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By LYDIA POLGREEN
The New York Times
DAKAR, Senegal — President Moammar Gadhafi of Libya was named chairman of the African Union on Monday, wresting control of a body he helped found and has long wanted to remake in his Pan-African image.
His installation as the new head of the 53-member body resembled more of a coronation than a democratic transfer of power. Gadhafi was dressed in flowing gold robes and surrounded by traditional African leaders who hailed him as the “king of kings.”
The choice of Gadhafi was not a surprise — he was the leading candidate — but the prospect of his election to lead the African Union caused some unease among some of the group’s member nations — who were meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — as well as among diplomats and analysts. Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya with an iron hand for decades, is a stark change from the succession of recent leaders from such democratic countries as Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria.
Gadhafi is an ardent supporter of a long-held dream of transforming Africa — a collection of post-colonial fragments divided by borders that were drawn arbitrarily by Western powers — into a vast, unified state that could play a powerful role in global affairs.
He has repeatedly proposed immediate unity and the establishment of a single currency, army and passport for the entire continent. He pledged Monday to bring up the issue for a vote at the African Union’s next summit meeting, in July.
While a few African leaders share his passion and his timetable for this Pan-African vision, most prefer a go-slow approach, given the political realities that have emerged in the half-century since most of Africa became independent.
“In principle, we said the ultimate is the United States of Africa,” said Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete, the previous African Union chairman, according to the BBC. “How we proceed to that ultimate — there are building blocks.”
Gadhafi’s new role comes alongside a changing of the guard in Africa. A set of leaders once hailed as new visionaries or cursed as dictators have left the continent’s stage, and a jumbled array of new leaders have emerged. But few match the global or continental influence and heft of those who have departed.
The cerebral Thabo Mbeki, one of the architects of what was supposed to be a club of democratic, corruption-free African countries, was hounded out of office in South Africa by his own party amid a shower of international criticism of his handling of everything from the AIDS pandemic to the crisis in Zimbabwe.
Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s globe-trotting military-ruler-turned-democrat and continental power broker, stepped down in 2007 when his two terms were up. His replacement, Umaru Yar’Adua, a sickly and little known former state governor, has struggled to fill Obasanjo’s global statesman-size shoes.
In December, Ghana, a bellwether for the state of democracy and economic progress in Africa, held a successful election in which the party of John Kufuor, a darling of foreign donors that keep the country afloat, was defeated by a two-time also-ran from the largest opposition party.
And Guinea’s longtime strongman, Lansana Conte, the subject of one of Africa’s longest deathwatches, died late last year, and a military junta seized power, throwing the country into confusion.
Gadhafi has been trying to remake his image, cooperating with the United States and Europe on nuclear weapons, terrorism and immigration issues. How he plans to use the post as chairman of the African Union is unclear.
“It remains to be seen if he is capable of being serious about anything,” said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, a research institution.
But Gadhafi has been a behind-the-scenes player in many African conflicts and intrigues, and persuading him to use his power and influence for the continent’s benefit could help, Morrison said.
“The Libyans may want to show some utility in their leadership,” he said. “They have got cash they can use. They have an intelligence service they can use. They have got oil. This is a continent that is really hurting right now. I wonder to what degree people looked at this and thought it may be goofy, but maybe something good will come out of this.”