Originally Published 2012-06-29 00:00:00 Published on Jun 29, 2012
The 18th African Union summit, held on January 30, ended without a clear winner for the contested position of the Commission's Chairperson. The election had taken place through a secret ballot and the two contenders for the position were the incumbent.
African Union- divisions within
The 18th African Union summit, held on January 30, ended without a clear winner for the contested position of the Commission’s Chairperson. The election had taken place through a secret ballot and the two contenders for the position were the incumbent, Mr. Jean Ping, from the Francophone Gabon and South Africa’s current Home Minister, Ms. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The Ad-Hoc committee of eight members has, since then, met twice without a final outcome regarding potential candidates for the second round of elections that are set to be held in July during the 19th summit.

A few months after the inconclusive elections, the organisation faced another challenge. On June 08, Malawi, were the next summit was scheduled to be held, announced its decision to not host the summit. The cabinet took this decision following AU’s insistence that Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, be present for the summit, while Malawi was against inviting him. The AU has since then decided to hold the next summit at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Unlike the post of the chairperson of the AU, which is held on a rotational basis and changed every year, the chairperson of the Commission, elected every four years, is invested with more powers and responsibility. As the head of the administrative branch of the organisation, the Chairperson of the Commission is responsible for the implementation of policies adopted by the organisation. Though Mr. Ping’s term ended in January, he has agreed to keep acting as the Chairperson till the next one is elected.

The fact that neither of the two contestants managed to receive the required two-thirds majority to win the elections is a clear reflection of the lack of unity and differing factions within the organisation. It also signifies the presence of affiliations towards regional blocs. The southern countries, which make up the 15 member Southern African Development Community (SADC), were clearly in support of Ms. Dlamini-Zuma. On the other hand, Mr. Ping, like the elections in 2008, received support from most of the countries in the central, northern and western regions. Even the bigger nations, such as Kenya and Nigeria, had reservations about giving so much power to South Africa and perhaps resented that South Africa had breached the unwritten law that the post of the chairperson will not be held by the five big countries who are the main financers of the Commission (Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Libya and Algeria). These are clear signs of how bloc affiliations are being held onto even within a pan-African organisation.

Since Ms. Joyce Banda took over as the President early this year, Malawi has decided to ban President Bashir from entering the country. Prior to that, President Bashir had visited Malawi last October when the country hosted the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Heads of State and Government Summit in its capital, Lilongwe. This shift in the country’s stand regarding President Bashir can be linked to its’ need for economic aid. President Banda has made it clear that her country will not host President Bashir as that would lead to the freezing of aid by international donors and that the country’s economic recovery and welfare is her first priority. Almost 40 per cent of Malawi’s economy is dependent on international aid. Though she has been criticised by some African leaders for placing national interest before African unity, it is true that as an ICC member state, like many other African nations, Malawi is obliged to cooperate with it and arrest President Bashir if he visits the country. Malawi’s decision has been supported and backed by Botswana.

While on the one hand the AU seeks full recognition on the international arena, on the other hand, it has defied ICC’s demands that it should arrest President Bashir and insisted that as the leader of an African nation he should be invited for all the summits. In 2009, the AU said it would not respect the ICC warrant and urged the United Nations to suspend the arrest order. The organisation has declared that the western powers should allow the continent to implement "African solutions to African problems".

According to the AU, President Bashir, as a current head of a state, is entitled to immunity from prosecution for any criminal offense. The organisation also insists that the state parties of the ICC cannot be required to surrender him for trail without the consent of Sudan, which is a non-part state of the ICC. Therefore, President Bashir cannot be tried or arrested while still in office. The argument for regional unity and peace is also offered by the Union. It fears that the arrest of President Bashir will break down the already strained peace process between Sudan and South Sudan. The differing stand taken by Malawi reflects the lack of unanimity within the Union regarding the issue. The divisions were, in fact, visible even before the ICC warrant was issued in 2009. During the 2007 AU summit, Chad’s President Idris Déby launched an attack on Sudan, accusing the regime of waging a genocide and racial war in Darfur and complaining that African and international leaders were failing to confront Khartoum on the issue.

Some of the African countries hold the view that the ICC is biased against Africa and its leaders, while it overlooks the crimes committed by the Western powers. Whether or not the rest of the African countries will slowly stand by the ICC and take note of the warrant against Bashir remains to be seen. However, what has become clear since the January summit is that unity within the AU still remains a distant dream as countries, such as Malawi, continue to prioritise their national interests over regional ones. These divisions will become more apparent if the organisation fails, yet again, to unanimously elect a Chairperson for the AU Commission during the second round of elections in July.

(The writer is a research assistant at Observer Research Foundation)

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