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Leadership change is no progress for the African Union

By Peter Run - posted Thursday, 19 July 2012

On Sunday, African heads of governments replaced Dr. Jean Ping of Gabon with Mrs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa as chair of the African Union Commission (AUC). The AUC became the executive branch of the continental body when the Organisation of African Unity was reconstituted in July 2002. Under the outgoing chairman, Jean Ping, the AUC made some big mistakes.

First, Dr. Ping toned down the human rights posture the African Union adopted under his predecessor, Alpha Oumar Konaré. Mr. Konaré condemned human rights abuses as they occurred. He also led a very effective African Union that put soldiers in the deadly Darfur region of Sudan and coordinated the mediation of post-election violence in Kenya. By comparison, the African Union under Dr. Ping was an utter failure first in Ivory Coast and most spectacularly, in Libya and the Arab Spring more generally.

Second, the AUC has also been unable to broker any agreement between Sudan and South Sudan following a range of disagreement prompted by the latter's secession. In May, border conflict in the oil-producing region of Heglig/Panthou almost flared into a full-scale interstate war. These are substantive failures that Dr. Ping oversaw. Furthermore, Dr. Ping's managerial style known to be so dictatorial that it earned him the unsavoury moniker of Chairman Mao de Gabon among his colleagues. I consider the nickname unsavoury (or even racist) because Ping is the son of a Chinese immigrant and a Gabonese woman.


Some observers even suggest that his achievements resulted from his personal background rather than vision. Some of these achievements include attracting Chinese investment. Dr. Ping and Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguemaplayed the most important roles in its realisation. But Ping's Chinese ancestry is overplayed in informal narratives of this Afro-Chinese cooperation.

Additionally, Dr. Ping's decision to let the African Union step out of the way for a French-led intervention in the Ivory Coast tends to cast negative light on his Parisian links. He spent most of his formative years at the University of Paris where he earned all of his degrees, including a doctorate. Websites of reputable African newspapers contain complains that Dr. Ping's performance on the Ivorian situation suggests that he preferred French agency to his organisation's.

I think targeting Dr. Ping's ancestry or his educational background is unfair. However, these prejudicial attacks should not distract from the fact that the AUC achieved very little under his leadership. Furthermore, his part in the election campaign that unseated him will leave a lasting scar on AUC elections according to many observers. His campaign was too acrimonious for a candidate seeking governments', rather than a constituent's vote.

His successor, Mrs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, ex-wife of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, played an equally scarring role to secure the AUC chair. Despite the fanfare about her suitability and the gender gap her election potentially fulfils, she is hardly the best person for the position.

In the first place, her campaign to occupy this office is equally to blame for politicising a continent-wide diplomatic seat that has no history of publically antagonistic campaigns. Secondly, her record at the helm of South Africa's foreign policy speaks volumes. When she was the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Mbeki government, Mrs Dlamini-Zuma dismayed the Zimbabwean people and the world by appeasing the oppressive regime of Robert Mugabe not only in South Africa's foreign policy stance but also through the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

As she assumes the leadership of the African Union, the biggest problem the organisation is dealing with is the conflict between Sudan and its former civil war foe, South Sudan. Coincidentally, the mediator of this conflict is her former boss, Thabo Mbeki. Mr. Mbeki, by all objective criteria, has consistently failed to make headway in resolving the conflict. Mr. Mbeki's position became even more untenable earlier this year when the African National Congress, his and Mrs. Dlamini-Zuma's party signed a puzzling memorandum of understanding with Sudan's ruling National Congress Party headed by indicted genocidaire, Omar Al-Bashir and other war criminals.


So far South Sudanese have vocally expressed their concerns about Mbeki's impartiality as a mediator given the alliance between the ANC and the notorious Khartoum regime. While she cannot be blamed for this last point, Mrs Dlamini-Zuma's win, in light of everything else, is not a change for the better but quite simply a change in leadership. It is no different from all other meaningless state-level leadership changes we have seen in Africa over the years.

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About the Author

Peter Run is a PhD student and tutor at The School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland. He holds an MA in Journalism from the University of South Australia and is the Author of Theorising Cultural Conflict, VDM Publishing (2010).

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