African Union celebrates 50th anniversary

Heads of state attending African Union's 50th anniversary welcome Chinese investment and pledge to tackle conflict and poverty

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 8:58am

China was thanked yesterday for its massive wave of investment across Africa as the continent's leaders opened extravagant celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the African Union.

Africa's leaders were gathering in the AU's modern, Chinese-built headquarters in the Ethiopian capital to mark the founding of an organisation that helped liberate Africa from its colonial masters and which is now trying to stay relevant on a continent regularly troubled by conflict.

Opening the celebrations, African Union Chairman and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn acknowledged Beijing's growing influence on the continent, expressing his "deepest appreciation to China for investing billions … to assist our infrastructure endeavours."

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.

He told leaders they should seek to "create a continent free from poverty and conflict, and an Africa whose citizens enjoy a middle-income status."

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 in Addis Ababa.

"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 said: "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. French President Francois Hollande and Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang will attend later.

Mass dance troupes were set to perform musical dramas to some 10,000 guests in a giant hall, choreographed by the same team that 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 US$1.27 million for the celebrations, according to official documents seen by South Africa's Institute for Security Studies.

AU Commission deputy chief Erastus Mwencha said he did not have the exact figure, but some US$3 million would be spent on yesterday's festivities and other events over the coming year.

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 foreign investment in recent years. But 24 of the 25 nations at the bottom of the UN's human development index are in Africa.

The AU is also still a long way from its founders' dream of a united Africa. South Africa is an economic power, but countries like Somalia, Sudan, Congo and Chad suffer from warfare and poverty. Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, is in the grip of bloody violence orchestrated by a radical Islamic sect that threatens to divide the country.

The celebrations come ahead of a more sobering two-day AU summit meeting to tackle a range of crises facing the continent.