Divided by war, but Africa's big men put on a show of unity

Democrats and despots gather in attempt to end bloodshed and agree brighter future for their continent modelled on Europe
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Africa's big men like their comforts, no matter where they are. Two days ago the skies above Lusaka were thick with circling presidential jets, waiting for permission to land. Yesterday a long line of shining black Mercedes – all specially imported from Europe for the event – pulled up outside the national conference hall and disgorged the continent's leaders, an ageing collection of venal geriatrics, inspiring democrats and notorious autocrats.

The big men, their wives and their retinues of heavily armed guards (each delegation restricted to six pistols) are in Lusaka for the annual summit of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), Africa's answer to the United Nations. The leaders' club is supposedly the mark of unity among the African brotherhood, yet in its 38 years of existence the continent has been characterised by division and bloodshed.

But this year the OAU's wrinkled leaders say they are going to change all that and move Africa into a modern era of peace and development.

Led by the mercurial Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, African leaders have fashioned the African Union – a giant, continent-wide bloc modelled on the European Union. Like the EU, the AU would have its own parliament, executive and transnational laws. It would bring closer economic ties and political stability to the benighted corners of Africa, or so goes the theory.

But few have given the ambitious project – which is officially launched tomorrow – even a 50:50 chance of becoming a reality. Analysts are doubtful that many of Africa's leaders have either the political will or financial muscle to forge concrete international ties when so many have failed to bring peace to their own countries. Sceptics predict that in a continent ravaged by war and disease, the new body will be at best another pompous talking shop and at worst an opportunity to squander even more money on luxury hotels and limousines.

Kofi Annan, one of Africa's proudest sons, addressed the summit yesterday and warned the collected leaders of the difficulties of the enterprise. Urging African countries to rebuild as Europe did after the two world wars, he said: "Africa must reject the ways of the past and commit itself to building a future of democratic governance subject to the rule of law."

Democracy, however, is only a theoretical notion in many of the nations whose leaders sat in an arc of canary-yellow chairs here yesterday. War is a more common denominator.

On one side of the hall Joseph Kabila, the 29-year-old president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, looked calm and assured. His nemesis, the Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, sat on the other side of the floor, looking spartan and self-controlled as ever. The alphabetical seating order did not suit everyone. The premiers of Ethiopia and Eritrea – at war until last June, now bound by a shaky peace deal – were discreetly placed at opposite ends of the hall.

Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who finds himself increasingly isolated in the West, was visibly revelling in the solidarity of his colleagues. He held hands with President Frederick Chiluba of Zambia as the two men cracked a joke like schoolboys. President Chiluba has come under fire at home for spending millions of dollars on hosting the summit – the road to the airport has been hastily improved, fleets of limousines were specially imported to ferry delegates to and from the three- day conference, even mobile phones were provided for delegates. His country is one of the poorest in the world.

Behind the scenes, Mr Mugabe is seeking to make political gains from the summit and shore up his increasingly desperate position at home. A leaked resolution on the land crisis, drafted on Sunday and expected to be adopted tomorrow, noted with concern "British moves to mobilise European and North American countries to isolate and vilify Zimbabwe". The move is seen as an attempt to fend off any sanctions.

The premier of tiny Guineau-Bissau cut a striking figure, wearing a bright red wool cap with a floppy bob, while Uganda's Yoweri Museveni appeared to have fallen asleep during one speech. He was seated beside the drawn-looking Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who later addressed the summit. But most attention was focused on Colonel Gaddafi.

The colourful Libyan leader was accompanied to the conference by an entourage of several hundred officials and was said to be staying in a Bedouin tent pitched on private ground. And his personal bodyguard – a large woman wearing combat fatigues, bright lipstick and a huge diamond ring – cut an incongruous sight.

The main driving force behind the African Union, he has reportedly helped to foot the $20m bill for this year's summit using revenues from his oil-rich country. But the project backers have first had to overcome the suspicions of several key countries, mostly notably Nigeria and South Africa, who have doubted Colonel Gaddafi's intentions.

The African Union should be a "turning point for our continent and our people", said the outgoing OAU secretary general, Salim Salim, yesterday. He warned, though, that the project could turn out to be so many hollow words.

"Is it merely the OAU under a different name?" he asked.

The pride of hosting Africa's most prestigious conference has been spoilt for President Chiluba of Zambia by the cloud of scandal. As the speeches were starting a funeral service was beginning for Paul Tembo, a former Chiluba confidant who was brutally murdered last week in mysterious circumstances. Mr Tembo, an opposition politician, was due to give evidence to a corruption tribunal that could have blackened President Chiluba's already-tarnished reputation.

Some angry mourners tried to block officials from reaching the conference. "We are so incensed," said Father Joe Komakom, a Catholic priest.

President Chiluba told the 40 heads of state inside the meeting: "The African skies remain overcast by a dark cloud of violent conflicts, and ethnic, religious and other unresolved tensions, as well as the spectre of unconstitutional usurpation of political power that looms menacingly around us. It is almost as if our continent has been condemned to a permanent state of self annihilation."