Although the theme of the 19th Ordinary Assembly of the African Union (AU) Heads of State and Government, which ended on 16 July 2012 was “Boosting Intra-African Trade”, the Summit will be remembered more for the acrimonious election process which produced the Chairperson of the AU Commission, than for the deliberations on the chosen theme. The two candidates who vied for the post of the Chairperson of the Commission, Dr Jean Ping of Gabon and Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, ended up splitting AU right down the middle in such a way that the healing process is likely to take a long time.
At the last Summit held in January 2012, neither of the two candidates succeeded in getting enough votes to be elected, even when Dr Dlamini-Zuma withdrew after three rounds. The election was therefore deferred until the July session. It seemed almost like a formality for the AU to give the incumbent Chairperson another term; Dr Ping was not expecting any strong challenge for his position – and certainly not from South Africa – because of the unwritten rule that the AU “Big-Five” – Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa – should not contest for the position of the Union’s chief scribe. However, South Africa decided to break this “rule” with the support of Angola and several other countries in SADC. At first, their reasons were dissatisfaction with the way Dr Ping handled the invasion of Libya by NATO, and the role played by France in Côte d’Ivoire. Dr Ping was projected as a weakling, unable to stand up against what they considered the “recolonization of Africa”. In addition, South Africa and her supporters argued that with the on-going conflicts in DRC, Somalia, Mali and Guinea Bissau, the AU needed a more competent scribe than Dr Ping. Reminded that it voted at the UN Security Council in favour of Resolution 1973, which legitimized NATO’s invasion of Libya, and that Dr Ping, as the Chairperson of the AU Commission, could not be blamed for the sovereign action of AU member-states, South Africa introduced even more ridiculous arguments, including the false assertion that the SADC sub-region had not produced the any leader the Commission in its 49 years’ history. This argument exposed South Africa’s myopic sense of history, as Dr Salim Ahmed Salim of Tanzania (a member state of SADC) held that office for 12 years, the longest in the Commission’s history.
Beneath all these shenanigans, it was obvious to every discerning mind that South Africa had discovered that for the first time in the history of independent Africa, there was a real vacuum in the continent’s leadership and political influence. In South Africa’s strategic thinking, under the current scenario, the countries of North Africa are enmeshed in the dynamics of the Arab Spring, while Nigeria is grappling with its most serious security threats and domestic challenges since the end of the civil war in 1970. In Central Africa there is no leader worth reckoning with, while East Africa can be contained. Already, it has almost total control of the SADC region, except for one country that can murmur in muted tones from a safe distance. To South Africa, the political space in Africa is wide open; there is no African leader with the stature, charisma or political suavity of Obasanjo, Gaddafi or even Abdoulaye Diouf, to checkmate President Zuma, so in South Africa’s calculation there could not have been a better time to strike and take over the AU. Writing in the “Daily Maverick” of South Africa, Khadija Patel noted that “The campaign to deliver Dlamini-Zuma to the AU headquarters demonstrates South Africa’s ambition for greater political clout in multilateral organizations, a hunger for more power and deep-seated need to be recognized as a power-broker”. Indeed, never before in the history of the AU or its precursor OAU, has an African country come out in such a brazen manner to pursue its narrow ambition at the expense of continental unity as South Africa did at the 19th AU Assembly. The founders of OAU/AU have been able to surmount all obstacles in their struggle against colonialism and Apartheid because their inspiration was the unity and solidarity of all Africa’s people. In all fairness, the current dangerous overbearing posture which South Africa has brought into the AU through her caustic campaign strategy would not have taken place under Mandela or Mbeki, who had a better sense of how much South Africa owed the continental body.
