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African Union Considers Future Leaders After Election Failure

African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping (L) and Benin's President Thomas Boni Yayi, newly elected African Union president, talk shortly after the closing ceremony of the 18th African Union (AU) summit in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, January 31, 201

The African Union is looking for fresh leadership after this week's contest for the AU Commission chairmanship ended without a winner.

The normally secretive African Union held a surprisingly open election this week for the job of the continent's top diplomat. But in a bizarre turn of events, both candidates were defeated.

The incumbent AU commission chief, Jean Ping of Gabon, eliminated the South African challenger Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, narrowly outpointing her in three rounds of balloting by the 53 eligible member states.

But in a fourth round in which Ping's name was the only one on the ballot, 21 countries abstained, leaving him short of the required two-thirds majority. It was effectively a vote of no confidence.

The summit leaders then decided Ping and the entire commission should stay on until June, when another election would be held.

The unprecedented failure has raised speculation about the future AU leadership. The names of several prominent African personalities have been mentioned as possible successors to Ping. But the question remains whether the two failed candidates should be allowed to run again.

Desiree Assogbavi, head of the AU liaison office of the non-governmental organization Oxfam, says a fresh face is needed who can heal the deep divisions revealed by the last election.

"We all know how this election happened, with a bloc against another bloc, and this is very unfortunate and shows a huge disagreement on the issue of leadership at the Union," said Assogbavi. "This puts the Union [on a path] to drop the existing rules of procedure and let a political decision take over. The [current] rules have serious gap because there was a blockage for sure."

Chief AU legal counsel Ben Kioko tells VOA the rules governing the election are unclear. He says a committee representing all five African regions and the failed candidates will meet in March to decide who is eligible.

AU diplomatic sources with close ties to South Africa suggest Dlamini-Zuma may not be interested in running again, and that other candidates may be fielded. Sources close to Ping, however, say he is intent on winning re-election, and is writing a letter to member states arguing that he still enjoys the confidence of the majority.

Analyst Mehari Taddele Maru of the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa says Ping faces an uphill struggle after having his legitimacy challenged.

"Jean Ping didn't get the vote of confidence that he should have enjoyed so that he would lead the AU Commission," said Mehari. "So that is a serious problem. There is a diminished legitimacy even if the mandate is still there."

Mehari says Chairman Ping and the rest of the commission will have little more than caretaker status for the next six months. Oxfam's Desiree Assogbavi says the organization's ability to handle crises is likely to suffer as its leaders busy themselves with re-election campaigns.

"A continental body needs planning to do the job, especially when the continent is facing tremendous challenges; peace and security issues, trade issues, and we don't believe this is a very good use of the time of the AU and the resources of the African citizen," he said.

Assogbavi said one of the positive outcomes of the AU leadership contest was the “surprisingly high standard of democracy” on display. Pointing to Africa's mixed record of electoral fraud and violence, he said if countries observed the same standards at home, the continent would be well on its way to stable democracy.