African heads of state and representatives from 35 countries have begun a two-day summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to strengthen the role of the African Union. The officials attended a morning ceremony to open the new headquarters of the African Union. Welcoming his guests, Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi expressed his resolve to help the African Union achieve its full potential.
"We know your decision places even a greater responsibility on us," he said. "May I take this opportunity to reiterate a historical commitment for the unity of Africa with renewed vigor, and I assure you we will do our utmost to live up to your confidence."
But just how many of the African Union's 53 member states have confidence in the grouping itself is still not clear. Summit organizers had hoped at least 40 heads of state would be in Ethiopia for the two-day talks but only 25 leaders are attending. They include the leaders of Libya, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Sudan.
Modeled on the European Union, the African Union hopes to foster prosperity and democracy through social, economic and regional integration. The grouping hopes to create, among other things, a single currency, a central bank, and a regional parliament.
Addis Ababa was also the home for the Organization of African Unity for nearly 40 years. The body, which was widely viewed as powerless for its inability to bring stability to Africa and effectively promote good governance, was recently dismantled to make way for the African Union.
Unlike the Organization of African Unity, the new grouping is to have the power to intervene in member states in cases of genocide and war crimes. It also advocates a peer review system for AU heads of state, to show Africa's commitment to human rights and better governance.
But several African leaders have already expressed doubts about their readiness to get tough with each other over alleged wrongdoings. And analysts say most of what African Union hopes to achieve are long-term goals at best. The continent is still ravaged by 20 civil wars and rampant corruption.
But South African President Thabo Mbeki says he believes the African Union represents the best hope for the continent's future.
"Our peoples throughout the continent are determined that we advance in a decisive manner toward the realization of the goals of African political and economic integration and unity," President Mbeki said. "We have to do this so that we overcome the problems of poverty and underdevelopment that afflict Africa, impose misery on millions of Africans, and lead to the global marginalization of our continent and its people."
African Union leaders are expected to issue a joint statement, urging the United States to work with the U.N. Security Council to bring about a peaceful resolution to the weapons standoff with Iraq. Many leaders believe a war with Iraq would raise oil prices and devastate fragile African economies.
The leaders are also to discuss the wars raging inside Africa, such as those in Ivory Coast, Burundi, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. African Union leaders acknowledge that without peace on the continent, the grouping has no chance of turning its goals into reality.