Syria and Mali political situations; African Union Commission Chairperson's appointment: Department of International Relations briefings

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International Relations

08 August 2012
Chairperson: Mr T Magama (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation briefed the Committee on the current political situation in Syria. The presentation included a brief historical background to the Syrian issue, the milestones in the escalation of the conflict, and description of the current situation on the ground. An explanation was provided as to why Syria was so strategically important, to both Russia and American, and why the major players were interested in seeking a favourable resolution to the conflict. South African energy security was threatened, and thus South Africa was exploring alternative oil sources. The South African position was that South Africa remained deeply concerned about the escalating violence and deteriorating human rights situation in Syria. Members asked what was meant by a “proxy war” in Syria, about the safety of ambassadors and South African citizens in the country, who was going to take over from Kofi Annan since his resignation, who was providing weapons to Lebanon, and asked about the sending of troops over the border, and about the ‘Al-Qaeda’ element. It was agreed that the latter point would be debated in confidence. Members noted that South Africa should remain dedicated to promoting the ideals of its Constitution.

A similar briefing was given on the current political situation in Mali, setting out the causes and background of the conflict, which stemmed from the minority ruling the majority, and the North’s request for separation from the South, after that country’s independence. The Department thought that the African Union should be the primary vehicle for response, rather than the Economic Community of West African States. Members asked for the Department’s prognosis for the region, and debated whether there was a threat of a further military coup in Mali.

The Department then set out the background to the election of Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as Africa Union Commission Chair, stating why South Africa and its supporters had believed the choice to be appropriate, and why it was timeous that the Southern African region host a Chair. The presenter refuted the claims that South Africa was seeking to expand its dominance and that Anglophone countries had an unfair dominance in the AU. Members were concerned that the opposition to South Africa’s candidate had been so fierce, and asked whether this extended to other issues. They also asked about the AU’s financial situation and the staff that would be required to support Dr Dlamini-Zuma.

Meeting report

Current political situation in Syria: Department of International Relations & Cooperation briefing
Ambassador Jerry Matjila, Director General, Department of International Relations and Cooperation, introduced his presentation on the current political situation in Syria, giving a brief historical background to the issues, and giving the milestones in the escalation of the conflict, such as the six point plan, and the current situation on the ground (see attached presentation for further details). He noted the armed clashes, as well as the political situation and the discussion about the government in exile. The main problem facing the opposition groups in Syria was that there was no blueprint, roadmap or charter outlining basic rights and freedoms, on which a government could base policy. He also outlined the multilateral developments, including responses from Kofi Annan, the United Nations Security Council, and the UN Supervision Mission in Syria.

Mr Matjila explained that Syria was a very important strategic area for Russia, as it gave access to the Mediterranean Sea. He believed that the game plan was about securing the energy needs for the next few centuries. That was why the Americans had moved 50% of its naval armada to the region. He was of the view that there would not be a short end to the situation. He noted that the current situation threatened South African energy security, and thus South Africa was exploring alternative oil sources.

The South African position was that South Africa remained deeply concerned about the escalating violence and deteriorating human rights situation in Syria. It had persistently called on all the parties to the conflict to stop the violence. South Africa continued to call for an all-inclusive process of national dialogue, free from violence, intimidation and outside interference aimed at regime change, in order to satisfy the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.

No inventory of the arms being brought into the country had been released, which was of concern to the Department of International Affairs and Cooperation (DIRCO or the Department), who were worried about the lack of accountability, and the difficulty in tracing arms.

Ms R Magau (ANC), briefly standing in for the Chairperson, noted that Members would ask questions, but the Director General was free to refrain from comment on any questions that were sensitive or outside of his competence.

Mr Matjila responded that some of the issues being raised were very sensitive, and the issues were ongoing, therefore he would not be able to comment on some issues.

Mr E Sulliman (ANC) asked what was meant by a “proxy war” in Syria.

Mr Matjila responded that the people of Yemen had similar democratic aspirations to those of Syria and were being violently repressed. Although Yemen was also facing difficulties, the international community’s attention was focused on Syria. The questions to be asked included the final objective in Syria, where the lines would be drawn and whether the ultimate goal was to achieve regime change. On the one hand the conflict was the result of genuine aspirations of the people who wanted a political voice. The influence of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings had been very important on this point. People had outgrown fear, had seen countries changing and people’s lives changing, and were determined not to be ruled by the Assad family for another decade. On the other hand, there were broader issues at play. In the New World order, multi-polarity was increasing and there was competition for dominance. Syria had strategic significance, both because of its oil wealth and its access to the Mediterranean Sea. This was why countries like Russia, the USA, Iran and Saudi Arabia had a particular interest in the country. He commented that “at the end of the day, this war, like all other wars before, is about economic interest. It is not about human rights”.

