Ethiopia has laid on tight security for the summit of the AU, the first since the new regional body was forged from its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, at a meeting in South Africa last July.
Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, Thabo Mbeki, the South African President, Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean President, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the Sudanese President, and other leaders were among the early arrivals for the summit, which opens tomorrow, conference officials said.
A conflict has erupted in Ivory Coast since the AU was born, posing another challenge to a continent already grappling with years of war in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sudan. "The conflict situation in Ivory Coast, the DRC, Sudan, Somalia and Burundi will be tackled by the 17-nation central organ of the AU Mechanism of Conflict Prevention Resolution and Management," Ben Kioko, a legal counsellor to the AU, told a reporters' briefing.
A looming war in Iraq is also likely to preoccupy African heads of state at the meeting, amid fears that a conflict in the Gulf could damage economies on the world's poorest continent by pushing oil prices sharply higher. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the South African Foreign Minister, opened a one-day ministerial meeting of the AU yesterday with a warning of the possible economic fall-out from such a war.
Echoing anti-war sentiments expressed by Mbeki, she urged African states to continue supporting efforts by the UN Security Council to disarm Iraq of any weapons of mass destruction and avert war. "The ministers warned that such a war would destabilise the whole of the Middle Eastern region," Said Djinnit, the assistant interim commissioner of the AU, told reporters after the ministerial meeting yesterday.
"They also noted that it is Iraqi civilians who would suffer most, such war must be averted by all means," he said. Conference sources said the AU might issue an appeal to the US not to rush into a war with Iraq.
African security council Leaders are also expected to discuss the role the AU should play in resolving Africa's conflicts, and examine proposals for creating a common defence policy and pan-African security council, among other measures to bolster the new regional body. Gaddafi, who has proposed a plan to create a "United States of Africa," arrived yesterday with several aircraft and an entourage of several hundred followers, airport officials said.
African foreign ministers rejected Gaddafi's proposals for uniting Africa with centralised government institutions and a common army last month, but diplomats say Gaddafi's oil wealth and unpredictability make him a man to watch at the summit.
An economic recovery plan for Africa - the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) - is also expected to be discussed. Conference sources say they expect up to 39 heads of state, including leaders from Angola, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Burundi and Sierra Leone. Eritrean officials said Isayas Afewerki, the Eritrean President, would not attend the summit. He has not visited Addis Ababa since his country fought a 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia.