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The Birth Pangs of the OAU

News & Analysis

The Birth Pangs of the OAU

Cameron Duodu takes us down memory lane, by covering the nitty gritty details that went into the birth of the OAU. It was not just a simple affair, he recounts.

The year 1963, in which the OAU was formed, was an exciting one in Ghana. Some of us in the journalistic profession, watching the scene from Accra, realised that it was a “make or break” year for the continent. Ghana’s first president, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, seemed in a hurry to implement his idea of forming a single continental government in Africa. His determination stemmed from both personal and political motivations. To take the personal motivations first: in August 1962, he had been extremely lucky to survive a grenade attack carried out against him at Kulungugu in northern Ghana by members of the country’s opposition, who had fled to neighbouring countries like Togo and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) to avoid being detained without trial.

Nkrumah’s security services, however, laid the attack at the door of members of his own Convention People’s Party, whose general secretary, Tawia Adamafio, and other members of the party’s secretariat were subsequently arrested and charged with organising the attack. Ironically, Tawia Adamafio was one of the few people Nkrumah had felt he could rely upon in his party, and the fact that the security services produced evidence that seemed to blame Adamafio and his “fellow conspirators” for the grenade attack, was a cataclysmic event that frightened Nkrumah considerably.

He realised that he might be surrounded by traitors and that he might not have too long to live. Therefore, if his biggest dream – the creation of an African continental government – was to be achieved in his lifetime, there was no time to lose. (It was later discovered that some of the evidence against Adamafio & co was manufactured.)

The alleged conspiracy forced Nkrumah’s hand, for the astute politician that he was, he knew that if continental unity was achieved in Africa, he, as its principal architect, would emerge as the hero of Africa and this glory would bounce back to Ghana and strengthen his position tremendously. But many other African leaders either had their own vision of the role they wanted their countries to play in Africa and the world (and were not about to jettison this and accept someone else’s) or felt threatened by Nkrumah’s continental politics.

Many of the leaders had been eased into power in their countries by their former colonial powers, who continued to wield a great deal of influence over them. These masters were extremely suspicious of Nkrumah, whom they regarded as a communist fellow-traveller at worst, and at best, an upstart who wanted to pry their former colonies away from them. The French, in particular, had painstakingly cultivated very cosy relations with their former colonies, based on flattery and bribery. Where that did not work, they were not above resorting to assassinations or coups d’état to remove African leaders they did not fully trust. The following quote from a website that, with tongue in cheek, propounds what it calls “useless knowledge”, reveals the French position in this regard:

“The French are masters of dirty tricks in Africa. From the 1960s on, France’s relations with Africa were handled by a semi-secret cell within the president’s office charged with maintaining a financial and military zone of influence, stretching from Morocco to Madagascar. Under Jacques Foccart, French ‘cooperation’ officials virtually ran many African governments.

“In a confessional book, Foccart acknowledged that African leaders gave French ambassadors signed requests for military intervention, leaving [the] dates blank… It is most fortunate that Africa has a long history of [having] a short memory of hate.”

Among Franco-African politicians who fell victim to Jacques Foccart’s plots was Félix Moumié of Cameroon (poisoned in Switzerland). Overtly, French ruthlessness against those who did not dance to their tune was exemplified against Guinea in 1958, when the Guineans voted “Non” to the French option in a referendum organised by President Charles de Gaulle. The referendum was ostensibly designed to give a chance to the French colonies in Africa to choose between acquiring independence, or staying as members of a newly-framed module of association called “The French Community”, which was crafted and overseen by Jacques Foccart.

This “community” was partly based on the concept of the “Commonwealth” through which the British had managed to preserve loose ties with all its former colonies that had gained independence, with the exception of Burma and Sudan. When Guinea voted “Non”, the French left the country in a huff, taking everything they could carry back to France. Vital equipment needed to administer the country went, including typewriters and telephones, which were torn from their wall sockets and away. Of course, they left nothing in Guinea’s treasury.

