On January 30, Chadian Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat was elected the new chair of the African Union Commission (a position distinct from that of AU chair, which is always a head of state and is currently Guinean President Alpha Conde). Here are some key points about how and why he was elected:
- The election (French) initially involved five candidates: Senegal’s Abdoulaye Bathily, Botswana’s Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, Equatorial Guinea’s Agapito Mba Moku, Kenya’s Amina Mohammed, and Mahamat. After four rounds of voting, the race narrowed to Mohammed and Mahamat. After Mahamat began to pass Mohammed in the sixth round (French), she withdrew and he was elected on the seventh ballot, 39 to 15 (the 15 being abstentions). The winner needed not just a simple majority, but a majority of two-thirds (i.e., at least 36).
- As I wrote last July (paywalled), the election of a the new AU Commission chair was meant to be decided then. But West Africa balked at the list of candidates available (which included some of the candidates from this time – Venson-Moitoi and Moku – but not the others), and was not able to insert a last-minute candidate of its own.
- In a formal sense, Chad is in Central Africa rather than West Africa, but West African (and particularly Sahelian) support was crucial in Mahamat’s ultimate victory. One report (French) says that Mahamat won in part because of fragmentation within regional blocs during the early rounds – even on the first round, West Africa’s Bathily only received 10 of West Africa’s 15 votes. West Africa’s support steadily shifted to Mahamat during subsequent rounds. The same report talks about an anti-Senegal sentiment among certain key countries, reflecting displeasure with President Macky Sall’s foreign policy as well as suspicions that Senegal is too pro-Morocco (Morocco was just readmitted to the AU after a long suspension, and some countries opposed its re-entry).
- The key backers of Mahamat after round four of voting were reportedly (French) North Africa (especially Libya, Algeria, Mauritania), the Sahel, and Southern Africa, especially Angola and Mozambique. In other words, much of the continent aligned in favor of Mahamat, while Mohammed retained East African support until the end. Mahamat received only fourteen votes on the first ballot, but he emerged as a consensus candidate.
- The victory has been widely interpreted as a sign of Chad’s influence and particularly the influence of its President Idriss Deby. As RFI (French) wrote, “It is a victory for Idriss Deby who waged a discreet, but methodical campaign in favor of his protege. It is a victory for Chadian diplomacy, but still more for the Chadian army, which for five years has paid a bloody price in Africa for defending Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon against the terrorists of al-Qaida and Boko Haram. Finally, it is a victory for Francophone [Africa] because the outgoing president, Madame [Nkosazana] Dlamini-Zuma [of South Africa], did not speak a word of French.”
- Chad’s military deployments in recent years directly mapped onto the voting for Mahamat: the West African countries that supported Mahamat over Bathily included (French) Mali, Niger, and Nigeria, as well as Burkina Faso, which borders Mali and Niger and suffered a major terrorist attack in 2016. Chad’s deployments have been expensive financially, but rewarding in foreign affairs. There has been much analysis of how Chad has positioned itself as a key African counterterrorism partner for France and the United States, but clearly Chad has also positioned itself as a key ally for other African countries.
Some biographical details on Mahamat, as well as some coverage of his election, can be found in English here.
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