Raila eyes African Union leadership and the delicate task of electing a capable leader for the AUC chairperson position

  • 24 Feb 2024
  • 4 Mins Read
  • 〜 by James Ngunjiri

 The Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union (AU) will, in February 2025, elect a new African Union Commission (AUC) chairperson once Chad’s Moussa Faki Mahamat concludes his two-term tenure.

The AUC chairperson serves as the chief executive officer and legal representative of the AU, overseeing administrative and financial matters, promoting the AU’s objectives, and engaging with stakeholders. The position is a four-year term, renewable once.

Faki Mahamat, a former Chad foreign minister, was first elected in 2017 and re-elected on February 2, 2021. He had taken over from Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma after a hotly contested election. The election, initially scheduled for July 2016, was postponed to January 2017 after all of the candidates failed to get a two-thirds majority. Faki Mahamat only joined the race in the second round and ultimately established himself as a consensual candidate for African heads of state and government. 

At the time, several things worked in Faki Mahamat’s favour. First, AU was then chaired by Chadian President Idriss Déby. Secondly, Faki Mahamat presided over the Executive Council of the AU in his position as foreign minister. Thirdly, Chad’s troop contribution to various peacekeeping operations and other military engagements was also of benefit.

He defeated then favourites — Kenya’s Amina Mohamed and Abdoulaye Bathily, of Senegal. 

In 2017, it was reported that Kenya ran the best Public Relations (PR) at the Summit, with President Uhuru Kenyatta lobbying heads of state and government to vote for Amina Mohamed. In the end, Kenya and Senegal were beaten.

Why did Amina Mohamed, a top diplomat, lose the 2017 contest? 

According to Al Jazeera, a senior AU official who was present when the leaders cast their ballot told the Qatari state-owned television network that Amina Mohamed did not lose because some leaders preferred a male chairperson but because Kenya did not make its stand on the disputed territory of Western Sahara clear.

The Kenyan team, while lobbying the pro-Morocco camp, sources told Al Jazeera that Kenya was in favour of Morocco’s readmission to the AU, but when Kenyan officials met the pro-Polisario camp, they said they were not. Kenyan officials refused to publicly clarify what their position was. This got Amina some votes but backfired in other cases, a diplomat from a neighbouring country told Al Jazeera. 

Another factor was that Amina Mohamed was also a fierce critic of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and this did not sit well with countries who were in favour of the Hague-based court, which had been often accused of bias against African countries. 

Additionally, the Kenyan candidate, who was not a career politician unlike her opponents, was a first-term foreign minister and lacked the weight and experience needed to deal with major security matters, some analysts stated. It was also reported that some heads of state saw Amina as too close to President Kenyatta and questioned whether she could be truly neutral. 

The Senegalese candidate — Abdoulaye Bathily was seen as a France man, and several heads of state and government were uncomfortable with that and took their votes elsewhere. At the time, Senegal was also seen as the main supporter of Morocco’s successful bid to rejoin the AU, and pro-Polisario votes went to other candidates.   

Other candidates, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, a veteran minister from Botswana, and Mba Mokuy, from Equatorial Guinea, were never favourites.

Raila Odinga’s bid

Following opposition leader Raila Odinga’s intentions to vie for the African Union Commission (AUC) chairperson position on February 15, he now banks on domestic and regional support to get the top seat. 

Mr Odinga also needs to enter a series of deal-making with neighbouring countries who belong to the East African Community (EAC) and even the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). A candidate for the AUC chairperson position must be fronted by a member state, meaning that the Kenyan government was spearheading Mr Odinga’s candidature. 

Government spokesperson Isaac Mwaura has already called upon all leaders to set aside their political differences and unite behind Mr Odinga.

“If he gets an opportunity to serve us at the AU as the chair, we as Kenyans should forget all our differences and rally behind a fellow Kenyan. If Mr Odinga has expressed interest, we would rather have him there because when he is there the interests of Kenya are taken care of. We as a government fully support his candidature,” said Mr Mwaura. 

Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, the current AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa, has endorsed his candidature, saying that Mr Odinga will help the continental body work better.  

Mr Obasanjo said it is the right time for a person from Eastern Africa to head the AUC, and he believes Mr Odinga will be a viable candidate. 

“We need a person with experience, a person who understands the situation we are in and a person who comes from a background that can make a difference,” Mr Obasanjo said. He added, “We believe people who had held positions of head of government as prime minister or president will be the right people at this particular time to hold the AUC position.” 

Some are viewing Mr Odinga’s candidacy as a project by the government to provide a suitable exit for a veteran politician who has been a vocal critic of its programmes and has contested for the presidency five times in vain.

Odinga’s work at AU 

Mr Odinga has a history with AU. In 2011, he flew to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, as the AU mediator to resolve the political crisis between Laurent Gbagbo and Allasane Ouattara in a post-election dispute. Gbagbo’s side accused him of bias, and he quit the role. 

Mr Odinga also served as AU High Representative for Infrastructure Development in Africa between 2018 and February 2023, when his term ended controversially.

Panel of eminent persons

For fairness and merit, the AU has a panel of eminent persons who are required to vet candidates and draw up a shortlist to avoid a situation whereby candidates are picked only through deal-making between states and regions. Countries have until May 2024 to submit the names of their preferred candidates.  

AU member states are also required to pick not only former heads of state and foreign ministers but also Africans who have excelled at statecraft in other domains, such as in the United Nations (UN) system. They are also encouraged to ensure balanced representation by nominating as many women as possible.