The African Union extended the mandate of its commission chief after failing to elect a new head on Monday, highlighting the weakness of a group criticised for slow decision-making during political turmoil on the continent last year.
Former South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was up against incumbent commission chairman Jean Ping of Gabon, who failed to win an outright majority in four rounds of voting.
After hours of deliberations during which South Africa’s foreign minister said the deputy chairman would take over as interim commission chief, the African Union said it had decided to extend Ping’s mandate for a further six months until the next summit in Malawi in June.
“The elections were suspended in line with the provisions of our statute so we took the decision to extend the term of office of the chairperson, the deputy and his commissioners,” AU chairman Benin President Boni Yayi told reporters through a translator.
The commission is the AU secretariat’s top organ and the chair its public face.
A Western diplomat said the divisions showed how the power balance had shifted in the continent after the death of one of its main patrons, former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The AU was founded at a summit in his hometown of Sirte.
“It’s a fact despite what they say that Africa is divided. Things are changing, the balance of power among the regions are changing with the death of Gaddafi,” said the diplomat, adding power was shifting towards southern Africa.
Smaller countries said Zuma’s candidacy broke an unwritten rule that the continent’s dominant states do not contest the leadership. “South Africa’s decision to do so turns everything upside down,” a West African delegate said.
“You could say they may have not voted for Ping but the smaller countries are skeptical of the big countries,” he said.
Analysts said Ping’s attempts to juggle the diverse views of its 54 members had hampered decision-making on Libya after Gaddafi’s overthrow.
“The weakness that Jean Ping had was not being forthcoming in putting his own opinion… the commission is a bureaucracy and it doesn’t have its own position but that of member states,” Mahari Taddele Maru, an African Union analyst at International Security Studies said.
The AU recognised the National Transitional Council as Libya’s de facto government long after most Western nations. A Libyan delegate, describing the AU as “indecisive up to the last moment,” said the commission should be given more authority.
South Africa, which has complained the United Nations needs to pay more attention to the pan-African body, especially when it comes to African crises, had pushed Zuma’s candidacy hard, saying the AU needed strong leadership.
“The incumbent could not win a two-thirds majority after four rounds so this is very very clear, that leaders of this continent want change and they want it now,” South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane earlier said.
She said the rules dictated that the deputy chairman, Kenya’s Erastus Mwencha, would become interim chair until the next round of elections.
South African President Jacob Zuma’s failure to secure a majority for Dlamini-Zuma, his ex-wife, after Ping’s much criticised tenure dealt a blow to South Africa, which regards itself as an emerging power championing African causes, but is seen by some other states as a step behind global affairs.

Reuters

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