Five strong candidates are vying to be the African Union Commission’s new chairperson

As the African continent continues its struggle for improved governance and security, with some of its poorer nations lurching from one crisis to the next, the leadership of the African Union (AU) is under a brighter spotlight than ever in its short history.

Member states were compelled to apply themselves to the question of who should head the AU Commission, after Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma chose not to serve a second term following her four-year stint at its helm. Five candidates are now vying for the position of the AU Commission chair, in a second round of elections to take place in January this year at the next AU Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The election for chairperson in Kigali, Rwanda, in July last year failed to muster enough support for any of the candidates presented.

This time around the candidates are Dr Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi from Botswana, Agapito Mba Mokuy from Equatorial Guinea, Amina Mohamed from Kenya, Moussa Faki Mahamat of Chad, and Prof. Abdoulaye Bathily from Senegal.

Dlamini-Zuma garnered respect at the AU for developing Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want, a framework that envisions several poverty-alleviating developments in Africa over the next 50 years. She was also lauded for her insistence on high standards for the organisation’s financial and administrative management.

However, critics in Addis Ababa, the home of the AU, say she allowed herself to be distracted by her domestic political ambitions, frequently returning to South Africa. They also say she surrounded herself with South African advisers. This has reportedly resulted in leadership gaps in an organisation that requires a dynamic, consistent head who will continue the principled, scrutinising style of management that Dlamini-Zuma is known for.

Critics of the AU and there are many argue that the position of chairperson of the AU is relatively ineffectual, largely due to the way the organisation is set up. “The problem with the chair is that it does not really control the commission, in part because all ten commissioners are directly elected,” explains Jakkie Cilliers, chairperson and Head of African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Tshwane, South Africa.

However, other commentators say the role is a potentially powerful one, and that the right person could champion Africa’s voice on a global stage   and mobilise more meaningful interventions in the continent’s governance, economies and security than in the past. A charismatic chairperson could also rally the continent to adopt common standpoints on global issues, and forge stronger ties with international bodies like the United Nations (UN).

So who are the candidates? Amina Mohamed, a Kenyan-Somali lawyer and Kenya’s foreign affairs cabinet secretary since 2013, is widely regarded as the strongest contender for the role of AU Commission chair. She is charismatic and has garnered a reputation internationally as a solid leader with impressive negotiation skills. “Amina Mohamed is sharp-witted and skilled as a diplomat, administrator and foreign minister three very crucial abilities. She is also backed by a very vital East African state, in a region that is united and influential,” comments Siphamandla Zondi,  professor of political science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

During a public service career that spans three decades, Mohamed has undertaken numerous domestic and international assignments, including a three-year stint as permanent secretary for justice, national cohesion and constitutional  affairs. In this role, she supervised the drafting, negotiation and promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya in 2010.

She was the first African, and woman, to be elected as chair of the Council of the International Organisation for Migration in 2002, and three years later became the first woman to chair the World Trade Organization (WTO) General Council. She was Kenya’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva between 2000 and 2006. In May 2011, she was appointed assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), where she led implementing the UNEP’s medium-term strategy and programmes, along with ongoing reforms.

In her present role in foreign affairs, she chaired the team that drafted Kenya’s foreign trade policy, and has hosted a number of global high-level events, including the WTO’s 10th ministerial conference, the UN Conference on Trade and Development and the Tokyo International Conference on African Development.

Mohamed holds a degree in international law and international relations from the University of Kiev in Ukraine, and a postgraduate diploma in international relations from Oxford University. She is fluent in English, Russian and Swahili and has a working knowledge of French. Mohamed is best known for her denunciation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its pursuit of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta for his role in that country’s post-election violence in 2007. The violence claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people and displaced 600,000.

She has argued that sitting heads of state should not be brought before the ICC until they have left office, a position that many AU member states share. “This will likely be the most contentious issue in Ms Mohamed’s campaign,” says Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Africa analyst and editor of the ISS Peace and Security Council Report of the African Union.

Professor Abdoulaye Bathily is the UN secretary-general’s special representative for Central Africa, and was appointed in 2014. Before that he was the secretary-general’s deputy special representative for the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, which was established in 2013.

At the UN he has helped to consolidate peace and prevent conflict in the Central African region, and in that role has been involved in mediating a number of crises on the continent. He is seen as a veteran of the diplomatic world.

At home, Bathily served as Senegal’s minister of the environment from 1993 to 1998, and as minister of energy from 2000 to 2001. During the 2012 February-March elections, which were held amid controversy over the constitutional validity of a third term for incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade, Bathily supported opposition leader Macky Sall. When the latter won the election, he appointed Bathily as minister of state at the presidency.

Bathily completed his secondary education at the Military Academy Charles Ntchorere in St. Louis, Senegal, and cut his political teeth in the former African Independence Party, a Communist party in French West Africa. He is the long- time secretary-general of the Democratic League/Movement for the Labour Party (LD/MPT), founded on Marxist principles.

