African Union Gets a South African Leader, Lending the Group Heft

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Observers hope that the long-deadlocked African Union will wield more influence with the economic and political power of South Africa behind it.

At last week's summit, African Union leaders took a bold step by electing a woman from one of the continent's powerhouse nations to lead the commission.

The leadership of the 54-nation body has been in electoral deadlock for the past 6 months, a time in which Africa experienced two coups des-etats as well as ongoing conflicts. For that reason alone, the victory for South Africa's Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma over incumbent Jean Ping from Gabon drew sighs of relief, allaying fears that the AU would continue to be without strong leadership for another 6 months. It also raised hopes that with the might of Africa's largest economic and political power behind it, the union may wield more influence.

An election in January led to an embarrassing stalemate as neither candidates garnered the required two-thirds majority, leading to former foreign minister Ping remaining in place until the recent summit.

"The issue has been hugely destructive," Jakkie Cilliers, the director of the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies said immediately after the vote. "Now at least we can get back to key issues."

On the security front, those issues are familiar: renewed tension between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo; entrenched disputes and occasional border conflict between long-time foes Sudan and South Sudan; and the turmoil afflicting Mali, which has suffered a military coup, an Islamic insurgency and the declaration of a breakaway province this year.

The constraints are equally familiar. West Africa's regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, announced in May its intention to launch a peacekeeping force to Mali. Needing funds and authorization, the plan was passed up the chain via the AU to the United Nations Security Council - the global body responded earlier this month by asking for a more thorough plan. With the threat of intervention delayed, the AU is pushing for the creation of a 'national-unity government' while ascendant Islamic rebels destroy historic tombs in Timbuktu, and the country effectively remains without a government in the capital, Bamako.

Although progress is being made in creating a permanent African peacekeeping force, the African Standby Force, the continent will still have to rely on cash from outside to fund operations. The AU Commission that Dlamini-Zuma now heads relies on donors for around half of its budget, and its new $200 million headquarters in Addis Ababa was a gift from the Chinese. …