How to chose the next AU Chairperson

In the next few months, the African Union is set to choose its next Chairperson: the woman or man who will lead the Commission and guide the entire continent for the next four years, or possibly eight. It’s a hugely important post, and Africans should care who fills it.

The Chairperson is in charge of realizing Africa’s ‘Agenda 2063’, and implementing all the current programmes of the AU, including overseeing the African peace and security architecture, the African governance architecture, and ensuring that the AU is adequately financed for the tasks it needs to do. Five years ago the AU spelled out five criteria for choosing the candidate: education; experience; leadership; achievement; and vision and strategy. That’s a start.

But Africa shouldn’t be content with a person who meets the standards. Africans should demand the very best person for the job. And a truly demanding job it is too. It demands visionary leadership, political credibility and acumen, and managerial skills. It is not a job for a political crony, but for a person who can truly reach out and inspire the African people.

The Chairperson is selected by member states at the Assembly of Heads of State and Government (the summit) which this year will be in Kigali in June.

But the African Union is more than an inter-governmental organization. It stemmed from the Pan African Movement, which was a people’s movement. Africa’s independence era leaders, such as Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and Julius Nyerere, all arose from a continent-wide movement of trade unions, teachers, intellectuals, peasants and civil society. The African Union is not just a multilateral organization, it is an aspirational union, a representation of the common demands of ordinary people across the continent for unity, dignity and emancipation.

This year, the United Nations is also selecting a new Secretary General. As with the AU, the decision is ultimately in the hands of its member states. But the UN has recognized that the legitimacy of the organization ultimately rests on its standing with the people of the world. So, the candidates for the top job have been required to attend public hearings, to answer questions from the world’s citizens, directly or online. They need to explain to the people why they want the job, what they intend to achieve, how they plan to pursue the major goals of the UN.

The AU has a stronger historic claim to be a people’s organization than the UN. The Pan African Movement has diplomatic status at the AU (a role that it isn’t currently filling). The Constitutive Act contains foundational commitments to upholding constitutionalism, democracy, human rights and peace, and to preventing atrocities. AU has the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC). It has the Pan African Parliament, which is the closest approximation to the voice of the people within the AU system. The Pan African Parliamentarians, in their role as the representatives of the African citizens, should discharge their responsibility by assessing the credentials of the candidates. What better role could there be for the ECOSOCC and the Pan African Parliament than to call the candidates for the top job for hearings to present their candidacies and explain what they plan to do?

The AU could also use social media to reach a much wider African audience, so that people across the continent can pose questions to their next leaders.

Most of the discussion about who should lead the AU has come down to the question of which part of the continent the candidate comes from. We seem to expect that the AU leadership is chosen through a sort of rotational system, whereby each region has its turn. While there is some validity to the principle of rotating the Chairperson across the different regions, so that all Africans have a buy-in, this should not be at the expense of choosing the best candidate. Strictly adhering to the regional principle could readily become a conduit for cronyism.

The debate should be about how Africa can select a chief executive who is a leader of global stature, who upholds and protects the vision and principles formulated in the Constitutive Act, and who represents Africa on the world stage.

The next AU Chairperson must be able to tackle the continent’s most serious challenges. With the continent these include negotiating peace agreements, dispatching peacekeepers, advancing regional integration, and promoting the principles of democratic constitutionalism. There are also transregional and global debates in which Africa’s voice needs to be heard. One of these is engaging with the Arab countries and the Europeans on the ‘shared spaces’ of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea and the crises associated with them. Another is reforming the UN and enhancing Africa’s place within the UN, including the question of a permanent African seat at the Security Council.

The AU will be at the forefront of tackling these and other challenges, and the Chairperson must be up to the job—from day one. Africa does not lack the highly experienced and capable leaders who can master these tasks, and assemble a dynamic and capable team of advisors and lieutenants able to ensure that the Commission fulfills its roles. The next Chairperson, whoever he or she may be, must be one of those experienced and capable leaders: somebody with the breadth of knowledge and skill, global reputation, courage and well-earned respect. We need the very best.

If getting the best means delaying the selection, and making the choice next January in Addis Ababa rather than this June in Kigali, so be it. The AU will be stronger for an open and consultative selection process, and the vibrant public debate that will go with it.

The choice of the Chairperson of the AU is a continental leadership challenge. Africa won its liberation when it replaced entitlement to office based on birth and colour of skin, with the career open to talents, not identity. Africa should take this principle forward by ensuring that the choice of the new Chair of the AU Commission is selected by a new, consultative and transparent process, that draws on the AU’s Pan African heritage and its consultative and representative institutions.

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