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How two leaders, decades apart, envisioned the African Union

September 16, 2021 at 11:19 am

African heads of States and chiefs of Governments members of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), attend a conference, 09 November 1966 in Addis Ababa. OAU was created in May 1963 and is based in Addis Ababa. [AFP via Getty Images]

Last week marked 22 years since the African Union (AU) replaced the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) which was created in 1963 with only 32 members. The other 22 countries in Africa were, at the time, still to gain independence from Britain, France, Portugal and Spain. South Africa was still under apartheid and not only occupied modern Namibia, but also imposed its immoral system upon the people. In the 1990s, apartheid disappeared from Africa but went on to find another home in Israel, where it became standard policy against the Palestinians.

The OAU’s main goal was the emancipation of Africa from the shackles of western colonialism. On the eve of the new millennium it stood proud of its achievement, despite many obstacles, as it welcome its latest member, the newly-independent Namibia.

Many African leaders had already started thinking about the future of their continent. If the OAU achieved independence, the time had come for a different, more future-oriented, approach which required new political and economic mechanisms. This was a vision that never escaped Ghana’s founding President, Kwame Nkrumah. “The forces that unite us are intrinsic and greater than the superimposed influences that keep us apart,” he once said. Western colonialism divided Africa but after independence it only needed political will to unite it, as the youngest continent with about 1.4 billion people whose average age was just 20 years.

During the OAU’s July 1999 summit in Algeria, the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi proposed the transformation of the organisation into the African Union, and offered to host the inaugural summit. Two months later, in Sirte, Libya, national leaders agreed to his proposal for the AU. The formal announcement was made on 9 September, 1999. A year later the constitutive act, which established the union officially, was signed. The AU replaced the OAU. The change meant new objectives and long-term goals focusing on unity, economic growth, political stability, peace and good governance.

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Capitalising on existing regional groups, the AU encouraged and preserved the integral building blocks similar to that of the European Union, such as the Economic Community of West African States. Comparable regional entities existed in east, north and southern Africa. Such regional cooperation provided the basis for the AU as we know it today.

On 9 July 2002, in Durban, South Africa, the AU established the Peace and Security Council (PSC). It is still the most integrated African establishment under the AU and may well be the most important.

Focusing on maintaining peace, the PSC sought to find African solutions to African problems, be they the fight against terrorism or military coups derailing the democratic process across Africa. The council’s track record, though, is not that great.

The council has deployed missions, under AU authority, in several conflict zones, including Somalia and Sudan’s Darfur province. The PSC is also a partner in multinational missions in which forces are drawn from the EU, the UN and other African countries working to counter terrorism. A good example of this is found in the African Sahel region in the fight against the Boko Haram terror group. The G5 Sahel countries — Chad, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso — provide the backbone of a joint military force in the area.

A view from opening session of the 33rd African Union Heads of State Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 9 February 2020 [Mınasse Wondımu Haılu/Anadolu Agency]

A view from opening session of the 33rd African Union Heads of State Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 9 February 2020 [Mınasse Wondımu Haılu/Anadolu Agency]

Politically the AU has also been very active in its conflict mediation efforts in places like Libya. It has also attempted, albeit with little success, to find a solution for the River Nile dam dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.

To encourage the democratisation of political systems in Africa the AU started using sanctions across the continent as a way of punishing any military coups. An example of this was seen in Egypt in 2013 after the military takeover that brought President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to power. Most recently, the AU suspended the membership of Guinea Bissau after the military toppled its president in April. The same policy applied to Mali after the military takeover last June.

Suspension might not be an effective remedy to military coups in Africa but to have all African countries acting together, through the AU, is something new on the continent. Military coups, successful or not, still take place, but are less frequent and their perpetrators know that they will have a price to pay.

Within the PSC, there is the Panel of the Wise, an advisory body made up of African dignitaries, including former presidents. Its main task is to work as a diplomatic mediator in hot spots, particularly in conflict resolution and cross-border disputes that continue to poison intra-African relations. Members of the current panel include the former presidents of Liberia and Nigeria, and the former vice president of Uganda.

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The AU is not yet what Kwame Nkrumah envisioned nor what Gaddafi had in mind. Nkrumah was dreaming of a united Africa while Gaddafi wanted the United States of Africa, complete with its own currency, central bank and army.

America helped remove Nkrumah in 1966 and France helped depose Gaddafi in 2011. Both men shared the same Pan-African vision and it is not entirely implausible that they were made to pay for it with their lives. Both believed strongly in the universality of struggle for freedom in Africa and beyond, and their anti-colonial legacies in the continent are unforgettable.

In this context, as a colonial power, Israel was expelled from its observer status at the OAU as soon as the AU was founded. Nevertheless, in July it was readmitted as an observer but the decision has been rejected by all major AU members, including Algeria, Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa.

The AU needs to continue its building process with focus on independence, intra-African trade and cross-border security. While such objectives are not impossible, foreign interference remains the biggest obstacle to full African integration. While Africa today is far from fully independent as envisioned by its earlier leaders, at least the torch has not fallen and their ideals are being lived every day.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.