What happened to Gaddafi the radical Arab nationalist and bankroller of terrorists? He now prefers to be called Mr. Africa, thank you. With the Arab world in disarray and refusing to back him against Western charges of involvement in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, Gaddafi has shifted his attention to what he sees as his country's more natural friends. He is quietly pouring Libya's oil profits into petroleum and agriculture investments as far south as Lesotho and is trying to mediate conflicts from Sudan to the Congo.
Gaddafi's most ambitious gambit thus far is what brought fellow leaders to Libya last week: creation of an African Union, dubbed the U.S.A., that would raise the continent's profile in the new global order. According to the Union's proposed charter, Africa will establish an executive council with the capacity for military intervention, a parliament representing every African nation, a court of justice, a central bank, an investment bank and a monetary fund. Ultimately, Gaddafi dreams of a powerful, borderless African state to rival Europe, Asia and the other U.S.A. "It will take time," says Ali Treki, Libya's secretary for African unity. "But it is in the interests of every one of us."
Obstacles are many, including Gaddafi himself: there is widespread suspicion that in promoting African unity, he is really promoting Gaddafi. Diplomats point to decades of Libyan meddling in African affairs, as well as its 1980s war with neighboring Chad. "He's backed some nasty little regimes across Africa, so there is suspicion of his motives," says John Githongo, a Kenyan leader of Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog. Sniffs a Nigerian official: "He wants to be the driver, with all of us in the backseat." Still, while regional economic pacts have had success in southern and western Africa, political unions among African states have nearly always failed. Concedes Libya's Treki: "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."
The ideal of pan-Africanism has been around since the early 20th century, when U.S. activists like W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey spread the message of African self-determination and dignity. Eventually, maneuvering by African nationalists such as Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and Tanzania's Julius Nyerere established the Organization of African Unity in 1963. But the continent remains as divided as it was under colonialism, while the o.a.u. is dismissed as corrupt and spineless, particularly after its conspicuous inaction during the 1994 massacre of 800,000 people in Rwanda.
Now Africa is looking more left out than ever. Its $540 billion annual gdp is lower than Spain's. Armed conflicts abound, and health crises from aids to malaria threaten to overwhelm entire countries. Many experts see merit in promoting cross-border African cooperation that would streamline industries like steel, oil and textiles, and thus invite more stable foreign investment. But in the Internet age, Africans often can't make an ordinary phone call to a neighboring country. "Limited contact between the people slows down economic integration," says Pat Utomi, head of the Lagos Business School. Notes Foreign Minister Nkosazana Zuma of South Africa, one of the Union's key supporters: "We would be naive to think that we will solve all of our problems quickly and immediately. But the way things are moving in the world, we need a new organization to address the challenges we face."
For all the backslapping in Libya last week, Gaddafi's Africa jamboree was itself marred by disunity in the ranks. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak failed to show, and despite its warm relations with Libya, Morocco refused to send a delegation because of its feud with neighboring Algeria over the Western Sahara. Even adopting the Union's charter is proving tough.
But all the difficulties failed to move the 58-year-old host. "The classic aspirations of glory, domination and megalomania have faded," Gaddafi told TIME in an interview in his tent before the summit's opening session. "Now the leaders of the world have to face the economic problems." If an old revolutionary such as Gaddafi is speaking like a delegate to Davos, there must be some hope for Africa.
With reporting by Simon Robinson/Nairobi and Amany Radwan/Cairo