The African Union is due to choose a new leader on Monday in a vote more likely to expose differences over the International Criminal Court and other issues than reaffirm the continent’s solidarity and common purpose.
In a clear split, three of its four major regions – the south, the east and the largely Francophone west – are supporting their own nominees to head the bloc, making deadlock followed by horse-trading likely.
Leading candidates to replace South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the first woman to serve as the continent’s top diplomat, are Kenyan foreign minister Amina Mohammed and Senegal’s Abdoulaye Bathily, analysts say.
In another potentially divisive move, the 54 heads of state gathered in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, will have to decide whether to approve the re-admission of Morocco.
The North African kingdom quit the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, three decades ago amid a dispute over the body’s recognition of Western Sahara, most of which has been controlled by Morocco since 1976.
However, King Mohammed VI has been on a diplomatic charm offensive in the last year to try to win Rabat’s readmission.
Continental heavyweights Algeria and South Africa have been backers of the Sahrawi Republic, the domestic political movements that lays claim to the territory along the northern Sahara’s Atlantic seaboard. Neither has said explicitly it will oppose Morocco’s re-entry.
Preliminary meetings have also been dominated by disputes over the International Criminal Court (ICC), which countries such as South Africa and Kenya say is a tool of Western imperialism that unfairly targets the continent.
Conversely, Nigeria, Botswana and other states say the Hague-based court is an important legal backstop for countries whose domestic justice systems have been compromised by civil conflict.
“You have all these calls for unity but actually if you look at the AU now, it is more divided than ever – over Morocco, the regional divisions and the ICC,” said Liesl Louw-Vaudran, an AU expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. “It’s unprecedented.”
Dlamini-Zuma, who is tipped as a replacement for her ex-husband, Jacob Zuma, at the helm of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) this year, was due to end her term in July last year but had to extend her time when the AU failed to reach agreement on a successor.
Her election 4-1/2 years ago after intense lobbying by South Africa rankled many countries because it breached an unwritten rule preventing major states holding the AU chair.
During her time in charge, the medical doctor has focused on reforming the AU’s dysfunctional internal bureaucracy and drawing up a long-term for improving the lives of Africa’s marginal citizens, especially women and children.
However, she has been criticized for failing to heal the rifts created by her election and not doing more to prevent conflict in countries such as South Sudan, which the United Nations says is tilting towards genocide.