When South Africa indicated its interest in vying for the Chair of the Commission, Egypt, Algeria and Libya were as flabbergasted as Nigeria, but in the end it became a showdown between South Africa and Nigeria only. At the 18th Summit, under the leadership of President Jonathan, ECOWAS, Kenya, Ethiopia and several Francophone countries in Central Africa, blocked South Africa’s inordinate ambition, and this resulted in the withdrawal of Dr Dlamini-Zuma from the contest. In spite of this, Dr Ping could not muster enough votes to be re-elected because South Africa was hell-bent on stalemating the election if it could not win, not caring a hoot how this would damage the image of the AU. The AU G-8, chaired by President Boni Yayi of Benin, was eventually established with the mandate of resolving the crisis. But while both South Africa and Angola – the sponsors of Dr Dlamini-Zuma – worked their way into the Group, Nigeria was out. And that was when South Africa won the battle, through the use of advanced political chicanery and no-holds-barred subterfuge. President Boni Yayi’s role was also suspect: otherwise how could a candidate who withdrew openly find herself back in the contest through the instrumentality of the G-8? It was very unsettling to read in several South African papers that their country’s campaign strategy was based on the “Gaddafi Model”, i.e. using money to “bribe the poor Francophone countries”! It has now been revealed that South Africa’s campaign juggernaut was “graciously funded” by Angola, which wants to take its own pound of flesh from Nigeria over Guinea Bissau.
The rivalry for power and influence between Nigeria and South Africa can also not be completely ignored as a factor that complicated the election, but Nigeria and indeed many African countries also genuinely believed that South Africa was only trying to kick out Dr Ping by all means in pursuance of its hegemonic designs on the continent. In addition, ECOWAS leaders had agreed to support the re-election bid of the Gabonese candidate even before South Africa declared its interest, so for many (but evidently not all) ECOWAS countries it was also a matter of group solidarity. However, the failure of President Jonathan to attend the Summit and the absence of the Ethiopian leader was a big blow to Dr Ping’s supporters, and not even the presence of the Gabonese President, who wore a long face throughout the proceedings, could have been comforting to Dr Ping. To add insult to injury, South African stories about the absence of President Jonathan began to make the rounds. On the day of the election it was alleged that Nigeria had secretly agreed to withdraw her support for Dr Ping, because of the support that South Africa and Angola had given Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala when she contested the Presidency of the World Bank last April. To buttress their point, they recalled Vice President Namadi Sambo’s interview at the end of the last Nigeria-South Africa Bi-National Commission session, in which he said that Nigeria and South Africa would cooperate in both AU and UN. This was interpreted to mean that Nigeria would drop her support for Dr Ping in favour of Dr Dlamini-Zuma. Even more disturbingly, after Dr Dlamini-Zuma had been declared the winner, some South African delegates falsely claimed that Nigeria had also voted for their candidate! The desperation, falsehood and campaign of calumny used by South Africa deeply troubled many African countries because it became increasingly clear that South Africa had more in mind than simply offering the services of one of her distinguished citizens to Africa.
The decision of President Jonathan not to attend the Summit or ask Vice-President Namadi Sambo to represent him has really caused incalculable damage to the reputation of Nigeria. There was no reason for Nigeria to stake her credibility over this election, if the country knew that it would not be fully committed, at the highest level of government to the contest. Some of the countries that allegedly switched side in the middle of the night – DRC, Benin, Burundi and Central African Republic – might not have done this so easily if President Jonathan had been there. The absence of President Jonathan and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who was receiving medical treatment abroad, paved the way for President Zuma to mow down the remaining resistance to the South African candidate.
However, the saddest aspect of the election of Dr Dlamini-Zuma, was the way South Africa openly presented it as a “Victory over Nigeria”. Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director of the South African Institute for Security Studies (ISS) put it more graphically, garnishing it with some chuckles: “The Nigerians are shell-shocked”. He might be correct, as one member of Nigeria’s delegation at the venue could not help crying openly when Dr Zuma’s victory was announced. It was obvious that South Africa knew what it wanted and it went all out for it. While our preparation was to fight an election, South Africa’s preparation was to fight a war!
