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African Union: behind-the-scenes battle for leadership of the AfCFTA

By Mathieu Olivier, in Addis Ababa
Posted on Monday, 10 February 2020 16:07

African Heads of State met in Kigali, Rwanda to launch the Continental Free Trade Area in 2018 © STR / AFP

Although security issues are set to dominate talks in Addis Ababa, ministerial delegations on Friday focused on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and disagreed over who would become the organisation’s future secretary general.

“We’ve decided that the AfCFTA Secretariat will be located in Accra, but now we need to find a leader,” said a minister of foreign affairs standing a few metres away from the entrance of the Nelson Mandela Hall of the African Union Conference Centre.

In other words, the African Union (AU) has yet to fill the post and is perhaps far from finding the ideal candidate.

Gathered in a closed-door Executive Council meeting, the African ministerial delegations have not, for the time being, agreed on who will serve as the organisation’s future secretary general in charge of coordinating the implementation of the agreement.

According to our information, there were plenty of applications to choose from. Some 120 people applied for the post before the pool was narrowed down to six candidates. After a new round of talks, the pool was reduced to three candidates: one person from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a second from Nigeria and a third from South Africa. An applicant from Cameroon was eliminated, although the country managed to get one of its nationals a seat on the future Peace and Security Council.

South African hegemony?

At this point, the process has stalled and tension has risen a notch. Several delegations felt it was in bad taste that two of the three remaining candidates – namely the Congolese and the Nigerian – were put forward by countries that have yet to ratify the AfCFTA treaty. “It’s definitely odd, but that’s part of the game: any African can apply for the post,” an AU agency head commented.

If non-ratification is considered a disadvantage, then the South African applicant appears to have an edge over the other two.

  • “All Nigeria had to do was ratify the treaty,” a minister said. “The message Nigeria has sent complicates things for them. They closed their borders with Benin and Niger and now they want to be the champions of free trade. . .” said another diplomat doubtfully.

Except that not everything points to Pretoria as the favourite. Some member countries fear that South Africa will become too influential on the continent. The country’s Cyril Ramaphosa is already occupying the AU’s rotating chair in 2020 and it recently integrated the AU’s troika on the Western Sahara question.

A meeting between Ramaphosa, Tshisekedi and Buhari?

Talks are expected to continue in the coming days, this time between heads of state. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi are due to meet in Addis Ababa no later than Sunday for the opening of the Heads of State and Government Summit.

According to our information, the secretary general’s name could be announced after these high-level meetings, barring a last-minute surprise. “There’s still time,” said a Central African diplomat who knows the ins and outs of the AU headquarters. The secretary general of the free trade area must be ready to take up the post “by March,” according to the AU.

An AU extraordinary summit slated to also cover security issues will be organised in May in Johannesburg, South Africa, to get the free trade area permanently up and running.

According to the AU’s timeline, tariffs must be liberalised no later than 1 July 2020 to mark the beginning of free trade on that same date.

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