History in the Making
The Organisation of African Unity / African Union.
On May 25, 1963, the Organisation of African Unity was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, bringing together under one umbrella the then-32 independent African nations. The OAU arose as an affront to colonialism and in response to questions about Africa’s role on the world stage in the 20th century.
Fifty years later, the OAU’s successor, the African Union, has become one of the world’s leading institutions dedicated to cooperation and economic integration between nations, and the premier international body concerned with Pan-African affairs. In this special issue of Selamta, we look back at the unique history of this organization and its contributions to the nations and people of Africa.
Part one: Birth
The decades leading up to the formation of the OAU were simmering with agitation and expectation across the African continent, as an increasing number of nations became free from European colonialism. The 1945 Pan-African Congress, held in Manchester, England, brought together activists from the African Diaspora in the United States, Europe and the Caribbean with leaders of the various nationalist movements on the African continent.
The outcome of this assembly — whose secretary and chairman were Kwame Nkrumah and W.E.B. Du Bois, respectively — was an unambiguous call for Africa to be completely freed of colonial rule. Twelve years later, Ghana became the first British colony to gain independence, and in 1958 Nkrumah hosted an assembly of the eight independent African countries in Accra. In the aftermath of the Accra meeting, colonialism began to rapidly recede across the continent, with more than a dozen former French colonies gaining independence in 1960 alone. Within a few years, the majority of Africa was made up of independent states — a total of 32 nations by the end of 1962.
In the excitement of this dawning post-colonial era, several different views developed within Pan-African diplomatic circles about how these new sovereignties should relate to one another and the rest of the world, and at what pace unity should be manifested. The two main camps, alliances of different African governments, were known as the Casablanca Group and the Monrovia Group.
The Ethiopian government played a crucial role in mediating and bringing together the two sides. Largely through the efforts of the Ethiopian government, the leaders of all independent African nations were convinced to attend a summit in Addis in May 1963.
The goal of this assembly was made clear in the opening speech by Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie:
We cannot leave here without having created a single African organisation possessed of the attributes we have described. If we fail in this, we will have shirked our responsibility to Africa and to the peoples we lead. If we succeed, then, and only then, will we have justified our presence here.
Other leaders in attendance expressed a similar sense of urgency, with Kwame Nkrumah famously declaring, “We must unite now or perish.”
The assembly of independent African states agreed to quickly establish a unifying Pan-African institution. After extensive deliberations, the Conference of Independent African Heads of State and Government in Addis Ababa ended successfully with the signing of an official charter establishing the Organisation of African Unity. After the signing of the charter, the meeting hall was filled with the “euphoria of Pan-Africanism.”
Part two: Development
The OAU charter was just the beginning. After the signing of the charter, Kifle Wodajo — then a young Ethiopian diplomat — was appointed acting secretary-general. At subsequent meetings, it was decided that the OAU would be headquartered in Addis Ababa and that Diallo Telli, then Guinea’s ambassador to the U.N., would become the OAU’s first secretary-general in 1964.
Once its administrative framework was in place, the OAU launched into an agenda of promoting Pan-African cooperation and working to end colonialism and minority rule. The OAU also served as a forum for mediation and the resolution of intra-state conflicts.
A range of important Pan-African conventions, treaties and charters were adopted during the OAU’s first three decades, covering issues ranging from civil aviation and environmental conservation to culture and technical cooperation. Some significant initiatives undertaken by the OAU during this period include the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Africa’s Priority Programme for Economic Recovery, which addressed the severe challenges faced by many African countries during the 1980s.
In 1990, the issue of economic integration came to the fore with the signing of the Abuja Treaty, outlining a multiphase plan by which a unified African Economic Community could be created. The 1990s also saw the OAU adopt strong stands in regard to the foreign debt burdens shouldered by African countries.
Since its inception, the OAU was at the forefront and worked vigorously for the abolishment of the apartheid system in South Africa, and in 1994, South Africa finally joined the family of independent African states as the 53rd member of the OAU.
Part three: Renewal
At the dawn of the 21st century, African governments engaged in a series of conversations about better empowering the OAU to address the challenges facing the continent. This culminated with a 2000 summit in Lomé, Togo, where the African Union was created to replace the OAU. The African Union’s first official assembly took place two years later in Durban, South Africa.
The transition from the OAU to the African Union represented much more than a simple name change. The African Union was established with a more complex organizational structure and a broader mandate for a peaceful and prosperous Africa.
The AU is governed by a higher body called the Assembly, composed of the heads of state and government of the member nations, which in turn is served by the Executive Council, composed of foreign ministers. The African Union Commission — the Addis Ababa-based secretariat of the Union — conducts day-to-day operations. The AU is also served by several councils and technical committees, each specializing in a particular area of Pan-African policy or economic activity.
The AU set up a robust peace and security architecture, including the Peace and Security Council, aimed at taking African ownership and leadership of the resolution of conflicts on the continent. This proved to be a success, with the declining of conflicts in Africa.
The other major act of the newly formed AU was the launch of a Pan-African economic-development program: the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. NEPAD provides a strategic framework for African states in pursuing sustainable socio-economic development, African integration and increased international trade, in the context of democratic good governance. Under the leadership of the late prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, who also served as chairperson of the NEPAD Orientation Committee, NEPAD became the main instrument for advocating Africa’s position and interests on the global stage, including the G-8 and G-20 summits.
This was followed by the establishment of the African Peer Review Mechanism, a system by which African governments hold themselves accountable to high standards of governance. In 2012, the gleaming new African Union Conference Center and Office Complex1 was inaugurated in Addis Ababa, serving as a visual representation of the AU’s future ambitions and the rise of Africa. That year also saw the election of the first female chairperson of the AU Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma of South Africa.
As the world increasingly looks to Africa as a source of economic opportunity, the African Union stands poised to help an emerging continent achieve its potential.