Dozens of African heads of state and government have begun a special two-day summit in Libya with the aim of maximizing the continent's agricultural potential and water resources, and building a new common defense and security policy.
The summit is being held in the gleaming convention complex Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi built in Sirte to hold meetings of the African Union, an organization he was instrumental in shaping.
The proposals on the table were put there by Libya, and Colonel Gadhafi brought his own cheering section into the conference hall. The 100 or so high school students, waving the flags of African Union member states, began chanting as soon as their leader entered the hall accompanied by his bodyguards.
Colonel Gadhafi began his welcoming speech to his colleagues as the students continued to chant, and even though they initially drowned him out. He did not seem to mind. In brief remarks, the Libyan leader urged African governments to unite and tackle the continent's common challenges.
Heard here through an interpreter, Colonel Gadhafi emphasized that Africa's resources give it the potential to be as powerful as the United States and Europe. And, if that were to happen, he said, it would be a good thing for the whole world.
"And there would be equality in the balance of power, leading to peace and security. When there is an imbalance there are weaker ones and powerful ones, and then you have wars and conflicts and tragedies. We hope the tragedies of the past do not recur," he said.
To give the African Union more clout so that it can deal with the chronic conflicts that have sprouted up across the continent, Libya has proposed creating a single African army. Although other governments say the idea is premature, they have given their blessing to a common defense and security initiative under which an African standby military force would be ready to act to deal with crises.
Libya has also been instrumental in pushing its African neighbors to adopt an action plan, the Sirte Declaration, that would deal with two other challenges facing the continent: agriculture and water use.
African Union officials say four out of five people on the continent are dependent on agriculture. But farmers are at the mercy of such highly unpredictable factors as rainfall, crop diseases and market prices of commodities whose production in rich countries is heavily subsidized. Agricultural productivity in Africa is also hampered by poor or non-existent credit facilities for farmers.
The African leaders will continue their talks through Saturday.