The African Union opened a summit Sunday officially devoted to developing transport and energy systems, but dominated by conflicts across the region and division over the bloc's future.
African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Jean Ping (L), AU outgoing chairman and Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete (C) and Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, wait for other dignitaries to arrive. (AFP Photo)
Only about 20 leaders from the group's 53 members attended the first day-long session, held entirely behind closed doors for a debate about whether the African Union should evolve into an EU-style system for regional governance.
Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi led the calls for the AU to create a union government that he believes would boost Africa's international standing, but failed to win many converts among fellow leaders reluctant to relinquish any sovereignty.
In a compromise, the summit agreed to transform the African Union Commission, which currently oversees the body, into an AU Authority that would have a broader mandate, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete told reporters.
"In principle, we said the ultimate is the United States of Africa. How we proceed to that ultimate, there are building blocks," Kikwete told a press conference.
"We are creating an institution with a bigger mandate, with bigger capacities, which moves us toward the goal of the union government," Kikwete added, although details of the change are still under discussion.
While the main agenda focused on the future of the bloc, the talks were overshadowed by political strife in Somalia and Madagascar, and the fallout from coups in Guinea and Mauritania.
Among the most noted leaders present at the summit in the Ethiopian capital was Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who was elected the new president of Somalia on Friday.
In his inauguration speech in Djibouti, Sheikh Sharif vowed to build an inclusive government, extend a hand to hardline armed groups still opposed to peace talks and bring Somalia back into the regional fold.
The African Union, which has around 3,500 peacekeepers in Somalia, has been pleading with member states and the international community for the support needed to expand the mission to its planned size of 8,000 men.
Other conflicts also demanded the summit's attention. With Madagascar's political crisis worsening by the day, AU Commission chairman Jean Ping warned on the eve of the summit that "any unconstitutional change of power will be condemned."
Hours after Ping spoke, opposition leader Andry Rajoelina proclaimed himself in charge of the island's affairs, in a shock move escalating his battle against the president's regime.
Madagascar is supposed to host the next AU summit in July.
Adding to its woeful list of long-running conflicts, a military coup in Mauritania in August 2008, another one in Guinea four months later and a thwarted attempt in Guinea Bissau further hindered the continent's political growth.
Both Mauritania and Guinea were suspended from the bloc last year.
In pre-summit talks on Guinea, the African Union urged the ruling junta to follow through on proposals to hold elections by the end of the year.
But on Mauritania, AU talks with the European Union and other partners were delayed by two weeks, barring any immediate hopes for progress.
Late Saturday, the continental bloc also called on western powers to lift sanctions imposed on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his inner circle, after Zimbabwe's opposition agreed to join a unity government later this month.
"I think that everybody today should help Zimbabwe to rebuild its economy, Ping said ahead of the summit.
The global economic crisis also cast a shadow over the summit, with officials expressing concern over how a recession in rich nations will affect poor ones.
Ping argued Friday that the financial crisis "would divert the international community's attention from funding development to rescuing banking and financial institutions."