African leaders set aside the first day of an annual summit on Sunday to discuss Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's long-standing pet project to establish a United States of Africa.
Delegates said that although some countries are wary of the idea, and a 2007 summit in Ghana devoted to it ended with no deal because of opposition, delegates felt obliged to debate the plan because of the huge funds that the Libyan leader has poured into parts of Africa.
Gaddafi, one of the continent's longest-serving leaders, has for years pressed for a federal pan-regional government, arguing that it is essential to meet the challenges of globalisation, fight poverty and resolve conflicts without Western interference.
Some leaders, including Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade, are keen on the idea.
Erastus Mwencha, deputy chairman of the African Union (AU) Commission, said the first day of the February 1-3 summit would focus on Gaddafi's proposal.
“I remain optimistic that yes, it will be a reality,” he told reporters ahead of the meeting. “The question we are discussing is not whether it will be a reality, but when, and how.”
Commission chairman Jean Ping said recently views on the speed of integration varied from nine to 35 years, but the continent needed to speak with a united voice to be heard in international negotiations on trade and other issues including climate change.
All 53 AU member states agree in principle with the goal of continental integration. But some — led by economic powerhouse South Africa — say it must be a gradual process.
“Gaddafi has given a lot of money to these leaders over the years,” said one east African delegate who asked not to be named.
“It is important to him, so they will discuss it. But the challenges of making it work, obviously, are vast.”
The official theme of this week's summit at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa is boosting infrastructure, which experts say is essential if Africa is to weather the global financial crisis.
But conflict and crisis in Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are expected, as usual at AU summits, to overshadow the official agenda.
Delegates have been given some breathing space by positive developments in recent days in two of the most intractable problems: Somalia's two decades of violence and Zimbabwe's economic collapse.
Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a moderate Islamist leader, is attending the talks after he was sworn in as Somalia's new president at U.N.-led talks in Djibouti.
He is attending the summit in the very country whose powerful army ousted him as leader of a sharia courts movement that briefly ruled Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia in 2006. Ethiopia's troops withdrew from Somalia last month, clearing the way for new moves to end the conflict.
On Friday, Zimbabwe's opposition agreed to form a government with veteran President Robert Mugabe , ending deadlock that had deepened a political and economic meltdown. Mugabe is attending the summit but made no comment to reporters when he arrived.
AU officials say the exclusion from the summit of Mauritania and Guinea, which both suffered military coups in recent months, proved the continent had moved on from its chequered past, when leaders seldom criticised or even commented on violence and tyrannical rule.
The latest trouble has been in Madagascar, where a firebrand opposition leader said on Saturday he had taken charge. The Indian Ocean island's president denied it.
Late on Saturday, AU Commission chairman Ping told Reuters the rules of the pan-African body on coups were clear and that any attempt to seize power illegitimately would be rejected.