NAIROBI, KENYA—As heads of state meet amid the rolling hills of Kigali for the African Union summit, which kicks off Sunday, the biggest item on the agenda will be the selection of the next AU Commission chairperson.
The current chair, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma of South Africa, is to step down after holding the position for the last four years.
“I think it’s important to stress that who leads the African Union Commission matters,” said Elissa Jobson, advisor on African Union relations for the International Crisis Group. “And it matters immensely. The chairperson is responsible for shaping the continent’s economic, political and security agendas, and so it’s really key that they have the best candidate in this job.”
So far, there are three candidates. Two are current foreign ministers, one from Botswana and the other from Equatorial Guinea. The third candidate is Uganda’s former vice president and a former U.N. special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.
But Peter Pham, the director of the Washington-based Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, cautions that Dlamini Zuma’s successor may not come out of this summit, since a two-thirds majority vote is required.
“This time around, with three relatively unknown candidates, it might well be the case that a two-thirds majority is not achieved, and there is additional campaigning and the possibility that other candidates might throw their hats in the ring,” said Pham.
The leadership turnover doesn’t stop there. A new deputy chairperson and eight commissioners of the AU will also be selected, according to Monde Muyangwa, director of the Africa Program at the Wilson Center.
“So you have a huge leadership transition occurring at the African Union and so this is really going to determine which way does the African Union go,” said Muyangwa.
ICC issue simmers
Back in January, an AU ministerial committee was asked to draw up a strategy regarding the International Criminal Court, giving special consideration to whether AU member countries should leave.
Critics of the ICC point out that all of the cases it has investigated or prosecuted stemmed from Africa.
The committee said that in order to prevent an African withdrawal from the court, the ICC should grant immunity from prosecution to sitting heads of state and other senior officials. But that demand is at odds with many human rights activists, who say it would undermine the effectiveness of the court.
Elise Keppler, the associate director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch said, “Now whether or not the conclusions and assessments of that committee are going to be considered at this AU summit is not clear, although it’s important to note that we have seen again and again in the past few years that the issue of the ICC and AU attacks on the ICC regularly comes up very last minute, sometimes on the floor of the debate at the African Union summit. So really, we don’t know for sure now, but anything is possible.”
Pham doesn’t believe the ICC issue will become a priority at this particular summit, because no sitting head of state other than President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, is under threat, although he says in the long-term, the issue will be important.
“In many respects, the collapse of the ICC case against the president of Kenya, in a way took a bit of the urgency out of the African threat to withdrawal from the ICC,” he said.
War crimes court for South Sudan?
South Sudan will likely be discussed. HRW’s Keppler said the AU was tasked in the 2015 peace agreement to establish a hybrid court to prosecute crimes committed during the conflict, because the country is not a part of the ICC.
“And we’ve been looking to the African Union commission to get this process off the ground. I think a great outcome from the summit would be to see that there is encouragement for more progress,” said Keppler.
Last month, South Sudan’s leadership called on the international community to “reconsider” setting up that tribunal in an op-ed published in The New York Times.
Meanwhile, the 54-nation bloc will be issuing its first e-passports, which will go to AU heads of state, permanent representatives of these states and ministers of foreign affairs as part of a pilot program.
The goal of the new passport is to ease restrictions in the movements of people, goods and services across national lines.
“Which is a step at least symbolically in the direction of a closer union, a pan-African identity,” said Pham. “But the reality is that despite those aspirations and those ambitions, it’s not the want of passports that causes Africans not to travel to each other’s countries, and to trade and do business with each other. It’s the lack of transportation infrastructure that makes that. A passport won’t do you any good if you don’t have a road that will get you from one place to another, or you don’t have customs officials and customs clearing houses to expedite the passage of goods.”
Muyangwa expressed a bit more optimism that the e-passports will be more than just symbolic.
“I’ve been encouraged by the discussion on the benefits of this e-passport at the highest levels in Africa so hopefully this is something that you’re going to get more and more countries signing up for and hopefully becoming a reality in the next few years.”
The AU summit opens July 10 and culminates with the heads of state meeting on July 17 and 18.