AU Commission Elections: From Bad To Worse? – Analysis


By Mehari Taddele Maru*

Elections for the AU Commission should pass the same rigorous test and uphold the principles that the continental body requires from Member States. Intensive election competition, emanating from a genuine commitment to the Pan-African agenda and with a vision to provide better leadership, would signify marked differences from the past and would result in a more effective and efficient AU.

It has been four years since the controversial, highly contested and divisive campaign and election of the current chairperson of the AU Commission Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 2012. With Dr Dlamini Zuma’s incumbency coming to an end and her decision not to run for a second term, once again the upcoming July 2016 AU Commission elections have aroused the interest of many commentators and stimulated further debate. Most related articles written recently have rightly indicated the importance of the AUC and called for the AU to address the elections of its leaders with the appropriate amount of seriousness and consideration.

Tried and true, it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of these elections to the AU Commission. The AUC serves as the collaborative platform for all AU organs. The chairpersons and the commissioners are pivotal in the allocation of resources and determination of the AU’s agenda. More importantly, it plays the role of initiating and facilitating norm-setting, norm-diffusion, and the coordination of norm-implementation and supervision. It prepares the strategic plans of the Union, provides administrative, secretarial and substantive expertise to other organs of the AU, including the AU Assembly, the Executive Council and the Peace and Security Council. It also promotes a collective African voice and defends the position of Africa in the world.

Could these recent extensive media coverages and Pan African conversations of concern rekindle the hope that AUC elections will progressively meet the demands of Africans for competitive and meritocratic elections? As revealed in the candidatures’ list, this is inconceivable.

Even more, the nationalities of the candidates compel one to ponder more about this election. An interesting aspect of the candidature list is the fact that some of the candidates are from countries that are new entrants to the AUC elections. Botswana, rarely known for its competition in Pan African institutions, has a candidate for the top post of the chairperson. Somalia and Djibouti have for the first time forwarded candidates for the post of deputy chairperson. Ghana’s former representative to the AU is also running for the same post. Lesotho’s candidate is also running against a candidate from Cameroon for the post of Economic Affairs, rendering a competition between two male candidates.

The four top tier budget contributor Member States (Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa) with 48 percent of the total budget) have only five (16 percent) of the 32 candidates for commissioner posts. None of the top tier nominated a candidate for the post of the Chairperson or the Deputy Chairperson. Of the four top tier budget contributors, Algeria is seeking re-election of the incumbent Amb Smail Chergui, while Egypt has four candidates, thereof, making Egypt with the highest number of candidates, and eighty percent of the candidatures of the top tier contributors. Could this be an indication of change of African policy of Egypt? What primed South African government decision not to fill any candidate for the AUC after the bitter fight for the post of chairperson four years ago? Did it break its eggs by putting them in one basket? In contrast, is Egyptian diplomatic focus now shifted southward, and now bestowing Africa highest importance? Why? Nigeria nominated a new candidate for Peace and Security while failing to seek re-election of the incumbent commissioner of Political Affairs. Later in the process it withdrew its candidate altogether. What considerations informed such drastic decisions?

In this piece I deliberately only deal both with nominations and candidates but with more focus on nominations, as they could be a better indication of the root causes of the muted competition and low level of importance Member States accord to the elections, and thereby the AU organs.

Gender and geographic representation: Legitimacy through meritocracy or/and representation?

The first step in the election process of the leadership of the AU Commission is for the Member States or/and five regions of the AU to forward the names of their candidates in response to calls by the Office of the Legal Counsel of the Commission. Five regions consolidate candidates of Member States to eight commissioner posts and could propose two candidates for each constituting eighty candidates continental pool of commissioners. Of these, the laws of the AU require at least one of the candidates for each region should be a female, leading to forty males, and forty female candidates. The Counsel convenes the Team of Consultants that assesses the documentations and CVs of the nominations and grades them accordingly to a set of marking rules. After a final vetting process by Ministerial Panel that reviews the Report of the Team of Consultants, a shortlist is prepared. As Ministerial Panel only considers the candidates for Commissioners, not the chairs, the vetting process for the Chair and Deputy has to wait for the Summit.

