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From OAU to AU – The flame of hope

From OAU to AU – The flame of hope
  • PublishedMay 3, 2013

On 19 May 2013, the African Union (AU) will lead the continent in a year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which morphed into the AU in June 2002. Because of its historical importance, the AU has turned the commemoration into a year-long series of events that will focus the minds of Africans on the course the continent has taken since decolonisation in the 1960s, and the challenges that still lie ahead.

As the AU Commission chairperson, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, puts it: “The convening of 32 independent nations in the Conference of Independent African States in May 1963, remains perhaps one of the most important statements undertaken by Africans towards self-determination and prosperity”.

On 25 May 1963, exactly 50 years ago this May, the founding fathers of African liberation met in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and established what became the continent’s premier institution, the Organisation of African Unity. “Fifty years on from that watershed moment,” says Dr Dlamini-Zuma, “we are favoured with the opportunity to reflect on the road travelled by Africans towards securing unity, prosperity and peace.” In this regard, the AU Commission – in conjunction with member states, regional economic communities, and non-state actors – has put together a “bouquet of events” that will make Africans sit up and reflect on critical actions required to secure unity and shared prosperity.

“These reflections,” says the AU Commission chairperson, “are opportune because the year 2013 has been declared the Year of Pan-Africanism and the African Renaissance. It is our view that this year has the potential of being a watershed year, since never before in our history has so much been in our favour. Never before have we had so much potential and growth. Never before has the continent been favoured with such a young, vibrant and relatively more educated population. It is these comparative advantages that must be turned into meaningful opportunities towards a shared prosperity and lasting peace.”

Anniversary torches

On 8 April, at a colourful ceremony at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Dr Dlamini-Zuma handed out special “50th Anniversary Torches” to delegations from the 53 AU member countries to be lit when the year-long commemorative events kick off on 19 May. According to Dlamini-Zuma: “Through the symbolic lighting of these torches, we hope that the flame of hope shall shine through the continent… The torches symbolise our desire to reverse the current storyline of despair into the real narrative of opportunity and potential. [They] are also a symbol of our collective will to brighten Africa’s future; [they] are a symbol of our achievements with regard to development, democracy and governance; [they] are a symbol of our pride to belong to Africa.”

Unlike the OAU before it (which was widely misunderstood), the AU was founded in June 2002 to promote an “integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena”. Eleven years on, the AU is still lumbering along, its mission far from achieved. The “integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa” is still way in the future, its path probably needing illumination by the golden rays of the new “flame of hope”.

Nevertheless, the mission assigned the AU still remains a noble one – to deliver an Africa driven by its citizens. How far it is succeeding, after 11 years’ work, is open to critical debate. But that in no way diminishes the importance of the mission, as illustrated by Dlamini-Zuma when handing out the 50th Anniversary Torches on 8 April. Employing the words of the great Chinua Achebe, who died on 22 March, Dr Dlamini-Zuma exhorted Africans to do more: “Nobody can teach me who I am,” she quoted Achebe. “You can describe parts of me, but who I am and what I need is something I have to find out myself.”

Now choosing her own words, she continued: “Consequently, the current realities and the future of Africa can only and must be developed by Africans for Africans. In so doing, we must emphasise solidarity, unity, shared prosperity, and lasting peace.” According to Dlamini-Zuma, the impact of the main anniversary events (from 19 to 27 May) and the year-long activities will be assessed against the extent to which Africans are able to promote and define Pan-African values. “These values,” she explained, “will underpin the African agenda over the next five decades. For that reason, I hope that all delegations will bring these messages back home so that, in unison with each African from within and outside the continent, we will memorably celebrate the golden jubilee of the OAU-AU.”

Viewed through the prism of the AU mandate of building an “integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by Africans”, the OAU’s 50th anniversary takes on a special hue, one that gives the AU the pleasure of rallying the entire continent to reflect on the past, present and the future.

“We hope to enthuse and energise the African population,” promises Dlamini-Zuma, “and use their constructive energies to accelerate a forward-looking agenda of Pan-Africanism and Renaissance in the 21st century. To effectively develop this forwardlooking agenda, we will engage all sectors of our societies here at home and in the diaspora. We have adopted thematic focus areas in our year-long programme to provide a platform [for] discussion. These themes recognise the areas in which we have recorded progress, and the challenges we face.”

