The African Union (AU) is on Wednesday expected to make a decisive vote on who between Kenya and Djibouti will take the sole United Nations Security Council non-permanent seat reserved for the continent in 2021.
A committee of envoys representing member states at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, officially known as the Permanent Representatives Committee (PRC) will vote in a secret ballot and elect a nominee who will contest at the UN polls next year in June.
There are key issues surrounding the vote, all of which are a result of a fierce competition.
- Why is the AU conducting a vote?
The continental bloc is conducting this vote because Kenya and Djibouti have failed to agree, via consensus, who should be representing Africa at the UN Security Council.
Traditionally, countries have in the past agreed to support each other on the principle of reciprocity, such that one gives up a contest in exchange for support in a different bid in future.
When consensus fails, like in the case of Kenya and Djibouti, the PRC, which represents member states at the African Union conducts a vote to decide between them.
The UNSC seats reserved for Africa are often available on a regional rotational basis with the 2021 vacancy falling on eastern Africa. Only Kenya and Djibouti showed interest.
- Who votes, and how many votes does one need to win?
Under the Rules of Procedure, all member states of the African Union are eligible to vote, except where a member has been suspended for one reason or the other.
At the moment, there are 55 member states but Sudan was in June suspended after military authorities meted violence on civilian protesters. Khartoum is not eligible to take part in AU activities at least until it fully restores a civilian government.
Normally, decisions should be by consensus but where this fails, a vote is held where the winner must garner two-thirds majority of the member states of the AU. However, procedural matters, including deciding if a matter is of procedure or not, are won by simple majority.
Votes or decisions of the AU cannot be held unless at least two-thirds of the total members are present.
In the first vote on August 5, Kenya garnered 33 out of 49 ballots cast by members present.
However, there was division on whether this was a procedural matter or not, and whether a simple majority or two-thirds win was needed.
Should Kenya have had three additional votes, it would have reached the two-thirds threshold.
According to Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau, Kenya needs the two-thirds majority, to be on the safe side.
- Why is the AU deciding who contests at the UNSC from Africa?
As part of efforts to push for reforms at the UN, the AU agreed to be fronting agreed candidates to the UN Security Council to “to act in its name and on its behalf.”
A communique of the African Union issued in January this year endorsed this stand, and member states agreed they will be jointly endorsing candidates from Africa.
Kenya, which was part of the initial African Union committee known as the C10, has been pushing for reforms under AU’s document known as the Common Africa Position.
The document, which says the AU should agree on common candidates, notes that the bloc will be demanding “full representation of Africa” by having at least two permanent seats in the UNSC, “with all the prerogatives and privileges of Permanent membership including the right of veto.” It also wants five non-permanent seats.
The African Union argues it has been the recipient of most UNSC resolutions, but has no capacity to contribute to those very resolutions especially since it has no permanent member on the Council.
- What happens after the AU vote?
Regardless of whether Kenya secures AU’s endorsement, the African candidate must win at least two-thirds of the vote at the UN when the vote is held in New York next June.
That means, even with the AU approval and which means no opposition back home, Kenya will still be required to garner at least 129 votes at the UN General Assembly, which currently has 193 members with voting rights.
Traditionally, elections at all UN bodies are done through formal balloting even if candidates have been endorsed by their regional group or are unopposed. That means, technically, that Kenya’s win in Addis Ababa does not guarantee victory at the UN, and may be challenged in subsequent rounds by another African challenger.
While AU’s endorsement almost certainly guarantees Africa’s 55 votes, there is nothing that could prevent an African member of the UN from refusing to vote for the candidate approved by the continental bloc.
But like the AU, sometimes tight races are resolved by withdrawal of contests, election of a compromise candidate or sharing the term. In 2016, for example, Italy and the Netherlands agreed to serve the 2017-2018 term, six months each.
- Why is the UN Security Council seat important?
The Council is the UN’s most powerful organ, charged with maintaining global peace and security.
