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New AU Chief Sets Political Stability, Food Security as Priorities

The newly-elected African Union Chairman, Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika has pledged to make political stability a priority on a continent troubled by coups and conflicts. Mr. Mutharika set an ambitious agenda at the start of his one-year term as AU chief.

In a closing address to the summit that elected him chairman, the 75-year-old Malawian leader said it is time for Africa to put a stop to the recent trend toward unconstitutional power grabs.

"We must declare war on unconstitutional change of government on African soil and resolve to take strong and necessary measures against all authors of coups, coup d'etats and those that provide them the means to unseat constitutionally elected government," he said.

Mr. Mutharika expressed satisfaction with what he called "the return to constitutional order in Mauritania and Guinea Bissau over the past year. He also noted positive changes in Guinea. But he said his year in office would focus on other trouble spots he called "intractable".

"We should remain seized of the outstanding challenges in Madagascar, Somalia and Darfur. We should remain steadfast in the use of all means at our disposal to resolve what seem to be intractable situations," he said.

Mr. Mutharika, a former World Bank economist, said he would insist on urgent steps to improve Africa's food security and energy generation capacity.

"I'm still determined as chairman of the African Union, to put measures together to ensure that within five years, no child in Africa should die of hunger and malnutrition," said Mutharika.

The outgoing AU chief, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi used his farewell speech Sunday to question the organization's competence. He accused it of doing little more than passing resolutions and declarations, and said if he had known in advance how little power the chairman has, he would have refused the job.

Mr. Mutharika said it is time to change that image.

"May I reiterate the need for our organization to go beyond making decisions, declarations and resolutions. We need to take action now," he said.

Mr. Mutharika is the 4th democratically-elected head of state to hold the AU chairmanship in the past five years, helping burnish the organization's reputation for promoting democratic ideals. Only Libyan leader Gadhafi broke the string. He came to power in a military coup 40 years ago.

Speaking to reporters after the summit, Mr. Mutharika said he would oppose any move to limit the chairmanship to only constitutionally-elected heads of states. He suggested the AU policy of strict opposition to unconstitutional power grabs would eventually eliminate despots and dictators from the continent.

"There's no agenda where we insist that someone must necessarily be democratically elected in their country. But I think you know we are against the takeover of government through unconstitutional means. We are against coup d'etats. So by definition those who will be elected head of the African Union will definitely be democratically elected," he explained.

Before closing the summit, the Malawian leader announced a postponement of the next continental gathering. By tradition, the twice yearly summits are held the first days of February and July.

But this year, the first ten days of July will be consumed by soccer madness, as South Africa hosts the final World Cup matches. So the summit has been rescheduled for July 25-27 in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.