As the AU is marking the 50th anniversary of the OAU under the theme ‘Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance’, it is necessary to subject the 50 years journey of the OAU/AU with respect to the question of unity to critical scrutiny.
To this end, it is imperative that we heed the counsel of former South African President Thabo Mbeki that in the context of the 50th anniversary of the OAU ‘We must answer some questions honestly: What progress have we made towards the achievement of the objectives set by the OAU, AU and NEPAD? What shall we do in this regard?’
This should involve an appreciation of the dismal performance of the continent on the question of African unity. Accordingly, in what follows I would like to highlight the road that post-independence leaders pursued and how it led to the betrayal of the promises of liberation and hence the dream of unity as well as the catastrophic consequence of this failure of the post-independence political class. In the process, I also hope to identify the major factors that impeded substantive progress towards the dream of the unification of people of the continent.
The OAU years during the Cold War: the case of unity betrayed?
The birth of the OAU coincides with the emergence of the Cold War, which shaped global politics and indeed the relationship of the newly independent African states to global powers. In many ways, the OAU of the Cold War period can appropriately be considered as a period that manifested the betrayal of the dream of unity.
The defeat of Nkrumah’s vision of unity in the May 1963 OAU founding conference in Addis Ababa
It should be stated that the OAU came into existence after a lengthy debate between diverse group of leaders. Indeed, in that historic month of May 1963 in Addis Ababa the 32 heads of state and government represented various forces including revolutionaries, reactionary and feudal forces, nationalists and puppets of former colonial powers. These diverse group of leaders were divided into two large blocks: the few of them supporting Nkrumah’s vision of a united states of Africa and the conservative and gradualist block that sought nothing more than a loose association.
In the ideological fight between the forces of unity and status quo, the OAU represented the victory of the forces of status quo and the defeat of Nkrumah’s vision of unity. G. G. Collins, British High Commissioner in Accra, in a 1963 memo described the defeat of Nkrumah’s vision of unity in the following terms
‘He (Nkrumah) had asked for a continental government of a Union of African States with a common foreign policy and diplomacy, common citizenship and a capital city; he got a loose organization which specifically provides for its members to be able to renounce their membership.
He had said that the Union of Africa would solve all border problems; he got a Commission of Mediation and clauses among the Principles of the Organization referring to non-interference in the internal affairs of states and to unreserved condemnation of subversive activities on the part of neighboring states.
He had asked for a continent-wide economic and industrial programme to include a common market and a common communications system, and a monetary zone with a central bank and currency; he got only a promise that commissions for matters economic and social, educational and cultural, scientific and technical might be set up.
He had asked for plans for a common system of defense; he got only the promise of a defense commission. When the conference Resolution to set up a Liberation Bureau was implemented, Ghana was not included.’
Application of ‘We the Head of State and Government’ to its limits
In the years following 1963, the OAU years of the Cold War further entrenched existing divisions and added new once. First, the expression in the commencing words of the OAU Charter ‘We the Heads of State and Government’ was applied to its limits. The OAU became no more than a trade union of heads of state and governments, many of whom became in subsequent years violent dictators, Kleptocrats, self-appointed emperors and presidents for life. As aptly portrayed in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, like the colonial authorities from whom they took political power, the post-independence political class treated the masses of their people with contempt, abuse and even brut force. Whatever unity that emerged within the OAU was a unity in dictatorship, corruption and misery. As the post-independence political class used its hold on power to accumulate personal wealth, indulge in excessive abuse of power and perfect despotic and violent rule as powerfully mirrored in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow, the promise and hope of the liberation struggle including the dream of unity soon turned into nightmare in many of the newly independent countries.
Most, if not all, independent countries became not only poor economies but also economies dependent on their former colonial countries. As Frantz Fanon in his celebrated book The Wretched of the Earth aptly summed up,
‘the national economy of the period of independence [was] not set on a new footing. It is still concerned with the ground-nut harvest, with the cocoa crop, the olive yield. In the same way there is no change in the marketing of basic products, and not a single industry is set up in the country. We go on sending out our raw materials, we go on being Europe’s small farmers, who specializes in unfinished products’.
This economics (mainly interested in accumulation of private wealth for the political class rather than serving the interests of the masses of the population and concerned with only export of raw materials) offered no motivation to build communication and transport infrastructure that connects the countries of the continent. Similarly, the logic of this economics also ensured that there could be no chance of intra-African trade and hence possibility of economic integration.
Second, the OAU served as a framework for entrenching the juridical sovereignty of its member states, which more often than not was used to shield the corrupt and violent system of governance perfected in many of its member states. First, shackled by its dogmatic adherence to the principle of non-intervention, the OAU became witness to the rampant miss rule and the many violations that took place in many countries including Central African Republic, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, and former Zaire. Second, in the Cairo meeting in 1964 OAU member states adopted the principle of Uti Possidetis thereby affirming the deeply arbitrary colonial division of the continent. Third, OAU members adopted legal regimes relating to tariff and customs as well as entry and exist requirements.