However, in spite of the absence of President Jonathan, one should give a lot of credit to our Foreign Minister, Ambassador Olugbenga Ashiru and the Nigerian delegation to the Summit for the brave manner in which they represented Nigeria. I have known Ambassador Ashiru for over 30 years, but before the Summit I would not have vouched so much for his strength of character and determination in the face of so much underhand and adversary. In spite of considerable protocol constraints, the Minister tried to convey Nigeria’s position to many Heads of State. When it was becoming increasingly clear that one ECOWAS Head of State was selling out, Ambassador Ashiru sent a clear message to him that “there would be consequences” for that action. Sadly, the Minister was forced by circumstances to fight with his hands tied behind his back!
The deed has been done, and it is high time we moved forward with a clearer sense of mission. This incident may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, for Nigeria now has to take a critical look at her Africa Foreign Policy, to ensure that in the future we do not allow South Africa to have an easy ride where we are competing for power and influence. I am sure that the Ministry will soon have a Situation-Room meeting to review the outcome of the 19th AU Assembly. I would recommend that we also quickly decide our AU strategy under the Dlamini-Zuma chairmanship of the Commission. Nigeria should mark Dr Zuma bumper-to-bumper, to ensure that she does not turn the AU Commission into an instrument of South African foreign policy. We should be on a permanent vigil over all recommendations and actions taken by the office of the new Chairperson of the AU Commission, especially on reform of the UN Security Council. Here, although I congratulate the newly elected AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, I know she has herculean task, being a Nigerian. We should, therefore, ensure that the she is sufficiently empowered to function effectively and diligent enough to guard against all duplicitous moves.
The reasons for this go beyond mere wounded national pride. In several multilateral negotiations, South Africa does not take sides with Africa. When it suits it, South Africa is with Africa; but where it finds it more convenient, it is with BRICS or even Latin America, often at the expense of Africa. Sadly some of these chameleonic policies started when Dr Dlamini-Zuma was Foreign Minister of South Africa. We should use the entire arsenal at our disposal to check any infraction by Dr Dlamini-Zuma, especially in respect of long-standing decisions taken by AU. In a press conference a day to the election, Dr Zuma surprisingly repeated the false statement disseminated earlier by the South African press, that Dr Peter Onu of Nigeria was Secretary-General of OAU for two years, therefore, South Africa would not be the first to violate the “unwritten rule”. I could not believe that would come from her, and I just wondered whether she was being deliberately dishonest, or simply gullible. Well, just for the records: When Dr Edem Kodjo vacated his seat as Secretary-General and the OAU could not elect a successor, Dr Peter Onu, as the most senior official was asked to head the OAU Secretariat as Acting Secretary-General from 1983-1985. Indeed, in 1985 when a new Secretary-General was to be elected, several countries requested Nigeria to nominate Dr Onu to run for the election, but General Buhari refused. Ironically, when Edi Oumarou, who came from a town in Niger less than 100 kilometres from Daura, Buhari’s hometown was elected, there were innuendos from some Nigerian papers. It was, therefore, not correct to allege that a Nigerian had once been the Secretary-General of the OAU.
The AU is more than any country in Africa, and Nigeria’s historic commitment to the Union should not be diluted by anything. However, Nigeria’s annual assessed contribution of $16 Million to the AU should no longer be taken for granted. Crudely put, we must insist on value for our money. Even more urgent now, the recommendations of the Obasanjo-led High-Level Panel on Alternative Sources of Financing the AU, should be looked into more critically by Nigeria. The burden of three areas of raising additional funds for the AU recommended by the Panel – tax on Petroleum Products; Cell Phone SMS; and Air Tickets – would fall more on Nigeria than any other African country. It is now up to Dr Dlamini-Zuma to show to Nigeria that she is more an African than South African. If she does, she can be sure of Nigeria’s cooperation in spite of the manner of her election.