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Why the African Union’s decision on a top post is being seen as a litmus test

General Assembly meeting of the African Union
The reform of the operations of the African Union is key to its future. US Department of State/Flickr

This story was updated to reflect the recent appointments made by the African Union.

The recently concluded 34th summit of the African Union (AU) had a particularly significant job to do: it elected six commissioners to the AU’s secretariat, which is a vital cog in the organisation. The AU Commission works with various organs of the union to promote and advance its objectives. It reports to the executive council, which develops policy and oversees implementation of the decisions of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government.

The election of the six commissioners signalled two things about the union. The first is how serious the AU is about putting in place a strong team to drive institutional reforms. The second is how strong its commitment is to implementing gender parity.

As part of the appointment process the AU also decided on the chair and deputy chair positions. The incumbent chair, H.E. Moussa Faki Mahamat, was the only candidate for the position and was re-elected. The deputy position – an important role because it is effectively the commission’s chief operating officer – went to Rwanda’s Dr Monique Nsanzabaganwa.

The appointment piqued interest because of the commitment by African leaders to push for gender equality and parity. The fact that a woman was chosen was viewed as a positive development.

The deputy chair is responsible for the implementation and management of reform at the organisation. This is a massive and ongoing project. The current AU’s reform journey began in July 2016 when the assembly appointed Rwandan president Paul Kagame to do a study on its institutional reform. The assessment by the panel led by Kagame was unequivicol; the union was not fit for purpose.

A number of reforms were approved and significant progress has been made in implementing these, in particular administrative reforms. But there is still a significant amount of work to be done to overcome the dysfunctionalities identified in the Kagame-led review.

The new commission will need political dexterity, competence and experience to manage the complexities of the reform processes. This is because reform is an ongoing process. So, the new commission will have to continually work to ensure that the primary objectives of the reform are met.

The deputy post

The deputy chairperson is the commission’s chief operating officer. They are responsible for the financial and administrative management of the commission. The deputy chairperson must therefore have a combination of substantive technical knowledge and political acumen.

Extensive knowledge and experience in organisational management, financial administration and a demonstrable understanding of the need for gender equality are also important.

Nsanzabaganwa, the first woman to be elected to the position, is the current deputy governor of the Bank of Rwanda.

She will need to deepen her knowledge and understanding of multilateral organisations. She must develop a vast network both continentally and internationally that she can draw on for consensus building and influence, especially in furtherance of the reform agenda.

Nsanzabaganwa will continue the ongoing work of addressing the challenges identified in the report on the proposed recommendations for institutional reform. These include the challenges of low leadership by commissioners, accountability, inadequate supervision of commission employees and coordination of commission activities.

The report also pointed to inadequate supervision and coordination as well as weak staff recruitment and performance management systems. Considerable progress has been made in fixing these, but gaps remain.

One major gap relates to the creation of a safe working environment for women. The commission has been bedevilled by accusations of sex and gender-based discrimination. It falls on Nsanzabaganwa to drive changes that will create a safe environment for women and to ensure that the commission lives up to its gender policies.

Financial autonomy

The quest for financial autonomy in managing the union’s affairs has gained traction on the continent. The AU has made significant strides on this front, minimising its overdependence on external partners.

But to sustain the gains, the commission must have strategies for effective engagement with member states, encouraging them to pay their AU membership fees on time. Most of the progress on financial autonomy has been on generating its own resources for the AU’s operational management. The financing of peace operations remains unresolved. The main stumbling block here is agreement between the AU and the United Nations.

To resolve this impasse, Nsanzabaganwa must develop a deep understanding and knowledge of the United Nations’ financial and budgeting systems. This will be critical to ensuring that Africa is allotted its due share of resources to maintain peace and security.

Finally, as the chief operating officer, Nsanzabaganwa will have to work very closely with member states and the commission staff.

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