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African Union: What are the major changes that reforms will bring?

By Georges Dougueli
Posted on Wednesday, 10 February 2021 23:11

At the headquarters of the African Union, in Addis Ababa, in 2016. © Pan Siwei / XINHUA-REA

The 34th Summit of the African Union (AU) Heads of State opened in Addis Ababa on Saturday 6 February.

During this meeting, which mostly took place by videoconference, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Félix Tshisekedi took over the rotating presidency of the organisation from South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Moussa Faki Mahamat was reappointed head of the AU Commission. Even though the Chadian diplomat and former prime minister ran unopposed, this election was not without stakes.

It was the first since the reform process entrusted to the Rwandan President Paul Kagame and led by Moussa Faki Mahamat was launched.

“We are at the end of a process that began in June 2016,” said Pierre Moukoko Mbonjo, the former Cameroonian minister of external relations, who heads the AU institutional reform implementation unit.

These changes are supposed to make the organisation more efficient and also help it refocus on its priority missions.

Parity and job descriptions

A new rule was introduced that stipulates that if a man is elected to the head of the AU Commission, then the position of vice-president must be awarded to a woman, and vice versa. Since Faki Mahamat was re-elected, the role of vice-president went to Monique Nsanzabaganwa, deputy governor of the National Bank of Rwanda.

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The conditions for nominating candidates have changed radically and are already being tested. For renewing members of the Commission, the heads of state have drawn up precise job descriptions for each department selected. With the reform reducing the number of commissioners to six, there are eight posts to be filled, including the presidency and vice-presidency.

At the end of May, the job descriptions were sent to the Commission’s legal adviser, who published a job posting on the organisation’s website open to nationals of AU member states. They then had three months to submit their applications to the office of the dean of ambassadors – accredited to the AU – from their respective regions. This was supposed to encourage states to consult each other at the regional level beforehand.

The dean then referred the matter to the legal adviser of the Commission, who transmited the applications to a panel of “wise men” composed of Africans chosen from each of the five regions of the continent.

Although this panel is supposed to have five members, there are only four for the moment, as North Africa has not yet appointed its representative:

  • Cameroon’s former prime minister Philemon Yang (Central);
  • Ethiopian ambassador Konjit Sinegiorgis (East);
  • Namibian diplomat Tuliameni Kalomoh (Southern);
  • Gambian judge Hassan Bubacar Jallow (West).

Power over commissioners

To assist the panel in pre-selecting applications, the AU recruited the consulting and auditing firm PWC Africa. Each applicant, supported by his or her government, was thus evaluated. The final list, drawn up following the interviews, was sent on 7 October to the member states and in particular to the eighteen countries that submitted one or more candidates.

The selection process is more political when selecting the president and vice-president. The reforms provide, among other steps, for a broadcasted debate between the candidates. As Faki Mahamat was the only candidate in the running, a debate did not take place.

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Until now, AU member states have elected not only the chairperson of the Commission but also, directly, its vice-chairperson and each of the commissioners. This had the effect of undermining the authority of the chair of the Commission, who had no power to appoint or dismiss a commissioner.

This situation was considered problematic as early as 2007 in a report written by the Nigerian economist and academic Adebayo Adedeji, but whose conclusions were not acted upon. At the summit in June 2018, the problem had again been raised in the reform proposal, but the majority of states had opposed the idea of making the president of the Commission a “dictator” with the power to appoint and dismiss commissioners.

Four of the six commissioners selected are:

  • Angola’s Josefa Sacko was re-elected to head the agriculture and rural development department.
  • Zambia’s Albert Muchanga was re-elected to the economic development and trade and industry department.
  • Egypt’s Amani Abou-Zeid was re-elected to the infrastructure and energy department.
  • Nigeria’s Bankole Adeoye was voted unanimously with 55 votes to take the helm of the Political Affairs, Peace and Security docket.

The elections for the health and education portfolios will be held at the next executive council meeting.

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It was also decided to hold only one major annual summit of the organisation instead of two. The summit that normally takes place in June is now supposed to be just a coordination meeting between the regional economic communities.

The AU was also meant to refocus on its priority missions. Four areas have been identified and will serve as a compass for the new commission: political affairs; peace and security; economic integration (African Continental Free Trade Area); and overall representation of the continent.