African Leaders Express Optimism

South African President Thabo Mbeki, addresses parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, Wednseday March 14, 20001. Mbeki on Wednesday rejected mounting calls to invoke a state of emergency to enable the government to access cheap drugs to address South Africa's mounting AIDS crisis. (AP PHOTO/Obed Zilwa)
African leaders, in a summit that ended Wednesday, pledged to move their impoverished continent into the mainstream of the global economy with a revamped structure modeled on the European Union.

They swore in former Ivorian Foreign Minister Amara Essy as the new secretary-general of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The group is to be replaced by the African Union, envisioned as a stronger, more closely linked organization.

The swearing-in marked the formal start of the winding down of the 38-year-old OAU, which spent most of its life battling colonialism on the continent and apartheid in South Africa.

The AU, modeled along the lines of the European Union, will focus on economic development of the world's poorest continent. The transition period is expected to last for up to two years.

Zambian President Frederick Chiluba, the new OAU chairman, said the blueprint, tagged "A New African Initiative," merged separate proposals by South Africa and Senegal.

"These are initiatives intended to forge Africa ahead in its socio-economic recovery," Chiluba told the closing session.

"We have made very important decisions at this summit. Our challenge now is to implement them and do so expeditiously," he said. "Africa does not have the luxury of time. We are living in an era where change takes milliseconds."

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, chief architect of the AU which he said fulfilled a life-long dream, warned Africans against imitating the European Union or America. He urged them to put the interests of Africa ahead of their own countries.

"With the Union, we become one and not individual states. We want a united and integrated Africa," he told the summit.

The union's charter calls for the creation of an African central bank, a court of justice, a single currency and a parliament.

The New African Initiative has the objective of ridding the continent of conflict, poverty and disease by the year 2015. Experts say Africa would need a total of $64 billion to grow its economy by 7.0 percent annually to attain that target.

"This region has to grow by at least 7 percent if we are serious about making a dent in poverty and if we are serious in addressing issues of malnutrition (and) sustainable development," said Prega Ramsamy, executive secretary of the Southern African Development Community.

Many African countries have growth rates well below half that, he said.

Many delegates, including senior OAU officials, said it will be impossible to implement a huge plan within the time frame.

"It's unachievable," one official told Reuters. The OAU needed many more resources and more time than it had to steer such a scale of change, the official added.

Heads of state at the summit played down the apparent split in the 53-member organization before the merger of the South African-led African Recovery Program (MAP) and Senegal's initiative code-named Omega.

"There was no difference between the wo plans," said South African President Thabo Mbeki. But he acknowledged that Omega gave more priority to infrastructure and social programs.

Experts familiar with the two plans and the debate over them said MAP placed more emphasis on the indigenous nature of the program and African ownership and implementation of it.

"All the good things in the two plans are in this version," said Senegalese President and Omega's author Abdoulaye Wade.

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