Africa Freedom Day: The birth and history of the OAU you should know

Africa Freedom Day: The birth and history of the OAU you should know
  • PublishedMay 25, 2019

As we commemorate Africa Freedom Day, this archive article, from our July 2002 print edition, looks back at how the OAU was born, some of its achievements (particularly in the liberation struggle), and the unfinished business on the economic front.

The signing of the charter of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa on 25 May 1963 was the culmination of years of efforts by African leaders, in which President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia played prominent roles.

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 7 January 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 8-12 May 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. • 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 Emperor Haile Selassie, speaking during the formation of the OAU on May 25, 1963 in Addis Ababa. (AFP Photos)


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.

The OAU rapidly became a part of the African scene, with its 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 HouphouëtBoigny 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.

In this case, as in others, there were always some African states breaking ranks, openly or secretly; some broke international sanctions against Rhodesia and the OAU’s own 1968 resolution in favour of sanctions against South Africa. But the white supremacists always knew that Africa was generally against them. They did not succeed in winning acceptance of their policies through “dialogue” – though the OAU did not reject dialogue altogether, and accepted the principle of it in the Lusaka Manifesto in 1969.

Eventually, Rhodesia became the independent state of Zimbabwe under black majority rule in 1980, and joined the OAU with Robert Mugabe as prime minister and later president.

In 1990, in the face of African resistance within the country, international sanctions, and world hostility, the South African regime granted independence to South-West Africa as Namibia (under President Sam Nujoma), and later it released Nelson Mandela from 27 years of prison, lifted the ban on the African National Congress (ANC), began the process which ended the white supremacist regime in South Africa and brought in the democratically-elected multiracial government in 1994.

Following that, a special OAU mini-summit was held in Arusha in Tanzania on 15 August 1994, which voted to end the mandate of the OAU Liberation Committee. With the unifying campaign for the liberation of the whole continent now completed, what could replace it as a focus of united efforts among OAU members? The new leaders of South Africa suggested an answer, agreed by many others. The first foreign minister under Mandela, Alfred Nzo, said: “The main challenge now of the OAU is to get into the next struggle which is one of economic development.”

He was echoing what Mandela had said at the 1993 OAU summit in Cairo, Egypt, and what should be the OAU’s preoccupation now: “All of us know the brutal reality of a continent awash with hungry children, plagued by wars that devour human lives, confronted by millions of refugees and displaced people, economies in crisis, and by disproved theories and broken dreams.”

Lagos Plan of Action and APPER

In fact, those who suggested that after the end of the struggle against colonial rule and white settler regimes the OAU should concentrate on Africa’s pressing economic problems, were doubtless aware that the Organisation had been paying attention to them for many years.

Economic cooperation had been among its aims from the beginning, and it took many initiatives in the economic field.

In April 1980, the first OAU Economic Summit was held in Lagos, and adopted the Lagos Plan of Action.

Five years later, the 21st OAU summit in 1985 issued a declaration on the economic situation in Africa which included (a) a programme of measures for accelerated implementation of the Lagos Plan; (b) special action for improvement of the food situation in Africa; (c) the rehabilitation of agricultural development; and (d) measures for a common platform for action at the sub-regional, continental and international levels.

To this declaration was appended Africa’s Priority Programme for Economic Recovery (APPER), a five-year programme for the years 1986 to 1990. APPER was elaborated in a submission to a special session of the United Nations General Assembly on Africa’s economic and social crisis. The African countries estimated that full implementation of APPER would cost $128bn, of which $82bn would be mobilised from within Africa, with the rest coming from external sources. Besides providing financial aid, the international community was called upon to assist Africa by improving its trade possibilities and easing its debt burden, which was already a major concern for African states then and has remained so.

It should be noted that while the Lagos Plan of Action and APPER reflected the common aspirations of African states, they did not impose binding commitments on individual states (nor, of course, on aid donors).

The OAU was not a forum for reaching binding, detailed agreements on any economic measures to be applied by African states. It never had any such power, nor, for that matter, does the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), founded in 1958 and based, like the OAU, in Addis Ababa.

UNECA has contributed much to African economic cooperation through research, statistics, conferences, etc, but it is not a body that can lay down economic cooperation or concerted economic policies for the continent, and neither was the OAU.

Whatever progress was made in that direction was, and has been, achieved by regional organisations such as ECOWAS in West Africa, and SADC in Southern Africa.

The Abuja Treaty

Much more progress in that direction, leading ultimately to the economic union of the whole continent, was agreed among all OAU members when, during the 27th OAU summit in Abuja (2-6 June 1991), they signed the Abuja Treaty on the African Economic Community (AEC).

This laid down detailed stages for economic integration, first at the level of the existing regional groupings, and later at the continental level, to involve, eventually, not only free trade but also a common currency. The target date set for the effective creation of the AEC was 2025. Now the African Union, which took over from the OAU in 2002, has to pursue and hasten the programme laid down in the Abuja Treaty.

AContrary to widespread belief, the Constitutive Act of 2000 setting up the African Union does not provide for an immediate creation of a political union. However, it does provide for an African Parliament, which was already provided for in the Abuja Treaty. Economically, the aim is to speed up, if possible, the programme of greater regional integration.

Written By
New African

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