Mr Sulliman asked about the safety of ambassadors and South African citizens in the country.

Mr Matjila responded that as a country South Africa was perhaps overly demanding of its diplomats. Ambassadors were instructed to remain in conflict ridden areas despite personal risk. Ambassadors were not prepared psychologically for this. Ambassadors were always kept in the theatre because they were crucial for information, and South Africa had to make informed decisions.

Ms W Newhoudt-Druchen (ANC) asked who was going to take over from Kofi Annan since his resignation.

Mr Matjila believed that there was not an appetite from the P3 to replace him. Their strategy was to avoid using the UN, due to the deadlock that had occurred in the Security Council. The game plan was for a similar situation as had occurred in Libya to occur in Syria, for Assad to go, and for a road map to be introduced.

Ms Newhoudt-Druchen asked who was providing the weapons to Lebanon, which were in turn going into Syria.

Mr Matjila responded that it was very difficult to trace who was involved. It was hard to say who had set off bombs or where they had come from. There were a lot of unanswered questions around this topic.

Mr I Davidson (DA) thanked Mr Matjila for a very interesting presentation. South Africa had taken the view that there should be an inclusive approach, but now that the situation had degenerated into a civil war, he asked where the country should go from that point. The point of departure should be to promote the ideals of the Constitution, but this would require South Africa to try and ascertain what the people of Syria wanted. Noting that Mr Matjila had asked where the line should be drawn, Mr Davidson said he did not agree with this analysis. He argued that if South Africa was consistent in demanding democracy, even in circumstances where the outcome of democracy was not appealing to South Africa, this would lead to consistent policy.

Mr Matjila responded that South Africa’s transition to democracy was widely used as a model and DIRCO had been consulting with many nations in transition so as to give advice. South Africa’s contribution was to assist parties to develop a document that could be used to assure democracy, human rights, women’s and other rights.

Mr Davidson noted that Turkey was sending troops over the border in pursuit of Kurdish rebels who had been attacking Turkey from Syria, and asked what the implications were of this rise in tensions.

Mr Matjila confirmed that DIRCO was worried about the tension between Turkey and Syria, because Syria was highly armed, and Turkey, being part of NATO, was also highly armed. The threat of a regional war was therefore heightened.

The Chairperson asked about the ‘Al-Qaeda’ element. This had caused some countries to be hesitant about supplying arms, he asked for comment on that.

Mr Matjila said he would respond to the question of Al Qaeda during a closed discussion. However, he could state that he anticipated a big problem in Saudi Arabia, as he could see a movement to the Gulf. Al Qaeda was growing and had evolved. In addition al-Shabaab had crossed through Sudan into Libya and Somalia.

The Chairperson commented that the Committee needed to have a closed discussion on this issue.

Several questions were asked that could not be directly answered because of time restraints.

Mr C Mulder (FF+)asked what was driving the protests.

Ms L Jacobus (ANC) recalled that on August 2011 the US President called for the stepping down of the Syrian President. She asked what the interests of the US were in calling for such a measure.

Ms C September asked what the implications were for the region, extending as far as Afghanistan, and requested an explanation of the responses from the Gulf.

African Union Commission Chair Election: Background, appointment of Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and future steps
Mr Matjila moved on to brief the Committee on the election of the African Union (AU) Commission Chair. He said that in the campaign for the AU Chair, South Africa had been accused of domination, as the big powers were not supposed to contest the position. There were also accusations that the Anglophone countries would dominate. He noted, however, that the Chair had been held in the past by powerful countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria. In addition, in the past, the Chair had often been drawn from a Francophone country, and in particular Guinea, Cameroon, Togo, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Gabon had all had the Chair at one time. West Africa had dominated and there had never been a Chair from Southern Africa. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) had shown incredible unity and rallied around Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. From January until July the campaign was led by non-South African countries of Angola, Tanzania, and Zambia. Every country from SADC joined the campaign. It was the first time in history that the Continent saw such a collective cohesive force.

There was a changed balance of forces when the delegation arrived for the final round of voting. The cohesion of the West African group had begun to crumble. The anti-Zuma campaign was led by Nigeria, Ethiopia and Rwanda. During the final round the environment had changed significantly. Nigeria and Ethiopia were not there and Rwanda was under pressure from the UN. The environment was very tense.

He added that Dr Dlamini-Zuma was the first woman to hold the position in fifty years, and this election gave particular meaning to the decade of women.

