ADDIS ABABA, Feb 4 – Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi’s drive to create a "union government" for all of Africa has instead heightened divisions on the continent, forcing an extension of a summit Wednesday to resolve the spat.
The African Union elected Gadhafi to lead the bloc on Monday, despite deep reservations among many members over his call for a "United States of Africa."
But as the 53 members were meant to wind up their three-day summit, the dispute widened as they debated a report on how to reform the continental body.
Gadhafi walked out of the talks without saying anything, and moments later the other leaders left around 3am (0000 GMT) with an agreement to resume debate later in the day.
"He understood that he lost, that’s why he left like that," one African diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Publicly, African leaders tried to put a positive spin on it.
"He didn’t walk out, he just got tired," Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said.
"We had very important things to discuss. A very rich debate. We will take it up again tomorrow morning to close," Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade said.
The summit had already agreed to expand the mandate of the AU Commission and change its name to the AU Authority, but the details of that change appear to be the focus of the dispute.
South African President Kgalema Motlanthe said in a joint interview with AFP and his nation’s SABC television that proposals for strengthening the AU would be considered, only over the next three months.
"The aim is to strengthen and expand a bit on the functions and responsibilities of the Authority," he said.
"The Executive Council tabled proposals and actually requested to be accorded three months within which to look at the exact nitty-gritty of this AU Authority," he said.
"There is an acceptance that the end goal of the founding fathers of the OAU (Organisation of African Unity) and the AU was that Africa would be united. A day will be arrived at where there will be a single authority in charge of Africa," Motlanthe said.
"There is also a recognition that the route will be a long route," he added.
During the summit, the tensions with Gadhafi were palpable. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni proposed turning the AU leadership into a troika, which would mitigate Gadhafi’s influence in a role that already has little real power.
"Africans are polite, but deserve respect," Museveni told him, according to one participant in the talks.
He then got up, whispered something in Gadhafi’s ear, and tapped him on the shoulder as he left. A few minutes later, Gadhafi left, the participant said.
Gadhafi has long looked at the AU as a way to boost Africa’s international profile, but also to increase his own standing.
But leaders like Museveni are reluctant to see Gadhafi become the face of Africa in international arena.
Gadhafi seized power in a coup 40 years ago, and his autocratic rule has drawn fierce criticism from rights groups.
Hoping to burnish his standing, he recently had a group of traditional leaders name him the "king of kings" of Africa, and brought an entourage of seven local monarchs dripping in gold jewellery with him to the summit.
Yet, differences remain over how the new system would be implemented.
Countries such as Libya advocate immediate unification, a position Gadhafi says is the only way forward for the war-ravaged and drought-stricken continent.
On the other hand countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya seek gradual integration — and seem to have the upper hand at the moment.
Motlanthe said it was too soon to tell how Gadhafi’s leadership would affect the AU.
"It’s early days and early hours, so it’s hard to say. We’ll have to see as the year progresses."