When Africans today look back on the performance of the OAU in the 39 years it existed, they tend to forget how external interests contributed to the weaknesses of the Organisation. From its very beginnings, the Organisation was hamstrung by the machinations of Western countries which feared that a strong African continental union would damage their interests in Africa. Osei Boateng has been looking at the history books.
To be fair to the OAU , any discussion of its effectiveness or lack of it would not be complete without looking at the role played by external interests, mostly Western, in getting a weak continental body in the first place.
Right from the time that Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and his colleagues in Guinea (President Sékou Touré) and Mali (President Modibo Keïta) got serious with the Ghana-Guinea-Mali triparte group, whose main aim was to grow to become the nucleus of a future African continental union, Western countries with huge interests in Africa (particularly Britain, France and the USA) went to work to frustrate the Africans.
When the Ghana-Guinea-Mali union morphed into the radical Casablanca Group with Egypt (under President Gamal Abdel Nasser) now on board, the Western countries redoubled their efforts by creating a counter-force headed by Liberia under President William Tubman. Calling it the Monrovia Group, this union was formed by African countries with a conservative outlook who ostensibly wanted African unity by gradual means – via regionalism. But evidence has since emerged that the Monrovia Group was a Western fifthcolumnist project meant to frustrate the efforts of Nkrumah and his colleagues in the Casablanca Group. The whole aim was to prevent a strong African continental union as advocated by Nkrumah from coming into existence.
It was the good old divide-and-rule tactics in play all over again. In the process, the USA, Britain, France and their Western allies played the African leaders against one another, and fuelled damaging propaganda against Nkrumah, saying he wanted to dominate Africa by becoming the President of Africa.
The struggle between the Casablanca Group and the Monrovia Group became all the more accentuated, as each group tried to outdo the other in getting its points of view accepted by the wider African population. The struggle became so intense that a “truce” meeting was arranged in the northern Liberian town of Sanniquellie in July 1959 to try to bridge the gap between the two groups.
According to an official explanation issued by President Tubman’s government to coincide with Liberia’s hosting of the OAU Summit in September 1979, “before the [Sanniquellie] conference could take place, Nkrumah and Sékou Touré had already decided to form a Union of African States and had asked Tubman to become a member, offering him the position of ‘dean’ of the independent African states. Tubman, who was an astute politician, made no commitment to them.”
The Sanniquellie meeting was finally held between 15 and 19 July 1959, some 218 miles north of Monrovia. In attendance were presidents Tubman, Nkrumah and Sékou Touré. The aim was to have a “free and frank discussion” on matters African. “As expected,” according to the Liberian explanation, “there was a clash between the Nkrumah and Tubman views on African unity. Nkrumah wanted immediate political union, while Tubman wanted practical cooperation on matters of mutual interest, leading gradually to political union. “Tubman intimated that this question was so delicate and difficult that it required more time for consideration. He judiciously suggested that no decision be made on the issue until African countries with fixed dates for independence had achieved their independence.
“Sékou Touré, who at first sided with the Nkrumah view, was to go along with the Tubman view. The result was a declaration issued by the three leaders proposing a Community of Independent African States.”
Today, in OAU folklore, the Sanniquellie Declaration and the conference there itself are seen as the forerunner of the OAU. Perhaps feeling a bit guilty about the way Liberia’s policy of “gradualism” had compromised the progress of African unity, the country’s official explanation in 1979 went to greater length in detailing why Tubman took that position.
“After Ghana’s independence in 1957,” Liberia’s explanation went on, “Kwame Nkrumah took the initiative to call the first conference of independent African states, in Accra in April 1958. At the time, there were eight independent African states (Egypt, Ghana, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Liberia, Morocco and Ethiopia).
“Attaching considerable importance to this conference, President Tubman personally represented his country. He was the only head of state (besides Nkrumah himself) present. At the conference, President Tubman emphasised the need for African unity which he felt was vital for the very survival of the African people. “Though the idea of union government was plausible to the delegates, they adopted the Liberian position of using an evolutionary approach to it. According to this position, unity should begin with economic, social, and cultural cooperation. “Nkrumah did not give up his idea of a union government. He travelled widely throughout the continent to get his idea conveyed to other leaders. One result of this was the formation of the Ghana-Guinea-Mali union.
Obviously, the Liberian position was challenged. It became expedient for Liberia to release a formal statement on the issue to the world at large.” On 26 January 1959, President Tubman published a Liberian Official Gazette Extraordinary in which the country’s position on African unity was defined. His intention in taking an active part in this drama was set forth in no uncertain terms. He advocated for a single convention to provide a “permanent organisation to be known as the Associated States of Africa” which, in turn, would provide “continuing consultation on problems of common interest and for the peaceful solution of all disputes which may arise among its members”. He asked for regional organisations to be recognised where they already existed, or to be organised to develop closer unity and provide uniform and common solutions to specific problems in certain areas.
In addition, Tubman called for the establishment of regional health authorities to deal with the eradication of diseases common to Africa; agencies to direct regional scientific research and training projects; common cultural institutes for various regions of Africa to be developed, as well as a reduction of tariffs and a customs convention to be undertaken. The 1979 Liberian “explanation” – published as part of a Special Report on the OAU sponsored by Liberia to coincide with the OAU Summit in Monrovia in September 1979 – was obviously meant to make Liberia feel good about its role as an “elder state” (on account of its independence in 1847) and the practical help it had given to other African countries in their struggle for independence. But the explanation could in no way erase the “fact” that President Tubman had allowed himself to be used by the USA and its Western allies to prevent a strong African unity project to be established in the early 1960s.
In 2010, the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, who was a young man at the time Tubman was having his fight with Nkrumah and Sékou Touré, said in his evidence-in-chief before the Special Court of Sierra Leone (sitting in The Hague, Netherlands) that he and Liberians of his age group at the time were furious at Tubman for allowing himself to be used by the Western powers to “destroy the African unity project” that Nkrumah and the others were advocating.
In fact, 13 years before Taylor’s revelations in The Hague, another African president, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, had disclosed as much in his autobiography, Sowing the Mustard Seed, published in January 1997.
Though Museveni believes that “Nkrumah’s notion of a union of the whole of Africa [was] an impractical idea which …would never happen”, he nonetheless revealed in his book that: “There was also talk of the British and the Americans being behind the [East African] federation idea so that, on the one hand, they would neutralise the Zanzibar revolution by absorbing it into a wider entity and, on the other hand, frustrate Kwame Nkrumah’s dream of uniting the whole of Africa. There is now evidence to show that the frustration of these ventures had the backing of American and British imperialism.”