African leaders gathered yesterday for extravagant celebrations for the 50th jubilee of the continental bloc, with Africa’s myriad problems set aside for a day to mark the progress that has been made.
African Union Chairman and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told leaders as he opened the celebrations that they should seek to “create a continent free from poverty and conflict, and an Africa whose citizens enjoy a middle income status.”
Mass dancing troupes were set to perform musical dramas to about 10,000 guests in a giant hall in the Ethiopian capital, home to the African Union (AU).
The 54-member AU is the successor of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), established amid the heady days when independence from colonial rule swept the continent in 1963.
African leaders were joined by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and US Secretary of State John Kerry, while French President Francois Hollande and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang (汪洋) were expected to attend celebrations later.
AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said the “celebration of all Africa” was “historic,” and that it was a time to both look back at the past and consider how the continent can tackle the many challenges ahead.
“The future is in our hands, it’s bright … the opportunities are great for the continent to be prosperous,” Dlamini-Zuma said in a statement late on Friday.
South African choreographer Somzi Mhlongo, who organized the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 World Cup as well as this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, said the celebrations he had organized would be “an extravaganza.”
The AU has budgeted US$1.27 million for yesterday’s celebrations, according to official documents seen by South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies.
AU Commission Deputy Chairperson Erastus Mwencha said he did not have the exact figure, but that about US$3 million would be spent on yesterday’s festivities and on other events over the coming year.
The AU took over from the OAU in 2002, switching its name in a bid to shrug off its troubled past.
OAU non-interference in member states’ affairs allowed leaders to shirk democratic elections and abuse human rights without criticism from their neighbors.
In recent years, the AU’s role in combat — such as its mission in Somalia to battle Islamists — has shown it can take concrete action, even if the funding for that mission comes mainly from Western backers.
However, at the same time, the splits revealed by the 2011 conflict in Libya — when members squabbled between those wanting to recognize rebels and those backing then-Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi — showed its disunity and lack of global clout.
Qaddafi’s death also stripped the AU of a major source of funding. Leaders will discuss finding backers for the cash-strapped body at a two-day summit following yesterday’s anniversary celebrations.
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 amounts of foreign investment in recent years.
At the same time, 24 out of the 25 nations at the bottom of the UN human development index are in Africa, and the subsequent summit is to tackle a range of crises the continent faces.