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Africa's Faltering Infrastructure in Spotlight at AU Summit

Africa's leaders are heading to Addis Ababa for the semi-annual African Union summit. Foreign-minister-level meetings are in progress through Saturday, and more than half of Africa's 50-plus heads of state and government are expected to attend, along with a host of dignitaries led by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The preliminary sessions are devoted to one of Africa's most glaring deficiencies, its weak infrastructure.

The three-day heads-of-state meeting beginning Sunday is expected to be taken up with Africa's most urgent crises. Zimbabwe, Somalia, and Darfur are at the top of the agenda. Hanging over it all is the pending International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

The normally two-day summit agenda has been expanded to three, to include a day-long discussion of a proposal to create a pan-African governmental authority, similar in scope to the European Union. The so-called United States of Africa is a pet project of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, who is due to take over the African Union's rotating chairmanship.

The theme of the gathering, developing infrastructure, has been relegated to a pre-summit meeting of experts and 85 minutes of summit time.

At the opening experts' session, AU Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy Elham Ibrahim said better roads and shared energy systems are essential in realizing the dream of an interconnected and unified Africa.

"I am sure they are basic elements to build our integration by roads and transport means, and also by energy, which gives the base, the main element, the engine for development as a whole. To build a road we also need energy, so they are together working for developing our continent and building our infrastructure, which will support our United States of Africa," said Ibrahim.

African Business Roundtable President Bamanga Tukur deplored the political and economic obstacles that prevent Africans from enjoying the fruits of prosperity. He called infrastructure "the backbone of Africa's development."

"A good example, take Cotonou and Lagos, it is 80 kilometers or so, you find about 16 obstacle roadblocks, yet they sign an agreement. Remove it. Removing that alone will make, if we remove only these obstacles, I can assure you our communities will have cheaper goods through trade, stronger economies, richer culture," said Tukur.

The United States is playing an unusually low-key role at this summit. In the past, senior State Department officials have used these continental gatherings as a forum for articulating U.S. policy goals for Africa.

But the Obama administration has not yet named its Africa team, and the post of U.S. ambassador to the African Union is vacant. The American delegation will be led by a career diplomat, acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Philip Carter.