures and in the face of the incapacity of the latter to take off, are now manoeuvring to obtain yet another deadlock at the January bout. If this were to be true, it would deliver a lasting and damaging  blow to the AU. The African leadership should rise above playing politics with their premier institution and allow the Commission to function, with all the space that it requires and deserves, to deliver and adequately meet the aspirations of the peoples of our Continent.

Let it so be!

* Pambazuka Ambassador Vijay S. Makhan is former Assistant Secretary General of the OAU and Interim Commissioner of the AU.

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