Africa to celebrate progress and 50 years of 'unity'

ABABA, Ethiopia (AFP) - African leaders gathered Saturday ahead of extravagant celebrations for the 50th jubilee of the continental bloc, with Africa's myriad problems set aside for a day to mark the progress that has been made.

Mass dancing troupes are set to perform musical dramas to some 10,000 guests in a giant hall in the Ethiopian capital, home to the African Union (AU).

Today's 54-member AU is the successor of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), established amid the heady days as independence from colonial rule swept the continent in 1963.

African leaders are expected to be joined by French President Francois Hollande, China's Vice Premier Wang Yang and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

AU Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said the "celebration of all Africa" was "historic", and that it was a time to both look back at the past and consider how the continent can tackle the many challenges ahead.

"The future is in our hands, its bright.. the opportunities are great for the continent to be prosperous," Dlamini-Zuma said in a statement late Friday.

South African choreographer Somzi Mhlongo, who organised the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 World Cup as well as this year's Africa Cup of Nations, said the celebrations he had organised would be "an extravaganza".

Musicians playing include Congolese music legend Papa Wemba, Mali's Salif Keita and British-based reggae band Steel Pulse, with giant screens set up across Addis Ababa also showing the festival.

The AU has budgeted US$1.27 million (S$1.58 million) for Saturday's celebrations, according to official documents seen by South Africa's Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

AU Commission deputy chief Erastus Mwencha said he did not have the exact figure but that some US$3 million would be spent on Saturday's festivities and on other events over the coming year.

The AU took over from the OAU in 2002, switching its name in a bid to shrug off its troubled past.

OAU non-interference in member states' affairs allowed leaders to shirk democratic elections and abuse human rights without criticism from their neighbours.

In recent years, the AU's role in combat - such as its mission in Somalia to battle Al-Qaeda linked Islamists - has shown it can take concrete action, even if the funding for that mission comes mainly from Western backers.

But at the same time, the splits revealed by the 2011 conflict in Libya - when members squabbled between those wanting to recognise rebels and those backing Muammar Gaddafi - showed its disunity and lack of global clout.

Gaddafi's death also stripped the AU of a major source of funding. Leaders will discuss finding backers for the cash-strapped body at a two-day summit following Saturday's anniversary celebrations.

Development indicators on the continent - including health, education, infant mortality,economic growth and democracy - have improved steadily in the past 50 years.

Africa is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world according to the IMF, and has attracted huge amounts of foreign investment in recent years.

At the same time 24 out of the bottom 25 nations at the bottom of UN human development index are in Africa, and the subsequent summit will tackle a range of crises the continent faces.

Mali is expected to be discussed: it is preparing to receive a UN peacekeeping force to support French soldiers fighting Islamist rebels in the desert north since January.

The agenda will also likely include Madagascar - in political deadlock since a 2009 coup - and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where United Nations-backed government soldiers are struggling to quash rebels.