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Local commentary on the continent’s failure to elect a chairperson of the AU Commission has almost entirely focused on what it would mean for South Africa if its candidate were again defeated next week.
It would be unbearably humiliating for South Africa if Home Affairs Minister Nkosa-zana Dlamini-Zuma failed once again to unseat the incumbent, Jean Ping of Gabon, at the AU summit in Addis Ababa on Monday, it is said.
Gabonese no doubt feel the converse.
But, perhaps, it is time for South Africa especially to start focusing instead on the damage another inconclusive election would do to the AU’s already shaky reputation.
Dlamini-Zuma failed in her first challenge to Ping in the last AU summit in January, when neither of them could muster the necessary two-thirds majority.
Ping did not fall on his sword as South Africa had hoped. The summit extended his term by six months while a special committee of eight presidents, including President Zuma, tried to find a political solution before the next summit.
They have so far failed to do so, though they will meet again in Addis Ababa just before the election next week to try again. The Sunday Times reported this weekend that Ping had visited South Africa on Friday, at the government’s invitation, ready to retire from the chairmanship if he were given another suitable position.
But a senior official of an African country that is supporting Ping’s candidacy said Ping had in the end not visited South Africa, so the deal was off. We shall see.
South Africa and the rest of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which is backing Dlamini-Zuma, want Ping to pull out of the race. Likewise, Gabon and Ping’s other backers – including powerful Nigeria and Kenya – want Dlamini-Zuma to pull out.
That’s because both sides know it is likely that neither candidate will win the necessary two-thirds of the vote if it comes down to another election next week.
Five SADC ministerial teams have been crisscrossing the continent for months in an intensive lobbying campaign for Dlamini-Zuma. Yet, after comparing notes at a meeting in Pretoria last week, they were forced to conclude that she still didn’t have the required number of assured votes.
The SADC ministers also concluded that another inconclusive election next week would do great damage to the legitimacy of the AU.
The South African government believes the duty to rescue the AU’s legitimacy rests with Ping’s side, since he lost his mandate at the last election.
So the country has, so far, refused to entertain proposed compromises such as replacing Dlamini-Zuma with a candidate from a smaller SADC country, which would meet the objections of Ping’s backers, especially Nigeria and Kenya, that the bigger African nations should not occupy the chair of the AU Commission.
South Africa counters that what the AU Commission and the continent need right now is precisely the sort of heft and efficiency that only a competent country and candidate like South Africa and Dlamini-Zuma would bring to the job.
Yet Pretoria needs to be aware that insisting on her candidacy is now beginning to defeat its own aim by paralysing the AU Commission rather than reviving it.
The obvious solution to the problem has always been to reduce the voting requirement to a simple majority. Both sides have evidently rejected that because both fear defeat in such a poll.
For the sake of the AU’s faltering credibility, though, Zuma should try to persuade the presidential committee to agree on that change at its last meeting before next week’s election.
If they cannot agree, and Ping won’t withdraw, Zuma should pull Dlamini-Zuma out of the race. She would very likely be a better AU Commission chairwoman than Ping. But a larger peril than inefficiency now confronts the AU and that is a massive failure of its credibility.
Those who profess to care most about the organisation must make the toughest choices.