Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. Picture: Antoine de Ras

Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s tenure as the African Union Commission chairperson was marked by failures and her ambitions back home in South Africa at the expense of Africans, writes Chidi Anselm Odinkalu.

WHETHER it was the Ebola outbreak, drowning of African refugees in the Mediterranean, famines, the return of the god-president, the International Criminal Court (ICC), or popular uprisings by young people demanding revolutionary change, the departing chairwoman of the AU commission has failed Africa. Her successor must be someone who understands, cares about, and has a vision for the continent and its people.

In April, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma announced she had decided to return to South Africa rather than run for a second term. For close observers this didn’t come as a surprise as she appeared to spend less time on the institution than she did navigating the entrails of South Africa’s politics.

Before her announcement, the Mail & Guardian reported she was “likely to return to South Africa to run for a top ANC leadership position, possibly for president to succeed her ex-husband, President Jacob Zuma”.

Dlamini Zuma is a leading member of the ruling ANC and was for 16 years the spouse of the incumbent president.

The AU will sooner or later elect a successor to her. As they prepare to do so, it is appropriate to review her tenure so the AU avoids the errors that made it such a lamentable misadventure.

It did not have to be so. A trained paediatrician, Dlamini Zuma arrived at the AU following a stellar public service and political career in South Africa. There she served four successive presidents as a minister of health, foreign affairs, and home affairs.

When she arrived in Addis Ababa to assume office as the AU chairwoman in 2012, many believed she would usher in a brave new era in the history of the institution. She boasted many firsts: the first woman to head the AU; the first head of the AU from southern Africa and the first head of the AU with liberation credentials.

But in the end, she will be remembered for another first: the first head of the AU to leave as an utter failure. Her biggest legacy will probably be her eponymous Twitter tweets, preoccupied with fatuous nonsense.

On June 9, Le Monde Afrique ran an article asking How Did Mrs Zuma Mess Up (the AU)? It asserted that her tenure was characterised by a lack of vision and silence that “accelerated the decline of the AU”. All these failings were wilful, not inadvertent.

When she began her tenure, the AU confronted significant peace, security and governance challenges in Africa, institutional reform and social affairs.

When she first took the reins, South Sudan was wrestling with a transition to stable independence that threatened to get quite bloody. On the governance front, accountable government in Africa confronted growing authoritarianism with far-reaching implications for peace and security. Accountability for grave crimes by Africa’s leaders faced frustration in Kenya and Sudan. Many countries were in arrears of their dues and the AU was increasingly dependent on foreign governments and donors.

During her tenure, Africa confronted Ebola in West Africa; Yellow Fever in parts of southern Africa; climate change and food security challenges around the Sahel and Horn of Africa, plus an international migration crisis.

On each and all of these challenges, Dlamini Zuma was out to lunch or blissfully missing in action.

Under her watch, South Sudan descended into fratricide, the relationship of the AU and the ICC, whose prosecutor is another daughter of Africa, The Gambia’s Fatou Bensouda, collapsed.

At the summit that elected her in 2012, a high-level panel on alternative funding for the AU again chaired by former Nigerian president (Olusegun) Obasanjo had reported that “the current system of statutory contributions, which had been in place since the Organisation of African Unity days, has been deemed no longer adequate to meet the growing financing needs of the union due to greater operational requirements and increased scope of activities”. As she leaves, this report decorates the shelves of her $200 million (R2.8 billion) AU palace, constructed and donated by the Chinese.

Her lasting legacy is that civil society will be excluded from the AU summit that elects her successor.

During her time in office, the continent was allowed to squander the energies released by popular uprisings against authoritarianism. When Egypt’s army set upon young people whose only crime was to dare to dream of freedom in 2013, Dlamini Zuma lost her voice.

Under her watch, the god-President returned. In Congo-Brazzaville, Chad, Rwanda and Uganda, the elected presidents tore up the constitutions and installed themselves gods. In Burundi, where another president’s desire for god-presidency turned murderous, Dlamini Zuma conveniently outsourced her responsibilities and disappeared.

Her dereliction on governance now threatens the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the desire of the incumbent president for god-presidency meets a country unwilling to accept it.

In Burkina Faso, where the people toppled their presidential serial killer, Blaise Compaoré, after 27 years of repressive power, it was in spite of Dlamini Zuma’s complicit abdication, not because of her leadership.

But in social affairs, the extent of her dereliction would confound even her few most ardent admirers. As a trained medical professional, many credited her with the qualifications to care when the Ebola came calling in 2014. Characteristically, she abdicated on that too.

It held sway in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, but Dlamini Zuma avoided those countries. By contrast, Dr Donald Kaberuka, her counterpart at the African Development Bank, visited the countries to raise resources and compel the world to act.

Under her watch, thousands of Africans drowned crossing the Mediterranean into Europe. Many more have been slaughtered by the extremist al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Under her, the African life could well be worthless.

Two years after she was elected as chairwoman of the AU, Dlamini Zuma’s former husband to put her name on the ANC list for the 2014 general election in South Africa. It then became evident that, for her, Addis Ababa was a place to prepare for South Africa’s highest political prize.

She only cared about her ambitions back home. She just didn’t care about the African.

With her gone, many would be forgiven for screaming, good riddance!

* Odinkalu is a former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Nigeria. The views expressed here are his own.

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