But one factor distracting the African heads of state from the continent’s serious security and development challenges is a bruising contest over who should head the AU Commission, which steers the regional diplomatic body. The standoff, which has broadly split Africa’s French- and English-speaking blocs into two camps, pits South African Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma against incumbent Jean Ping from Gabon and risks dominating the weekend summit in Addis Ababa.
The AU’s current chairman, Benin President Yayi Boni, urged the continent’s leaders to resolve the security and governance problems in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, saying they acted as a distraction from the more strategic task of delivering economic growth and development to Africa’s people.
"Without peace, there can be no development," Boni said.
But even as the African leaders considered the region’s problems, their work was overshadowed by the AU Commission leadership race. This has remained deadlocked since a January summit vote ended in stalemate between the candidacies of Gabon’s Ping and South Africa’s Dlamini-Zuma.
With Ping carrying the broad support of Africa’s French-speaking states, and English-speaking states in southern Africa lining up behind Pretoria’s candidate, the continental body risks a division that could affect its global credibility and crisis-handling capacity if it persists, diplomats said.
As the debate over the leadership contest swirled in the corridors of the AU’s soaring Chinese-built steel and glass headquarters, rumours of compromise candidates to break the deadlock appeared as thick, fast and numerous as the boxy blue Soviet Lada taxis that crowd Addis Ababa’s streets.
"It’s hard to get to the truth of this," lamented Uganda’s state minister for foreign affairs, Henry Okello. He was confident that the AU meeting could finally choose a new commission head, but he stressed "it should be a person that does not polarise".
There were hopes too that Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, could meet at the summit to revive faltering talks. The neighbours came close to war in April after they clashed over undefined borders and the sharing out of oil revenues. (Reporting By Pascal Fletcher and Aaron Maasho; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)