A SUMMIT of West African leaders opening today will be dominated by a subject too sensitive to be on the official agenda - the civil war in Liberia.
The summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will debate a proposed revision of the community's founding 1975 charter that would give the regional body powers similar to those the European Community exercises over its members.
The new treaty, which could be signed at a special summit next December, would set a date for convening a community parliament and establishing a single currency.
But ministers preparing the annual ECOWAS summit in Dakar put aside Liberia's civil war, considered the most urgent threat to regional stability, and left it in the "other business" section of the agenda.
Nearly half of the 16 members of ECOWAS are directly involved in the civil war in Africa's oldest republic, founded in 1847 by freed American slaves.
Two and a half years after Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebels launched the war that eventually overthrew the government, the Liberian conflict marks a critical test of the region's will to put old rivalries aside and follow Europe's path toward economic integration.
An ECOWAS peacekeeping force known as ECOMOG, the first of its kind in Africa, stopped Liberia's violent ethnic strife when it arrived in the capital, Monrovia, two years ago. But the country, which celebrated its 145th independence anniversary yesterday, remains divided and half its 2.4 million people are still refugees.
Amos Sawyer, who heads the interim government, will take Liberia's seat at the three-day summit and argue that economic sanctions are the only way to force the NPFL, which control almost all territory outside Monrovia, to respect a regional peace plan. The plan is months behind schedule.
ECOWAS is split on how far to challenge Mr. Taylor militarily and economically.