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Africa takes cue from EU

The African Union debuts Tuesday with a new vision of unity for the continent.

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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.

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