I have sometimes been struck by a persistent tendency to portray the African Union (AU), born eleven years ago, as a marvellously streamlined institution compared to its predecessor the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which marks the fiftieth anniversary of its setting up on May 25. The OAU, by the same token, is sometimes seen as representing everything that went wrong in newly independent Africa – a trade union of heads of state many of whom were military rulers or else heads of corrupt single-party states, preservers of sacrosanct borders and clinging religiously to non-intervention in the affairs of neighbours even if the house is burning.
This is frankly a caricature of the reality (I confess that I have simplified the story deliberately) because in my considered view there was a much more organic evolution from the one organisation to the other. There are still those who regret that the AU no longer has the word ‘unity’ in its title, as it represented a kind of commitment, whereas Union is a more generic description that avowedly takes as its model the European Union, which means as much or as little as you want it to mean and may not necessarily be a declaration of intent on political union. The debate in the EU at the moment is very much of that nature, with the British seemingly wanting to lead a blocking movement with very few other states wishing publicly to say they too have reservations on the subject.
In Africa there has always been a stronger ideological and emotional commitment to pan-Africanism going back to its origins in the early years of the 19th century. With the movements for independence which emerged in the 1950s, spearheaded by Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, there were great expectations that the setting up of the OAU could lead rapidly to Nkrumah’s twin ideals, the total liberation of the continent as well as continental unity. This initially split the continent in 1961-2 into the Casablanca and Monrovia groups, but the circumstances of early 1963 facilitated a compromise, arising from the ending of the bitter war in Algeria and the independence of that country in July 1962, and the determined crushing of the secession of Katanga in the Congo in January 1963. Both issues had been the source of profound division, which had particularly separated the francophones of the Brazzaville group (core of the Monrovia group) from the rest. Even so, the terms of the compromise that made the creation of the OAU possible were essentially conservative (existing borders, existing leaders), have remained the central core of both OAU and its successor organisation, the AU, which came into existence in July 2002.
The OAU’s trajectory demonstrated this time and again, even if creative tensions within the members sometimes caused it to lurch forward, even as its very existence was threatened on several occasions. Although the unity of the Congo was now guaranteed, there were objections when the secessionist Moise Tshombe became its leader. Military coups caused distress – Togo was absent from signing the Charter because its President Sylvanus Olympio (one of the prime movers of the Monrovia Group) had been assassinated in January 1963 and Nkrumah himself, grievously disappointed over progress towards his much-sought union government at the summit he hosted in Accra, was overthrown in 1966 while he was OAU chair.
Borders remained contentious – either in claimed territory, as in Morocco’s claim to Mauritania which caused King Hassan II to boycott the 1963 summit, although he later signed the treaty. Although the claim was dropped, the issue resurfaced in another more acute form over the Western Sahara which on decolonisation by Spain in 1975 was split between Morocco and Mauritania to the fury of Algeria, which fought a successful rearguard action through the Polisario Front that almost caused the OAU to fall apart in the early 1980s. This issue was exacerbated by Colonel Gaddafy’s efforts to dominate the organisation against opposition by half the continent. It was not helped by being perceived as a Cold War issue, the very thing that from the beginning the OAU had successfully, for the most part, managed to insulate the continent from. The awful warning of the Congo which had loomed over the OAU’s creation successfully defused the crisis over who should run Angola on its independence in 1975.
Angola, in fact, points to the great success story of the OAU that in its first thirty years it had successfully presided over the achievement of Nkrumah’s other great objective – the total liberation of the continent. The collapse of the Portuguese empire in the 1970s was followed by the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980, which paved the way for the great movement to end apartheid which culminated with Mandela’s symbolic release in 1990; the triumphant election of 1994 which ushered in a free multi-racial South Africa and the movement known as the African Renaissance which permitted the remodelling of the OAU as the AU, with a real commitment to democracy and against military rule, as well as the relaxing of the hard and fast rules against secession (viz Eritrea and South Sudan) and non-interference seen in many examples from Liberia and Sierra Leone onwards right up to the present involvement of the AU in Somalia and Mali.