By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
Whether it was the Ebola outbreak, drowning of African refugees in the Mediterranean, famines, the return of the god-President, the International Criminal Court or popular uprisings by young people demanding revolutionary change, the out-going Chairperson of the African Union Commission failed Africa. Her successor must be someone who understands, cares about and has a vision for the continent and its people.
In April 2016, Dr Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma announced that she had decided to return to South Africa rather than run for a second term as the Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union (AU).
For close observers this did not really come as a surprise as she appeared to spend less time on the institution than she did navigating the entrails of South Africa’s politics. Ahead of her announcement, the Mail and Guardian reported in 29 March that Dlamini-Zuma was “likely to return to South Africa to run for a top ANC leadership position, possibly for president to succeed her ex-husband, President Jacob Zuma.”
Dlamini-Zuma is a leading member of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) and was for 16 years spouse of the incumbent President. Their divorce was reportedly formalised in 1982.
Later this month in Kigali, Rwanda, the Summit of the Heads of State and Governments of the AU will elect a successor to Dr Dlamini-Zuma. As they prepare to do that, it is appropriate to look back at her tenure so that the institution avoids the kind of errors that made it such a lamentable misadventure.
It did not have to be so. A trained paediatrician, Dr Dlamini-Zuma arrived at the African Union on the back of a stellar public service and political career in South Africa where she served four successive presidents, including Nelson Mandela, as minister responsible for health, foreign affairs, and home affairs.
When she arrived in Addis Ababa to assume office as the Chairperson of the AU Commission in October 2012, many believed that Dr Dlamini-Zuma would usher in a brave new era in the history of the institution. She boasted many firsts: the first woman to head the AU; the first head of the AU from southern Africa and the first head of the AU with liberation credentials.
In the end, she will be remembered for another first: the first head of the AU to leave as an utter failure. Her biggest legacy will probably be her eponymous Twitter handle, mostly famous for its preoccupation with fatuous nonsense.
On 9 June 2016, Le Monde Afrique ran an article asking in effect: “How Did Mrs Zuma Mess Up (the AU)?”, asserting that her tenure was characterised by a lack of vision and silence that “accelerated the decline of the AU.” All these failings were willful, not inadvertent.
When Dr Dlamini-Zuma began her tenure in 2012, the AU confronted significant challenges in the spheres of peace, security and governance in Africa, as well as institutional reform and social affairs. Like TS Eliot’s Macavity, she looked “outwardly respectable.” Like Macavity also, she was just “not there”.
As she arrived, South Sudan was wrestling with a transition to stable independence that threatened to get quite bloody. On the governance front, accountable government in Africa confronted growing authoritarianism with far reaching implications for peace and security in many parts of the continent.
Accountability for grave crimes by Africa’s leaders faced frustration in Kenya and Sudan. Institutionally, many countries were in arrears of their dues and the AU was increasingly dependent on foreign governments and donors for its running.
During her tenure, Africa confronted multiple social challenges: Ebola in West Africa; Yellow Fever in parts of Southern Africa; climate change and food security around the Sahel and Horn of Africa, as well as an international migration crisis.
On each and all of these challenges, Dr Dlamini-Zuma was out to lunch or blissfully missing in action. Take South Sudan, for instance. Under the watch of Dr Dlamini-Zuma, South Sudan descended into fratricide.
Following a lead provided by anyone but her, the AU constituted a Commission of Inquiry chaired by Nigeria’s former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, which reported in early 2015 recommending a mix of measures, including judicial accountability.
Thereafter, the report went cold. Under her watch, the relationship of the AU and the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose Prosecutor is another daughter of Africa – The Gambia’s Fatou Bensouda – collapsed.
At the Summit that elected her as Chair of the AU Commission in 2012, a High Level Panel on alternative funding for the AU again chaired by former President Obasanjo had reported that “the current system of statutory contributions, which had been in place since the OAU days, has been deemed to no longer be adequate to meet the growing financing needs of the Union due to greater operational requirements and increased scope of activities”.
As she leaves, this report decorates the shelves of Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s $200 million AU palace, constructed and donated by the Chinese. Her lasting legacy is that civil society will be excluded from the AU summit that elects her successor.
Under the watch of Dr Dlamini-Zuma, the continent was allowed to squander the energies released by popular uprisings against authoritarianism.
When Egypt’s army set upon young people whose only crime was to dare to dream and organize for a country in freedom in 2013, Dr Dlamini-Zuma lost her voice.
Under her watch, the god-President returned. In Congo-Brazzaville, Chad, Rwanda and Uganda, elected presidents tore up the constitutions under which they were elected and installed themselves gods.
In Burundi, where another president’s desire for god-Presidency turned murderous, Dr Dlamini-Zuma conveniently outsourced her responsibilities and disappeared. Her dereliction on governance now threatens the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the desire of the incumbent president for god-Presidency meets a country unwilling to accept man as god.
In Burkina Faso where the people managed to topple their presidential serial killer, Blaise Compaore, after 27 years of repressive power, it was in spite of Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s complicit abdication not because of her leadership.
It was in social affairs, however, that the extent of Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s dereliction would confound even her few most ardent admirers. As a trained medical professional, many credited her with the qualifications to care when Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) came calling in February 2014. Characteristically, however, she managed to abdicate on that too.
While EVD held sway in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, Dr Dlamini-Zuma avoided those countries. By contrast, Dr Donald Kaberuka, her counterpart at the African Development Bank (AfDB) took to the road to visit the affected countries, raise resources and compel the world to act. While Dr Kaberuka showed his mettle in this most difficult of situations, Dr Dlamini-Zuma was missing conspicuously.
Under Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s watch, thousands of Africans drowned crossing the Mediterranean into Europe. Many more Africans have been slaughtered by the extremist violence of Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They are uncounted, unknown, unnamed and un-mourned.
To their murder, Dr Dlamini-Zuma offered neither compassion nor counterpoise. Under her, the African life could well be worthless.Two years after she was elected to Chairperson of the AU, Dr Dlamini-Zuma allowed her ex-husband to put her name forward on the ANC’s list for the 2014 general election in South Africa. It therefore became evident that for her, Addis Ababa was, from the start, a place to cool her heels, preserve herself and prepare to collect South Africa’s highest political prize like a promised alimony settlement.
In one word, Dr Dlamini-Zuma didn’t know Africa and only cared about her ambitions back home. She just didn’t care about the African.
When Africa’s Heads of State meet this this week in Kigali to elect the next Chairperson of the AU Commission, they should draw a line under the misadventure that has been Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure.
Candidates should be required to present a coherent vision of the Africa they wish to lead and demonstrate an interest in the continent and its peoples. A debate among the leading candidates would be worthwhile.
Politicians, like Dr Dlamini-Zuma, in pursuit of other distractions, should be told they are surplus to requirements. The AU should look for someone who knows the continent and cares about its people.
As Dr Dlamini-Zuma slinks back to the deepening sleaze that threatens to unravel her march to the prize in South Africa that she treasures above the lives of ordinary Africans, many will be forgiven for screaming: good riddance, Mrs Dlamini-Zuma….!
The Article was first published in Pambazuka News. * Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is Former Chair, National Human Rights Commission, Nigeria. The views expressed here are personal.
Also read: Mbeki warns SA
When she was first elected, former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki warned that AU chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma had been set up for failure. Mbeki said the dynamics and processes within the AU would neither allow Dlamini Zuma to effect any changes nor set policy. He expressed his concern “about people putting a burden on her shoulders; a burden she can’t carry”.