KIGALI - Last week’s election of Comesa Secretary General Erastus Mwencha to replace Rwanda’s Patrick Mazimhaka as the Deputy Chairman of the African Union (AU) Commission has rejuvenated the country’s bid to land the 19-country member regional community’s top post.
Comesa is an English acronym for the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa.
Last year, the government announced that it was fronting the Public Service, Skills Development and Labour minister, Prof. Manasseh Nshuti, to replace the Kenyan at the helm of the decades-long regional grouping. Comesa has its headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.
Mwencha was elected and announced as Mazimhaka’s replacement during the tenth Ordinary Session of the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia last Saturday, after Mazimhaka did not show interest in seeking a second term in office. The AU Commission president, Alpha Oumar Konaré and two other commissioners didn’t seek re-election as well.
Konaré, a former Malian president, was replaced by Gabonese Foreign Affairs Minister, Jean Ping.
Subsequent to Mwencha’s election, the race for his replacement is now wide open with Rwanda viewing her own Prof. Nshuti as the front-runner in a contest involving the outgoing Comesa deputy, Zimbabwean Sindiso, and the Sudanese Ambassador to Belgium.
“I am in contention and what will follow now (following Mwencha’s election) is to hit the campaign trail. I am the favourite candidate,” Nshuti said yesterday.
The election is due in May at a Comesa Heads of State and Government summit in Zimbabwe, a country whose economy is currently experiencing unprecedented difficulties reportedly due to President Robert Mugabe’s years of economic mismanagement.
A highly-placed source told this newspaper yesterday that the government has already instituted a high-level ministerial campaign team to spearhead Nshuti’s election bid.
The source said the four-member committee is led by Finance and Economic Planning Minister James Musoni, with other members being his Cabinet counterparts Protais Mitali (Commerce, Trade, Industry, Tourism, Cooperatives and Investment Promotion), Dr Charles Murigande (Foreign Affaires and Cooperation) and the State Minister for Cooperation, Rosemary Museminari.
The source said the committee was yet to hold its first meeting, but that it could meet soon to chart a roadmap for the campaign.
Musoni was unavailable for comment by press time with his personal assistant saying that he was held up in a long meeting.
However, Murigande said he was unaware of the committee’s existence although he said that he had personally started to campaign in line with his ministerial appointment.
“I have all along been campaigning as the foreign affaires minister. I don’t have to wait for the formation of any committee or anybody to tell me to do so. I want to see Rwandans occupying international positions,” he said.
Murigande said that the Rwandan candidate for the top Comesa job “has reasonably high chances of winning. No doubt about that.”
He said that diplomatically, Prof. Nshuti had all the chances to replace Mwencha, but added not only member states’ endorsement will see a candidate through since aspirants will also have to prove their competence for the top seat through an interview.
“This job is different from other international jobs. Besides, the diplomatic side, there is a part of interview where a candidate has to showcase their capacity,” the minister explained.
Murigande has started to canvass support for his cabinet counterpart well knowing the kind of challenge ahead.
He was part of the team that spiritedly campaigned for Mazimhaka, efforts that resulted into a hard-fought win at an AU Heads of State and Government Summit in Maputo, Mozambique, in 2003. At that time, Mazimhaka defeated his Zambian rival in the fourth round, making him the first most senior AU diplomat from the East and Central Africa region.
Rwanda again won another tight race two years later when then Finance and Economic Planning Minister Dr Donald Kaberuka beat Nigeria’s Olabisi Ogunjobi in the seventh round of balloting to become the African Development Bank (AfDB) president.
Job well done
Asked whether the government was happy with Mazimhaka’s contribution to the AU Commission and the continent as a whole, Murigande said: “He has done a good job. As someone who was serving on the commission just after it had been established, he and his colleagues, played a big role in shaping the face of the commission by defining the AU mission, the objectives and its goals.”
“It is important to note that that was the first (AU) commission and they served under certain circumstances,” he added.
During their first mandate, the commission members traversed the continent to try to resolve bloody conflicts, election disputes and political crises.
They crisscrossed in various war-torn regions such as Sudan, DR Congo, Ivory Coast, Somalia, in desperate efforts to transform the traditional diplomatic statements into real action.
On why Mazimhaka opted not to seek another four-year term as AU deputy chairman, Murigande said: “The government of Rwanda wanted him back home. Besides, he is not the only member who never sought another term.
The chairman (Konaré), and the commissioners for Peace and Security, and Rural Agriculture did not stand again.”
In the meantime, Mazimhaka will remain active at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for at least two more months during which the outgoing team will hand over to the incoming one.
“They will soon prepare for the handover ceremony. They will probably have completed all this by April 30,” said Murigande, who accompanied Premier Bernard Makuza to last week’s AU summit.
This also means that Mwencha will remain active at the Comesa Secretariat in Lusaka until late April, just around the same time his predecessor is supposed to be elected.
Like Mwencha, Nshuti’s Zimbabwean challenger Sindiso, has ended his two four-year mandate as Comesa deputy secretary general.