African Union Commission chairman Jean Ping

Addis Ababa: It was French interference in the election of the African Union Commission chairperson which cost the incumbent, former Gabonese foreign minister Jean Ping, his job.

Asked about foreign interference, Mozambican Foreign Minister Oldemiro Baloi declined to mention France by name, but told reporters that it was indeed outside pressure that angered enough African leaders to deprive Ping of the necessary two thirds majority. Ping faced a challenge from South African Home Affairs Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, backed by SADC (Southern African Development Community).

After three rounds of voting, Ping maintained a narrow lead – but nowhere near two thirds of the 53 AU member states entitled to vote. Under the rules, Dlamini-Zuma was obliged to withdraw after the third round, and on the fourth round the only name on the ballot paper was Ping’s.

Even so, he only received 33 votes – which means that 20 countries refused to vote for him. A two thirds majority would have been 36 votes.

Under normal circumstances, with just one candidate left, the heads of state and government would have united around him. This was not possible, Baloi said, “because we felt this was not just a discussion between Africans – and that is why Ping did not win on the fourth round”.

According to both Mozambican and South African sources, the French ambassador to Ethiopia was actively lobbying for Jean Ping. “I cannot mention the name of the country”, said Baloi, “but there was outside interference, not only in the election, but also in some of the dossiers under discussion, such as the question of Madagascar”.

Such interference was nothing new he added, and there was growing concern about it among African leaders.

The dilemma caused by the failure to elect a chairperson was temporarily solved by extending for a further six months the terms of office of the existing Commission members – even though this seems a clear breach of the AU’s own rules.

The decision was taken during a marathon closed door session which began on Monday morning and did not end until 1am local time on Tuesday.

Baloi said the alternative to prolonging the mandate of the current commission until the next summit, due to be held in Malawi in June or July, would have been to allow a vacuum, with all the implications that would have had for the continental body.

Under the AU statutes, the Deputy Chairperson should have been appointed interim chair until the next summit. But the deputy, Erastus Mwencha of Kenya, who was standing for a second term, also needed a two thirds majority.

Worse still, in the eyes of the summit, was that pressing ahead with the election of the Deputy Chair and the other eight commissioners, in the absence of a chairperson, risked upsetting the delicate gender and regional balance on the Commission (each of the AU’s five regions – South, Central, East, West and North – is supposed to have two seats on the Commission).

So all the remaining elections were postponed by six months. The summit also appointed a committee of 13 heads of state, charged with revising the AU’s electoral rules, so that no such embarrassment can happen in the future. This Committee consists of two heads of state or government from each of the five regions (who have yet to be appointed), the presidents of South Africa and Gabon, Jacob Zuma and Ali Bongo Ondimba, as the countries that presented the two candidates, and AU chairperson Boni Yayi of Benin. Baloi admitted that there is a risk that the unelected commission will face “a lack of authority”.

This, however, seemed the lesser of two evils. “We don’t want the AU to come to a stop”, he stressed. - Independent Foreign Service