Lusaka, Zambia — The 37th annual summit of the Organisation of African Unity, which is likely to be the last, has opened in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, with delegates focused on the creation of a new continental African Union (AU) to replace the OAU.
The AU has been described as a potentially powerful union, modeled on the lines of other regional global groupings in Europe, Asia and North America. A fully functioning African Union is expecting to have a continental parliament, an executive commission, a court and a central bank.
Officials said about forty heads of state and government, as well as the United Nations' secretary-general, Kofi Annan, attended the opening ceremony where the outgoing OAU chairman, Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema, handed over to his successor, President Frederick Chiluba of Zambia.
There were loud cheers in the main conference hall as the former Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda, walked in, twirling his familiar white handkerchief in acknowledgement.
Near the top of the summit agenda is the election of a new secretary-general to replace the veteran Tanzanian, Salim Ahmed Salim, who has held the post for three terms since 1989. Three candidates have been vying for the post, the Namibian foreign minister, Theo Ben Gurirab; a former foreign minister of Ivory Coast, Amara Essy; and Lansana Kouyate, the outgoing executive secretary of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States.
However, Guinea's Lansana Kouyate, former executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS) was knocked out in the first round of voting.
Diplomatic sources in Lusaka have indicated that the Libyan leader, M'ammar Al-Gaddafi, who is spearheading the revived African Union initiative, is campaigning to have Salim's contracted extended for a year, to cover the transition to the new continental organization.
Al-Gaddafi wearing his trademark soft felt cap and dressed elegantly in dark brown from top to toe, has become the star of the OAU summit, having spearheaded the African Union process. His security detail appears to have taken over the Zambian capital and blocks journalists' access to the Libyan leader whenever his dark green Mercedes luxury stretch limousine pulls up in front of the conference centre.
Another priority for the African leaders is the question of MAP - the Millenium African Recovery Programme - which is the brainchild of the President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, working with Nigeria and Algeria. The South African said last week that they had incorporated the rival Omega Plan of the Senegalese leader, Abdoulaye Wade. But this was not formally confirmed at the start of the OAU summit. The document will be presented to the heads of state for endorsement and approval during the summit.
Circus and spectacle aside, as the OAU prepares to transform itself into a new-look, 21st century, continental body, Africa remains in turmoil, with conflicts raging in most regions, including the rebellion in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
That was the central message of the acceptance speech by incoming OAU chairman Chiluba, who described the conflicts in many parts of Africa and said it was "almost as if our continent has been condemned to a permanent state of self-annihilation".
He said: "It is a matter of great concern that despite our continent having reached a major turning point, the African skies remain overcast by a dark cloud of violent conflicts and ethnic, religious and other unresolved tensions, as well as the spectre of unconstitutional usurpation of political power that looms menacingly around us."
Leaders from all over the continent, the peaceful areas as well as the conflict zones, have assembled in Lusaka, including all the presidents from the troubled Great Lakes' region.
On Sunday, the former South African president, Nelson Mandela, who is mediating in the Burundi peace process, held a last-ditch mini-summit to try and end one of the African conflicts. He met the Burundian president, Pierre Buyoya, as well as Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Rwanda's Paul Kagame and President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya. The Tanzanian head of state, Benjamin Mkapa, is absent from Lusaka, during the period of mourning after the death of his vice-president last week. He was represented by the foreign minister, Jakaya Kikwete.
The Libyan leader, Colonel Al-Gaddafi, was also in attendance at the Burundi talks. The DRC president, Joseph Kabila, was not present at the meeting chaired by Mandela. The former South African leader later announced to reporters: "We are making a breakthrough in this matter." But he declined to comment further until after meeting on Tuesday, the 19 civilian groups that are party to the Burundian peace process, as well as the Tutsi-dominated army in Burundi that is fighting Hutu rebels. Mandela did not mention the rebels who have not been included in the Arusha talks.
Ethnic feuding in Burundi has killed some 200,000 people since 1996.
Leaders from other conflict zones and countries, including President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone and the prime minister of Guinea, have also traveled to the Zambian capital. Liberia's President, Charles Taylor, is a notable absentee. He is not in Lusaka, because he is under United Nations' sanctions.
President Chiluba was clear, in his summing up, about the way forward for the continent. He said: "Africa must make a choice, choice towards peace, stability, unity, tolerance and reconciliation or face relegation into unending conditions of insecurity, hate, discord and total oblivion."
The new OAU chairman added that Africa must address the root causes of conflicts. "We must also restructure our continental conflict prevention, management and resolution mechanism to make it more effective in responding to the conflict situation on the continent," concluded Chiluba. There was a note of optimism from the Zambian leader, who said he was confident that the right choices could and would be made.
The start of the landmark Zambia OAU summit was overshadowed by the assassination, last week, of a top opposition politician and former Chiluba aide, Paul Tembo, 41. He was shot the night before he was to testify in a case of government corruption and abuse of office.
The opposition has accused government agents of carrying out the assassination, which the Zambian authorities have denied.
As the summit was opening at the Mulungushi Conference Centre in Lusaka, mourners were attending a memorial service in another part of the city, before taking Tembo's body for burial in the central Zambian town of Kabwe, 143km (88 miles) north of Lusaka.
An estimated 6,000 marchers, accompanying Tembo's casket, walked 10km (6 miles) to Lusaka's Catholic Cathedral, some of them chanting "Chiluba must go. The time to go has come."
It was later reported that there had been some disturbances after the church service, and that some marchers had blocked ministerial and presidential convoys on their way back to city hotels after the OAU summit opening.
The opposition in Zambia have warned OAU leaders of a "gathering political storm" in their country.
The Zambian government says Scotland Yard detectives from Britain, as well as special agents from South Africa, have been drafted in to investigate the murder.