Five lessons from African Union elections - Daily Nation

Five lessons from African Union elections

Wednesday February 1 2017

African Heads of State pose for a group photo

African Heads of State pose for a group photo ahead of the start of the 28th African Union summit in Addis Ababa on January 30, 2017. AFP PHOTO 

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Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed promptly conceded defeat after she lost the elections for African Union Commission chairperson to Chadian Moussa Faki Mahamat.

The AU elections had lessons to offer on the continent politics and diplomacy:

1. France’s influence in Africa

Most of the Francophone countries gained independence more than 50 years ago but France's continued influence in that region remains strong.

At the AU, Assembly chairman Alpha Condé and new African Union Commission chairman Mahamat are both from Francophone countries.

When they took the oath of office, the two did so in French and so did four of the eight commissioners. Two others, also from Francophone nations, took their oath in Arabic.

French is an AU official language but it also means that the French connection has also acted as a binding yarn for Francophone Africa to continue dominating in AU politics.

2. Kenya’s influence in Francophone countries

Kenya's performance reflects poor foreign policy towards Francophone Africa. This was a race in which Kenya invested heavily in campaigns. President Uhuru Kenyatta ensured his special envoys, who included Deputy President William Ruto, visited 53 countries. But why did they rank so low among French-speaking countries?

It could be how Kenya has treated these countries before. Kenya just has one embassy in the entire Francophone region, in Algeria. The absence of strong diplomatic relations with Francophone powerhouses like Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal, Morocco, Togo and Benin may have cost Kenya the election.

In West Africa, Kenya handles most of these relations through the High Commission in Abuja, Nigeria. But this is not enough to provide boots on the ground and at least a sense of whether Nairobi is liked or loathed.

3. Pledges are not votes, it is just the politics

The earlier Kenyan officials learnt this the better. At the AU, there was a huge sense of confidence. Ms Mohamed of course was a front-runner against Senegal's Aboudulaye Bathily (who dropped out of the race after the third round of voting). The East African, Comesa and IGAD blocs had endorsed her and it looked like she just needed further support across the continent to win.

Some countries, after learning the implication of her victory, changed their minds while in the voting booth. There were claims that Francophone countries caucused on the eve of the elections and managed to turn the tables.

It turned out that pledges she had received did not translate to votes. The voting was electronic and unlike the Kenyan National Assembly system, where one can obtain a transcript of how people voted, the AU system was secretive. The public can only speculate on how countries voted.

4. Africa is divided along linguistic lines

The idea of African unity is far from being achieved. Outside the AU, trade between African countries is only 14 per cent and border restrictions and other barriers are to blame. In July, the AU tried to address the issue by launching an AU passport. But only heads of State have it.

Within the AU, the division between French and English-speaking countries is glaring. Ms Mohamed admitted that her poor showing is partly because of these divisions. Since the AU started, there have been five commission chairpersons. All of them except one have been from French-speaking countries. Only one was female. At every election, each of these zones claims it is their turn. When they lose, they wait for next time.

5. Future campaign strategy

Losing an election is painful, especially after putting so much money into a campaign. This is the third time Ms Mohamed has lost. She wanted to be a commissioner at the AU during Jean Ping's time but lost. She wanted to be director-general of the World Trade Organisation and lost. She has just emerged from losing the AU commission chairperson's seat.

In her previous bid at the WTO, she lost because Africa was divided between Ghana and Kenya. Neither country could step down for the other. In the end, votes were split and Brazil won on this basis.

At the AU, she hinted that she failed because she could not speak enough French. But it may also be because of the complacence among Kenyan officials in assuming that people will vote for you just because you collaborate on other issues.

Next time, Nairobi may have to strategise first before nominating anyone for any position.