ADDIS ABABA, Feb 2 – Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi took the reins of the 53-nation African Union at a summit Monday amid concerns over deadly unrest in Madagascar and a bid to indict Sudan’s president for war crimes.
Kadhafi, elected in a closed-door vote at the summit in the Ethiopian capital, vowed to press ahead with plans to create a "United States of Africa" despite other leaders’ reluctance to back his objective.
The summit, which ends on Tuesday, has been overshadowed by political unrest in Madagascar, torn apart in a power struggle that has killed 68 people so far.
Ban Ki-moon told the summit he was "particularly concerned" about the crisis, and urged that all parties "address their differences peacefully and through existing constitutional mechanisms."
However, Ban steered clear of any mention of a controversial request by the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor for an arrest warrant for Sudan’s President Omar el-Beshir for alleged war crimes in Darfur.
AU Commission President Jean Ping told leaders earlier that the bloc was trying to lobby international support for a 12-month stay in judges’ consideration of the request, "to give a greater chance to the peace process".
Ban hailed moves toward forming a new government in Somalia, following the election of a new president last week, and praised Zimbabwe’s progress toward forming a unity government to end months of political crisis.
He also noted that the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo had taken "a dramatic turn for the better" following a joint offensive by government and Rwandan forces which led to the arrest of a key rebel leader last month.
But he warned that Africa would face tougher times ahead as nations try to cope with the fallout from the global economic downturn.
"In Africa, its negative effects will not only be on growth, trade and financial flows, but also the fight against poverty and the likelihood of reduced official development assistance," Ban said.
Some nations were unhappy about the choice of Kadhafi as the bloc’s chairman. Under AU rules, the post rotates among Africa’s regions, and this year was set to go to a North African leader. Kadhafi was the only one present.
But Southern African leaders had lobbied for a leader from their region, as the next summit moves to crisis-hit Madagascar, according to delegates to the summit.
"I hope my term will be a time of serious work and not just words," Kadhafi said in his inaugural speech.
"I shall continue to insist that our sovereign countries work to achieve the United States of Africa," he said, admitting that African leaders were "not near to a settlement" on the issue. "We are still independent states."
The 66-year-old has for years sought to boost Africa’s profile — and his own influence — by pushing for closer ties on the continent.
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.
But many African heads of state are loathe to relinquish any of their sovereignty, and during closed-door talks on Sunday, they again postponed his dream of closer union.
The summit’s main agenda — to boost Africa’s energy and transport networks — was pushed largely to the fringes, weighbed down by the grim realities of the global economic downturn.