Inside Kenya’s failed AU election strategy

Monday February 6 2017

Kenya’s Foreign Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed

Kenya’s Foreign Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed at a press conference on February 1, 2017, a day after the country’s loss in Addis Ababa. PHOTO | FILE 

By ALLAN OLINGO

Kenya’s irresolute stand over Morocco’s readmission into the African Union, its strong support for African countries’ withdrawal from the International Criminal Court and a host of other geopolitical issues around the East African Community may have cost it the African Union Commission chair.

Kenya’s candidate, Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed, lost to her Chadian counterpart, Moussa Faki Mahamat in the seventh round of voting, with the latter receiving 38 votes against Ms Mohamed’s 26. Kenyan diplomats and lobbyists believe the Morocco question played a major role.

A regional alliance that saw West Africa and Central Africa horse trade on the African Union chairman position, African Union Commission chairperson and its deputy position, tilted the scales against Ms Mohamed in the absence of support from Southern African nations after their candidate, Botswana’s Foreign Affairs Minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi lost in the earlier rounds.

On Sunday, the eve of the election, Moroccan King Mohammed VI hosted a dinner to “celebrate” the country’s re-entry into the continental body and it is understood that it was at this event that the true picture of sub-Saharan Africa’s alliances emerged.

“When the Moroccans hosted the dinner, it was telling that Mr Mahamat, who was a candidate, shared the table with Rabat’s Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezoua. This threw all of us off balance, as Chad’s chief campaigner was Algeria, which doesn’t have a rosy relationship with Morocco. Given the recent diplomatic efforts that Rabat had employed, we knew that we had to shift our last minute energies to Chad,” a lobbyist with intimate knowledge of the matter told The EastAfrican.

It is said that after the dinner, several countries that favoured Morocco’s readmission into the AU agreed to push for a change of the Summit’s schedule so that the readmission would come after the AU chairperson’s election. This way, the Morocco question would be divorced from election politics.

It had already become clear that Senegalese Abdoulaye Bathily’s chances for the AUC chair had been diluted by Guinean President Alpha Conde’s choice for a rotational African Union chairperson position and the two camps (West and Central Africa) settled for a trade-off masterminded by the outgoing AU chair, Chadian President Idriss Deby.

It meant West Africa lending its support to Mr Mahamat’s candidacy, with Central African returning the favour for the Commission deputy chairperson’s position, which was being sought by Ghana’s Thomas Kwesi Quartey. In the end, this move proved successful.

Kenya, unlike the Botswana and Senegal candidate, is said to have played a double-edged card on the Morocco-Western Sahrawi issue, refusing to give a clear position, instead choosing to play neutral, hoping it would favour both parties.

“It was a delicate balance in trying to have both the pro-Morocco and pro-Polisario camp votes. This was one of our best strategies to collect these votes but clearly, it really didn’t work for us once the Morocco agenda was postponed,” said the lobbyist.

It was this fence sitting that cost Ms Mohamed the Southern African support.

“The role Morocco played in Mr Mahamat’s victory was quite outstanding. They had the resources and manpower, having brought in hundreds of lobbyists. They knew the stakes were high as a Senegal or Kenyan win would have complicated their efforts to rejoin or even influence the African Union. They only stood a chance with Chad, given Southern African Development Community’s strong opposition to its readmission. Our indecision could have been Kenya’s undoing,” The EastAfrican was told.

On Monday afternoon, the day of the vote, Morocco successfully argued for the debate about its readmission to be postponed until after the AU chairperson vote, effectively separating the politics surrounding the election from Morocco’s application a ploy that both Kenya and the Southern African candidate had hoped to use. 

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After the African Union chairperson vote, Morocco’s readmission agenda raised a heated two-hour debate, which then resulted in 39 of 54 member states voting in favour of Morocco, a decision that did not please South Africa and Zimbabwe, strong opponents who were leading the Southern African countries in the “no” vote.

During the voting, EAC unity also seems to have stalled with claims that Burundi, Uganda and Djibouti broke ranks, effectively costing the Kenyan candidate the position.

During her post-vote press conference, Ms Mohammed seemed to allude to this when she said that Kenya needed to “audit” its friendship with neighbours who betrayed it.