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    AU Launches 'Panel of the Wise'

    The African Union has inaugurated a panel of distinguished citizens to promote efforts to prevent conflict on a continent that has seen more than its share of wars.  VOA's Peter Heinlein reports from AU headquarters in Addis Ababa the group is being called "the panel of the wise."

    The Commission of the African Union earlier this year established the panel of five eminent persons to represent the continent's five regions on conflict prevention issues.  Each member will serve a three-year term.

    The so-called "panel of the wise" includes former Organization of African Unity secretary-general Salim Ahmed Salim of Tanzania from the east; former Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella from the north, and Benin's constitutional court president, Elisabeth K. Pognon, representing the west.

    The central Africa seat is held by former Sao Tome and Principe president Miguel Trovoada, and the southern representative is South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission chief Brigalia Bam.

    AU Peace and Security Commissioner Said Djinnit says the panel's value will be in using its moral authority to persuade African leaders that war should not be an option.

    "The idea is to make use of their authority and independent authority to push our agenda for peace and to enable them to do what the peace and Security Council and the Commission cannot do," he said.  "To deploy their own talent, their own ways and means of ensuring that peace is consolidated on the continent."

    All panel members were present for the inaugural ceremonies except Ben Bella, who turns 91 next week.  He sent a message, which was read by Salim Salim.

    "Having been in the forefront of the struggle against colonialism and apartheid, our continental organization enabled Africa to free itself and launch itself in the international arena as a key factor, thus realizing at the same time a part of the African dream," he said. 

    Salim will serve on the "Panel of the Wise" in addition to his current duties as the AU special envoy on Darfur.  There he is struggling to persuade donor nations to provide military hardware for a hybrid peacekeeping mission being formed to replace the overstretched African Union force that has failed to curb the violence in western Sudan.

    He tells VOA he is mystified by the international community's reluctance to back up its words of concern about Darfur with the helicopters needed to enforce peace.

    "I find it extremely difficult to understand how, in this day and age, with all the resources available, it would still be difficult to get the helicopters required for the force," he explained.  "And unless this force is properly equipped, it is going to meet the same problems the African Union force met in Darfur."

    The female members of the panel expressed hope they could be a force for bringing a feminine perspective to the field of conflict prevention.  South Africa's Electoral Commission Chairwoman Brigalia Bam says women are natural peacemakers.

    "Because in any society, the people who entrench values of goodness is usually in any given family a mother, and since I am a believer, I am not calling myself a feminist, but I believe in the influence of women, I believe in the spirituality of women, I believe in their forthrightness, because they believe in the protection of human life and I see myself as contributing to this way of thinking, of changing our minds," she said.

    Bam says the challenge facing the "Panel of the Wise" is to influence present and future African leaders to acquire a new culture of mediation. But she acknowledged the task is enormous in a region best by numerous conflicts.  She said, we must remember, "we cannot change the whole of the large continent."

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