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Feature - Critical time for AU summit

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ADDIS ABABA, 3 February (IRIN) - The first ever African Union (AU) summit, which opens on Monday, comes at a critical time. While African leaders try to resolve key sticking points hampering the six-month old organisation, crises rage in countries such as Ivory Coast, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

And although many African leaders remain optimistic about the future of the newly-formed AU, it is clear many hurdles need to be overcome.

DEBT PROBLEMS

The AU aims to bolster relations between African states and help achieve a better life for people as well as defend their sovereignty and independence. Yet the organisation is already straddled with massive debt " incurred from the archaic 39-year old Organisation of African Unity, which the AU replaced last July.

By its sheer size " some 30 million square kilometres " and representing a population of 811 million people, the AU holds lofty ambitions believing the continent will be a global powerhouse.

It is to have institutions such as a central bank, a parliament and a court of justice, with a Peace and Security Council modelled on the UN Security Council. It also aims to tap the enormous African Diaspora " more than 80 million Nigerians live outside the country alone.

"If everyone of them gave us a dollar, think what we could do," said an AU official at the newly-built US $11 million headquarters, which will be officially opened on Monday.

"Now you imagine if they all gave us a dollar a month. That would allow us to wield great power. Then we could make a real difference."

Money has often been at the root of the many problems faced by the defunct OAU with a paltry annual budget in the region of US $35 million. AU sources say the organisation needs about US $500 million if it is to make a real impact.

The continent's gross domestic product of US $612,916 million is dwarfed by the combined debt of Africa - a colossal US $305 billion. And already the AU has inherited more than $40 million in debt from its predecessor.

CONTINENTAL PROBLEMS

The decision to hold a heads of state emergency meeting on the crisis in the Ivory Coast was only taken last week " and is a draft proposal that may be rejected if time does not allow.

"The Ivory Coast issue is a burning issue today in Africa and we want peace there - a lasting peace,- said AU spokesman Desmond Orjiako on the eve of the summit.

He admitted no firm decision had been taken on whether the leaders would address the Ivory Coast crisis or any other crisis raging on the continent.

But in Burundi - where more than 300,000 people have been killed in the last decade " the AU has taken action. In January, it decided to deploy a military mission to the tiny central African state to oversee ceasefires signed by the government and rebel groups. And troops are expected to be sent from Ethiopia, South Africa and Mozambique until a UN peacekeeping force replace them.

The main focus of this first AU summit, to which 53 presidents have been invited, will be to tinker with its constitution, passed in July 2000.

On Saturday, the union's executive council, made up of African ministers, met to draw up and agree on amendments to the constitution.

These amendments will be put to the presidents of the continent on Monday, and they are expected to ratify the proposals. Among them will be the Peace and Security Council, aimed at predicting and resolving conflicts. They will also focus on the powers of the AU chairman.

FOCUS ON IMPENDING WAR

But issues, such as the looming war in the Middle East and its effects on the continent, could dominate the talks. The leaders are expected to make a joint African appeal on the US-led war and call for a peaceful resolution to the crisis through the UN Security Council.

Among the key leaders attending is Libya's Colonel Mu'ammar Qadhafi who arrived on Saturday with an entourage of some 400 people, including female security staff. Observers are keen to see what authority Qadhafi wields over the fledgling AU and his dream of a single 'United States of Africa'. He has pushed forward the idea of uniformity of trade, defence and foreign policy.

Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe will also take his place along more than 30 presidents who have arrived in Ethiopia. South African President Thabo Mbeki, the first chairman of the AU, will give a keynote address at the opening of the talks at the UN's Conference Centre in Addis Ababa. It is expected the chairmanship will then be passed to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

[ENDS]

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