Page last updated at 20:42 GMT, Wednesday, 1 July 2009 21:42 UK

Summit takes AU back to its roots

Col Gaddafi, right, greets Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and first lady Grace Mugabe
Leaders from some 50 African countries are attending the AU summit

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Sirte

Muammar Gaddafi's home town, Sirte, is not the most accessible venue for an African Union summit.

It is a hot and bumpy four hour drive from the Libyan capital Tripoli to a town reached by only two chartered flights each day.

Such is the shortage of hotel accommodation here that journalists and diplomats are sleeping on an ageing Greek-owned cruise liner moored in the harbour.

Space is equally short in the press room. There is no phone signal here and the journalists and dignitaries have almost come to blows as they grapple for internet lines, now in chronically short supply.

But Sirte does have a special place in the history of the African Union. The proclamation of the AU was signed here in 1999 and since then its compound has expanded over scores of acres.

Outside an AU summit in Addis Ababa
Loosely modelled on European Union
Succeeded Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 2002
Headquartered in Ethiopia, with 53 member nations
Seeks to promote unity, peace among African nations
Encourages democracy, good governance, economic integration

There are leaders and representatives from some 50 African countries, as well as guests from the international community.

The Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is here. One notable exception is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who cancelled at the last minute.

The theme of the conference is agriculture and how it might lead the continent to greater economic stability.

Africa is certainly in need of some revolutionary ideas.

Far from the gleaming towers of Wall Street, the UN says it is the countries of sub-Saharan Africa that are now paying the highest price of the world's economic slowdown.

Growth rates have been slashed as export revenues, remittances, commodity prices and aid budgets have all tumbled.

The head of the AU Commission, Jean Ping, called on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to release the money it had pledged at the last G20 summit in London.

At that time the IMF promised it would sell its gold assets to raise funds for Africa.

Unity plea

Col Gaddafi thinks the long-term solution is unity - a federal government to speak out for all countries on the economy, on defence and foreign policy.

The bold ambitions he has set out for a United States of Africa would be modelled on the European Union, with one economic bloc, one currency, perhaps even one voice on the UN Security Council.

Rebel fighters in Mogadishu 29.6.09
The AU will debate its peacekeeping mandate in troubled Somalia

The rationale is sound. African countries have this peculiar trait of trading more with the outside world than they do between themselves. The trade barriers between them are often the biggest obstacle to building competitive economies of scale.

But there are many here who believe the Libyan leader's ambitions are a pipe dream.

Few can see the big men of Africa who have ruled their countries for years ceding important powers and control to a distant federal government.

Would such a body really paper over the many cracks that exist - the wars, the poverty and disease?

They are all high-minded debates, far from the turmoil of Somalia, Sudan or DR Congo.

Oxfam estimates that some 1.4 million people have been forced to flee their homes so far this year as a result of increasing violence.

The heaviest fighting in months has engulfed the Somali capital of Mogadishu as radical al-Shabab rebels, reportedly supported by hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters from abroad, threaten to overthrow the moderate interim government.

Unconfirmed reports say an Afghan commander is their third in command.

No wonder the entire Horn of Africa is looking on nervously. There are 300,000 refugees on the border with Kenya - with more to follow.

The Ethiopians who withdrew their forces from Somalia in January say they will only return if the AU agrees a much stronger mandate for peacekeeping. Without it, the Somali government will undoubtedly collapse.

ICC criticism

On other issues there are the predicted grumblings about the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

African and Arab leaders condemned the arrest warrant issued for Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, which they believe endangers that country's fragile peace process.

Opening session of AU summit in Sirte
African leaders are not expected to cede power to a United States of Africa

Since his indictment for war crimes and crimes against humanity Mr Bashir has visited at least half a dozen African countries.

Col Gaddafi has called on African leaders to reject the ICC's "warped justice". He has expressed the view several times that the four African cases currently under investigation by the ICC are an imposition, if not a plot, by the West.

Col Gaddafi forgets to mention that five of the 18 judges are Africans.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, writing in the International Herald Tribune this week, rejected any criticism of political bias.

"There will be less need for the ICC to protect African victims only when African governments themselves improve their record of bringing to justice those responsible for mass atrocities," he wrote.

The group Human Rights Watch has been stalking the corridors on the first day of the summit reminding leaders that three years ago the AU called on Senegal to prosecute the former dictator of Chad, Hissene Habre. To date there has been no trial.

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