Battle for African Union leadership plays out at US-Africa Summit

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Wednesday, 14 December 2022 12:08

Comoros President Azali Assoumani speaks to The Africa Report in Washington, DC on Dec. 13, 2022 / Office of the President
Comoros President Azali Assoumani speaks to The Africa Report in Washington, DC on Dec. 13, 2022 / Office of the President

A battle for the leadership of the African Union (AU) is playing out behind the scenes this week at the US-Africa summit in Washington.

With East Africa in line to select the AU chairman at its next annual leadership rotation in February, regional powerhouse Kenya is facing off with the island nation of Comoros. Determined to seize his moment after climbing through the AU’s ranks over the past couple of years, Comoros President Azali Assoumani is making the rounds with his fellow heads of state to reach consensus and avoid a bitter dispute with Kenya’s President William Ruto, who is also vying for the seat.

“This is an opportunity that Comoros cannot miss,” Assoumani tells The Africa Report in an interview at his hotel. “We hope that our Kenyan brothers will understand us. It’s not often that a country like Comoros gets such an occasion, opportunity and honour.”

Assoumani tells The Africa Report that the AU’s current leaders – Senegalese President Macky Sall, the current chairman, and African Union Commission Chairman Moussa Faki – are set to meet on 14 December to try to reach a compromise. President Ruto is also expected to attend.

The two presidents previously discussed their rival claims on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September in New York and at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt, Assoumani says. He said Ruto has shown himself to be “willing” to negotiate.

“Now it’s up to us to seal the deal,” he says, “so that starting today we can be relaxed about finally knowing who will lead the AU in 2023.”

Kenyatta’s surprise

In office since 2019 after two previous stints as president, Assoumani was on the fast track to chairing the AU after serving as third vice chair and then second vice chair.

However, Ruto’s predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta, threw him a curveball in February 2022 when he vied directly for the vice chairmanship, a key post whose occupant is the favourite to lead the organisation the following year. Now the post stands vacant, creating a wide open race for the chairmanship position.

Now that desire is here and we need to get to the end. I hope we can find a compromise.

By not opposing his successive bids for the third and second vice chair post, Assoumani says Kenya “gave us the desire” to lead. Neither Kenya nor Comoros has ever chaired the AU in the organisation’s 20 years.

“Now that desire is here and we need to get to the end,” he says. “I hope we can find a compromise.”

One strike against having Comoros follow Senegal is the desire by AU members to avoid having francophone countries lead the organisation for two years in a row, due to their perceived close ties to France. If the East African leaders can’t agree on a consensus candidate, the bloc may see the chairmanship go to a country from another region altogether next year.

Making the case

The 2023 election presents a unique opportunity to recognise and empower a country that has “greatly suffered”, Assoumani says. The country has long been plagued by poverty, political volatility – Assoumani first gained power in a 1999 military coup – and corruption.

“I think this is the moment to say that, despite some bad press, this is a country like any other,” he says. “We have obligations that we assume like any other country. Why would we not have the right to take on this responsibility?”

Assoumani says the country has been on a positive trajectory for the past 20 years. Despite its small size (at 719 square miles, Comoros is the fourth smallest country in Africa) and population (51st out of 54, with fewer than 900,000 people), he says it deserves a shot to assume a role in addressing the issues facing the entire continent.

His top priorities as AU Chairman, Assoumani says, would be peace and security and “putting an end to unconstitutional changes” of government as well as terrorism.

“If we can have peace and security and the principle of democracy is enshrined, then we can confront these enormous challenges”, such as lagging economic growth and climate change.

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