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The African Union At 50: Lessons for the Future

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Yesterday Africa remembered 50 years of the establishment of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which was replaced by the African Union (AU) in 2002. While there are various opinions as to whether the OAU/AU realized the vision of unity among Africans that founders of the continental organization sought to achieve, there is no doubt that Africa does not need more than five decades to learn from past mistakes.

At the May 25 1963 founding summit of the OAU in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it was clear that the driving force behind the then African leaders was to “liberate all African people” and form effective solidarity among them. Leaders such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella and their supporters, the so-called Casablanca group, wanted immediate unification of all African people and the elimination of all tariffs and boarders (The Africa Report, May 2013). The golden opportunity to start the unification process was lost when opponents of the Casablanca group, under the so-called Monrovia camp, took the day with their proposal of a much looser organization that would not prevent them from maintaining stronger ties with their former colonial masters.

Even though Africa failed to take the route of a stronger federation at the OAU founding summit, there have still been numerous opportunities over the last 50 years to come back to the right path. Unfortunately, Africa is not yet unified; it is a continent of 55 artificial entities, not nations, some of which ought not to have been called countries in the first place, according to some commentators.

Post-independent Africa, as well as their successors, failed to realize the aspirations and hopes of self-determination and unity that African people had at decolonization. Those dreams died in May 1963. While recognizing that the end of colonization and South Africa’s apartheid were strong steps towards African unity, the lack of political will has since prevented Africans from being united. This article proposes five basic but important steps that AU member states need to take now without waiting another 50 years for Africans to be on the path to full integration.

The Casablanca-Monrovia divisions did not end at the 1963 summit. Barely three years after the establishment of the OAU, a military coup overthrew Nkrumah, thus weakening the pro-unification camp. Splits among OAU leaders were further deepened by proxy wars between the US and the former Soviet Union during the years of the Cold War. For instance, in the mid 70s AOU leaders could not agree on which liberation movement to support in Angola out of National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (NUTIA), the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (PMLA) and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (NFLA). In 1984, when the OAU recognized the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, Morocco, one of the strongest supporters of federalism, left the organization.

Furthermore, another attempt to revive talks on the establishment of a Government of Union at the 2007 AU summit in Accra, Ghana, did not achieve any results.

Those supporting an immediate federal government of Africa and those favoring a gradual integration process through the strengthening of regional economic communities could not agree on a decisive solution. AU leaders contented themselves with a recommendation to transform the secretariat of the AU, the African Union Commission, into a more powerful secretariat, the African Union Authority, but that proposal has since then been forgotten.

Apart from those divisions at the continental level, this half-century of the OAU’s existence was also marred with regional divisions that made continental integration just a far-sighted dream. For instance, the conflict between North and South Sudan continued, over the decades, without any solutions from African leaders. Even after the independence of South Sudan in July 2011, there are still thorny issues between the two countries that continue to divide opinions among African leaders. The 1996 conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is another example of how Africa did not show any signs of walking towards the path of continental integration. In that conflict, more than 11 African countries were involved and fighting in two opposing camps. The war in the DRC is far from being resolved.

African leaders have also failed to agree on principles and values that would govern the united Africa that all Africans aspire to see. While there are over 42 charters, conventions and protocols that OAU/AU member states adopted, the implementation of these legal instruments is largely slow or non-existent. Sadly, these instruments outline guidelines, values and principles that ought to characterize a continent for the people and by the people.

It would be very deplorable for African people if this 50th anniversary did not provide an opportunity for the whole continent to learn from our past mistakes and embark on an integration trajectory without waiting for 2063 to realize what many independent movements fought for across the continent five decades ago. There are five steps that African leaders can take now and not in the next 50 years.

First, Africans should be able to finance all activities of the African Union. It is an illusion to say that we are independent countries while the institution that is supposed to foster our integration is still financed by our former colonizers and their allies. The second step is to resolve issues around land and natural resources. It will be impossible for Africa to unite if there are still conflicts over land and other natural resources in many AU members.

Thirdly, AU member states need to give teeth to the African Court on Human and People’s Rights. The African Court on Human and People’s Rights was established in June 1998, as a continental mechanism to ensure protection of human and people’s rights in Africa. The lack of adequate funding from African countries denies Africans from having a legal framework that understands their contexts and that can promote and protect their rights and those of their communities.

A fourth step towards the realization of the aspirations and hopes of the African people is to stop adopting more charters and conventions and instead recommit to concentrating on genuine implementation processes. The fifth step is to allow free movement of people and goods. Millions and millions of Africans wonder why an African cannot freely move from one corner of the continent to another one, while some non-Africans have the freedom to do so.,

Yves Niyiragira, Program-me Manager at Fahamu. The views in this article do not represent those of Fahamu; they are solely those of the author.

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