African Union summit: disunity on display

With the leadership of the African Union in question, old powers like France and new powers like China are vying for influence. Will peacekeeping missions and conflict resolution efforts suffer?

Ding Haitao/Xinhua/AP
The 18th assembly of African leaders opened at the African Union Conference Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Sunday.

For sheer murkiness, the African Union is in a world of its own.

Established back in 2002 to replace the older, less-organized Organization of African Unity, the African Union has ambitions of creating a common policy front so that 54 different African countries can confront what they see as an exploitative and richer world with one voice. It’s an ambition deeply rooted in the Pan-Africanist movement of Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere and Leopold Senghor, who wanted to do away with colonial borders and build on the common features and strengths of Africa culture to form a single African nation. But it's an ambition wrapped in profound distrust of other countries who would take advantage of Africa and its disunity.

Today, at the end of its 18th assembly of African leaders in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the AU is an organization that has begun to put action behind its words. It sends peacekeeping missions to the Darfur region of Sudan and to support the tottering transitional government in Somalia. Its leaders jet off to growing conflict zones such as post-election Ivory Coast and pre-war Libya and attempt to achieve peace through negotiation, with varying success. But is it any closer to creating a single voice on matters that affect all African states?

A fairly vicious battle for the AU’s top leadership position, as chairman of the AU Commission, shows that unity is still a distant goal.

The incumbent is Jean Ping, a Gabonese diplomat of mixed heritage. His father was a Chinese immigrant, his mother was Gabonese. Mr. Ping was educated in France, and rose up through politics to be chief of cabinet for the long-ruling Gabonese President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba. The magazine African Confidential quoted Ping as being largely uncritical of China’s growing role in Africa.

With China, everything is simple," Ping is quoted by African Confidential as saying. "She gives us debt forgiveness or long-term loans without interest or conditions.”

But Ping’s capabilities as a diplomat were not quite up to the exacting standards of South Africa.

During last year’s Libyan crisis, when South African President Jacob Zuma was attempting to broker a peace deal between Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and Libyan rebels, Ping was seen as inadequately standing up for the interests of the AU. Ping failed last March to broker a peace deal in Ivory Coast, after disputed elections turned into a brief civil war. Many South Africans fretted that his failure gave an opportunity for France to throw in its troops to oust former President Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to accept election results showing he had lost.

So when Ping’s job came up again for renewal, South Africa mounted a campaign to replace him. AU members did not accept South Africa’s alternative, the formidable former foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, but they did prevent Ping from getting the two-thirds majority vote required for another term. When the final votes were counted, and the AU was left without a leader, witnesses told the Monitor that South Africa’s delegation was dancing in the hall.

Ms. Dlamini Zuma, meanwhile, says that she will try again for the chairmanship, when Ping’s extended six month tenure ends.

One thing that most African diplomats can agree on these days is that Africans need to protect their interests against the power of former colonial powers, such as France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and their perceived supporters, such as the United States. Another thing many Africans can agree with is that they still need outside foreign assistance, as long as that assistance comes with few strings attached. That’s why China, and to a lesser extent, India are welcomed in Africa.

At the AU summit, a senior Chinese diplomat, Jia Qinglin, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said all the right things.

“…we must fully respect the efforts of African countries in resolving African issues independently. In recent years, Africa has steadily built up its capacity to independently address African issues. Facts have proven that African countries are able and wise enough to do so. The international community should provide support and help to the resolution of African issues. China believes that such help should be based on respect for the will of the African people and should be constructive. It should reinforce, rather than undercut, Africa's independent efforts to solve problems. Interference in Africa's internal affairs by outside forces out of selfish motives can only complicate the efforts to resolve issues in Africa.”

China has not been shy about getting involved in Africa, as the recent construction of the AU's new headquarters -- built by Chinese companies -- clearly illustrates. But while China is clearly giving money in order to secure access to natural resources, it does not give African leaders a lecture on how to run their countries, how to protect civil liberties or human rights, or how to run the public treasury. 

In the end, it may have been “outside interference” by old colonial powers that cost Ping his job. Speaking with South Africa’s Independent newspaper, the Mozambican Foreign Minister Oldemiro Baloi, confirmed that AU members were turned off by the “interference” of outsiders, and separately, South African and other southern African participants confirmed that intense lobbying by the French ambassador to Ethiopia in favor of Ping made many AU members see him as France’s man.

Normally, AU members would have voted to extend Ping’s chairmanship but, “because we felt this was not just a discussion between Africans – and that is why Ping did not win on the fourth round.” Mr. Baloi did not specifically name France, but did say, “I cannot mention the name of the country, but there was outside interference, not only in the election, but also in some of the dossiers under discussion, such as the question of Madagascar.”

Now the AU is in a kind of leadership limbo. Ping has been given a six-month extension, a leader without a mandate, until another vote can be held at a summit in June or July. With an ongoing election crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with growing tensions between Sudan and South Sudan, with an increasingly bloody war and killing famine in Somalia, with electoral troubles brewing in Senegal, and the challenges of restoring peace in Libya and Egypt, this is a time when Africa could use a unified voice.

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