Rwanda: Elections and women's rights up for discussion in Kigali

The election of a new African Union Commission (AUC) chairperson, his/her deputy and eight commissioners are at the top of the agenda of the 27th AU summit, which will take place from 10–18 July 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda. However, there is some uncertainty over whether the elections might be postponed. The official theme of the summit, chaired by Chad’s President Idriss Déby, is human rights with a focus on women’s rights, the AU’s annual theme for 2016.

Even before the start of the Kigali summit controversy is dogging the event due to the decision to close it to international observers. Only the media and diplomats based in Kigali are allowed to attend.

Civil society organisations have complained that closing the summit reduces the already limited space for citizen participation in AU summits – a forum dominated by government officials. According to Desiré Assogbavi, of the Oxfam liaison office to the AU: ‘Closing the AU Summit space to African citizens as observers is a challenge to a key mission of the Union, which is to build an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.’

Partners excluded

The rationale behind closing the summit, from the point of view of the AUC, is to enable delegates to discuss issues of continental importance without interference from outsiders. The many side meetings at the summit are seen as a distraction. A decision was taken at the June 2015 summit that only one of the two annual summits of the AU should be open to observers. According to the decision, one summit would focus on policy issues ‘with participation of partners’ and the other on the ‘implementation of decisions’.

It is important to add that partners continue to fund a large portion of the AU’s budget, which some see as justification for their presence at the summits. In addition, engagement on crucial peace and security issues – such as the crisis in Libya, for example – is only possible in a larger forum that includes non-African states. Instead of convening other costly high-level meetings, it is argued, the summits are useful events to discuss solutions to these crises with all the African delegates already in one venue.

Uncertainty over the elections

According to the official agenda, the AUC elections are supposed to take place during the 27th summit. The positions of the chairperson, deputy chairperson and four commissioners (Political Affairs; Human Resources, Science and Technology; Infrastructure and Energy; and Rural Economy and Agriculture) are open. Four commissioners are also running for re-election (Peace and Security; Trade and Industry; Social Affairs; and Economic Affairs).

Submissions for candidates closed at the end of March. However, some in the AU believe that none of the candidates will be able to garner a two-thirds majority of the vote. According to sources, a number of influential Africans have approached the AUC arguing that the submission process should be re-opened in order to accept new candidates of a higher calibre. It is believed a former head of state could provide the AU with the visionary leadership needed at this important juncture.

If new candidates are to be accepted, the elections will have to be postponed until January 2017. To do that, there will have to be a consensus among the heads of state and government to change the rules that govern the elections. Some opposition can be expected from the regions or countries fielding candidates.

Regional representation in jeopardy

If the elections do take place in Kigali, regional representation may be dealt a blow if the candidate from the Southern Region (the Southern African Development Community) fails to win the top post. If Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, Botswana’s foreign minister, does not take up the seat of chairperson, the Southern Region will only have one representative – the incumbent commissioner for economic affairs – in the commission. However, the statute of the AUC states that each region should have two members on the AUC. The Southern Region will have to propose candidates for other positions on the commission if the elections are postponed.

Regional representation is a principle that the AU holds dear, although some have argued that for the election of the AUC chairperson the emphasis should be on the quality of the candidate rather than where he or she comes from.

Commission in limbo

One of the consequences of postponing the elections would be that the work of the AUC would be in an interregnum until at least March 2017. In such a case the new commission would only take up its position three months after the January 2017 summit, which could be debilitating for the work of the organisation.

Solving the AU funding crisis

As stated above, the AU is still largely dependent on external funding. At its June 2015 summit in Johannesburg, the AU heads of state committed to contributing 75% of the AU’s working budget and 25% of the costs of AU-led peace-support operations by 2020. On the margins of this summit the heads of state and government will hold a retreat on the theme of AU funding. However, indications are that besides commitments to increase their funding, member states’ current contributions are not forthcoming, largely because of the drop in commodity prices and an economic decline in some of the major contributing countries.

When it comes to funding peace operations, some progress has reportedly been made by former head of the African Development Bank Donald Kaberuka, the AU High Representative for the AU Peace Fund. Kaberuka has been in consultations with the United Nations (UN), UN Security Council (UNSC) member states and other partners to ensure sustainable funding for peace operations such as the AU Mission in Somalia. His proposed draft roadmap for the AU Peace Fund will be a critical part of the discussions during the retreat. For the moment, however, there is no indication that the UNSC has agreed to the use of UN assessed contributions – which would provide sustainable funding for peace missions – by the AU.

Kigali a good place to speak about women’s rights

Despite criticism against its government and especially the decision to allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third term in office, Kigali has been leading the continent when it comes to gender equality. The theme of the summit, focusing on women’s rights, will have particular resonance in the country that tops the list of women participation in government.

Civil society organisations working on women’s rights will therefore be allowed to attend the assembly’s opening session.

Outgoing chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who has pushed hard for the inclusion of women’s rights in almost every meeting of the AU, could also use this summit to consolidate her legacy. At the June 2015 summit Dlamini Zuma managed to convince the heads of state to adopt a continental scorecard to monitor progress made by countries in implementing various provisions relating to women’s rights. At this summit the second edition of this scorecard will be launched.

While a lot of emphasis has been placed on women’s rights, the first part of the AU’s theme for 2016, namely human rights, has received little attention. Controversially, some in the AU have claimed that the challenge of development in Africa requires a focus on socioeconomic rights rather than the first-generation ‘political’ human rights favoured by Western governments and human rights organisations.

Launch of the African passport

In the aftermath of Britain’s exit from the European Union questions have been asked about the commitment of other regional groupings such as the AU to continental integration. The AU, and before it the Organization of African Unity, has historically been driven by a vision of greater African integration and there are no signs that the slow movement towards this goal will be reversed.

At the summit the AUC will officially launch the electronic ‘African passport’. Although it will initially only be available to heads of state, this is seen as a landmark in the implementation of the major goal of Agenda 2063, the flagship programme of Dlamini Zuma’s term in office. The popularisation of this passport is supposed to enhance the free movement of people and goods on the continent. It remains a long-term goal, however, with intra-African trade remaining very low. The Economic Community of West African States is also one of the few regions on the continent to have implemented a common passport to ensure the free flow of people across the borders of its member states.

No Peace and Security Council summit

Over the last few years peace and security issues have dominated the bi-annual summits. The meetings of the 15-member Peace and Security Council (PSC) at the level of heads of state in the run-up to the summit have even at times overshadowed the main event. However, the number of side events in Kigali is limited and there might not be a PSC summit this time around.

Instead, the outgoing AUC chairperson will present her report on the state of peace and security in Africa and on the activities of the PSC since January 2016. Burundi, Somalia, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Sudan and South Sudan are among the situations this report will address.

Burning issues such as the call for the AU’s greater involvement in diffusing possible conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the continued threat of terrorism by groups such as Boko Haram, and the continued attacks against the AU’s troops in Somalia are expected to be discussed on the sidelines of the summit. Africa continues to be plagued by the catastrophic situation in Libya, which is a conduit for both illegal migration and terrorism.

Among the strategic issues, the UN–AU partnership on peacekeeping, terrorism, elections in Africa and the proposed AU framework for post-conflict reconstruction and development are also expected to be addressed by the chairperson. In line with the theme of the year, the status of women, peace and security in Africa will be included in the report submitted to the assembly.

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