The above developments had two negative consequences to the unity of the continent. First, they solidified and hardened the colonial fences separating the countries and peoples of Africa, deepening the colonial division of the continent and limiting free movement of people and goods. Second, they gave rise to a politics of indifference that blocked OAU and its member states from coming to the defense of the people of Africa who, soon after independence, forced to endure a rule as brutal as that was found under colonialism.
The Cold War added a further division between the countries of the continent, as a divided and weak Africa was soon turned into a major theatre of the Cold War. As in the past, the interventions of the Cold War by global powers on the continent proved to be destructive.
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki best captured this devastation in the following terms:
Concretely, among other things, this resulted in such negative developments as the corruption of the African independence project through the establishment of the system of neo-colonialism, the overthrow of governments which resisted this, support for the white minority and colonial regimes in Southern Africa, seen as dependable anti-communist and anti-Soviet allies, the assassination of such leaders as Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara and Eduardo Mondlane, sponsorship of such instrumentalities as UNITA in Angola and RENAMO in Moçambique, support for predatory and client regimes such as those of Mobutu in the then Zaire, and of Houphouët-Boigny in Côte d’Ivoire
The above political, economic and security developments produced Africa of the 1990s.
The OAU in the 1990s: African states individually disintegrating
In his advocacy for heeding his vision of African unity, Nkrumah warned Africa that the failure to unify had serious consequences. He thus stated:
Salvation for Africa lies in unity…for in unity lies strength and I see it, African states must unite or sell themselves out to imperialist and colonialist exploiters for a mess of pottage or disintegrate individually.
The 1990s was a period when Nkrumah’s worst prophetic warning of the disintegration of African states individually was literarily born by actual events in many parts of the continent.
Thus, the immediate post-Cold War period became one of the darkest, bloodiest and bleakest of times for Africa. Outside of the slave trade and colonial era, at no other time violence have been more horrific and devastating than during this period. OAU member states were ‘disintegrating individually’ and it was as though Africa has gone ‘from the frying pan into the fire’.
In the 1990s Africa saw the descent of Somalia into protracted lawlessness and anarchy, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly Zaire, into one of Africa’s brutal civil wars in which millions of people perished and Sierra Leone and Liberia civil wars that unleashed untold horor on civilian population of the two countries.
However, it was the 1994 Rwandan genocide that shock Africa to its core. In a period of one hundred days, close to 800,000 Rwandese, almost one tenth of the population of the country, were mercilessly massacred.
With none of those who scrambled for controlling the direction of the continent showing interest to come to the recue of people of the continent, ‘Africa was suddenly left to fend for itself’ as former Secretary General Kofi Annan put it. Unfortunately, the OAU, which developed into a disappointing symbol of the (dis)unity of the continent, failed terribly to do anything meaningful to avert or mitigate many of the calamities of the 1990s. As in the past, it did very little other than being witness to the brutal death, mayhem and displacement of millions of Africans and to its member states ‘disintegrating individually’.
The AU: A false dawn of African unity?
The transformation of the OAU to the AU is indeed a major development in the evolution towards achieving the ideals of pan-Africanism. As Murithi rightly pointed out the AU ‘was supposed to usher Africa into a new era of continental integration, leading to a deeper unity and a resolution of its problems.’
The transformation of the OAU to the AU involved both normative and institutional Changes.
At the normative level, under the Constitutive Act of the AU, the AU made a complete break from the OAU in two major ways. First by redefining sovereinty where by the divisive OAU principle of non-intervention was replaced by a solidaity principle of non-indifference under Article 4 (h) of the Constitutive Act.
These normative changes were also accompanied by institutional changes. This involved the establishment of decision-making and implementation structures (the AU Assembly, the Executive Council, AU PSC, PRC and the AU Commission) representative and judicial institutions (Pan-African Parliament and the African Court of Justice and Human and Peoples’ Rights) as well as a continental development framework taking the form of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development with its governance monitoring and review process called the African Peer Review Mechanism.
Compared to the OAU years, Africa indubitably registered some commendable progress under the AU. This is particularly true with respect to peace and security. However, the promises unfulfilled are far more than those realized. Quite a number of limitations have been witnessed in the past decade.
The most notable and widely recognised limitation of the AU system is its heavy dependence on donor funding for its activities. For example, close to 90% of the funding for AU peace and security activities comes from donor funding.
