The AU’s Polokwane

2012-07-14 14:37

If the heads of state meeting fails, the result could be a stalemate until January

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, by any standards, is an impressive woman.

She is a distinguished foreign minister and, if Muammar Gaddafi had his way, she would have been the prime minister of the Union of Africa, Gaddafi’s pipe dream.

She was elected the president of the World Conference on Racism and served as deputy chairperson on UNAIDS. She even helped South Africa secure the hosting of the Soccer World Cup as part of the South African bid committee.

Unfortunately, none of this will mean a thing when she steps up tomorrow to ask African countries to elect her as chairperson of the African Union (AU).

Why? Because she’s from South Africa.

South Africa would be exporting one of its best people to turn the AU around.

A few key countries in Africa don’t see it that way.

They see South Africa as wanting to take over the AU to entrench itself as the bullyboy of Africa. And smaller countries benefit from the AU now through jobs for their officials and tenders.

After the AU reached a deadlock in January on who to choose as its new leader, campaigning by South Africa and the incumbent Jean Ping took a nasty turn.

Now South Africa will face its own Polokwane in Addis Ababa and unfortunately for South Africa, it stars in the role of former president Thabo Mbeki.

All the warning signs that the AU summit due to start tomorrow in Addis Ababa was going to cause massive divisions on the continent were already visible in January.

The new Chinese-built AU headquarters in Addis Ababa are circular, with a huge plenary room in the middle.

Roaming around the building brought the divisions into full view. On the one side, the diplomats spoke English.

This is where South Africa and its fellow Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries chose to hang out.

On the other side, you heard mostly French in the corridor as diplomats in colourful boubous from West Africa caucused around the fake palm trees in the hallway.

When the results came out, Africa was split almost in half.

The problem is that you cannot win the elections with a simple majority – to win you need 75% of the vote, or 41 countries, on your side.

So after the Addis showdown in January, Team South Africa was determined to use the next six months until the next summit to ensure victory.

They roped in their friends and soon foreign ministers from all 15 SADC countries were crisscrossing the continent to find the missing votes needed for a Dlamini-Zuma victory.

Angola pledged the funding needed for such an ambitious mission and promptly deposited $200 000 (R1 664 000) into the account of the SADC secretariat in Gaborone, Botswana.

South Africa stretched its budget for chartered flights and provided the planes to carry out the mission. But it turned out to be mission impossible.

Ethiopia did not waste its time when the delegation got to Addis. “Sorry”, the Ethiopians said, according to an SADC diplomat, “we’ve already pledged our support to Ping.”

South Africa was hoping to play divide and rule in its new campaign approach, and exploit the internal divisions in some countries.

In Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan and his deputy, Mohammad Sambo, are at loggerheads, so when Sambo came to visit Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe in South Africa, he made encouraging statements about Nigerian support.

But this hope was quickly squashed by the Nigerian high commission, which put out a statement pledging the country’s support for Ping.

In Kenya, South Africa was hoping to get between President Mwai Kibaki and his prime minister, Raila Odinga, but Kibaki was adamant Kenya would support Ping, partly because Ping supports Kenya’s negative view of the International Criminal Court, and because Ping’s running mate is Kenyan diplomat Erastus Mwencha.

A Zambian diplomat reported seeing the foreign minister in Algeria and hearing the positive noises made while the delegation was in town.

“They said in the local newspapers they supported us, but wouldn’t commit properly, so I think they were just doing it for show,” he said.

An exasperated South African diplomat involved in the campaign explained how these visits turned out: “You have three standard answers: ‘Sorry, we’ve already pledged to Ping,’ or ‘we are still deciding’ or ‘I will take the message to my president,’ if you’re talking to a foreign minister.”

But clearly those messages were never delivered. Diplomats and analysts in Addis this week say the situation has not changed since the January summit.

Said one: “Nkosazana still has the votes she had before, but we can’t see any country having moved from its position in January.”

Ping came out guns blazing this week at a press conference and accused South Africa of playing dirty.

South African government officials leaked that Ping had come to Pretoria last week seeking to negotiate his withdrawal. But he never did.

Dlamini-Zuma also told reporters in Pretoria at a department of international relations and cooperation event in May that Ping reneged on an earlier promise that he would withdraw from the race. An absolute lie, Ping said.

South Africa also told whoever would listen that he was a puppet of the former colonial power.

In Addis this week local wisdom was that South Africa will have to pull out of the race and that the SADC should present a new candidate from another country. SADC diplomats say Ping should do the right thing and step aside.

Today a meeting of eight heads of state will be held to thrash out the solution. But if that fails too, as is expected, another stalemate awaits the continental body until its next summit in January.

Will cool heads prevail and the African leaders come to their senses in time to make a decision in favour of the unity of the continent?
Look to Polokwane for the answer.

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