Thirty African heads of state gathered in Harare on 2 June for the 33rd summit of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) intending to welcome the progress towards achieving peace in such troubled countries as Liberia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).
But even as the leaders were taking their seats at the summit that morning, Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, was being bombarded by Nigerian ships. Although it had not been on the agenda, the thorny question of the coup in Sierra Leone and the action taken against the coup makers by the Nigerian forces overshadowed all other issues at the Harare summit.
"Where democracy has been usurped, let us do all in our power to restore it to the people," said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the summit's opening. "Neighbouring states, regional groups and international organizations must all play their parts to restore Sierra Leone's constitutional and democratic government."
'Democracy must be restored'
Similar sentiments were voiced by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. "Democracy must be restored in Sierra Leone as a matter of urgency," said Mr. Mugabe, the new OAU chairman.
"We are getting tougher and tougher on coups," said Mr. Mugabe. "Coup-plotters and those who overthrow democratic governments will find it more difficult to get recognition from us. Democracy is getting stronger in Africa and we now have a definite attitude against coups."
The OAU authorized the countries of the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) to pursue their campaign against the military action in Sierra Leone.
Events in Sierra Leone may have stolen the thunder from other issues at the OAU summit opening, but Africa's leaders did give a rousing welcome to Congolese President Laurent Désiré Kabila, their newest colleague.
"A long period of despotic rule has been brought to an end with the toppling of the Mobutu regime," said the UN Secretary-General. "We all welcome Laurent Kabila and his commitment to establish constitutional rule and democracy in that country."
Perhaps the most stirring moment of the summit opening was Mr. Annan's call for Africa to maintain the highest standards of human rights (see article "Annan asserts primacy of human rights".).
"Human rights are African rights," declared Mr. Annan unequivocally. "I call upon you to ensure that all Africans are able to enjoy them. When we succeed at that Africa will have taken a great step forward."
The second day of the summit was dedicated to the inauguration of the African Economic Community, which aims gradually to become a fully-fledged continent-wide economic union. The heads of state temporarily reconvened as the Community's inaugural summit.
Nigerian Foreign Minister Tom Ikimi said that in this era of rapid globalization, individual African countries with small markets cannot afford to continue to stand on their own. "Africa's economic integration needs to be speeded up," he said. "The European Union, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Association of South-East Asian Nations are all striding ahead. If Africa wishes to be part of a better world, we must also group together or risk becoming simple markets for these fast-developing groups. If we continue as we are, our future will be as humiliating as our present is distressing."
While some leaders stressed the need for African countries to follow the bitter economic medicine of structural adjustment programmes, President Mugabe criticized the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
He urged African leaders to "resist the recolonization of our countries under the guise of programmes aimed at safeguarding the environment. The entire developing world is facing hostile policies from the World Trade Organization and international financial institutions. It would appear there is a coordinated political agenda by the North which controls these institutions aimed at suppressing the development of developing countries."
When it resumed business as the OAU summit, African leaders reelected Mr. Salim Ahmed Salim of Tanzania to a third term as OAU Secretary-General. Mr. Salim stood unopposed after the only other candidate, Foreign Minister Amara Essy of Côte d'Ivoire, withdrew.South Africa was a leader at the summit in pressing for passage of a treaty to ban anti-personnel landmines from the entire continent. The treaty calls for a total ban on the manufacture, sale, transport and use of all anti-personnel mines. "We want to see anti-personnel landmines banished from our continent, banished from the entire world," said Mr. Mugabe.