The theme of the meeting, which starts on Sunday in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott, is Winning the Fight against Corruption: A Sustainable Path to Africa’s Transformation.
Delegates are expected to review the peace process in South Sudan and the reconciliation plans between Ethiopia and Eritrea, whose relations have been severely strained for decades.
Other issues high on the agenda are likely to be the upcoming elections in countries such as Cameroon, Mali, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Joseph Kabila, the DRC president who is constitutionally ineligible for December’s poll after his second term officially ended in 2016, is not expected to join the summit.
French President Emmanuel Macron is scheduled to join the attending African heads of state and government and push for a security initiative in the Sahel.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who holds the presidency of the AU, will make a call to promote free trade.
In March, representatives of 44 of the 55 AU member states signed an agreement in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, to set up a massive free-trade area to improve regional integration and boost economic growth across the continent.
Currently, African countries only conduct about 16 percent of their business with each other, the smallest amount of intra-regional trade compared with Latin America, Asia, North America and Europe.
The free-trade agreement commits countries to remove tariffs on 90 percent of goods, with 10 percent of “sensitive items” to be phased in later.
It will also liberalise trade in services and might in the future include free movement of people and a single currency.
By creating the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), African leaders hope to boost intra-continental trade, which stands at around 10 percent of all trade across the continent.
It will create a bloc with a cumulative GDP of $2.5 trillion and cover a market of 1.2 billion people, if all 55 African Union members eventually sign up.
The free-trade deal will now have to be ratified by individual countries.
Fighting corruption is also one of the official objectives of the summit. According to the African Union, the continent loses an estimated $148bn a year to the corruption, about 25 percent of Africa’s average GDP.
Transparency International, in its latest Corruption Perceptions Index published in February, said corruption was entrenched in South Sudan and Somalia, among other places.
But it also says the overall picture in Africa is mixed, and a leadership group is emerging in the fight against graft.
“Botswana, Seychelles, Cape Verde, Rwanda and Namibia all score better on the index compared with some OECD countries like Italy, Greece and Hungary,” it noted.
“The key ingredient that the top performing African countries have in common is political leadership that is consistently committed to anti-corruption,” the report said.
“While the majority of countries already have anti-corruption laws and institutions in place, these leading countries go an extra step to ensure implementation.”
For his part, Macron will focus on the progress made by the G5 Sahel force, tasked with fighting armed groups and lawlessness in the vast region.
The force, scheduled to pool 5,000 troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, was supposed to be fully up and running in March, but has been delayed and faces funding worries.
Its headquarters was attacked on Friday, in an attack that killed at least two soldiers and wounded several others.