Libya has pulled off something of a diplomatic coup. Catching more powerful rivals like Nigeria and Egypt by surprise, Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi's regime has quickly marshaled many of the nations of the continent behind a plan to establish an African Union. The proposed political and economic bloc, which is set to replace the 38-year-old Organization of African Unity, is designed to more effectively manage the continent's affairs as well as its relations with the rest of the world. If all goes to plan, the Union's executive council, parliament, court of justice, peacekeeping force and financial institutions will foster greater cooperation, end wars, promote prosperity and evolve into a single political body to rival NAFTA and the European Union. As Africa's leaders gathered in Libya this week to discuss the Union, Dr. Ali Treki, the Libyan secretary for African unity, spoke to TIME Cairo bureau chief Scott MacLeod about the future of the continent.
TIME: What is behind Libya's efforts?
Ali Treki: The idea is not a new one. In 1963, the great leaders of Africa met in Accra to discuss uniting Africa. Some of them believed this unity should be achieved quickly, but others, like the late Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, thought it should be achieved gradually. Nyerere later told us he regretted that position, saying "We lost a lot of time."
This is the era of globalization. The United States has entered NAFTA with Canada and Mexico. The Europeans have achieved their unity, and every few years they have a new member of the European Union. China is a big country with more than 1 billion people. Africa, on the other hand, is divided into small pieces, due to colonialism.
This has really created a problem. We can't achieve any progress in economic development. To give you an example, in north Africa, we have a steel factory in Libya, another in Egypt, another one in Algeria, but they are all losing money. Why not have one that will be successful? Colonel Ghaddafi started thinking, "Why not try again to achieve African unity?" The reaction of the African heads of state was quite amazing.
What is the hurry?
The division of the continent is very bad. We have almost 15 countries subject to civil war, or regional war, like in Congo. The national countries are not in a position to continue like this. Some countries cannot even pay the salaries of their armies. We are losing 1.5 million people from malaria, and 2 million from AIDS. We have to get together.
How will the African Union made a difference in a conflict like the Congo?
Right now, Africans are not capable of helping the Congo survive. There is a great risk that the Congo will split. We have no means to supply troops or send materials. We are waiting for the big powers, or the U.N. Security Council, to send troops. Some African countries have the means, like South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, Libya, but they are not together. If they came together in the Union, they would help the others. We are doing a lot in mediation, but it is not very effective. You need quick action. Look what the Europeans did in Kosovo. They intervened quickly and saved the situation. We cannot do that in Africa. For the last 30 years, there is a civil war in Angola, and the world is silent about it. No one can stop this war. United, we could do a lot.
Why couldn't this be done by the existing OAU?
The OAU charter is very mild. It was created at a time when Africa was under domination. The main objective was the liberation of the continent. The OAU did a lot for that. But the OAU had no army, no intervention forces, no money. The Union will deal with politics, economy, communications. The chairman of the OAU is just a figurehead. The president of the Union will have more power to intervene.
What are the economic benefits?
Take into consideration globalization. American and European corporations are getting together. Small banks are dying and are joining each other, even across national borders. You have car production between countries. Africa has to think and look to the market as a whole. We are buying wheat from the United States and Europe. I think the price is less if you buy wheat for 200 million people instead of just 1 million. Globalization is not a threat. It is a fact that we have to live with.
What are the top priorities of the Union?
First, the security of the continent. To end the conflicts. Then to fight poverty and disease.
What are the obstacles ahead?
Self-interest is a big obstacle. These states have their own heads, armies, flags. It is not easy for them to sacrifice all that for the sake of the continent as a whole. I can't say tomorrow that we will have effective unity. It takes time. But we have to start.