Looking forward, the vision and agenda for Dlamini-Zuma’s term was being developed. Critical issues would include working towards peace and security, tackling poverty, improving infrastructure and ensuring development around the Continent. Mr Matjila encouraged Members to recall that Dr Dlamini-Zuma was the Chair of the AU and not of Southern Africa. SADC had campaigned for her but she was Chair of 54 countries and would have to represent all of their interests.

The Chairperson congratulated DIRCO and the ambassadors on securing Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s position.

Ms Jacobus noted that the Chairperson was to take up her position on October 2012, which was in two months. There were also 30 posts available for South Africa, which would need to be filled in these two months. She asked if these positions were to be advertised or drawn from current staff, and at what level the posts were, stressing as there was a need for a very strong team.

Mr Matjila responded that the problem of the AU was that there were so many agreements and customs, and South Africa worked differently from other partners in the region. While South Africa was guided by the rules and the AU constitution but many others were guided by customs. There was no rule on when the transition would occur, but the custom was to leave two or three months for the incumbent. Predictable and transparent procedures, accountability processes and systems should be established. The EU had systems like this.

With regard to the posts to be filled, there were a number of positions in the Chairperson’s immediate staff, such as a PA and spokesperson. There were six or eight director posts that had to be filled, and these were at P5 level. South Africa, since it joined the AU, had had certain posts that were never filled because the salaries were not competitive enough, compared to those in South Africa, and for this reason it was unable to gain influence through these positions, due to unwillingness of the staff to work there. The only way to resolve this was to top up the salaries. The Cabinet passed a policy, in 2010, of secondment, but as yet there was nothing concrete to support it. People were needed to accompany Dr Dlamini-Zuma and stay at the AU.

Ms Magau asked about the financial status of the AU, noting that other AU members were often behind in paying their subscription fees. She asked if there was a strategy to deal with this, otherwise the situation of the AU depending on funders or donors would continue.

Mr Ngonyama also asked about the budget. At the end of the day, Dr Dlamini-Zuma would be judged on how much delivery there had been. He asked if there was a strategy for her term of office, and what role South Africa would be expected to play. It should be clarified specifically what the financial implications were for South Africa.

Mr Matjila responded that the budget was US$122 million for the AU programmes, which covered salaries and other costs. Then there was a project budget from the European Union of Euros 158 million. For the EU one, every Euro could be accounted for and there was a definite hand over date. However, in other areas, accountability remained a problem. In the past the Chair of the AU had used the AU budget to campaign. Nigeria, Egypt, Libya, and South Africa continued to contribute the bulk of the budget. 

Mr Ngonyama asked why a country like Rwanda, which had been assisted by South Africa so much, would oppose Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy. He also wondered why there had been opposition of the candidacy from Ethiopia, who also had good relations with South Africa. He asked what specific factors were at play, and what could be done to avoid this in the future.

Mr Davidson added that he was also concerned by the strong stance that certain countries took against the South African candidate, what possibility there was for these countries to sabotage Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s efforts, and whether there was a strategy to mitigate this risk.

The Chairperson asked if there was a deliberate and conscious strategy to engage these countries in the long term. Countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria were important players and South Africa needed to work closely with them. More could be achieved with them as partners than as opponents. He added that it was necessary also to know if this antagonism was limited purely to the scenario of the election or whether it was also affecting other relations.

Mr Matjila responded that when West Africa and East Africa dominated the OAU and AU Chair, no one had commented. As soon as South Africa was contending the Chair, tensions arose. There was a fierce opposition, on the continent and outside of it. South Africa was accused of hegemony, but there were no permanent seats in the AU constitution, and the power rotated. Therefore it was not correct to talk of hegemony. South Africa committed itself to dialogue, negotiations, and winning through the strength of its arguments. South Africa had huge forces on the air and ground, and led from a economic standpoint. However, it still faced challenges with its schools, healthcare and so on, and so there was no desire to lead or to dominate.

Mr Matjila undertook to discuss the motivations of Nigeria, Rwanda and Ethiopia at a later stage, in confidence. However he did say that through UNISA, South Africa produced more masters degrees in Ethiopia than Ethiopian universities did, yet this was not appreciated. He noted how many South African soldiers died in Burundi, and argued that there was no appreciation for what South Africa did.

The Chairperson also commented on the issue of the financial viability of the AU. There was always a concern by South Africa of an over-reliance on the EU for its programmes and projects. The AU operational budget was one thing, but also there was an overwhelming reliance on EU funding for AU programmes. He was therefore concerned about the AU’s ability to fund its own problems on the Africa continent. The staff issue had come up repeatedly, but it was more urgent when a South African was the Chairperson. He was therefore sure that the Members would look favourably on this issue.

