Sudan: Preview - Darfur haunts AU as it aspires to union government

By Pascal Fletcher

ACCRA, June 28 (Reuters) - African leaders meet this weekend to debate a grand plan for a continental government, but they face pleas for urgent action now to halt conflicts in Darfur and Somalia and tackle enduring poverty.

A summit of the 53-nation African Union starting in Ghana on Sunday has at the top of its agenda a "Grand Debate" on creating a United States of Africa and a federal government to rule it -- a long-held dream of supporters of Pan-African integration.

Organisers are billing the three-day Accra summit as a tribute to Ghana's first post-independence president, Kwame Nkrumah, who became the standard bearer of Pan-African unity when he took over from British colonial rule a half century ago.

But sceptics doubt the practicality of a federal government for Africa after decades of wars, coups and massacres that often reflect ethnic and religious fault lines criss-crossing a vast continent artificially carved up by former colonial rulers.

While most Africans embrace the vision of a united, resource-rich continent of 800 million people able to speak with one voice to the world, campaigners say AU leaders must tackle more pressing problems at their doorstep.

"Darfur should be on the agenda, because it's really, really urgent," said Oury Traore, regional programmes manager for the West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), a non-governmental organisation that promotes conflict resolution.

Traore's group wants the AU to make its top priority the protection of civilians in Sudan's western Darfur region, where more than 200,000 people have been killed in a conflict pitting Sudanese forces and allied militias against local rebels.

"We shouldn't allow room for this kind of insanity any more, in any state," she said.

Civil society groups urged AU leaders to act now to bring peace to Somalia by pressing for a political solution there, and some also urged them to look at Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe is accused of crushing opponents and ruining the economy.


But summit organisers defend the single-item agenda, and deny the plan for a continental government is too ambitious.

"Yes, we have serious problems, people are dying in places like Darfur and Somalia. But people are dying elsewhere in the world, not just in Africa," Ghana's Foreign Minister Nana Akufo Addo said.

Addo said a continent that pooled its resources and spoke with one voice would command greater respect in the world and help Africa shake off the indignity of always being portrayed as a byword for chaos and poverty.

"In the last 20 or 30 years we have a continent that has been bedevilled by conflict of one sort or another, vast migration of many of our young people. That is the Africa we want to stop," he said.

But he recognised disagreements among the AU heads of state about how quickly a federal United States of Africa should be created and how it should be governed.

While some leaders like Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade are vocal advocates of a continental government, others, like South African President Thabo Mbeki, are believed to favour a more gradual approach.

Gaddafi, who often wears clothes emblazoned with the outline of the African continent, has travelled to the summit by land, drumming up support for his unifying vision, which includes a plan to create a 2-million strong African army.

He says Africans will only win respect if they act as a single continent -- a view shared by Nkrumah's son Sekou.

"I think ideally it should be a continental government. The problem is not how we get there, it is that we get there," Sekou Nkrumah told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Orla Ryan)


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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