Too few nominations to shortlist

Twelve years ago, in the first elections in 2003, there were more than seventy-three candidates for the post of commissioners. In contrast, in 2008 the number of candidates declined by almost half to forty-five, and in 2012 this number declined even further to twenty-nine. Now, for the 2016 elections, we only have thirty-two candidates (after three were disqualified who failed to fulfil the minimum CV requirements 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. The leadership experience and professional profiles of some of the current candidates are somewhat less impressive.

Retrogressive trend continues: Declining Nominations, and Dwindling Competition   

Far from being a competitive election by design, the 2012 AU Commission election by default metamorphosed into an intensively fought campaign that put the AU in the limelight. Since 2004, the number of nominations received by the Legal Counsel of the AU Commission has been drastically declining. In 2012, Central Africa forwarded the greatest number of nominations. Entitled to two posts at the AU Commission leadership, North Africa nominated only two, rendering the nomination and the subsequent election uncompetitive. Similarly, the incumbent Deputy Chairperson ran alone without a challenger and thereby reduced the election for this high post into a vote of confidence.

A competitive election requires adequate numbers of nominations and competent candidates. While the AU’s member states are required to nominate eighty (80) candidates, the continental pool in 2012 had only twenty-five candidates. Consequently, the 2012 elections were characterized by a sharp decline in the submission of nominations. The Ministerial Panel for the Election of Commissioners and the Team of Consultants noted their concerns that the “limited number of candidatures … could be an impediment to the potential of selecting the most competent candidates for the portfolios.” Member States tend to attach minimum importance to the elections. Most of the 2012 submissions were made accompanied by incomplete documentation. In the 2012 election, an AU Member State actually nominated a candidate who had no university education. The Team of Consultants excluded this particular nominee on the grounds that the candidate lacked the minimum AU requirement of a university degree. In fact, no region “complied with the rules and modalities for presentation of candidates.” These actions indicate a lack of rigor and due diligence in the nomination process.

In 2012 Member States and regions also forwarded the names of incumbent leaders of the AU Commission as nominees. In this regard, the Ministerial Panel pointed out that the “fact that no appraisal performance report was submitted for the incumbent Commissioners seeking re-election” contributed to the uncompetitive nature of the elections.

Decreasing numbers of female candidates

Another regressive aspect of the current election process is the fact that the number of female candidates has declined from sixty percent of all candidates in 2012 to thirty-eight percent in 2016. For instance, six candidates for the Deputy Chairpersonship and the Economic Affairs portfolio are male, while all candidates for the Trade and Industry Commission are females. Given that the rules of the AU require that half the commission be female, all fifteen female candidates are effectively competing for five posts, while twenty-five male candidates are vying for the remaining five posts.

Reform of the AU elections

Elections at the Commission need to indicate generational progress towards meeting of the demands of the new generation, the creation of a meritocratic, competitive and gender sensitive Pan-African political landscape. Intensive election competition emanating from a genuine commitment towards a Pan-African agenda, with the vision to provide a better quality of leadership, would certainly signify a marked departure from the past and could result in a more effective and efficient AU. More importantly, if well planned and maintained such competitive elections could enhance the relevance of the AU to its Member States and indirectly to the peoples of Africa.

Furthermore, as the premier integrity guarantor for African elections, the AU needs to achieve a higher standard for the elections of its own leaders.  As the norm-setting body on democratic principles, free and fair elections on the continent, the AU should maintain the highest possible threshold of ethical standards for its leadership elections. The elections for the AU Commission should pass the same rigorous test and uphold the principles that it requires from Member States. Intensive election competition, emanating from a genuine commitment towards the Pan-African agenda and with a vision to provide better leadership, would certainly signify marked differences from the past and would result in a more effective and efficient AU.

