Jean Ping fighting to keep top AU job

2012-07-12 09:09

Addis Ababa - Gabonese career diplomat Jean Ping is fighting tooth and nail to keep his job as African Union Commission chair since the challenge of a rival candidate from the continent's powerhouse South Africa.

Ping, 69, and at the helm of the AU since 2008, could normally have taken his re-election for granted - in view of a tacit AU rule whereby any outgoing chair who wants a second term automatically gets it.

But South Africa's campaign to make home affairs and former foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma the first woman head of the pan-African body has shaken Ping's comfortable position.

Normally unfailingly courteous, Ping earlier this week lashed out at what he said was a campaign of "malicious lies and innuendoes" on the part of South Africa "to tarnish my hard-earned reputation and destabilise" his campaign.

"I refuse to lower the moral threshold for this campaign and hope that all involved in the election will also conduct a clean and decent campaign that brings honour to Africa," he said in the unusually direct statement.

After neither candidate clenched the two-thirds majority needed at a summit in January, they will face off again in Addis Ababa on 15 July, with a decision expected late the following day.

Prior to landing the top AU job in 2008, Ping held a series of ministerial portfolios including information, foreign affairs and mines in his native Gabon, becoming deputy prime minister in 2007.

An extrovert, Ping is equally at ease in English and French and is always immaculately turned out.

Drawn and impassive

At the January summit, late night meetings and the strain of the deadlocked vote seemed to have taken their toll: he appeared looking drawn and impassive.

Before he embarked on his ministerial career, Ping, who has a doctorate in economics from France's Sorbonne University, was an international civil servant for the Paris-based Unesco.

Because of his longstanding ties with Paris, he is sometimes seen as a French proxy, a claim he has made strenuous efforts to deny.

Ping's father was a Chinese forester who married a Gabonese, and his Asian ancestry has earned him the nickname "Mao".

Ping married the eldest daughter of the late President Omar Bongo, with whom he has two children. He later married an Ivorian, and is now a father of eight.

Appreciations of Ping's performance in the AU job are mixed. He has been criticised for failing to hammer out a cohesive and effective resolution to the recent crises on the continent from the 54-member body.

"He hasn't been able to reconcile these very divergent perspectives," said Phil Clark, politics professor at London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

Deep divisions

"As a result of that we have ended up with the AU sitting on its hands while countries like Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast] and Libya implode in front of our eyes," he added.

However, others say it would have been impossible for the AU to come up with a unified position on those two crises, given the deep divisions between African nations.

Ping himself has dismissed the criticism of his "supposed inability" with such crises, instead accusing South Africa of widening divisions over Libya and Ivory Coast.

During his tenure, Ping also formed important links with Turkey, India and most notably China, which financed the $200m construction of the new AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.

"While he's very weak at building cohesion within Africa itself, he does seem to have been much more effective than previous African leaders at building these key alliances externally," Clark added.