ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, May 25 – African leaders on Saturday opened extravagant celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the African Union, with the continent’s myriad problems set aside for a day to mark the progress that has been made.
African Union Chairman and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told leaders as he opened the celebrations they should seek to “create a continent free from poverty and conflict, and an Africa whose citizens enjoy a middle income status.”
Today’s 54-member AU is the successor of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), established in 1963 in the heady days when independence from colonial rule was sweeping the continent.
“While our founders met for the formation of the OAU at the dawn of the independence period 50 years ago, it is fitting that we are meeting here today at a time when Africa is rising,” Hailemariam added, speaking in the AU’s modern, Chinese-built headquarters in the Ethiopian capital.
Leaders said the celebrations would boost support for pan-Africanism, nodding their heads as the classic reggae hit “you’re an African” by late Jamaican singer Peter Tosh played in the crowded hall.
“When we therefore talk about African solutions to African problems, it is because we know that we can only permanently silence the guns if we act in solidarity and unity,” said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, head of the AU Commission, the organisation’s executive arm.
But while speaking optimistically about “the bright future of Africa”, she also noted that “the self-reliance and economic independence that our founders spoke of remains a bit elusive and social inequalities remain.”
African leaders were joined by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and US Secretary of State John Kerry, while French President Francois Hollande and China’s Vice Premier Wang Yang were expected to attend celebrations later.
Hailemariam singled out Beijing for its massive wave of investment on the continent, expressing his “deepest appreciation to China for investing billions… to assist our infrastructure endeavours.”
Mass dance troupes are set to perform musical dramas later on Saturday to some 10,000 guests in a giant hall, choreographed by the same team who organised the lavish opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 World Cup and this year’s Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa.
The AU has budgeted $1.27 million for Saturday’s celebrations, according to official documents seen by South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
AU Commission deputy chief Erastus Mwencha said he did not have the exact figure but that some $3 million would be spent on Saturday’s festivities and other events over the coming year.
Musicians playing later 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.
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 25 nations at the bottom of the UN’s human development index are in Africa.
Saturday’s celebrations will be followed by a more sobering two-day AU summit meeting to tackle the range of crises facing the continent.
In recent years, the AU’s role in combat – such as its mission in Somalia to battle Al-Qaeda linked Islamists – 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 AU 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 stripped the AU of a major source of funding. Leaders will discuss finding backers for the cash-strapped body at the summit meeting opening Sunday.
The agenda will also likely include the ongoing crisis in Mali, which is preparing to receive a UN peacekeeping force to support French soldiers fighting Islamist rebels in the desert north since January.
Madagascar – in political deadlock since a 2009 coup – is also expected to be on the agenda, as well as the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where UN-backed government soldiers are struggling to quash rebels.
The AU took over from the OAU in 2002, switching its name in a bid to shrug off its predecessor’s troubled policy of non-interference in member states’ affairs – which allowed leaders to shirk democratic elections and abuse human rights without criticism from their neighbours.