AU chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma tried reform, but failed

Adekeye Adebajo

Business Day, 20 February 2017

​South Africa’s former health, foreign, and home affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma finished her four-year tenure as chair of the African Union (AU) this month to be replaced by Chadian foreign minister Moussa Faki Mahamat.

Much of the analysis of her tenure has been uninformed, vitriolic, and/or unbalanced. Though Dlamini-Zuma was rightly criticised for spending too much time in South Africa and relying heavily on South African advisers, her record must also be assessed in the context that the AU is an underfunded, heads-of-state-dominated body of only 700 bureaucrats that depends on often ineffectual governments to implement its decisions.

Dlamini-Zuma made some progress in reforming the AU’s archaic bureaucracy, working closely with  South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Algeria. She sought to make the AU travel policy more cost-effective, cutting down on some business class travel and reducing the costs of per diems for external consultants. She also revived the AU’s moribund Administrative Tribunal to settle staff disputes. She worked to accelerate recruitment processes and to ensure that country quotas were adhered to, and that the organisation moved towards gender parity. She introduced international finance and accounting standards, and reviewed the commission’s organisational structure and staff skills. However, like her predecessors, Dlamini-Zuma was unable to wield a large reformist broom to sweep out the ‘deadwood’ from the organisation.

Her signature project has been Agenda 2063, a quixotic 50-year vision involving a prosperous Africa promoting inclusive growth and sustainable development; an economically and politically united continent based on Pan-African ideals and democratic governance; a people-driven, peaceful Africa with a strong cultural identity and common values; and a continent that is an influential global player. An anti-apartheid stalwart, Dlamini-Zuma often peppered her speeches with quotes from Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral, Albert Luthuli, and Nelson Mandela. Her vision also borrowed from the language of her political mentor, Thabo Mbeki, in using terms like ‘African Renaissance’ and ‘African Century’.

Dlamini-Zuma pushed the AU to play an active conflict resolution role. Its mission in Somalia continued to provide some stability in the country. The AU worked with the UN in the difficult peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic (CAR). The AU/UN mission in Darfur, however, remained a joint mission in name only, as the UN effectively ran the show, as it does in Mali. In the civil war in South Sudan, it was the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) that led most of the mediation efforts. The 15-member AU Peace and Security Council, however, continued to play a constructive role in African conflicts.

In the area of governance, Dlamini-Zuma courageously led efforts to suspend the military government of Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi from the AU, following a military coup   in 2013. Though Egypt contributes 15 percent of the organisation’s regular budget, Dlamini-Zuma insisted on observing the AU’s rules. Only after elections 10 months later, was Cairo allowed back into the fold. More recently, Dlamini-Zuma was vociferous in urging Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh to step down after losing elections.

In the area of socio-economic development, she worked closely with the Addis Ababa–based UN Economic Commission for Africa and the Abidjan-based African Development Bank to craft a post-2015 Development Agenda for Africa. Gender was the major priority that Dlamini-Zuma consistently championed, assigning gender officers to AU peacekeeping missions and collaborating with gender ministries and women’s organisations across Africa. In virtually every speech, she called for gender equality across Africa, backed the education of the girl child, advocated an end to gender violence, and pushed for women to be given access to land, capital, and agricultural inputs.

Dlamini-Zuma was, however, rightly criticised for a failure to grant access to African and external diplomats. She also failed to reduce the AU’s dependence on foreign donors, with African leaders rejecting the ideas on taxes on tourism and flights of an AU High-Level Panel on Alternative Sources of Financing. She cultivated relations with the European Union, the United States, and China, as the harsh reality sunk in that her donor-dependent organisation would continue to need these partners as long as African governments were not prepared to fund their own organisation. It remains unclear whether the recent AU summit decision to finance the organisation through a 0.2% levy on imports will be implemented.

Dlamini-Zuma has thus achieved some successes, suffered some disappointments, but performed no worse than the two men who preceded her as AU chair.