Dozens of African leaders are scheduled to gather Friday and Saturday in the Libyan coastal city of Sirte to discuss water and agricultural issues, as well as a proposal by Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi that the African Union establish a single army. African foreign ministers say it is premature at this stage to consider setting up the single army, but they have expressed support for a common defense and security policy.
Colonel Qadhafi has a vision for Africa. He has proposed eventually creating a single sovereign entity for the continent, a United States of Africa, but that idea has found little support among his colleagues.
Colonel Qadhafi was instrumental in transforming the moribund Organization of African Unity into the African Union in 2002, with the idea of developing a more robust grouping.
The Libyan leader believes that one way to give the African Union more clout is to establish a single African army. But African foreign ministers decided that it is too early to move in that direction, although they backed an Africa-wide security and defense policy involving the establishment of a standby force that would react to crises.
Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin says African governments are cautious about moving too fast toward setting up a single army. "We have to [concentrate on] things that need to be done first and focus our priorities on that," he said. "So the defense and security policy framework has been welcomed and more or less endorsed by Council, but, with regard to the one army, I think a number of countries have realized that we have to adopt a pragmatic [approach] and continue to build block-by-block to reach into that stage."
The standby force would answer to an AU Peace and Security Council that is due to take shape later this year. AU Peace and Security Commissioner Djinnit Sa'id says the organization wants to give the broadest possible context to the word security on a continent that has been wracked by conflict.
"We are talking about the defense and security of the states, of the institutions but also, and above all, the security of the people of Africa," he said.
The standby force would provide humanitarian aid, deploy peacekeepers and even intervene in an AU member country threatened by conflict if need be. One major topic of discussion is how to fund the force. Mr. Sa'id says AU members know they have to find the money to pay for it, but he also expects contributions from donor countries and organizations.
"Whatever Africa is doing for peace, it is on behalf of the international community," he said. "So, it is only normal that the international community, if Africa is moving toward assuming part of the challenge on its own … then our partners should also be happy."
Mr. Sa'id says the European Union has agreed in principle to establish a $360 million facility to support peacekeeping operations in Africa.
The summit is not expected to take up the defense issue until Saturday. The first day of the meeting will be devoted to discussing agricultural and water issues that are crucial to a continent where four out of five people depend on farming, and where chronic drought has afflicted several areas.