The fourth African Union Commission elections are scheduled to be conducted during the July 2016 Summit of African Union Heads of State in Kigali.
Four years ago, the nomination and eventual election of South Africa’s Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was marred by controversy. This was due to a violation by South Africa of the old unwritten rule that the AU chairperson’s post should only be available to candidates from smaller countries.
The manner in which the election campaign was run also did not endear South Africa to other AU member states.Yet, the 2012 race for the position of chairperson drew the most attention and remains the most tightly contested in the history of the AU.
Undisputedly, on the positive side, Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s election as the first chairwomen of the Commission signified substantial progress in the AU.
Another enduring advantage of the 2012 election was that it aroused considerable interest and stimulated debate about the Commission and the AU in general.
It was hoped that the 2012 competition had set a higher standard for future elections at the AU, including in terms of profile, gender, and the number of nominations and candidates. It was also hoped that winning posts at the Commission would increasingly become more competitive and that incumbency would not imply a guarantee for re-election.
However, with the current low number of nominations, these hopes are yet to be realised.
Diminishing competitiveness, fewer nominations
Twelve years ago, in the first elections in 2003, there were 73 candidates for the post of commissioners. In contrast, in 2008 the number of candidates declined by almost half to 45, and in 2012 this number declined even further to twenty-nine.
Now, for the 2016 election, we only have 32 candidates (after three disqualifications and one late withdrawal). Another crucial concern about the current nominations is the sharp decline in the pedigree and profiles of the various candidates, particularly the chairperson.
For example, Professor Alpha Konare, the first chair of the Commission from 2003-2008, was a former head of state of Mali. Since then there have been two former ministers (Dr Jean Ping of Gabon, and Dr Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa) chairing the Commission.
Too few nominations to shortlist
Outwardly, the 2012 election looked very competitive. Strictly speaking, however, the 2012 election was far from competitive because the election for the post of chairperson occurred by default, not by design.
In fact, a closer look at the number and manner of nominations for the position of chairperson and deputy, and the profiles of the various candidates, showed that nominations had deteriorated in terms of numbers and competence.
For example, in 2012, North Africa, which was entitled to two posts on the Commission, nominated only two candidates, thereby rendering the nomination and the election uncompetitive. Similarly, the incumbent deputy chairperson ran alone without a challenger and thereby transformed the election for this high post into a vote of confidence.
Regression in nominations and female candidature
Another regressive aspect of the current nominations is the fact that the number of female candidates has declined from 60 per cent participation in 2012 to 38 per cent participation in 2016.
For instance, six candidates for the positions of deputy chairperson and economic affairs are males, while candidates for one of the posts are all females.
Given that the rules of the AU require half the members of the Commission to be females, 15 candidates are currently competing for five posts, while 25 male candidates are vying for the remaining five posts. On a positive note, as reflected by the current nominations, two of the three candidates for chairperson are females.
So, is this decline in the number of candidates and their less impressive profiles indicative of a systemic failure of the AU? Is this decline symptomatic of the low standing bestowed on the AU by its fundamental constituent units — the member states? What is the cause of these failures and what can be done to address them?
Member states are the main causes of the decline in the numbers and profiles of the various candidatures. Member states are also responsible for the overall lack of strategic direction in the elections of the various AU organs.
But more essentially, the retrogressive elections of the Commission, and of the other organs, will continue to undermine meritocracy and the performance, legitimacy and popularity of the AU in Africa and beyond.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the elections to the AU Commission. While member states are the body parts of the AU, the Commission is the engine on which the Union depends not only for its effective functioning, but also for its ability to achieve its objectives as set out in the Constitutive Act of the AU.
The leadership and management of the Commission is therefore a key factor for the success of the AU, both at the continental and global levels.
In turn, without getting the basics and fundamentals correct, the foundation for the AU remains shaky and not conducive to achieving the huge mission of a peaceful, prosperous and integrated Africa.
The basics and fundamentals of the elections to the AU are nominations at the national level, squarely the responsibility of member states.
With the necessary political determination from African leaders, and actual reform in the nomination process at national levels, the AU could easily reverse the current retrogression and restore progressive elections that prove exemplary for its member states. More crucially, such elections would enable the AU to excel in discharging its duties.
But the first step for this reform would be to postpone the Commission elections to January 2017, and reopen the nomination process again with necessary reform in the national level nomination process.
BY: Dr Mehari Taddele Maru is an expert in international law, and currently a member of the AU High Level Advisory Group