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Tuesday, 11 July, 2000, 16:09 GMT 17:09 UK
United States of Africa?
OAU leaders at Lome summit
How much do African leaders really want to unite?
By Barnaby Phillips in Lome

One of the most important subjects on the agenda at summit in Togo is the proposal to form an African Union - a pan-African body with strong political and economic ties intended to eventually take the place of the current Organisation of African Unity.

Colonel Gaddafi dreams of African unity
African leaders fear their continent is becoming increasingly powerless in a tough global economic environment.

Many believe that unless Africa can talk and act with greater cohesion, it will continue to be virtually ignored by the richer countries.

Beyond this general consensus, which is shared by all the 30 or so heads of state in Lome, there are considerable differences about what is the best way to proceed.

Gaddafi for union

At one end of the spectrum is Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who has grabbed much of the attention here.

Togo's President Eyadema
Togo's President Eyadema supports the idea publicly
Colonel Gaddafi raised the idea of an African Union, loosely modelled on its European counterpart, at an extraordinary summit in Libya last year.

His ambition is that the union should come into existence, in some form, in 2001.

Colonel Gaddafi can count on support for this idea from several small countries in Africa, like Burkina Faso and Togo, who have benefited from his financial largesse.

Regional groupings

But some of the more powerful African countries are wary of losing their own regional influence and concerned at any initiative that would weaken their sovereignty or ability to act independently.

Nigeria, for example, enjoys its role as the dominant force in the existing West African grouping, the Economic Community of West Afrian States, Ecowas.

 President Obasanjo of Nigeria
But President Obasanjo of Nigeria does not
In recent years Ecowas has made significant progress in easing travel restrictions in West Africa, and has started the process of establishing a single West African currency.

In southern Africa, South Africa enjoys a similarly important role in SADC, the Southern African Development Community.

Although SADC's effectiveness has been diminished in recent years, in part because of political differences between South Africa and Zimbabwe, many southern Africans would prefer to work towards regional integration first, before looking at pan-African unity.

Likewise in East Africa, where Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have been working to revive the old East African Community, which collapsed in the mid-1970s because of political and ideological differences.

There are about 50 African states, and they trade far more with the rest of the world than they do with each other.

Despite Colonel Gaddafi's plans, its hard to see how an African Union will mean much in practical terms, at least in the short term.

But it is possible that new pan-African institutions, such as a parliament and a court of law, will come into existence in the next few years - possibly providing a basis for a more united Africa in the future.

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See also:

10 Jul 00 | Middle East
Gaddafi steals Lome limelight
09 Jul 00 | Middle East
Gaddafi's warm reception
12 Jul 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
On the trail of Colonel Gaddafi
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