“Prof. Bathily is a Pan-Africanist and a leftist campaigner with good networks because of his UN position. He has had to handle crises in Central African Republic, and more recently, the post-election crisis in Gabon. Also, he has been a candidate for president of Senegal a number of times, so he has a high profile in his country,” notes Louw-Vaudran.

Educated in Britain he has a Ph.D in history from the University of Birmingham his command of English has allowed him to forge strong ties with other English-speaking leaders on the continent, including in Kenya   and Tanzania. Bathily also holds a doctorate of arts from Cheikh Anta Diop University, or University of Dakar, where he taught history for 30 years.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on appointing him that Bathily had “strong political, diplomatic and academic experience in the government of his country, academic institutions and in the United Nations’ system”.

Dr Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, Botswana’s minister of foreign affairs since 2014, is the candidate for the Southern African Development Community (SADC). She was the most popular candidate during the July election in Kigali, but still only mustered 23 of the 54 member-state leaders’ votes.

The oldest of the candidates, at 65, her specialities lie in public service management and administrative systems analysis, which gives her some experience in governance. However, she does not have a high international profile compared to the other strong contenders, says Louw-Vaudran.

Venson-Moitoi started her career as a journalist and completed a master’s in science in administration from Central Michigan University in the United States in 1987. She received an honorary doctorate in human capital development in 2012 from Limkokwing University of Creative Technology in Malaysia.

Since her election to the Botswana parliament in 2004, she has held various cabinet portfolios, among   them   science and technology, and education and skills development.

Venson-Moitoi describes herself as “an agent of Africa’s sustainable transformation agenda”, and is, like Dlamini-Zuma, a vocal feminist. Her manifesto is a call to action “I’m an administrator who believes in less talk and more action.”

She may have to rely on a “sympathy vote” from the other regions that support the southern African region candidate continuing as AU chair. Dlamini-Zuma had been expected to occupy it for a second term.

Venson-Moitoi has stated that she aims to use dialogue to address issues of security on the continent, and also to look closely at migration, if she takes the AU top seat. The AU’s funding — a bone of contention as the organisation receives some of its funding from the European Union — would also receive her attention, she says.

As the only SADC candidate Venson-Moitoi is expected to have regional backing during the first rounds at least. As Cilliers comments: “The one thing that [the] SADC does well is operate as a bloc within the AU.” Moussa Faki Mahamat is Chad’s minister of foreign affairs and economic integration, and represents the Central African Economic and Monetary Community in the AU race. Mahamat was the prime minister of Chad from 2003 to 2005. In 2007 he was appointed president of the country’s Economic, Social, and Cultural Council. A year later, in 2008, he became foreign minister. A long-time member of the Patriotic Salvation Movement, the ruling party in Chad, Mahamat is President Idriss Déby’s loyal right-hand man. He was Déby’s campaign director for the May 2001 presidential election. In 2002, the president appointed him as minister of public works and transport.

“Mr Mahamat has the strong support of President Déby, one of Africa’s longest ruling presidents, who has a very high profile in Africa as the current AU chairperson, especially with his recent peacekeeping efforts in the region,” comments Louw-Vaudran. Mahamat attended university in Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo, where he studied law. He went into exile — to join the Democratic Revolutionary Council headed by Chadian military leader Acheikh Ibn-Oumar — when Hissène Habré took power in 1982. He returned in 1991, after Déby took power. Between 1996 and 1999, he was director-general of the National Sugar Society.

Outside Central Africa, Mahamat doesn’t have much diplomatic experience. As foreign minister, he was mainly immersed in dealing with the activities of Islamist extremist organisation Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin area, and with the conflict in Libya, Mali and the Sahel region. With him having previously been a prime minister however, other African leaders may see him as the most senior candidate. He has received good coverage in the French media over his efforts to garner China’s support in bringing about peace and stability on the continent. At the summit at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing last year, Mahamat praised China’s military assistance to the AU to support a permanent force, and a rapid response capability to humanitarian crises.

Agapito Mba Mokuy has been Equatorial Guinea’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation since 2012, and President Obiang Nguema’s special envoy. He acted as the president’s senior adviser on international affairs between 2010 and 2011. Mokuy is the Central Africa candidate, and at 51, the youngest contender in the race. He is relatively unknown compared to the other candidates, but his country has funded a number of diplomatic efforts to gather support in the various regional blocs. As Dr Solomon Dersso, an Africa affairs analyst and commissioner at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, writing in the Daily Maverick observes, “his campaign is well funded: if money talks, he might have the edge”.

