South Africa takes over as AU chair: What to expect

Resolving conflicts, tackling gender equality, climate change and boosting commerce are high on 2020 agenda.

South Africa''s President Cyril Ramaphosa
South Africa's President, Cyril Ramaphosa, greets the media prior to the BRICS summit in Brasilia, Brazil on November 14, 2019 [Pavel Golovkin/Reuters]

The African Union (AU) has wrapped up its annual summit, with leaders pledging that the 55-member bloc will play a greater role in resolving protracted conflicts and work to unlock the continent’s economic potential.

Tackling issues such as gender equality, climate change and boosting commerce through the creation of a new continental free trade area are also high on the AU agenda for 2020.

Keeping with the summit theme of Silencing the Guns, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of an Africa “that is prosperous and at peace with itself” as he took over as AU chair from his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Commenting on the mood in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital that hosted the summit, South African Ambassador Mxolisi Nkosi said: “There is indeed a lot of excitement and expectation about South Africa being at the helm of the AU.”

Libya, South Sudan

The AU chair is elected by the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government for a one-year term, with responsibilities including representing the continent at various international forums such as the G20.

Having taken over the AU baton, Ramaphosa has been quick to identify Libya and South Sudan as the two conflicts he wants to focus on during his tenure.

The bloc has long sought a more prominent role in the efforts to resolve Libya’s long-running conflict, with certain member states believing it could provide the legitimacy needed for a multilateral peace process.

The North African country has been plagued by war and chaos since the 2011 overthrow of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi during a NATO-backed uprising, with rival factions and militias fighting over control of the country. It is currently split into rival western and eastern administrations: the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) holds Tripoli in northwestern Libya, while a rival administration in the east is aligned with renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces in April 2019 launched a military push to seize the capital.

“South Africa will prioritise the achievement of a ceasefire, to be followed by an inter-Libyan political dialogue to find a durable solution,” said Nkosi, who is also the deputy director-general for Global Governance and Continental Agenda in the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation.

Ramaphosa said that he would work with Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who chairs the AU’s high-level Committee on Libya, to convene an intra-Libyan Conference to promote a ceasefire and dialogue. When asked by Al Jazeera at the Addis Ababa summit whether an African peace force would be created for Libya, Sassou Nguesso said the idea was being discussed by the AU.

South Africa will also host an extraordinary summit on Silencing the Guns in May 2020 to deal with “acts of terrorism” in regions such as the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, including South Sudan, which in 2013 descended into a devastating civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

“With regard to South Sudan, South Africa will continue its efforts to find a solution leading to the installation of an interim government of national unity”, Nkosi said, referring to a February 22 deadline faced by President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar to form a unity government – a target they have failed to hit twice over the past year.

Achieving goals

But how effective can the AU be in achieving these goals?

Hesphina Rukato, an Africa development specialist and former deputy chief of staff at the AU, said the bloc has “a lot of power” but there is “a breakdown of trusts among citizens, mostly because of non-implementation of decisions”.

She believes the closing of the “implementation deficit” would give more respect and weight to the AU.
In the case of achieving the goal of “Silencing the Guns”, some analysts remain sceptical – especially in the case of conflicts such as Libya. Previous efforts, however, have failed, including a bid last year for a joint UN-AU envoy for Libya. The country remains a top priority for the UN Security Council and the body has so far given little attention to the bloc’s call for greater involvement.

“The AU has been in and out of peace negotiations in Libya for the last 10 years,” Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera last month.

“[It] regards Libya as within its mandate, even though its peace initiatives there have consistently fallen flat,” he said.

Economic and social integration

Separately, this year’s priorities for the AU also include promoting and supporting economic integration across the continent.

Nkosi said the agreement to create the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA), ratified by 24 African states, has injected a “new dynamism and optimism about the future of the continent”.

When it comes into existence, AfCTA aims to bring together all 55 African states and cover a market of more than 1.2 billion people, paving the way for the creation of a continental customs union.

In his speech, Ramaphosa also emphasised promoting women’s economic inclusion and the fight against gender-based violence.

But Rukato said promoting gender equality through the bloc would be challenging.

“At the national level violence against women needs more attention. You cannot lead if you are not demonstrating. This is linked to the issue of peace and security and the Silencing the Guns theme.”

For Rukato, the greatest test South Africa will face this year as AU chair will be the free movement of people.

The country experienced a wave of xenophobic attacks in 2017 and 2019 that were motivated by the belief that foreigners, mostly migrants from other African countries, were to blame for South Africa’s social and economic problems. The attacks last year were followed by reprisals in some African countries, while Nigeria recalled its high commissioner from Pretoria and threatened to boycott the World Economic Forum held in South Africa in 2019.

“There will be many AU meetings held in South Africa and Africans will be sensitive about how they will be treated as they enter,” Rukato said. “South Africa needs to demonstrate that it is not xenophobic.”

‘Getting things done’

Still, experts seem positive about South Africa assuming the AU chair.

“The general feeling is that if it is South Africa, these are people we can talk to, to get things done,” said Donald Deya, chief executive officer of the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU) based in Tanzania, adding that South Africa will work towards restoring credibility to the organisation. 

Elinor Sisulu, a South African human rights activist, described Ramaphosa as “a capable and charismatic mediator” but said he would face pressure at home amid calls for him to focus on domestic issues such as a lingering electricity crisis in South Africa.

Others have also wondered whether the country “will stick its neck out” to criticise human rights violations on the continent.

The AU replaced the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which was established in 1963 to end colonialism in Africa.

For Deya, “this break from the past includes encouraging states to improve their governance and human rights records.

“This requires moral authority because you cannot persuade a sister state to become something that you, yourself, are not.”

Source: Al Jazeera