Addis Ababa: The African Union (AU) summit opened on Sunday and faced an immediate rift over Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s likely bid to retain the leadership of the organisation.
The summit`s official theme is information technology and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was expected to highlight the importance of putting the Millennium Development Goals back on their 2015 target.
But the 53-member body`s annual meeting at the Addis Ababa headquarters looked set to be hijacked by one of its most controversial leaders.
Gaddafi was elected almost by default a year ago but set the tone for his tenure by claiming to be the "king of kings" and vowing to achieve the "United States of Africa" project he has championed for years.
But his dream of a fully-integrated continent, his pet craze since he pushed through the creation of the AU in 2001, still looks a tall order and the unease was palpable in the corridors of the Addis headquarters ahead of the summit.
"Gaddafi’s chairmanship has been very harmful to the AU`s image, notably in the handling of political crises such as Madagascar and Guinea," said an official close to Jean Ping, who heads the body`s main executive arm.
The system of rotating regional blocs should hand the job to a southern African leader and a consensus had begun to emerge around Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, but some diplomats fear Gaddafi will put up a fight.
"It is said that Gaddafi is determined to take this to a vote because he thinks enough countries will support him," an AU official said.
Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir, who arrived in the Ethiopian capital on Friday, is another leader who is likely to attract some attention.
His movements have been closely monitored since the International Criminal Court last year issued an arrest warrant for him over the atrocities committed in the Darfur region since 2003.
In a report released less than two weeks ago, Human Rights Watch pilloried the AU for supporting the embattled Sudanese leader, arguing that such a move was a blow to the entire institution`s credibility.
"The AU, led by some of the continent`s worst autocrats, began accusing the court of unfairly targeting Africans. In reality, these leaders were cynically trying to protect one of their own," it said.
The summit it also expected to focus, as is the case every year, on the continent`s various political crises and armed conflicts, notably Somalia, Guinea, Madagascar, Niger and Ivory Coast.