Arguably, the last alpha male among African leaders was the late Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gadaffi. With his bottomless stash of petrodollars, Mr. Gadaffi wormed his way to becoming the defacto head honcho within the African Union, styling himself as the King of Kings, an epithet usually reserved for Christ himself. Now the colonel is gone and there is an unofficial vacuum at the top yearning to be filled. But who are the contenders?
Enter South Africa and Jacob Zuma. The largest economy in Africa and big dog of SADC, the Southern Africa political and economic bloc, South Africa has the credibility to take on this role. After all, last year it got inducted into the top emerging markets club BRIC, consisting of Brazil, Russia, India and China, so the group is now sometimes referred to as BRICS. But the greatest challenge to South Africa continental dominance may lie with Mr. Zuma.
The South African President recently tried to back his ex-wife, who is one of his strongest critics (perhaps as a way of steering her attention away from domestic politics), to challenge ex-foreign Minister of Gabon Jean Ping, the incumbent Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union, for his AU position. After three rounds of voting, no winner emerged, leading to a postponement until July. Some observers view this result as a sign of South Africa's lack of soft power on the continent despite its economic preeminence. Mr. Zuma must stand for reelection as ANC leader in December before he can contest for his country's presidency ; currently there are a number of dissenting voices in the ANC, with the strongest coming from Guateng, , whose ANC provincial chairman, Paul Mashatile, is said to be likely to back an anti-Zuma candidate. In short, Mr. Zuma has too much on his mind at home to worry about what happens northwards of his country.
Enter Ethiopia and its prime minister Meles Zenawi. Relying on Chinese technology and state capitalism philosophy, Mr. Meles has presided over a fast-growing Ethiopian economy. The country's capital, Addis Ababa, is headquarters to the Africa Union, and due to the country's location and relative stability, it is the point of contact for the United States in mediating the crisis-prone region of the Horn of Africa. Far East-ward, Mr. Meles has allies, too. China has already part-financed the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia; another three more dams will soon be built on the Blue Nile, and this will make Ethiopia the leading power exporter in Africa. Furthermore, Ethiopia is set to host an international security conference in April, adding to the country's growing prestige.
But neither Ethiopia or South Africa is a shoo-in. Outside Southern Africa, South Africa is not perceived to be a prominent continental force. Ethiopia, on the other hand, has many international critics, including Amnesty International, due to the country's poor human rights record. It would not be surprising to see Mr. Ping retain his post in July. Backed by francophone countries and their penchant for voting en bloc, as well as by the Economic Community of Central African States, Mr. Ping is still a strong contender who can't be overlooked.