It makes decisions like sanctioning rogue member states or leaders, admitting new members to UN and generally passing resolutions that provide mandates to military missions such as that of the African Union Mission in Somalia, to which the Kenya Defence Forces are a part.
It can also make decisive action on things like climate change, terrorism, or deferring a case filed at the International Criminal Court (though itself is not a UN organ).
Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Monica Juma says Kenya wants to play AU’s agenda.
“We have continued to anchor the search for peace and therefore it is time that we sat on the same table with decision makers on the issues of peace and security,” she said last week after meeting a group of junior diplomats in Nairobi.
Only five permanent members (United Kingdom, United States, Russia, China and France) of the UNSC have veto powers, meaning they can prevent a decision such as whether to list Al-Shabaab as a separate terror group and subject it to sanctions or whether to lift sanctions imposed on Eritrea. But Kenya believes sitting on the Council allows opportunity for lobbying for favourable decisions.
Dr Juma argues Kenya wants to be part of the global community keen to protect multilateral cooperation, having already been beaten by some major global leaders interested in rightist policies.
“That current global order is being contested and the rules and architecture which underpin it are strained is not in doubt,” she told journalists in Nairobi, before Kenya fronted the bid.
“Kenya must build and reinvest in its portfolio, placing particular weight on those partners who either share our values or long-term interests, those who are accessible and have influence, but also manage those that can play a spoiling role.”
- What could change the votes at UN?
Nothing is straightforward in international politics. Each of the candidates contesting for the UNSC usually have special interest in mind. For Kenya, the issue of the maritime raw with Somalia and the current push to have the UN finance Amisom are key.
Lately, Kenya has also asked for Al-Shabaab to be listed as a separate terror group from Al-Qaeda, which would enable sanctions on the group to prevent it from benefiting from humanitarian aid which they have often taxed or diverted to their pockets.
Critics though charge that the very UN Security Council is composed of players ‘spoiling’ the peace of the world.
“The UNSC has been dominated by the permanent members for 70 years. The remaining members are but window dressing when it comes to the big decisions around the world,” Elkanah Odembo, former Kenya’s ambassador to the US told the Sunday Nation. To him, the US, Russia, and China are still able to “ignore rules of engagement of the UN and have themselves been the major cause of global insecurity.”
“Kenya should not be preoccupied with joining the UNSC. A more important agenda would be to work with the AU to influence the UN agenda and advocate for Africa to have a permanent seat in the UNSC.”
There is no guarantee, however, that having an African as a permanent member will protect the interests of each African country.
- Is the AU united after all?
Within Africa itself, the AU members have often not acted as one even if it declares so. In the earlier vote, 16 countries abstained rather than vote for either Kenya or Djibouti. Many of them were from the Francophone countries, those who traditionally use French as their official language. Rwanda and Ethiopia also abstained in what could worry Nairobi’s lobbyists.
When Ethiopia ran for the UNSC seat in 2017, Kenya was one of the countries that lobbied for Addis Ababa. Kenya and Ethiopia also elevated their relations to “strategic partnership” which implies that they have to support each other bilaterally or through international organisations. But Addis Ababa imports 95 percent of its goods through the Djibouti port, which could explain the reluctance to choose between them.
For Rwanda, despite being in the East African Community which endorsed Kenya, its national Louise Mushikiwabo was last year elected Secretary-General of the International Organisation Francophone countries. It marked the symbolic return of Kigali into French-speaking community after nearly three-decades of frosty relations with France.
“There was obvious competition between the blocs,” one diplomat from an East African Community member state told the Nation last week. “There wasn’t firm stand so we expect that decisions will be made to avoid abstaining.”
Traditionally, a beneficiary of Francophone Africa, Djibouti has been banking on Kenya’s weak representation in the West African bloc of French speakers to remain in the race. Until this year, Kenya had no embassy in French-speaking West Africa. The new ambassador to Senegal Purity Muhindi is just finalising reporting to duty.
Both Djibouti and Kenya have been at the UNSC before. Kenya served in 1973 and 1997 while Djibouti served in 1993.