The current nominations reflect no such indication of progress. Instead, they are characterized by regression both in quality and quantity. Hence, the upcoming July election offers an opportunity for overhauling and improving the quality of the elections of the various AU organs.

But what measures are required to ensure highly competitive, participatory and representative elections at the AUC?

Overhauling the election process: Towards meritocracy

In 2012, a piece entitled Rethinking and Reforming the AUC Elections, published by Oxford University, identified and examined major shortcomings in the elections of the AU Commission and pinpointed the legal lacunas in the rules of procedure.[2] With a futuristic perspective, the article identified a few areas of reform and forwarded recommendations for more free, fair and credible elections as well as the highest possible public participation and meritocratic competition with the highest ethical standards. Nevertheless, none of these recommendations were heeded except some minor reforms in the election procedure. Key among my recommendations was the need to rethink and reform the nomination process of candidates by member states. The most binding constraint for transformation required a reversal of the low level of importance Member States devote to the AU elections. Without Member States committing to high political urgency and giving greater weight to the elections, no reforms can yield the desired quality of leadership in AU organs that is required to effectively address the challenges facing Africa and its people. Such changes will also ensure the existence of a popularly legitimate and effective leadership at the AU Commission.

The current nomination process lacks transparency at the national level and is not competitive. If the identified shortcomings and failures are addressed effectively, the 2016 election could provide an excellent opportunity to reverse the sharp decline in the quality and submission of nominations that have dogged the past three elections.

The first measure for the 2016 July Summit should be to reject politically expedient election compromises, postpone the elections to January 2017 and re-open the nomination process. As a second measure, criteria for candidacy in the elections should focus on meritocracy and integrity. A clear vision and effective strategic approach that collectively demonstrate a Pan-African commitment and understanding of the AU need to constitute the main elements of the vetting process. One’s achievements and the quality of leadership, corroborated by the popular and performance legitimacy of the candidate in previous posts, should be graded far higher than educational background and prior experience in the current vetting system. As a third consideration, the AU needs to ensure the observance of required criteria by member states and regions. Failure to submit the required documents and evidence of competence of the nominees should be sufficient reason for disqualification. New candidates should be strictly evaluated and incumbent contenders should be appraised based on their popular and performance legitimacy during their incumbency.

A fourth factor could be regions should also ensure that their Member States observe the stated AU rules and criteria in order for them to propose their best candidates for the continental electoral pool. A fifth consideration, and possibly the most essential, is that member states should establish transparent and popular mechanisms for nominations at the national level. Governments need to encourage the highest possible competition at national level through public announcements. In reality this may require the allocation of resources for such a process, but such a procedure would require governments to accord the AU the importance it deserves as the premier continental institution of governance in Africa. Through such national processes, the AU would also be close to the eyes and hearts of the African people.

Finally, ensuring the integrity of the election process demands serious attention and further work by the AU. In this regard, a code of conduct should be developed for future elections at the AU. In the long-term, the AU needs to adopt election voting quotas based on population size. This would ensure an effective process towards transforming the AU from a ‘union of states’ to a ‘union of African peoples’.

* Dr Mehari Taddele Maru is a scholar of international law, and currently a member of the AU High Level Advisory Group, and a specialist in peace and security, migration, public administration and management.

[1] CH: Chairperson, DCH: Deputy Chairperson, PA: Political Affairs, IE: Infrastructure and Energy, SA: Social Affairs, HRST: Human Resources, Science and Technology, TI: Trade and Industry, REA: Rural Economy and Agriculture.

[2] Mehari Taddele Maru, Rethinking and Reforming the Africa Union Commission Elections, African Security Review, 21.4, Pp. 64-78, Taylor and Francis Group, ISSN 1024-6029 print / 2154-0128 online, available from… (accessed 31 October 2012).

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