Mokuy has occupied a number of senior positions at the UN Educational, Scientific and     Cultural   Organisation (UNESCO) over the course of 18 years, including chief of administration, and of the finance unit, in UNESCO’s Social and Human Sciences Sector. Prior to his career in international diplomacy, he was a consultant in Malabo to the UN Development Programme on economic issues, and was chief of administration for Equatorial Guinea’s state-owned electricity generator, SEGESA.

A Pan-Africanist, Mokuy has a master’s in business administration from the University of Bangkok and an agricultural economics degree from the State University of Louisiana. He is also fluent in Spanish, French, English, Portuguese and Fang. His experience as an international civil servant, and his assiduous attendance at AU gatherings with President Nguema may stand him in good stead. These are important considerations, as his country has a poor record in human rights. Mokuy’s campaign manifesto promises to change the AU’s working methods to bring in dynamism, innovation and competent staff. He is particularly concerned about the overdependence on external funding and the continent’s low contribution to the Union’s budget.

“If I am elected as the next chairperson of the African Union Commission, I [will] seek the assistance of our traditional and new partners as well as that of the commission’s staff in order to eradicate [the] continental dependency virus from the minds of the African people,” his manifesto states. His strength, says Louw-Vaudran, is that he has a “strong vision for the AU, and a more international approach to the AU”. She adds: “For some countries, putting forward a candidate is an issue of pride, pushing their country forward.” The election is generating suspense, not only because of its postponement in July, but because the AU Commission is facing growing pressure from member states and civil society organisations to streamline its activities, and for the AU Peace and Security Council to be more effective in implementing its decisions, according to Louw-Vaudran.

“There are a number of challenges facing the new chairperson, including lingering conflicts in South Sudan and Burundi, and simmering conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali,” she says. Mohamed, the favourite in the race, is well supported at home. Rwanda has already declared its support for her, and she is expected to gain further support from Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Togo and Guinea. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has lobbied President Jacob Zuma for his backing, although diplomatic sources say South Africa and countries such as Madagascar, Seychelles and Tanzania are likely to vote under the SADC umbrella, at least in the first rounds.

Louw predicts Mohamed might encounter opposition from Kenyans and member states in favour of the ICC, given her anti-ICC stance. These countries would include Botswana, Lesotho, Côte d’Ivoire, and Senegal. “She also has critics of her position in the English/French media and civil society,” adds Zondi. But South Africa has since announced its intention to withdraw from the ICC, so Mohamed’s campaign may benefit from this development. Experts concur that Bathily is Mohamed’s strongest competitor, and has the benefit of months of robust campaigning, including through the French media. Last year he was proposed as a candidate in the July election, but Senegal missed the deadline for submissions.

On the ICC, he potentially faces off against Mohamed, but “he might be     a bit more neutral on this ticket”, says Louw-Vaudran. Also, Bathily is a “stern” character, less charismatic than Mohamed, but he might be bolstered by the preference for a compromise by African leaders “who don’t want a strong chairperson, but one who carries out decisions”, she adds.

Venson-Moitoi will gain some strength from being the sole SADC candidate, and as foreign affairs minister she also has an advantage in that the AU chair position “tends to favour ministers of foreign affairs, mainly because they are known in interstate circles and also work with the AU regularly”, according to Zondi. Ironically, however, she may lose ground because of Botswana President Ian Khama’s vocal support of the ICC. “Botswana has taken the most outspoken pro-ICC position, and I think this will cost her,” says Cilliers.

Venson-Moitoi and Mokuy’s chances are much slimmer in this round, pitted as they are against three new contenders who are more experienced than they are and who are also ambassadors of stable democratic governments, according to Cilliers. “The SADC is expected to vote for their candidate in the first few rounds, but then, as a block against another candidate taking the lead, will probably move to support Ms Mohamed,” says Cilliers.

A consideration in the race is the unwritten rule that there be an Anglophone and Francophone balance in the AU’s representation, and that each region has its turn in the top seat. Mahamat may accumulate strong support from Francophone North Africa, which has not yet had a chairperson in the AU Commission. Another consideration is Morocco’s recent bid to rejoin the AU. “Senegal is in favour of Morocco rejoining, and the SADC region would likely go along with it, but not if Western Sahara is to be compromised or suspended from the AU, which is what Morocco wants,” says Louw.

The AU will not necessarily shift its focus to challenges in the East African region if Mohamed takes the top seat, comments Cilliers: “From a growth and development perspective, East Africa is seen as the region that will grow the fastest, but then the AU’s engagements are generally focused on conflict prevention and management, where other regions such as Central, West and North Africa demand more attention.”

In any event, as Cilliers points out, the ten commissioners must represent the AU’s five electoral regions (two each), to offset any particular regional interest from the chairperson.


HELEN GRANGE is a freelance journalist writing for newspapers and magazines in South Africa and abroad. Her work appears primarily in The Star, Argus, Daily News and Pretoria News. She also writes for Noseweek, Business Day and Financial Mail and edits magazines for various publishers.
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