The Chairperson commented that the attitude of the South Africa media on the campaign was disturbing. Unflattering comments were made and unnamed sources made accusations of bribery. He hoped that the media could engage positively and move away from this type of behaviour, which in his view was unpatriotic.

He expressed, on behalf of the Committee, his appreciation for the Department’s work and the work of government as a whole, who had all contributed to ensuring this outcome. He commented that it was necessary to make it possible for the Minister to perform her work, and wished her all the best.

Current political situation in Mali: Departmental briefing
Mr Matjila introduced the situation in Mali, by giving a brief historical background to the country, and running through the underlying causes of the conflict. The main source of grievance was that when Mali became independent the minority ended up ruling the majority. There was a request to France for a separate state in the North, which was declined. On 23 March the AU had met in Mali to discuss the security of the region. There was a coup in Mali two days later. The response was initially led by the Economic Cooperation of West African States (ECOWAS), with Senegal installing an interim government. An armed group called Aqin came back from Libya to control a vast area in the North of Mali. Famine had hit the whole region and so there was little resistance. When the group returned it did so with weapons and caused destruction on the countries, such as Niger, through which it passed.

South Africa had allowed ECOWAS to lead the negotiations, led by a representative from Burkina Faso. However, South Africa’s major concern was the possibility of Mali being divided into two. ECOWAS was willing to launch a military intervention but lacked the forces and equipment for such an operation. Mr Matjila doubted that ECOWAS’s forces would manage the rough terrain in Mali, particularly in the North which was mainly desert. There was also a huge supply of arms in North Mali.

The country was experiencing grinding poverty and hunger. Malians had been mobilised to go to Côte D’Ivoire and now needed to return home. There was a disjuncture of opinion within Mali; whilst the political class wanted ECOWAS to intervene, the army was against it. This created a tense situation. The West had no appetite to get involved, but action was urgently needed. South Africa’s real concern was its shipping routes. Aqin had control of a large territory and if it could infiltrate Mauritania it would be able to disrupt shipping routes on the West coast of Africa. South Africa’s trade routes would then be blocked on the West and East coast. This would also pose a threat to Western Europe.

Mr Davidson asked what the Malian people felt about the situation.

Mr Matjila responded that the situation in the North was “touch and go”. The people of the North had for a long time experienced the rule of a minority over the majority. On independence they had approached France and requested separation from the South part of Mali, so there was much dissatisfaction. He had never witnessed any protests or uprising, but noted that the army had a strong influence in the administration, and said he was not sure if there was any freedom of expression.

Mr Davidson asked whether, given that the political elite wanted ECOWAS, but the army did not, there a threat of the army taking and holding on to power rather than allowing democratic elections to take place.

Mr Matjila responded that this tension had existed for a long time. However the army was intimidated by the Aqin. The government wanted to spend more money on the military services to lower these tensions. There was awareness in Mali that the likelihood of intervention was low. Côte D’Ivoire and Niger had their own internal problems to deal with. Nigeria was preoccupied with Guinea-Bissau. The West had no appetite for intervention and nor did Ghana. Mr Matjila argued that both Nigeria and ECOWAS already had their hands full with other issues. That was the reason why South Africa wanted to see this handled as an AU issue, not an ECOWAS issue.

The Chairperson commented that literally the whole of West Africa was in trouble, facing either civil strife, an emergence from a political coup or transition, or some other form of conflict. The only possible regional power, Nigeria, was also preoccupied by internal strife. He questioned what the prognosis was for the region, noting that the region was already paralysed by practical considerations. In addition, it was preoccupied with a constant flow of arms into the region.

Mr Matjila responded that this was due to the decolonisation processes of the 1950s and 60s. There was a large amount of unrest because of the way in which the United Kingdom withdrew from the continent. The Lusophone states were not developed at all during the colonial period. In addition, both France and Portugal retained a large amount of influence over their former colonies. The ties to France were still incredibly strong, and the leadership of the former colonies still looked to France for answers. There was a very different mentality to that of the Commonwealth. This would be the problem until young people changed the mentality, but he thought that until this happened, West Africa would continue to be unstable.

The Chairperson said that the replacement of former French President Sarcozy augured well for Africa, particularly because of the leftish take by the new President.

He then thanked Mr Matjila for the extensive and insightful presentation that would help the Committee engage better with the issues.

The meeting was adjourned.


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