THE BLOG

The Race For The Next AU Chair - The Lighthouse On The Hill?

The next AU chairperson will need to provide critical direction in a world increasingly defined by China, Trump and Brexit.

06/12/2016 04:54 SAST
Shiraaz Mohamed/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Hollywood actress and UN envoy on refugee issues, Angelina Jolie-Pitt, right, attends a discussion ahead of an AU Summit in Johannesburg, Friday, June 12, 2015.

The lesson to draw from the metaphor of the lighthouse is that it stands confidently on a solid rock, knowing itself completely and its purpose. Lighthouses are consistent and reliable. They shine their light to guide boats to safety. They are built upon a solid rock, sturdy and strong to withstand heavy storms. Their main purpose is to be big, bright and bold enough so that ships are completely confident of where they are going in the dark or during a storm. Drawing from this, the African continent would do well with just that, the lighthouse on the hill with a dedicated lighthouse keeper. In a fiery and heated contestation for Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's successor, who will be that lighthouse on the hill?

Replacing Dlamini-Zuma as Chairperson of the African Union Commission will not be business as usual. The top contenders for the job in addition to Botswana's Dr. Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, are Kenya's Amina Mohamed and Abdoulaye Bathily of Senegal. Other confirmed candidates are Mr. Agapita Mba Mokuy of Equatorial Guinea and Moussa Fakim Mahamat of Chad. Almost all the candidates are foreign ministers of their respective countries or have served as foreign ministers before. Both Botswana and Equatorial Guinea's candidates are running for the second time after failing to get the two-thirds majority of the votes in the July 2016 elections. The position of AU Chair remains quite significant at a time when the African Union needs strong leadership and an affirmation of its role in the lives of African people, considering the authority that the chairperson holds and their ability to shape the direction of AU policy bodies. This is a choice too important to downplay.

It is coincidentally happening at a time when Africa needs consensus and more action on defining the continent's role in 2016 and beyond. We've already been shocked by Brexit and a Trump presidency. In addition, Asia is on a China-led crusade to re-affirm itself as the ultimate development partner for developing nations. Then there is the looming question of definitively dealing with recurring conflict, economic inequality and climate change. The next A.U. chair will need to provide critical direction in that sense. They will need an unparalleled understanding of transnational, regional security challenges and global debates that will require Africa's voice to stand out. These will involve dealing with Arab and European countries on shared spaces of the Mediterranean and Red sea and the current crises of migration associated with them. The other issue is reforming the UN and getting Africa the long overdue permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

All the candidates carry remarkable profiles. Botswana's Dr. Venson-Moitoi is a well decorated cabinet minister with substantial managerial experience. She has held several other cabinet positions in Botswana, and received an honorary doctorate for her work. Her counterparts in the form of Kenya's Amina Mohamed and Senegal's Abdoulaye Bathily have more international experience than her and possibly more stronger campaigns than her.

The African continent needs leadership. The traditionally strong and progressive countries, which have been Nigeria and South Africa, which have also been the self-proclaimed leaders of the Pan-Africanist and African renaissance movement, have taken a backseat, leaving a 'silently loud' leadership void.

The obvious blot in Botswana's prospects (although Botswana has brushed it off as a problem,) is the state of Botswana's relations with Africa, especially the somewhat distant nature of President Khama. Botswana has been the center of debate for the past few years. As a democratic and development success story, Botswana hasn't been afraid to cash in on this brand by being the vocal brother that speaks out against injustice and impunity on the continent. Most notably, Botswana has called out the African Union for encouraging mass withdrawal of its members from the International Criminal Court (ICC). Recently Botswana expressed its disappointment at South Africa's withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, coupled with President Khama's repeated calls for President Mugabe to step down. Botswana's diplomatic and foreign policy behavior may have some clout in determining Dr. Venson-Moitoi's performance at the AU commission elections slated for January 2017. President Khama has neither attended AU Summits or meetings of heads and state and government nor the United Nations General Assembly for eight years.

But the prevailing point of contention that seems to be playing out louder is the perceived un-Pan-Africanism of Botswana due to its constant expression of its disagreement with the AU. As a matter of principle, it is not a crime for Botswana to openly disagree with some decisions of the African Union and to be vocal about it. Many leaders in Africa have hidden behind the tag 'pan-Africanism' to mask complacency and abuse of power.

The truth is, despite the attractive convictions of the great value of attaining common operative understandings with each other, the salience of Afrocentricity that had guided immediate post-independence African foreign policy has effectively fizzled out. Botswana's swimming against the tide isn't the cause; it's a symptom of many things, at best, natural contestations of ideas and interests, and at worst, a divided Africa. The perceived antagonism of Africanism and constructive criticism of our African brothers is artificial. The two can mutually co-exist.

In contrast Kenya's Amina Mohamed boasts a stronger international leadership profile and possibly, a backing from the stronger ECOWAS bloc. Kenya's media and President Kenyatta have also been heavily campaigning for her. Currently serving as foreign minister, she has served at the pinnacle of Kenya's diplomatic corps as Kenya's ambassador/permanent representative at the Kenyan Mission to the United Nations in Geneva. By all standards, this is perhaps the Monaco of diplomatic postings. Kenya has been the destination for global conferences in the last few years under her leadership. Her ministry has overseen several visits by world leaders to Kenya, including President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, Italy's Matteo Renzi and Pope Francis.

The African continent needs leadership. The traditionally strong and progressive countries, which have been Nigeria and South Africa, which have also been the self-proclaimed leaders of the Pan-Africanist and African renaissance movement, have taken a backseat, leaving a 'silently loud' leadership void. There hasn't been any rallying and unifying powerhouse that brings everyone together since the eclipse of Thabo Mbeki's African renaissance vision which served as a de-facto continental strategic framework.

This perhaps explains why Africa almost always fails to agree on a lot of things, including candidates to hold the pinnacle of Africa's continental body. An air of mistrust between the different African blocs still exists, and this was visible at the July 2016 Summit in Kigali. Traditional African diplomatic relations are not at their strongest especially in the context of an Africa that is forging a new culture of emancipatory redirection of relations away from the West to trade more with Asia. I think at this point whoever wins the seat in January would win primarily from a fair amount of backroom diplomatic lobbying. Botswana will need to show a deeper understanding of North, West and East Africa in order to gain their confidence, but that isn't going to happen overnight because President Khama would need to counter President Kenyatta by stepping out of his comfort zone to interact more with African leaders.