The African Union (AU) has chosen the South Africa .za central registry operator, UniForum, as its preferred registry operator to administer the upcoming .africa top level domain.

When it is opened up for registration, .africa is set to be a distinctive pan-African domain for regional online operations. The AU's endorsement of UniForum follows the evaluation of proposals submitted in December last year, which attracted local and international registries interested in managing .africa operations.

"This is a very big achievement by the AU, which will definitely improve businesses in the region as it will increase online trading," said Amos Kalunga, telecom analyst at Computer Society of Zambia.

However, the selection of the registry operator to administer the .africa domain has not been without controversy. The AU previously endorsed Dot Connect Africa (DCA), which was one of the bidding companies. But later, the AU posted documents on its website inviting interested parties to send their profiles, including registration certificates, audited financial accounts and verifiable experience of registry management in the past three years.

DCA dismissed the expression of interest invitation as a scheme to manipulate public opinion, claiming it had already been endorsed by the AU. As a result, DCA refused to express interest following the AU invitation, claiming that by proposing the .africa initiative to the AU in 2006 and after a rigorous process of technical presentations, clarifications and meetings with the AU, it had been issued an official endorsement of the initiative proposed.

DCA then demanded that the AU stop the expression of interest process and reinstate its previous endorsement, claiming that failure to halt the process would damage the institutional credibility of the AU. The AU however, went ahead with the expression of interest invitation and ended up choosing UniForum to administer the domain.

"The African Union Commission will work with its appointed registry operator to establish ways to promote the dotAfrica," said Abulkhirat Esam, AU representative in a statement last week. "Specific outcomes will be increased online content generation, the establishment of policies and rules of registration, intellectual property and dispute resolution as well promotion of ICT use in the region."

It remains unclear why the AU decided on UniForum after earlier dealing with DCA. The decision to set up the registry follows acknowledgement by the AU heads of state that .africa will benefit many African businesses and organizations.

The .africa domain will be among the new generic top level domains (gTLDs) that are likely to be approved by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in 2013.

The .africa project is sponsored by the AU with support from the Africa Top Level Domain organization (AfTLD). The appointed operator will be submitting its application to ICANN for approval prior to the deadline in April this year.