A fractious family of nations

2013-05-24 00:00

AHISTORY of high ideals thwarted by colonial history, global politics, continental contradictions and elite agendas: this sums up the story of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), founded by 32 nations 50 years ago in Addis Ababa on May 25, 1963. It lasted nearly 40 years and was succeeded by a more ambitious and focused African Union in July 2002, by which time there were 53 signatories (excluding Morocco, which had resigned over the Western Sahara.)

The OAU aimed to provide a collective voice for the continent, promoting solidarity and co-operation to better African lives. The most immediate ambition was the elimination of colonialism, and the OAU, particularly the frontline states, played a significant role in bringing liberation to Zimbabwe and defeating apartheid South Africa. Solidarity at the United Nations among OAU members helped to present a continental view to the world, influential in particular over the sports, medical and cultural boycotts of South Africa. There was also valuable liaison over more mundane matters, such as transport and posts and telecommunications. An African Development Bank was also founded.

The OAU tended to find unity most readily in opposition. It was considerably less successful when it came to agreement about its collective future. Most notably there was divergent opinion about the way forward to unity even before the formation of the OAU. The Casablanca Bloc of radical states clustered around Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah favoured a federal approach, while the Monrovia Bloc of more conservative states led by Léopold Senghor of Senegal distrusted Utopianism and advocated gradual unification, building upwards through economic co-operation. This bloc included Francophone Africa, another influential group. Perhaps more significant was a general distrust of Nkrumah’s personal ambitions, which created disagreement even among socialists: Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, who advocated African socialism, was scathing in his opposition to Nkrumah’s scientific socialism, calling for practice rather than preaching.

Further tension was introduced by Cold War meddling in Africa, nowhere better illustrated than in the Congo in 1960 to 1961. Non-alignment proved difficult for nations to maintain, and consensus on virtually any topic was hard to achieve. Nkrumah was correct in arguing that Africa would not prosper until the terms of trade had been altered to its advantage, calling for local beneficiation of its resources and industrialisation. The issue of underdevelopment remains a weakness to this day.

The concept of pan-Africanism had been part of public debate from the turn of the century, but most notably at conferences held in colonial capitals: London in 1900 and Manchester in 1945, for example. A short-lived union between Ghana and Guinea, later joined by Mali, took place in 1959. But the ideals that ostensibly underlay the OAU’s aims were defeated from the outset by the realities of power, a commitment to non-interference and inherited colonial boundaries. The latter were often entirely artificial, drawn on poor maps in Berlin in 1885. Not only did they divide historically allied populations, but they brought within the same national borders historically hostile groups of people. Maintenance of the status quo made perfect sense: the potential for conflict was immense. But this also meant that the elites who inherited and consolidated power in these new nations were highly vulnerable to neo-colonial persuasion. Côte d’Ivoire under Félix Houphouët-Boigny is often held up as a classic example of a French post-colonial state and for many years its economy benefited accordingly. Political elites proved remarkably durable and entered into relationships of dependency and clientelism with world powers that cemented their grip but did little for their people. The obstacles to any form of united action in a balkanised continent were formidable: tribalism, nationalism, unviable states and variant ideology. Africa has been consistently undermined by rent-seeking elites, poor governance standards and governments lacking legitimacy.

Critics regarded the OAU as little more than a talk shop. A major weakness was the lack of resources to intervene in crises, so the Nigerian and Angolan civil wars, atrocities in Uganda, the collapse of Somalia into failed state chaos and the genocide in Rwanda, left the OAU as a spectator. Its chairpersons included some of Africa’s most disreputable rulers, whose citizens seemed unable to remove them: Siad Barre, Mobutu Sese Seko, Daniel arap Moi and Hosni Mubarak, for instance. The OAU often operated to the agenda of the lowest common denominator accompanied by excessive spending to attract the organisation’s outward symbols: Togo spent $120 million on facilities hoping to lure the headquarters away from Addis Ababa.

A particularly significant critique emerged from an OAU symposium at Monrovia in 1979. While noting the discriminatory global economic system, it also identified local weaknesses: mimicry, materialism and uncritical attitudes to growth (as opposed to development), narrow nationalism, poor human-rights records, lack of a freedom of movement and barriers to economic activity. The subsequent Lagos Plan of Action emphasised collective self-reliance through regional economic blocs to achieve food security and industrial development. It was a blueprint for practical pan-Africanism, but had limited impact. Salim Ahmed Salim, secretary-general of the OAU in the nineties, argued that Africa’s problems were primarily internal, having failed to remove the post-colonial imprint that condemned it to remain a place of resource extraction.

South Africa is regarded by much of the rest of Africa as a sub-imperial power. But it was Thabo Mbeki who in 2002 was a driving force behind the dissolution of the OAU and creation of the African Union (AU), of which he became the first chairperson. Amid the predictable objectives of unity, policy harmonisation and economic integration, concepts such as democratic principles and institutions, popular participation, good governance and civil rights made a strong showing under the rubric of African Renaissance. It was by now accepted that Africa needed to participate in its own peacekeeping operations and intervention was permitted to deal with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Development of a standby force is on the AU agenda, but in the meantime individual countries, including South Africa, have contributed to AU operations in Burundi, Sudan (Darfur) and Somalia as well as to the United Nations mission in the DRC. Three countries, Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau and Central African Republic, are suspended from the AU for lack of internal democratic process. The AU possesses a number of the outward symbols of sovereignty, such as the Pan African Parliament based at Midrand, and has plans for an African Court of Justice. There is also a commitment to an eventual AU government. Critics ask how these will assist in achieving the AU’s major priority: a “rightful role in the global economy”, sustainable development and improved living standards for Africa’s people. The answer seems to lie in the promotion, rationalisation and harmonisation of eight regional economic communities and realisation of the African Economic Community scheduled for 2023.

Fifty years down the line this is all reminiscent of the foundation of the OAU. In a sense the debate about Africa has come full circle.

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