The birth of the OAU

The birth of the OAU
  • PublishedMay 3, 2013

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. We look back at how the OAU was born, some of its achievements (particularly in the liberation struggle), and unfinished business on the economic front. This was first published by New African in June 200

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 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.

Written By
New African

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