If you look closely at the new uniforms of Libya's Africa Corps, there's a telling detail: The camouflage spots are shaped like maps of Africa.
It's part of Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi's newfound passion for forging a United States of Africa, which was the topic at a special Organization of Africa Unity summit here this week.
For believers, Colonel Qaddafi is aggressively rekindling an African dream that began nearly 40 years ago, using Libya's oil wealth to reverse Africa's marginal status as a continent of war-torn nations and impoverished people.
But for critics, a push for an African Union - similar to the European Union - is little more than a Qaddafi fantasy, a vehicle to bring him back onto the world stage after years of isolation. In fact, it coincides with a series of steps to end Libya's pariah status with Western nations.
"The example of the United States of America is a dream, but the example of [common market] Europe is more likely," says Ali Tureiki, Libya's head of African affairs. "Unity is not important for Libya, but for all African countries. It is a necessity for development." Issues of sovereignty - long taboo for the OAU - will have to be reviewed and borders opened up, he says.
In years past, Qaddafi has shifted between calls for Arab unity and African unity. But since Arab leaders were seen here to be reluctant to take Libya's side after the United Nations imposed sanctions in 1992, Libya stopped considering itself part of the Middle East. The Ministry of Arab Unity has been shut down.
"Qaddafi is very disappointed with the Arabs," says a Western diplomat. "He thinks they didn't do as much as the Africans. And maybe it is easier for him to have influence in Africa, with money, than among Arabs."
Qaddafi has supported African liberation movements for decades, using Libya's oil money to garner political support.
But in recent years, he has reached out to South African President Nelson Mandela, who - despite the UN sanctions on air travel to Libya - visited in 1997. And Qaddafi has tried to mediate conflicts in Congo, Sierra Leone, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan. At the June 1998 OAU summit, African leaders declared that they would ignore the airline embargo.
Libya has expressed its gratitude, diplomats say, noting that African heads of state received large cash gifts for each embargo-busting visit. The UN lifted the air embargo last April, when Libya handed over two suspects for trial for the bomb blast that brought down PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
Libya's new foreign plans
So now Africa is at the top of Libya's foreign policy agenda. The streets of the capital Tripoli and Sirte, Qaddafi's hometown and venue for the OAU meeting, are plastered with posters that declare Africa a "paradise on earth" and Libya as the "historical gate of the African continent from time immemorial."
"Now we are free and independent, it's time to move forward," Qaddafi told the more than 40 African heads of state here. The resolution agreed on yesterday looks for ways to strengthen African ties, and Libya says it wants an African parliament, judicial system, and a single currency. On Wednesday, Libya pledged $200 million to UNESCO to fund scholarships of 2,500 African students for eight years.
"Unity has always been the dream of Africans, and it proved a very good weapon in the freedom of our people," says OAU spokesman Ibrahim Dagash. "So any vision to improve this unity, no matter what its framework, is welcome."
The idea of African unity is not new and was a powerful force in the 1960s, when Africans rejected colonial rule. Ghana's new leader Kwame Nkrumah spearheaded the movement, but when the OAU charter was agreed on in 1963, the majority of African leaders opted for more sovereignty and inviolable borders.
Today Africa is still poor, and by one count half the world's conflicts are taking place within its borders. Libya's $7,000 per capita income is the highest in Africa, because of its oil wealth - a fact that the less well-off nations in Africa respect.
"Forty years of independence, but development reports show that we are going backwards," says Boniface Forbin, publisher of Cameroon's English-language The Herald newspaper. A World Bank study, for example, found that quality of life in the capital Yaound in 1994 was comparable to what it had been in 1964.
"All those promises of prosperity failed," says Mr. Forbin. "Africa is being marginalized, it is still atomized while Europe is coming together. Africa must do the same."
So the solution, he says, is the unity that Qaddafi is promoting. "I agree that he is a maverick, that he has his shortcomings, but he has moved his people and is blessed with riches," says Forbin.
Not all think it's rosy
But one journalist at the summit from the southern African state of Swaziland, who asked not to be named, scoffs, "It's all a dream. And in the future we'll form the United States of Pluto, against other planets."
Like other skeptics, he questions the role of Libya - Arab and Arabic-speaking, Muslim, and physically divided from ethnically "black," mostly Christian Africa by the Sahara Desert - in assuming the leadership role for all the continent. Libya's gnarled olive trees and date palms flourishing in desert sand are reminders more of Iraq, not Ethiopia.
"These people are from the Arab world, and they have nothing to do with us," the journalist says. "I'm going back home, to the real Africa."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society