Dr Kwame Nkrumah was incensed when he heard about this. He had been ceaselessly telling Ghanaians that the treachery of imperialism knew no bounds. What had just happened to Guinea proved him right. For if the French did not want the people of Guinea to express their true opinion on whether to stay within the French Community or not, then why had they gone to the trouble and expense of organising an elaborate referendum? Imperialist “pretence” – what else? Nkrumah wasted no time in taking the opportunity to demonstrate that with unity, Africa could solve most of its own problems.

Most Ghanaians had hardly ever heard of the Guinean president, Ahmed Sékou Touré – until Dr Nkrumah invited him to Accra. And although Ghana was not too wealthy itself (it had then begun to sound out the rich Western countries for aid to finance its Volta Dam project at Akosombo), Nkrumah immediately offered Sékou Touré a “loan” of 10 million pounds sterling (worth at least $200m in today’s money). With that, Guinea would be able to survive for the time being, Nkrumah reasoned.

This act of selflessness was received with astonishment throughout Africa. Never before had an African country been seen to make such a great sacrifice for another. In colonial times, Africans from different places often only met each other when soldiers from one country were sent to quell riots in another, as happened during the riots that occurred in the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1948, when soldiers from Nigeria were sent to “teach the rioters sense”. The money aside, Nkrumah and Touré shook the continent still further when they announced the formation of a “Ghana- Guinea Union” of states which, they said, would serve as “the nucleus” of an African union of states which other African countries could later join, if they liked.

The step the two countries took was largely symbolic, for Ghana and Guinea did not share common frontiers that they could pull down; nor did they possess common ports where customs duties could be harmonised; nor were there any other steps they could take to make the union immediately practical and organic. Worst of all, one country spoke English and the other French – hardly the easiest way of uniting two countries. Yet the idea, as such, was immensely appealing, and was hailed in many parts of Africa. In fact, Mali soon joined the union and was rewarded with a loan of about £5m by Ghana. Efforts were actually made by the three countries to cooperate economically where possible.

They sent “resident ministers” to each other’s country. And Ghana took another initiative when it acquired new Ilyushin-18 aircraft from the Soviet Union with which it was able to introduce Ghana Airways flights to Conakry and Bamako. This enabled passengers from the two countries to connect to flights to other West African countries as well as to Europe and elsewhere.

Trade also began to pick up between the three countries – meat from Mali, in particular, began to be seen in Ghanaian cold-stores. But alas, by late 1960, Nkrumah and Sékou Touré – both headstrong personalities – had fallen out and the union was tottering. No announcement was forthcoming on the disagreement that had torn them apart. Indeed, I only became aware of it when Kojo Addison, the censor whom Dr Nkrumah had sent to the Radio Ghana newsroom (where I was working as a news editor) began surreptitiously to take news items that mentioned Guinea or Sékou Touré out of our news bulletins! It was a crass act of intolerance that was, unfortunately, typical of the emotional manner in which international politics was often pursued in Ghana at the time.

In fact, 1960 saw Africa begin to “sleepwalk” into splitting into two blocs that became known as the “Monrovia Group” and the “Casablanca Group”. Most of the members of the Monrovia Group were drawn from an earlier group called the “Brazzaville Group” that was formed by mainly Frenchspeaking countries. Initially, the Group was known as the “Afro-Malagasy Union” or, from its French initials, UAM. The countries in the “Brazzaville Group” were Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Côte d’lvoire, Dahomey (now Benin), Gabon, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, Central African Republic, Senegal, and Chad. Later, the Group was expanded to include Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Togo, Tunisia, and Congo (Kinshasa).

