ADDIS ABABA— Jean Ping, the outgoing African Union Commission chairman, will hand over his position Monday at the organization’s headquarters in Addis Ababa. Ping was often criticized for the quality of his leadership, but his defenders said he did the best he could given his position.
Jean Ping lost a fierce and competitive race with South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in July to hold on to his position as head of the AU Commission. The sometimes harsh rhetoric during the months of campaigning exposed some deep divisions in the African Union.
As one of his last acts in office to soothe tensions, Ping attended his final U.N. General Assembly in New York last month accompanied by his successor Dlamini-Zuma.
Failing on Libya
In his four years as AU commission chairman, Ping faced numerous challenges across the continent, from political turmoil in Madagascar and Ivory Coast, to crises in Tunisia and Niger.
But the issue he was most criticized for was for the AU’s slow response to the crisis in Libya during the Arab Spring uprising - and not backing the growing call for then-Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to step down from decades in power.
African Union Commissioner of the Peace and Security Council Ramtane Lamamre worked with Ping on a daily basis. He said it is not fair that all the criticism was focused on the chairman.
"Ping has not made decisions in isolation. Rather, the commission has made recommendations to the member states, in particular to the Peace and Security Council and the panel of five heads of state, which was set up to handle the Libya crisis," said Lamamre. "And, the membership overwhelmingly endorsed the recommendations by the commission.”
Lamamre feels he was more responsible for the handling of Libya than Ping was. “I was in charge of the peace and security portfolio as I am now," he said. "And therefore, I take responsibility for much of what we have done in the Libya crisis or any other crisis that we had to manage together with Dr. Ping.”
In the case of Libya, Michael Battle, the U.S. ambassador to the African Union, felt that one has to acknowledge the limitations the chairperson faces.
”Serving in a multilateral organization like the African Union, without the power to actually make things happen, because the chairperson of the African Union Commission cannot make things happen on behalf of the continent, they can implement the continent's policies,” said Battle.
Ping understood those limitations and dismissed criticism that he often failed to promote effective cohesion in dealing with crises such as those in Libya and Ivory Coast, saying it would be impossible to get all 54 diverse member-states on the same page.
Looking back at the Libya situation, independent African Union specialist Mehari Taddele Maru argued that Ping’s leadership on Libya actually gives the outgoing chairman a positive legacy.
“I think Jean Ping was very strong in his position on Libya, and as such, most of the pressure was on him," said Mehari. "But he was able to maintain head of the secretary of the AU to reflect the position of the African continent, as such, but at the same time to do it with a graceful manner, without being simply marginalized and without being also too much isolated from the landscape, political landscape.”
Horn of Africa drought
Ping's leadership of the AU response to the 2008 drought in the Horn of Africa is cited by many as another positive addition to his legacy. Ambassador Battle said the chairman organized a conference where African countries donated over $350 million to assist each other.
“This was the first time in all of the history of the continent that the continent had convened to say that we want to help ourselves, while we are seeking help from donors," said Battle. "And, Ping fought very, very, hard to make sure that that donor conference took place. Interestingly enough, as a by-product of that, Kenya implemented a program called Kenyans for Kenyans. Kenya raised over $10 million among Kenyan people to help Kenyan people in this time of the drought and the famine.”
Jean Ping also forged strong ties with China - itself controversial. China financed the $200 million AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, which critics say has bought the Asian giant undue influence on the African continent.