Two additional preview stories concerning the weekend summit meeting in The Gambia:
Such seemingly intractable issues as violence in Sudan and the rise of a hard-line Islamist regime in Somalia look set to consume African leaders during their weekend summit in Gambia.
The Saturday-Sunday summit of the 53-member African Union is also to consider a proposal aimed at curbing dictatorial impulses on the continent.
Also on the agenda is illegal migration, amid a wave of undocumented Africans trying to reach Europe via risky sea or desert voyages.
But all the weighty regional discussions could be overshadowed by two high-profile guests from outside Africa - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad’s visit is seen as part of his attempts to drum up support from around the world for Iran in its standoff with the United States and Europe over its nuclear program. The Iranian president has made several high-profile trips to Asia, where he drew crowds of Muslims cheering Tehran for defying the West.
Leftist icon Chavez, who is scheduled to address the summit on its opening day, has worked to form trading blocs in the Americas as a counterbalance to the U.S. The Venezuelan leader is also planning to visit Iran next month to discuss energy issues.
Richard Mendez, deputy head of mission for the Venezuelan Embassy in Ethiopia, said Venezuela has talked to African oil producers about potential collaboration. Mendez added Venezuela is hoping for African support in its bid for one of the rotating seats on the U.N. Security Council. But he said Chavez’s appearance was more reflective of a broader desire to show solidarity with Africa.
Among the African leaders confirmed to attend were South African President Thabo Mbeki, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki.
On one of the most critical immediate issues facing them - war in Sudan’s western region of Darfur - the African leaders were expected to reiterate calls for Sudan to accept U.N. peacekeepers to supplant an overtaxed A.U. force.
At a meeting earlier this week, the A.U.’s policymaking peace council made clear it wanted the handover, refusing to extend the mandate of A.U. forces there beyond September. The council also announced targeted sanctions against anyone who stands in the way of peace in Darfur.
Sudan has resisted U.N. peacekeepers for Darfur.
"We think the African Union could be supported," rather than replaced, said Taj Elsir Mahjoub, a Sudanese delegate in Banjul.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday that he hoped pressure at the summit would persuade Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to accept a U.N. force. Annan plans to meet with al-Bashir during the summit and said other African leaders also would discuss a potential U.N. takeover with Sudan.
Since 2003, the Darfur uprising against the national government has left more than 180,000 people dead, driven about two million from their homes and undermined stability in neighboring Chad and Central African Republic as well as in Sudan.
Sideline discussions may also take place on Somalia, where a hard-line Islamist group is asserting control. The U.S. has accused the group of harboring al-Qaida leaders responsible for bombing U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The formal agenda may include a proposal threatening suspension from the A.U. of states that abolish presidential term limits. It could be added to a 2002 declaration making coups illegal, according to a proposal drafted by African foreign ministers.
African leaders are under pressure to show their commitment to democracy and reform by the West, which has pledged more development and trade help.
Migration is another topic in which the West takes an interest - and European and U.S. observers were expected at the Banjul meeting.
Even if resolutions are passed, A.U. members aren’t beholden to them and the body has little funding to pursue independent action.
"We decide all the points, but application, that’s the problem," said Moiche Echek, Equatorial Guinea’s ambassador to Ethiopia. "It is very, very easy to wear a suit like me, sit and attend a conference. But what happens in the village, that is different."
The seventh summit of the African Heads of State and [Government] gets under way tomorrow [Saturday]. Issues expected to dominate the agenda include the human and people's rights court, fighting unemployment and eradicating poverty.
In 2003 a decision was taken to establish an African court of justice on human rights. The following year, the decision was reversed. It was then agreed to merge a court of justice and a human rights court. This was in the wake of an increase in human rights violations.
Zimbabwe and Ethiopia are some of the countries listed in the report on human rights abuses. At previous African Union (AU) summits, the issue of human rights abuses was hardly given the attention it deserved.
The war in Sudan's western region of Darfur is also on the agenda. African leaders are expected to reiterate calls for Sudan to accept UN peacekeepers to replace an overtaxed AU force.
Focus will also be on the possible sideline meeting between President Thabo Mbeki, Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president, and Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general.
AU ministers fail to adopt democracy charter
Meanwhile, AU ministers have failed to adopt a highly anticipated charter dealing with democracy, good governance and elections.
Nkosazana Zuma, the [South African] foreign affairs minister, said the main contention on the charter was people could not agree on a clause to prevent governments altering constitutions to extend their rule. Zuma said the draft document of the charter has been sent the back to the committee of ministers who drew it up.