Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe called Sunday for an end to conflicts ravaging African economies as regional leaders met to launch a huge customs union.
Mugabe, who took over the chairmanship of the continent's largest trading bloc, the 19-member Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), said regional integration was the only path to real progress.
"You certainly agree with me that conflict is a serious cancer in our region and indeed many parts of Africa," Mugabe told the summit.
"Strife has made us lose valuable manpower through death and displacement of people. It has also adversely affected our economies in regard to productivity and prosperity."
Sudan's President Omar al-Beshir, who faces an international arrest warrant for war crimes in Darfur, was among the audience.
Just 10 years ago, nearly half of COMESA members were embroiled in the Democratic Republic of Congo's conflict. Sudan remains in civil war, while Madagascar' elected leader, Marc Ravalomanana who is at the summit, was toppled in March.
Speaking as his own country seeks to emerge from economic meltdown and political turmoil, Mugabe called for leaders to stamp out violence and "make Africa a continent of opportunity for all its people."
COMESA hopes the customs union will simplify trade, strengthen integration and eventually lead to a single currency.
"The COMESA fund is critical as it is the only way out of our current dependence on support from external partners who in most cases attach strings to any support they give to our development programmes," Mugabe said.
Under the deal, its 19 members will impose the same tariffs on goods from outside the region.
Raw materials and capital goods will travel across borders without tariffs, while intermediate products will be taxed at 10 percent and finished goods at 25 percent.
Most COMESA countries have lifted visa restrictions on travel within the bloc, with members ranging from tourist hotspot Egypt to some of the world's poorest and most conflict-torn nations, like DR Congo.
COMESA comprises Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The region is home to 400 million people, with a combined gross domestic product of 360 billion dollars.
The launch of the union had been set for May last year, but was twice delayed because of Zimbabwe's political turmoil and to allow more time for members to negotiate the harmonisation of tariffs.
Officials say COMESA has already succeeded in increasing trade within Africa, which historically has exported most of its raw materials to rich countries with little commerce within the continent.
Kenyan Trade Minister Amos Kimunya said trade within the bloc had increased fivefold over the past decade, from three billion to 15 billion dollars.
"The COMESA market is now the number one export market for several members states, ahead of traditional export markets such as the European Union."
But some economists doubt that the customs will change Africa's traditional trade patterns.
"African states don't trade among themselves," said Bongani Motsa, an economist at the Pan African Advisory Service financial consultancy.
"If you look at the trading account, African states trade in primary products which they mostly export to the European Union, and then they import high value products from other international countries."