African leaders reached a compromise early Friday on the powers of a new regional Authority that will coordinate key policies but have little power to act without a mandate from member states.
In lengthy and often heated talks, Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi -- the current African Union chief -- had pushed to grant broad power over regional defence and foreign affairs to the new AU Authority, a step toward his dream of a "United States of Africa".The continent's biggest economy South Africa, as well as top oil producers Nigeria and Angola, led the opposition to his proposals and argued for a more gradual approach to integration.
The final deal gave the Authority power to "coordinate the positions of the African Union on questions of common interest for the continent and its people."
That includes coordinating defence and trade policies, but the Authority will only represent the continent in international affairs when mandated by the member states, according to the text.
The leaders had agreed in February to transform the existing AU Commission into the AU Authority, but their talks in Sirte needed to hammer out details of its powers.
The 53 member states still must ratify the changes.
The agreement came after heated talks on Kadhafi's proposals, which came as a surprise to many countries and raised fears of a loss of sovereignty to what they said would have resembled a new continental government.
"They have introduced the concept of a union government, but the Authority was not meant for that," one diplomat said of the Libyan proposals. "It was meant to be an inter-governmental organisation."
To address those concerns, the final text added safeguards ensuring that the Authority would only act with the consent of the members, rather than exert any power over them.
"It will only act when mandated by the member states," said one official who was part of the closed-door negotiations.
Kadhafi's proposals on the Authority only added to the tensions at the summit in his hometown of Sirte, which began with a surprise invitation to Iran's hardline leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to address the gathering.
Tehran canceled the trip at the last minute without explanation, after delegates complained they hadn't been consulted and feared the Iranian visit would overshadow the meeting's official agenda, which was supposed to focus on agricultural investments.
A new debate also erupted over a draft measure circulated on the International Criminal Court, saying "the AU member states shall not cooperate... for the arrest and surrender of African indicted personalities."
The text backed by Kadhafi goes considerably further than earlier AU resolutions, and would amount to a reprieve across Africa for Sudan's President Omar al-Beshir, who has been indicted for war crimes in Darfur.
The measure has not yet come up for debate by the heads of state.
Thirty African countries are parties to the statutes that created the court, and many do not want to end their cooperation with the ICC, although they argue the warrant could hamper the peace process in Sudan
Before wrapping up the summit later Friday, the leaders are also expected to consider a raft of conflicts roiling the continent, most dramatically in Somalia, where Islamist insurgents launched an offensive against the internationally backed government nearly two months ago.
The African Union has 4,300 peacekeepers deployed in Somalia, its largest force on the continent. But their role is confined largely to protecting the president and ensuring that key sea and airports remain open.
Somalia and five of its neighbours want the AU to deploy a total of 8,000 peacekeepers, a contingent that has already been approved but not yet manned.