Africa: The Birth of the OAU

By IndepthAfrica
In African Union (AU)
May 22nd, 2013


Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was a passionate believer in African unity, and a living link with the historic Pan-African movement which had promoted solidarity among

people of African descent everywhere against colonialism and racism. Earlier Pan-Africanists had identified with Ethiopia as a historic African state that remained independent except for the Italian occupation of 1936-41, which aroused their strong protests.

Pan-Africanism inevitably changed when the greater part of Africa became independent between 1957 and 1963.

The Diaspora, previously prominent in the promotion of Pan-Africanism, no longer played such a role. At the same time, ideas of African solidarity and unity extended to the whole continent, not just sub-Saharan Africa. Notably, there was support for the Algerian war of independence against France, which ended in 1962.

Prominent in the minds of those seeking greater unity was the continued subjection of millions of Africans to colonial or white settler rule in the Portuguese colonies, in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in South Africa and in South-West Africa (now Namibia). A few British and French colonies were not yet independent in 1963, but they became so in the next few years.

On the need to seek those fellow Africans’ liberation, there was a general basic agreement in principle. But on how already independent African countries should progress further, there was disagreement. Some states with a more radical approach to foreign policy adopted the Casablanca Charter on January 7 1961, at a meeting in that Moroccan city.

They included, notably, Ghana under Nkrumah, Guinea under President Ahmed Sékou Touré — who had led Guinea into independence from France in opposition to the programme set out by President Charles de Gaulle in 1958 — and Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. On the other hand, a meeting in Monrovia on May 8-12 1961, led to the formation of the Monrovia Group of more conservative states, pro-Western at the time of the Cold War, and cautious about moves towards unity. Some other leaders were independent of both these groups, such as President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, whose radicalism resembled Nkrumah’s but who advocated moves towards unity within regions as a first step. Nkrumah came to be isolated in his call for an early continental government.

Even other Casablanca Group members did not support Nkrumah on this, and in fact it was largely through discussions between Sékou Touré and Emperor Haile Selassie that the gap between the two main blocs was bridged and the creation of the OAU became possible. In practice this meant that the OAU

Charter did not reflect Nkrumah’s ideas, and created a grouping of sovereign states. The seven fundamental principles enshrined in the Charter were:

The sovereign equality of all member states.

l Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each state.

The inalienable right to independent existence of each state.

Peaceful settlement of disputes by negotiation, mediation, conciliation, and arbitration.

Unreserved condemnation of political assassination in all its forms as well as of subversive activities on the part of neighbouring states or any other state.

Absolute dedication to the total emancipation of African territories which are still dependent.

Non-alignment with regard to all power blocs.

The OAU was throughout an alliance of governments, and the principle of “non-interference” was for long applied strictly. Nkrumah continued after 1963 to follow an alternative approach, seeking unity among peoples rather than governments, on the lines of the All African People’s Conference in Accra in 1958. Thus his government gave asylum and aid to not only African freedom fighters, but also to political activists opposing some independent governments, such as those of Cameroon and Niger.

This caused a serious crisis at the time of the OAU summit held in Accra in 1965. Today that dispute is largely forgotten and the memory of Nkrumah is revered everywhere. But the OAU continued as an alliance of governments and a defender of their sovereignty.

Annual summits held sometimes in Addis Ababa, sometimes in other capitals. Although its powers were limited, it did make an impact as an expression of a common African outlook on several subjects, including the end of colonial and settler rule.

OAU and liberation

The day of triumph — when South Africa, under majority rule with Nelson Mandela as president, joined the OAU in 1994 — was scarcely imaginable back in 1963.

The apartheid regime seemed as solid as a rock then, and there was also the extension of South African white supremacist rule over South-West Africa, while the white settler regime in Southern Rhodesia was as determined to hold on to power as the Portuguese colonial rulers were in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde and São Tomé et Príncipe. But even against what seemed heavy odds, the OAU and its member states went beyond encouraging words in supporting resistance in those countries.

It created the OAU Liberation Committee, based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to channel assistance. Individual African states provided rear bases and training for guerrillas, notably Tanzania and Zambia.

On the diplomatic front, in response to Britain’s failure to take effective action against Prime Minister Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Rhodesia, the OAU called on all member states to break off diplomatic relations with Britain in 1965. Only a minority of states actually implemented this resolution; on this and other occasions African states were divided, as sovereign states have a right to be, and the OAU could not force any to abide by a resolution.

But this did not mean the Organisation was totally ineffective. In 1971, the OAU effectively put a stop to moves by President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire and Prime Minister Kofi Abrefa Busia of Ghana to start a “dialogue” with South Africa.

On Rhodesia, differing views on diplomatic relations with Britain did not prevent an overall commitment to helping African resistance.

President Hastings Banda of Malawi rejected general African policy towards Rhodesia, South Africa and the Portuguese colonies with impunity; but in the long run this did not save the white regimes.

In 1974-75, a revolution in Portugal was followed by independence for all the Portuguese territories. Regrettably, independence came in the midst of civil war in Angola, and at first, African states were evenly divided between supporters and opponents of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government headed by President Agostinho Neto.

The situation was changed by South Africa’s intervention against the MPLA, and before long the OAU was on the side of the MPLA government as part of the liberation struggle. — NewAfrican.

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