Leaders still divided over African unity

Susan Njanji and Chris Otton

Susan Njanji and Chris Otton

African leaders were late yesterday still struggling to nail down an agreement on a road map for stronger unity.

This at the end of a summit which exposed rifts over the pace of change.

The three-day African Union summit in Accra, Ghana, was almost entirely devoted to talks on how to realise what some have dubbed a United States of Africa (USA), a notion first championed by the country's founding president, Kwame Nkrumah.

But while his name was widely invoked by heads of state, many of their speeches also warned about moving too hastily.

New Nigerian leader, Umaru Yar'Adua, whose country's support is vital for any drive towards closer union, on Monday argued that the target of an alternative USA could best be reached by first concentrating on regional cooperation.

"Our perspective is mediated by the critical need at this point in our continent's developmental process for the nations of Africa to focus more on the strengthening and consolidating of internal governance and growth structures, and on more robust regional integration," Yar'Adua said.

The more radical camp, led by Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade, wanted the immediate formation of a union government, which could draw up common foreign and trade policies to replace the existing AU commission.

Earlier diplomatic sources said Senegal had threatened to lead a breakaway movement of mainly West African states, which would draw up its own plans for a union government and try to persuade the others to sign up later, unless the ongoing summit came to an agreement.

In a press conference after the debate broke up for the night, Wade did not rule out such a possibility, though he remained optimistic of a deal.

"It cannot be ruled out as I've already made my position clear but I don't think we're going in that direction," he said.

Mindful of the need for a joint declaration, as is customary at the end of AU summits, Ghana emphasised the need for consensus.

"I believe the trend has been towards what the European Union is doing," Ghana's information minister, Kwamena Bartels, said.

"The approach [of Senegal] has been [that of] USA now but we need to tread more cautiously and ensure that at every turn whatever problems we face we are able to address."

Major splits emerged on Monday, with some heads of state urging their peers not to move too fast and focus more on regional integration.

On the second day of the three-day summit, heads of state met behind closed doors for a grand debate in which they were split over whether to create a USA or simply upgrade existing institutions.

Though South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki did not speak, Lesotho's Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili presented the misgivings of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a 14-country regional bloc.

"We recognise that Africa's interests would be best served through economic and political integration," he said.

"However, we must adopt a bottoms-up approach, not a top-down one. We believe that such integration should be gradual rather than precipitous."

Advocates of stronger unity, including Senegal's President Wade and Gabon's Ondimba Omar Bongo, however both spoke forcibly for tighter union.

"Today, our continent must proceed towards an acceleration of its process of integration. It is clear that the time is right for the creation of a union government," said Bongo.

Senegal's Foreign Minister Sheikh Tidiane Gadio said his country was ready to support the immediate creation of a union government, insisting that breaking down barriers could only benefit Africa.

"We can even bypass the discussions," said Gadio before the debate.

"The African people are ready but are the African governments ready?" he said.

Ghanaian host President John Kufuor and African Union commission chief Alpha Oumar Konare acknowledged at the opening of the three-day meeting, which started on Sunday night, that the current executive had to be improved and its remit was ill-defined.

Though the summit was meant to be devoted to the prospects for closer unity, the continent's trouble spots continued to loom large.

The Darfur conflict featured high on the opening day as Konare called for a UN resolution to nail down a long-promised deployment of a hybrid UN-AU force to western Sudan.

But speakers showed little inclination to dwell on Somalia's problems. No new countries have come forward offering troops to serve in an AU peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu since January's summit in Addis Ababa.

Meanwhile, Britain's nominee as EU envoy to the AU, Valerie Amos, warned that the growing pains of the European bloc were an indication that efforts to seek similar integration in Africa would not be easy.

"I think this is a big agenda for the AU and African presidents if you look at the kind of discussions we have been having in the EU." - Sapa-AFP