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ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Failure by the African Union to resolve a bruising leadership contest between candidates from rival English- and French-speaking blocs will divide the continental body and undermine its credibility in the world, the AU's chairman said on Sunday.
Meeting at a summit in Addis Ababa, leaders seeking to defuse post-coup crises in Mali and Guinea-Bissau have faced the distraction of an internal battle over who will head the AU Commission, its main steering body and voice outside Africa. This has dragged on since last year.
Incumbent AU Commission chief Jean Ping of Gabon, a former foreign minister, is being challenged for the post by South Africa's Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former foreign minister and health minister who is currently home affairs minister.
A vote at a summit in January ended in stalemate, splitting the continent between its French-speaking bloc of states, which broadly backs Ping, and English-speaking member states, especially the southern group, which have largely swung behind the ex-wife of South African President Jacob Zuma.
With the contest still deadlocked in Addis Ababa, and with no sign of a consensus candidate emerging, lobbying by both Ping's and Dlamini-Zuma's supporters has intensified ahead of an vote expected later on Sunday.
The winner requires 60 percent of votes to be elected.
Benin President and the current holder of the AU's rotating chairmanship, Boni Yayi, told the summit that the body, which has been fighting to raise its profile in a turbulent world, would suffer if the vote was once again inconclusive.
"Last January we failed. At this summit, we don't have the right to fail any more," Yayi said in a speech.
Critics say the AU showed itself hesitant and slow-moving in its response to the conflicts last year in Libya and Ivory Coast, allowing Western governments to take lead roles.
"A new failure will signify the division of the continent," Yayi warned, urging the heads of state to use the vote to show Africa's ability to work together and find consensus.
Dlamini-Zuma, a doctor and diplomat who would be the first woman to hold the AU post if elected, rejected suggestions that the rivalry risked tearing the continental body apart and said she would support her rival if he won.
"I don't think any election should be divisive in itself. You stand, you get votes and whoever wins, wins," Dlamini-Zuma told a news conference.
"I think the continent is stronger than to allow itself to just be fractured by elections involving two people," she said, saying that all of the AU's 54 members states should support whoever emerged as the winner.
Some smaller countries have argued that Zuma's candidacy broke an unwritten rule that Africa's dominant states should not contest the AU leadership. South Africa is the largest economy on the world's poorest continent.
But Dlamini-Zuma said this tacit rule was not fair as the AU's constituent charter viewed all member states as equals.
"It's not like the United Nations," she said, referring to the veto power held in the world body by the five member states of the U.N. Security Council.
Seeking to deflect fears that South Africa might seek to use the AU post to try to dominate the continent, Dlamini-Zuma argued that she was standing "as an AU candidate, not as a representative of South Africa."
Reporting by Aaron Maasho and Pascal Fletcher; editing by Patrick Graham