African Union Commission ‘Diplomacy of Self Restraint? Africa’s Regional Powers and Leadership of the African Union (AU)

Published on 15th February 2017

The recent election of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC) resulted in the surprise victory of Chadian Foreign minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat over the highly fancied Kenyan Foreign Affairs Minister Amina Mohamed. There are a number of lessons that can be learned from this event. Perhaps the most important lesson is that the majority of AU Member States prefer a diplomat from a less influential state to lead the AU Secretariat (Commission) than someone from a regional heavyweight; such as Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Egypt etc

The election of the former AUC chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma in 2012 was highly divisive given the rather high handed and arrogant manner in which South Africa pushed out ex-AUC boss Jean Ping of Gabon, a small Central African country. Thus; Mahamat’s victory over Ambassador Amina Mohamed should be seen as an expression of resentment of the Central African group towards South Africa’s bullying tactics that denied Jean Ping; a candidate from the ECCAS bloc a second mandate in the job.

The Francophone countries have also been aggrieved by Anglophone South Africa’s assertive diplomacy that seems to be making deep inroads into Francophone Africa. The Francophone countries were never comfortable with South Africa’s mediating role in the Cote d’Ivoire’s post electoral crisis of 2010. Later, Francophone Africa’s trepidation with South Africa’s rising influence in Central Africa was not eased by revelations of the presence of a South African military contingent enmeshed in conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2014. The Organization of Africa Unity(OAU); precursor to the AU had a simple unwritten rule that required the major powers in Africa; like Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, Algeria to exercise self restraint in regard to providing leadership to the continental organization. In the 1960s; 1970s and 1990s there was also another unwritten rule that taught that whilst the French speaking states would fill the position of OAU Secretary-General; the English speaking countries would provide leadership of the UN Economic Commission for Africa. In this context, the North African countries would provide the President of the African Development Bank (AfDB).

When one does an historical audit of OAU Secretaries General, one observes that the major regional powers of that era (1960s-1980s); pursued diplomacy of Self Restraint. Secretaries General who led the OAU General Secretariat came from the less diplomatically assertive countries. The first care taker Secretary-General was Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Kifle Wodajo (1963-1964). Ethiopia as host country has always shunned the limelight and never proposed an Ethiopian national to lead the OAU. Wodajo’s successor was Boubakar Diallo Telli from Guinea. Telli got the job, largely because of President Ahmed Sekou Toure’s Pan African credentials. Telli as Guinea Ambassador to the United Nations had also earned prominence among the Africa Group because of his vitriolic denunciations of Apartheid South Africa and the colonial powers (Britain, France, Portugal and Spain). Ambassador Telli was denied a third mandate by the OAU Summit in Rabat, Morocco in 1972. He was succeeded by the soft spoken Anglophone Cameroonian Labour Minister, Nzo Ekangaki. Ekangaki who resigned in 1974 was replaced by his compatriot William Eteki Mboumoua. Mboumoua did not seek a second mandate in 1978, thereby opening the door to Togo’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Edem Kodjo. Kodjo led the Secretariat up to 1983 when he resigned in a shroud of controversy around his decision to admit into the OAU, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR); which triggered Morocco’s withdrawal from the continental organization.

African leaders failed to elect a successor to Kodjo in 1983, and OAU Assistant Secretary-General (Political Affairs) Nigerian diplomat Dr. Peter Onu was appointed Secretary-General ad interim up to 1985. In 1985, Presidents Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia) and Nyerere (Tanzania) wanted Onu to be substantively appointed, but Nigeria, a major power practiced self restraint and backed Ide Omaourou; Foreign Affairs Minister of neighboring Francophone Niger for the job. Ide Omaourou was defeated by Tanzania’s Deputy Premier Salim Ahmed Salim in 1989, largely because of Tanzania’s first President Julius K. Nyerere’s stature. Salim remains Africa’s longest serving chief diplomat as he led the OAU General Secretariat up to 2001, when he was succeeded by Ivorian diplomat Amara Essy at the Lusaka summit. Essy lasted up to 2003, when the OAU had transitioned into the African Union (AU). At the summit held in Maputo, Mozambique, Essy’s candidature was unceremoniously withdrawn by Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo reportedly under pressure from former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and his South African counterpart Thabo Mbeki, to pave way for Alpha Oumar Konare; former President of Mali. Konare was succeeded by Gabon’s illustrious diplomat Jean Ping in 2008, who benefited from well resourced campaign mounted by late former President Omar Bongo Ondimba.

Thus; when South Africa decided to oust Ping, Pretoria abandoned the long standing diplomacy of Self Restraint that Regional powers in Africa have exercised vis-à-vis leadership of the OAU and its successor ; the African Union. There was also a fear among French speaking countries that Ping’s removal signaled escalation of South Africa’s quest to impose economic and diplomatic hegemony in French speaking Africa.

Ultimately; Kenya’s candidate lost largely because the Francophone countries and some Anglophone countries were uncomfortable with ‘sub imperial power’ Kenya’s robust diplomacy. They were worried that with a Kenyan as chief diplomat, the AUC might become an extension of Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation. Thus; Africa’s major powers need to practice diplomacy of self restraint.

By Dr. Njunga Michael Mulikita

The author is Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Mulungushi University, Zambia’s 3rd public University, Kabwe, Zambia. Between 1999 and 2001, Dr. MULIKITA was an Information Analyst in the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Conflict Management Division, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

This article has been read 1,923 times