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July 26, 2003

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton

Patrick Mazimhaka, outgoing presidential advisor to the Rwandan leader, Paul Kagame, was elected vice-chairman of the African Union Commission at the recent AU summit in Maputo, Mozambique. He beat a Zambian candidate in a hard fought election, which went to four rounds. The Rwandan becomes the deputy to the new Commission chairman, former Malian president Alpha Oumar Konare, who takes up his post at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa in September.

Mazimhakaís appointment is the first senior job in the African Union for the east and central Africa region. So how does he feel about the new post? Shortly after his election, Patrick Mazimhaka spoke to journalists about his new role as Africaís number two diplomat. Excerpts:

Youíve been appointed the vice-chairman of the African Union Commission. How does that feel?

I think this is a great honour for me and for my country in particular to be entrusted with such a responsibility at this stage. As you know the African Union is coming out of the transition. We have been building institutions and we have been doing systems and now it is time to start operationalising all of those. So itís a big challenge for me, I believe, but itís also, as I said, an honour.

What will your duties be as vice-chairman of the AU Commission?

Famously, of course, my role as vice-chairman is to be a vice to President Konare, standing in for him whenever he is not able to do that. Besides that, I have some specialist responsibility for administration, finance and human resource development in the organisation and also looking after the programmes that are being set up and making sure there is enough capacity to do what the assembly has asked us to do.

So, my job is clearly cut out and I think thatís going to be, as I said, a big challenge.

Youíll be working under Chairman Konare. How well do you know him?

I wouldnít say I know President Konare very well. Itís difficult to know presidents very well. But heís somebody I have interacted with on many occasions and heís a man that I respect. I have had the privilege of taking messages to him from my president. So we have had discussions.

I am aware of his vision for Africa, I am aware of his style of work and I am very happy that I will be working with such a distinguished man. He is receptive, he is warm and yet has some sort of reserve. I think there is work for presidents after they have retired and still have some energy left to do work elsewhere. I think there are leaders all over the world who have left their jobs in politics to go and serve the international community.

That also means there are jobs [to do] after ministers like me retire! So we can give some more years to put to the service of our continent.

Do you share the same objectives as Alpha Oumar Konare?

Iím sure that the objectives of the Commission and of the African Union are now well defined. The programmes have been set up and the structures are in place, so weíre in harmony.

The election process for your job was pretty tough. It went to several rounds, you didnít get this vice-chairmanship on a silver platter.

The campaign consisted of sending emissaries to all the countries. Our foreign minister must have visited about 15 countries. Our ambassadors went to all these countries with a message from the president, explaining the strengths of my candidacy and asking for their support. So it was difficult, it was expensive. I thank the president and the prime minister. And the vote was not a shoo-in. They had to go to the fourth round, which means it was not an easy thing. Much as we campaigned, the other guy also must have campaigned equally hard.

So there must have been a lot of lobbying right at the top?

There was canvassing at the top level and this is mainly what matters, because presidents are the ones who elect. They are advised by their ambassadors and their ministers, but in the final analysis it is them who cast the vote. So there is a need to canvass at the highest level.

Why do you think you won? What went in your favour and how did you convince Africa to vote for you?

I really wouldnít know. But there are two factors of course in this - there is a question of voting for a country or voting for a region and then there is a third element, voting for the individual. And I must say maybe I had an advantage, because I have worked with most of these presidents and the governments in a lot of difficult situations, trying to deal with conflicts from the Horn to central Africa. So Iím a common face to many of those who cast the votes. Maybe that gave me the slight edge I got.

I think countries have sacrificed their interest in order to have a common vote for the vice-chairmanship.

Being the deputy can sometimes be a tough position. How come you didnít go straight for the chairmanship of the Commission, the top job?

You know, the post of chairman has been discussed for the past two years. And there was some sort of consensus, agreement on the candidacy of President Konare. So the post wasnít vacant and my country had committed itself to supporting Konare.

But thatís not an issue. The important thing is to have the synergy to work together and I donít think thatís going to be a problem.

But you donít think the vice-chairmanship of the Commission is just a prestige post?

No itís not just a prestige job. If you look at the duties of the Commission vice-chairman, youíll see that itís a big job and one where I hope to be of service.

Does your being Rwandan bring anything special to your new role?

I think that Rwanda is a country that straddles two regions - east and central Africa. So ours is a country that works in both milieus, so that will facilitate communication between the two groups, which is an advantage.

And donít forget that I have been elected by the whole of Africa, so itís a great honour for Rwanda.