Enter New African

Having been the undisputed “voice of Africa” for the past decades, and the bestselling Pan-African magazine in English, New African is joining the African leadership in commemorating the OAU 50th anniversary in a special way – via this Special “Hors-Série” Edition, which looks back on the days of the OAU, its achievements and failures, and what lies ahead of the continent with the AU now in charge. With George Orwell’s dictum, “he who controls the past, controls the future; and he who controls the present, controls the past” ringing in our ears, we have gone over the OAU with a fine toothcomb and have come up with a special edition that we hope readers will want to keep for future generations. As the editor in charge of this project, I have been substantially educated by the research that went into this Special Edition, and I hope readers will be educated too. I was 6 years old, a mere sapling, when the OAU was founded on 25 May 1963. I grew up hearing criticisms upon high-sounding criticisms of the OAU. It was a “useless organisation”, the critics said, “a toothless bulldog” that did nothing while Africa burned.

I, and certainly many of my age group, and even the generations that came after us, grew up firmly believing the accusations levelled against the poor OAU. But editing this special edition, using both new and New African’s own archival material, has been an epiphany for me. The scales could not have fallen faster from Saul’s eyes on the road to Damascus than they did for me while working on this special edition. All of a sudden, I see the OAU not as the critics of yore did, but as an organisation totally misunderstood by the people whose interests it was set up to serve.

From our research, we now know that because it was misunderstood, the OAU was maligned for not doing what it had no power, or limited power, to do. An organisation can only be as powerful as the members who established it want it to be. In this regard, the OAU had the misfortune of having members who could not quite see beyond their comfortable noses and therefore invested it with limited powers that could not achieve much of what its critics accused it of not doing.

In fairness, therefore, the criticisms ought to have been levelled at the member countries instead of the OAU as an organisation. For example, if the member countries refused to pay their membership fees on time or not at all, as they did most of the time during the 39 years of the OAU (and still do since the AU took over), one could not in fairness accuse the OAU of negligence of mission if it had no money to execute its programmes. That accusation should go to the member countries, whose unpatriotic penny-pinching continues to ensure that the AU today relies on foreign begging to finance over 80% of its programmes. And we still want to build an “integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena”! Only God can bless our poor hearts!

Bad start

As discerning Africans it is hard to admit, but our research clearly shows that the men we call the “founding fathers” of the OAU allowed themselves to be divided, even used, by external forces and as a result the OAU was hobbled at birth. The external forces, mainly Western, feared that a strong continental union would move Africa out of their sphere of influence, and thus did not want the continent to have a really strong and viable unity project. So they played the “founding fathers” against one another, and at the end of the day the so-called “conservatives” in their ranks, acting on the promptings from outside the continent, won a Pyrrhic victory, on 25 May 1963, when the OAU was formally established.

With the momentum thus lost, the OAU never really recovered to become the organisation that the masses of Africa thought it would be. That, in sum, was the beginning of the “disappointments” felt all around Africa during the 39 years the OAU lasted. In this Special Edition, we have included two speeches, one made by Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah in Addis Ababa at the founding of the OAU, and another by Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere (which he gave 34 years after the founding of the OAU). Reading both side by side, one cannot fail to see how badly the “founding fathers” let the continent down on 25 May 1963 by allowing the “conservatives” to win on that day, thus throwing away the bright future that Africans had hoped to have for themselves.

Perhaps, as President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda puts it, “Nkrumah’s notion of a union of the whole of Africa [was] an impractical idea which would never happen”, yet the role played by Western countries in preventing Nkrumah’s idea from coming to fruition (as illustrated in the article in this issue, “OAU and Western penetration efforts”) should be a constant reminder to the continent to be vigilant if the AU’s mission of an “integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena”, is to be achieved.

Old and new

To bring a better understanding to the affairs of the OAU, and especially to help the new generations of Africans who were too young at the time of the OAU to properly understand what was going on, we have used a mixture of old and new material in this Special Edition to make things clearer. The new material has come from people who either worked with the OAU or saw it at work. The old material has come from New African’s own rich archives – we have taken a selection of articles from there published by the magazine on and about the OAU during the 39 years it lasted. The dates on which these articles were originally published are clearly marked in italics in the standfirsts or intros at the top of the reprints.

Going through this Special Edition, readers will find that while the anti-OAU articles expose its shortcomings, and there were many of these, the pro-OAU articles bring a proper contextual feel to the organisation, making anybody who comes to the subject with an open mind properly understand the dynamics that were in play at the time – and especially, why the OAU achieved what it achieved, and could not achieve what its limited powers would not allow.

So dear readers, sit back and enjoy. As Africans, we should all remember to play our part in the year-long events lined up to commemorate the OAU’s 50th anniversary. Happy Golden Jubilee!

Written By
New African

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