ADDIS ABABA, Jan 27 – African leaders will try to bridge their divide over the crisis in Ivory Coast and thrash out the wider implications of popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt as they meet for a summit this weekend.
The official theme of the two-day gathering in Addis Ababa beginning on Sunday is how to forge "greater unity and integration through shared values".
But the 53 nations that make up the African Union are meeting at a time when their fundamental differences have been sharply exposed.
Jean Ping, the head of the organisation\’s executive arm, the African Union Commission, acknowledged the summit would have to be more than a talking shop.
"Some major decisions are going to be taken during this summit," Ping told reporters at the AU headquarters in the Ethiopian capital.
"The situation in Ivory Coast and in Tunisia is focusing our attention. I am following the situation in these countries very closely and we will take appropriate measures… in accordance with the wishes of the Ivorian and Tunisian people."
One of the first items on the agenda will be who should be chosen as the next head of state to assume the AU\’s revolving presidency.
Tunisia\’s "Jasmine Revolution", which brought a sudden end to president Zine El Abinide Ben Ali\’s 23-year rule earlier this month, has inspired similar pro-democracy protests in north Africa, notably in Algeria and Egypt.
But the man most widely tipped to take the helm from Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika is Equatorial Guinea\’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who took power from his own uncle in a coup in 1979 and then had him shot.
The African Union\’s limitations have been sorely exposed by the crisis in Ivory Coast where its mediation efforts, led by Kenya Prime Minister Raila Odinga, have made little obvious headway.
Two months on from an election run-off which the international community says he lost, the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo has refused to give up the presidency to his rival Alassane Ouattara.
While west African states have said they are ready to intervene militarily to force Gbagbo to quit, Odinga has adopted a notably less hawkish approach by saying that such action would be the last resort.
Guillaume Soro, Ouattara\’s choice as prime minister, met with Obiang Nguema earlier this week, announcing afterwards that he was sure the Equatorial Guinean leader would be the next AU president.
"Of course we count on President Obiang Nguema for him to, out of wisdom, convince Gbagbo to hand over power peacefully. We count on him," he added.
Ivory Coast has been suspended from the African Union.
While it has been heavily involved in the Ivory Coast impasse, the AU has so far avoided reacting to events in Tunisia and the subsequent pro-democracy protests that have rippled across north Africa.
Both Tunisia and Algeria are former French colonies, therefore a speech by French President Nicolas Sarkozy – the summit\’s guest of honour – will be closely monitored.
France was criticised for having supported Ben Ali\’s authoritarian rule for too long, and Sarkozy has since admitted that his administration had underestimated the anger of the Tunisian people.
However speaking to reporters on Monday, Sarkozy said France had to be very careful not to be seen to interfere in the sovereignty of its former colonies and protectorates.
"The colonial power always lacks legitimacy to pass judgment on the internal affairs of an ex-colony," Sarkozy said. "I do not want France to be likened to a country that has kept its colonial habits."
Other issues expected to dominate talks are south Sudan\’s referendum in which voters have overwhelmingly chosen to secede, according to partial results.
The vote has been praised by observers and is set to partition Africa\’s largest country and bring forth the world\’s newest nation.
Kenya meanwhile has been lobbying African leaders to give their backing to deferring the cases of top officials named by the International Criminal Court\’s prosecutor as suspects in the 2007-2008 deadly post-election violence.
The country\’s Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka has travelled to several African states and is seeking the AU\’s endorsement to request the UN Security Council delay the cases.