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Leaders open landmark AU summit in Ethiopia

Meeting to mark African bloc's 50th jubilee expected to call for dropping of ICC charges against Kenyan leader.

Last Modified: 25 May 2013 22:01
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Dozens of African leaders met in the Ethiopian capital to mark 50 years since the founding of the African Union, a continentwide organisation that helped liberate Africa from colonial masters and which now is trying to stay relevant on a continent regularly troubled by conflict.

Opening the summit on Saturday that was attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign dignitaries, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said the AU's original pan-Africanist aspirations remain relevant for a continent where many states are still struggling to overcome rampant poverty and violence.

"This historic day marks not only a great leap forward in the Pan-Africanist quest for freedom, independence and unity but also the beginning of our collective endeavor for the realisations of Africa's socio-economic emancipation,'' he said.

"The major responsibility of the current and future generations of Africans is.to create a continent free from poverty and conflict and an Africa whose citizens would enjoy middle- income status.''

African leaders have gathered to witness celebrations in Addis Ababa for the 50th jubilee of the continental bloc, with its many problems set aside for a day to mark the progress that has been made.

Brazil said Saturday it plans to cancel $900mn worth of debt in 12 African countries, as part of a broader strategy to boost ties with the continent.

"The idea of having Africa as a special relationship for Brazil is strategic for Brazil's foreign policy," presidential spokesman Thomas Traumann told reporters on the sidelines of African Union celebrations to mark 50 years of the continental bloc, attended by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

High-profile guests

Mass dancing troupes performed musical dramas on Saturday to about 10,000 guests in a big hall in the Ethiopian capital, home to the African Union.

Today's 54-member AU is the successor of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), established amid the heady days as independence from colonial rule swept the continent in 1963.

African leaders were expected to be joined by Francois Hollande, the French president; Wang Yang, China's vice-premier; and John Kerry, US secretary of state.

Mali is expected to be discussed: it is preparing to receive a UN peacekeeping force to support French soldiers fighting formerly al-Qaeda-linked rebels in the desert north since January.

The agenda will also likely include Madagascar - in political deadlock since a 2009 coup - and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where UN-backed government soldiers are struggling to defeat rebels. 

There is also an AU move to back Kenya's call for the Hague-based International Criminal Court to drop crimes-against-humanity charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Speaking to Al Jazeera's Nazanine Moshiri in Addis Ababa, Nhial Deng Nhial, South Sudan's foreign minister, said he believed the motion would be passed at the summit.

Time to look back

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, AU Commission chief, said the "celebration of all Africa" was "historic", and that it was a time to both look back at the past and consider how the continent can tackle the many challenges ahead.

"The future is in our hands, its bright ... the opportunities are great for the continent to be prosperous," Dlamini-Zuma said in a statement late on Friday.

Al Jazeera's Nazanine Moshiri reports from Addis Ababa

Somzi Mhlongo, the South African choreographer who organised the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 World Cup as well as this year's Africa Cup of Nations, said the celebrations he had organised would be "an extravaganza".

Musicians playing include Congolese music legend Papa Wemba, Mali's Salif Keita and British-based reggae band Steel Pulse, with giant screens set up across Addis Ababa also showing the festival.

The AU has budgeted $1.27m for Saturday's celebrations, according to official documents seen by South Africa's Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

Erastus Mwencha, AU Commission deputy chief, said he did not have the exact figure but that some $3m would be spent on Saturday's festivities and on other events over the coming year.

The AU took over from the OAU in 2002, switching its name in a bid to shrug off its troubled past.

OAU non-interference in member states' affairs allowed leaders to shirk democratic elections and abuse human rights without criticism from their neighbours.

Combat roles

In recent years, the AU's role in combat - such as its mission in Somalia to battle al-Qaeda-linked groups - has shown it can take concrete action, even if the funding for that mission comes mainly from Western backers.

But at the same time, the splits revealed by the 2011 conflict in Libya - when members squabbled between those wanting to recognise rebels and those backing Muammar Gaddafi - showed its disunity and lack of global clout.

Gaddafi's death also robbed the AU of a major source of funding. Leaders will discuss finding backers for the cash-strapped body at a two-day summit following Saturday's anniversary celebrations.

Development indicators on the continent - including health, education, infant mortality, economic growth and democracy - have improved steadily in the past 50 years.

Africa is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world according to the IMF, and has attracted huge amounts of foreign investment in recent years.

At the same time 24 out of the bottom 25 nations at the bottom of UN human development index are in Africa, and the subsequent summit will tackle a range of crises the continent faces.

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Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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