The “Casablanca Group” emerged in 1961 and comprised Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Libya, Mali, and Morocco for a short period. They were often labelled as the “radical group” (in contrast, the label “conservative” was applied by lazy journalists to the Monrovia Group). The labels were clearly a misnomer, for by no stretch of the imagination could Morocco, for instance, which was a “conservative” monarchical regime, be described as “radical” or “antiimperialist”. Clearly, both Groups were alliances of convenience: it was politically unwise – as far as domestic politics were concerned – to appear “isolated” on the African political scene. Hence, one adopted friends not necessarily because one shared a common political philosophy with them, but because they were available or not regarded as a threat to oneself. Enter Sékou Touré. It was not only Nkrumah who was disheartened by the existence of the Monrovia and Casablanca Groups in Africa.

President Sékou Touré of Guinea (a member of the Casablanca Group) was also unhappy and he linked up with Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie to try and organise a conference of the foreign ministers of the two groups, preparatory to a summit of their heads of state. Nkrumah heard of this and was irritated that his former ally, Sékou Touré, seemed to be trying to steal his thunder as the unacknowledged “father of African unity”. So he set his own secret diplomatic moves in motion to get the Monrovia and Casablanca Groups to merge and form a common organisation. Nkrumah dispatched one of his most trusted aides, Kwesi Armah (better known as Ghana’s high commissioner in London), to Liberia to see President William Tubman, who was widely respected as one of the “old wise men” of Africa.

Tubman had won this respect despite his country’s extremely close ties to America. Nkrumah’s message spurred Tubman to convince his fellow members of the Monrovia Group that the pressing issues facing the world and Africa – disarmament, the Cold War, non-alignment, economic cooperation with each other and with other nations, and, above all, how to safeguard the independence recently won by African and Asian nations – could best be addressed in unison.

After all, there was the Organisation of American States (OAS) which united North and South America; the Arab League which united the Middle East, NATO which united the Western powers, the Warsaw Pact which united the Soviet Bloc and the European Economic Community which united nine nations of Western Europe. Why should Africa not emulate them by forming an organisation that spoke with one voice? But even as Nkrumah was trying to sort out the diplomatic challenges he saw in Africa, a new development occurred close to home that was disastrous in the message it conveyed to the rest of Africa.

On 13 January 1963, one of Nkrumah’s bêtes noires in Africa, the president of neighbouring Togo, Sylvanus Olympio, was assassinated in a coup and his government overthrown. Many political observers in Africa and elsewhere believed that Nkrumah was behind this coup. This was because antagonism had existed between Nkrumah and Olympio as far back as the early 1950s, when the Gold Coast was about to achieve its independence and become Ghana. Part of the Gold Coast – Trans-Volta Togoland – had once been part of Togo, which was then a German colony.

But after the defeat of Germany in World War I, Togo was divided into two by the League of Nations (that was later to be replaced by the United Nations). One part of Togo was given to France to administer as a separate colony under a League of Nations “mandate”, while the other part was given to Britain to administer under the same “mandate” conditions. But typically, the British did not accept the simple method of administering Trans-Volta Togoland as a separate territory (as the French had done), but instead, chose the complex method of attaching Trans-Volta to its colony next door, the Gold Coast.

The British did not, of course, bother to ask the inhabitants of the two territories that were brought together in a “shotgun” marriage, what their views were. Had they done so, they would no doubt have been told that the plan was a diabolical one. For it would segregate forcibly behind separate borders, ethnic groups that had traditionally lived as single entities before the European colonisers came.

The Ewe people in particular, were deeply resentful of this division that was imposed on them, which separated many families from one another and thus placed tremendous social hardships on them. British chicanery Fast-forward to the 1950s. The British are busy preparing their “model colony” in West Africa, the Gold Coast, for independence. But the question of Trans-Volta Togoland has reared its head. What is to be done with it? The trusteeship arrangement with the United Nations that had replaced the League of Nations mandate (after WWII) made it necessary to ascertain the wishes of the people of any trust territory before a change could be effected in their status. The Gold Coast was to become the independent nation of Ghana. What was to become of the Trans-Volta section of the Gold Coast? Was it to be allowed to achieve independence with the Gold Coast, or to secede and unite, instead, with the territory which was once part of – French Togoland?

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