The presidents of three African countries said on Thursday the continent has a unique chance, while Africa is the focus of the world's richest nations, to surge ahead if it can end the conflicts crippling development.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni addressed the 19-member Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), meeting in the Rwandan capital Kigali in the hopes of fast tracking implementation of a customs union by 2008.
The leaders said they supported British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Africa Commission report, which lays out ambitious plans to slash debts, make world trade fairer and give millions of dollars more in better-directed aid to the continent.
Blair has made cutting poverty in Africa a priority for a Group of Eight summit in Scotland next month.
"The year 2005 is, to me, a very important year for Africa, particularly in the area of integration and our development," Obasanjo, who is also chairman of the African Union, said at the start of the COMESA heads of state summit.
"(But) we cannot talk of development in an atmosphere of conflicts, violence and lack of stability," he said.
Experts say conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, northern Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan's Darfur region and a border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia still stand in the way of efforts to boost trade and investment in the region.