Dozens of African heads of state and government are gathering in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa for a summit that could decide the future course of continental politics. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is encountering fierce opposition as he tries to retain the AU chairmanship.
The handshakes were polite but frosty Saturday as a golden-robed Moammar Gadhafi strolled into a pre-summit meeting at AU headquarters. The eccentric Libyan leader has caused a stir within the continental organization this week with an aggressive campaign to be re-elected to a second one-year term as its chairman.
The vote is scheduled for Sunday.
By tradition, the chairmanship rotates annually among Africa's five regions, and this year it is southern Africa's turn. The southern African bloc has unanimously selected Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika as its candidate for the post.
But Mr. Gadhafi has said he wants another term to complete the transformation of the AU bureaucracy into a powerful African Authority. But many AU heavyweight countries oppose rapid continental integration. They favor a go-slow approach that could take decades.
Diplomats from southern and eastern Africa, speaking anonymously because they are not authorized to make public statements, said they were 'ready to fight like dogs' to prevent Mr. Gadhafi from overturning the tradition of a rotating chairmanship.
Mr. Gadhafi's re-election hopes appeared to suffer a blow early Saturday when foreign ministers rejected a Libyan-backed move to place the African Authority matter on the summit agenda.
Ambassadors who attended the meeting say the ministers' refusal to place the Authority item on the agenda suggests the pro-Gadhafi faction may not have the numbers to get him re-elected.
Southern and eastern African diplomats say they worry that Libya's leadership has damaged the African Union's reputation for fostering democracy. Mr. Gadhafi's three immediate predecessors were democratically-elected heads of state. By contrast, he came to power in a 1969 military coup, and is Africa's longest serving leader.
Former Finnish President and Nobel Peace laureate Martti Ahtisaari attended more than 20 African summits during his long diplomatic career. He is a special guest at this one. In a VOA interview, he expressed hope leaders would do what he called 'the decent thing'.
"I have been impressed over the years that there was a very firm line by African Union that you excluded the people who had come to power through coup de etat," said Ahtisaari. "That is a very clear message that is being sent by the African Union. I hope they find a decent solution for the chairmanship, but they have to decide."
While the men fought it out, across town a small group of female diplomats gathered to launch a campaign to end violence against women and girls.
The main speaker was Liberian Foreign Minister Olubanke King-Akerele. She represents a country of contrasts, where three out of four women have been subjected to sexual violence, but where women hold many top posts in government, including President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
Foreign Minister King-Akerele called this a time for new ideas. "We want to put in place a concept called Training Liberian Civilians as peace builders, local bridge builders and local monitors," he said.
"Now it occurred to me perhaps a component of that might also be the idea of promoting foot soldiers or foot volunteers, whatever we may call it that may be the grassroots. the concept from China many years ago of the barefoot doctors, why can't we have grassroots or barefoot volunteers for violence against women," he added.
The summit gets underway in earnest Sunday with the leadership vote and a formal opening session. Featured speakers will include United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero, whose country holds the rotating European Union presidency.