Moreover, most AU member states do not make the diplomatic and military contributions needed for the effective implementation of the decisions they made. For example, the AU Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) consisted of troops from only Uganda and Burundi for far too long, although all PSC members were involved in the decision to deploy AMISOM. Major contributions in terms of both troops and other resources for peace operations are borne by fewer than a dozen countries on the continent.
The AU’s slow pace of achieving consensus, the failure of its relatively well-positioned member states to provide expected levels of leadership and the resultant lack of appropriate action led to both political and security vacuum. Although it started off very well, currently the AU suffers from a dearth of leadership even on the part of its most pivotal member states such as South Africa and Nigeria.
There is also huge gap between commitments that member states made and their practice on the ground. Regime security continues to trump the demands of human security to which AU member states freely subscribed under various AU instruments. In this regard, former South African President Thabo Mbeki pointed out that one of the AU’s failures is ensuring that member states ‘respect the imperatives for democratic rule as spelled out in the Constitutive Act, and related decisions, centred on the strategic perspective that the people – the African masses – must govern’.
Another major issue has been the lack of a unified voice. This is evidenced by the divergence in the policy positions that AU member states take in their capitals, in Addis Ababa and in international forums such as in New York. In this regard, one area of manifest failure President Mbeki raised was what he called ‘the shameful African disunity and indecisiveness which resulted in the debacles in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya, which put in serious doubt our ability to determine our destiny, with present and continuing serious negative consequences for our continent’.
The foregoing clearly illustrated that ‘this question of African unity’ encountered betrayals, failures of catastrophic consequences, missed opportunities and in some ways false dawns.
It was not anchored on a firm ideological conviction on the part of both the post-independence and subsequent political leadership of the continent. The leaders with the required conviction and vision were very few and far in between. Many others declared their conviction to African unity in public but did everything and conspired with others to exactly impede and frustrate the unification of the continent. The dream of African unification also lacked constituency among the wider public on the continent. In the years following the establishment of the OAU, it was made a reserve of a self serving political class with very limited, if any, presence in the works and practice of civil society, the media, public intellectuals of the continent.
Apart from its weak ideological and social foundations in the practice of the post-colonial African state and public, the required socio-economic infrastructure capable of facilitating its realization was also lacking. There were no transport and communication infrastructure to network and link up the countries and peoples of the continent. The solidification of the colonial fences through entrenching juridical sovereignty, sanctifying colonially carved deeply arbitrary borders, and the adoption of regulations imposing restrictions and tariffs on movement of people and goods further deepened the division inherited at independence. Lack of industrial development also mean that there existed very little for African countries to trade between themselves.
While under the AU there have been promising developments, the division and rivalry among African states are allowed to persist. Much of the current political class lacks the ideological conviction for advancing the ideal of unification with the urgency and determination it requires. Those with the position and capacity to mobilize the continent for higher level of political and socio-economic integration are divided and remain indecisive in providing the leadership expected of them. The continent has as yet to develop the required regulatory and physical infrastructure (communication and transport infrastructure, standardized trade frameworks, industrialization for producing finished products essential for intra-African trade) that facilitates economic integration and intra-regional trade.
The result is the continuing state of disunity among African states. After 50 years journey African unity still remains a dream deferred.
The major challenges to be overcome include addressing
- the deficit in the ideological conviction of the political classes of the countries of the continent,
- the lack of sustainable political commitment, and
- the current dearth of political leadership on the continent
- the development of the required socio-economic and physical infrastructure
- absence of societal wide awareness of and support for the unification project
Steps to be taken include
- re-articulation and reaffirmation of the commitment for African unity as the surest means both for extricating the masses of the people from the prevailing socio-economic and political ills they find themselves in and for enabling Africa to participate in and contribute meaningfully for global development and prosperity as well as in the global quest for a just and humane world order
- creating societal wide awareness of and constituency for African unity,
- achieving the emergence of a coalition of countries with dedicated political leadership and commitment for pursuing the dream of African unity
- outline a realistic and incentivised roadmap and strategy with benchmarks and realistic timelines as well as follow up mechanisms for integration
- translating declarations and rhetoric of unity reflected in the plethora of commitments made under the AU into actions by contributing the required diplomatic and material resources to achieve the kind of integration and unification along the terms aptly put by Frantz Fanon:
The inter-African solidarity must be a solidarity of fact, a solidarity of action, a solidarity of concrete in men, in equipment, in money
Failure to achieve the above would leave countries of the continent divided by petty conflicts and struggles deferring the dream of unification for far too long. And as former South African President Thabo Mbeki warned ‘If this dream is deferred for much longer, surely, it will explode!’
Solomon A. Dersso, PhD is Senior Researcher on the Peace and Security Council Report Programme for Institute for Security Studies
 Paper presented at the ISS Seminar on ‘The OAU/AU at 50: The question of African unity’ held on 15 May 2013 at the ISS Addis Ababa conference room.