​ AU Commission Elections: from electoral progression to retrogression

The African Union Commission election takes place in Kigali Rwanda this week with fewer nominations of women candidates for key positions

African leaders have failed women in leadership

African leaders have failed women in leadership

It has been four years since the controversial election of South Africa’s Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The controversy was due to South Africa’s violation of the unwritten rule that the AU chairperson’s post should only be filled by candidates from smaller African countries. The way South Africa campaigned also upset many AU member states. The 2012 elections for the position of chairperson drew enormous attention and was the most tightly contested election in the relatively brief history of the AU. Despite the negative controversy though, Dlamini-Zuma’s election as the first chairwomen of the Commission reflected substantial progress about AU gender issues.

The 2012 election also drew a lot of interest and stimulated debate about the Commission and the AU in general. There was hope among many that the 2012 contest set a higher standard for future AU, particularly in terms of profile, gender, the number of nominations and the quality of the candidates. There was also a strong expectation for  newly elected AU Commission representatives would become more competitive and that their mere incumbency would not become a guarantee for future re-election. 

However, the relatively sparse number of candidates featuring in the coming elections places a substantial damper on earlier expectations. 

Fewer nominations of women candidates

in the first AUC elections held in 2003, more than 70 candidates competed for the Commissioner posts. By 2008 these numbers had declined to 45, and in 2012 there were only 29 candidates. Now, for the 2016 elections, after 3 disqualifications and 1 late withdrawal, 32 candidates will throw their hats into the election ring. Another crucial concern about the current nominations is the sharp decline in the anticipated competency profiles of the various candidates, particularly those seeking the post of Chairperson. For example, Professor Alpha Konare, the first chair of the Commission from 2003-2008, was a former Malian head of state. 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 comparatively less impressive.

Too few nominations to shortlist 

The 2012 election looked very competitive. In fact, the 2012 election was far from competitive because the election for the post of chairperson took place by default, not by design. Therefore, a closer look at the numbers and manner of nominations for the position of AU chairperson and deputy, and the profiles of the various candidates, shows that nominations actually deteriorated in terms of numbers and perceived competence. For example, in 2012, North Africa, which was entitled to two seats on the Commission, nominated only two candidates. Consequently, the nomination process and the actual election were effectively uncompetitive.

The current nomination is even worse. The nomination is also unreasonably skewed to some regions and countries. While central Africa with 32.2 percent of the total nomination leads, nominations from Western and Eastern African regions only constitute 25 percent and 20 percent respectively. Southern Africa remains the least with 5 percent of the nominations. Of the 26 AU member states that presented candidates, Cameroon alone with 8 candidates constitutes 20 percent, is the leading country, followed by Egypt with 10 percent of the candidates. 

Regression in nominations and numbers of female candidates

Another regressive aspect of the current nomination process is the fact that the number of female candidates has declined from 60 percent in 2012 to 35 percent participation in 2016. For instance, six election candidates for the positions of Deputy Chairperson and Economic Affairs Commissioner are males, while candidates for one of these posts are all females. Given that the rules of the AU require half the members of the commission to be females, fifteen women are currently competing for five posts and twenty-five men are vying for the remaining five posts. On a more positive note, two of the three candidates for AUC Chairperson are females. 

Declining numbers or systematic failure?

So, do declining numbers of candidates and their diminished profiles indicate a systemic failure of the AU? Is this decline symptomatic of the low standing of the AU and its constituent units—the Member States? What are the real causes of such failures and what can be done to address them?

Member States are the main causes of the decline in the numbers and profiles of AU Commission election candidates. Member States are also responsible for the poor strategic direction exhibited in the election of candidates to the various AU organs.

It’s impossible to exaggerate the importance of the AU Commission elections. Although AU member states are the component parts of the organization, the Commission is the engine that drives the machine. The election of competent AU Commission office bearers is therefore crucially important. The well-considered nomination of candidates for election is no less important, a responsibility that resides squarely in the respective political domains of Member States. 

Dependent on political determination by African leaders, and actual reform of the nomination process at national levels, the AU could reverse or at least arrest its current retrogression and restore progressive election practices. The first step should be to postpone the Commission’s July 2016 elections to January 2017. A second step would be to effectively reform the national level nomination practices and then to re-open the nomination process to participation by additional candidates.

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