More than 50 African heads of state gathered in this coastal city Monday to mark the end of an era and perhaps a new beginning.
The 39-year-old Organization for African Unity (OAU) formed to support states emerging from colonialism was dissolved. Tuesday, it will be replaced by the African Union (AU), a more powerful organization with a new vision for addressing the problems of this troubled continent.
To skeptics, this is institutional name-swapping, a fresh moniker for a weak organization, led by a group of familiar leaders who have frequently failed to stop corruption, feed their people, or practice democracy.
To supporters, it's an important self-recognition of what African states need: group accountability, a unified development plan, and the rule of law. The AU, loosely modeled after the European Union, will create a pan-African parliament, a central bank, a court of justice, an African peacekeeping force, and eventually, a common currency.
The most controversial, and perhaps most critical, element of the new union, say analysts, is its authority to intervene in the affairs of member states. It can step in when a country's constitutional government has been overthrown, and when there is a danger of genocide or gross human rights violations, or when the instability of one state threatens another.
"Africa is drawing a line between the era of the liberation struggle and the era of development," said Ghana's President John Kufuor as he arrived at the three-day summit here.
The OAU, founded in 1963 by Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, who advocated a union of African states that could speak with one voice, was intended to support the emerging African states who were just freeing themselves from the yoke of colonialism. But as colonial powers gave way to African dictatorships like that of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, and civil wars like the ones in Sierra Leone and Angola, the OAU looked the other way. As a result, peacebuilding and support of democracy was left primarily to regional bodies anchored by a single powerful state, like the Southern African Development Community, which intervened in Lesotho in 1998 to prevent a suspected coup.
The OAU, says Chris Landsberg, co-director of the Center for African International Relations at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, became concerned chiefly with "the security of the elite, of regimes. The rights of the people weren't even on the agenda; in fact, state security was sacrosanct. But after all this was the age of the cold war, when governance and democracy wasn't on the agenda at all."
Dr. Landsberg adds that the AU represents a shift in thinking: "We have moved from the question of who should govern Africa to how Africans should be governed."
Many of the leaders gathered in Durban this week are part of a new guard of pro-Western, democratic leaders. But democratic credentials aren't a requirement for attendance. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi are there. The presence of such leaders points to the contradictions facing South African President Thabo Mbeki as he tries to sell the union to the West as the dawn of a new era in Africa.
The AU is tied closely to another idea dear to Mr. Mbeki: the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). It makes international aid and trade contingent upon good governance.
"The AU is inheriting the pan-African principle of inclusivity, but a number of states have policies that are inconsistent with that inclusivity," says Eddy Moloka, director of the African Institute in Johannesburg. "There's going to be a lot of pressure on the AU to say, you've been a member of the OAU and you've signed the constitutive act [of the AU], but you're not on board."
The big question for the new AU is whether it will make use of the new power it has been given or whether, like the OAU, it will be paralyzed by the competing interests of its membership. The OAU, for example, said Zimbabwe's March elections were credible, despite widespread condemnation by international observer groups of the ruling party's use of intimidation and torture.
African leaders say the union will be different, and point to a recent decision, currently being reconsidered, not to allow Madagascar to join the AU. The opposition leader there, Marc Ravalomanana, claimed victory after a disputed election and has been recognized by the United States and other powers.
African leaders said they would not let Mr. Ravalomanana join because he acquired power illegitimately. But critics say that by enforcing the union's mandate selectively by punishing Madagascar but not Zimbabwe they are doing what the OAU always did: protecting members of the old regime of African leaders.
Ultimately, the success of the union may depend on who wins the power struggle within. Mr. Mbeki, who has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that the union came into being, will be the organization's first president. Many analysts say his one-year term will set an important precedent.
But Mr. Qaddafi, who is credited with first coming up with the idea of an African union, has a different vision of the organization, and is making a play for influence in the new body.
Mbeki sees the union as an integral part of his grand plan to convince the West that Africa is stable enough for increased aid and investment. Mr. Qaddafi, who has bankrolled Zimbabwe's crumbling economy and paid $2.2 million to cover OAU dues for 11 African nations, would like the union to continue as a spokesman against Western imperialism. Apparently in a bid to upstage the South African hosts, Qaddafi sponsored a private dinner for African leaders Sunday night.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called the AU's birth "an occasion for hope" but added, "Let us be careful not to mistake hope for achievement."