On 22 May 1963 young Ethiopian students, whom the imperial government had summoned to attend a welcoming ceremony, discovered with fascination the leaders of 27 freshly independent African states invited to Addis Ababa by Haile Selassie, King of kings and Emperor of Ethiopia.
The leaders were from both British and French former colonies. Many had been appointed just a day after independence.
In Addis they decided to play down their divisions and to present a united Africa to the world. But, even during its formation, the OAU was mired in disagreements over its future objectives and prerogatives.
Divisions, disagreements and conflicts
The revolutionaries - Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Ghanaian N’Kwame Nkrumah and Guinea’s Sékou Touré - opposed moderates like Côte d’Ivoire’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny and Senegal's Léopold Sédar Senghor, who advocated of a prudent approach to continental unity.
In a speech to the conference, Haile Selassie warned his fellow leaders of the dangers of not reaching common ground and declared that it unthinkable that the conference should end without the adoption of an African charter.
After 48 hours’ heated debate, a charter was signed.
There were some issues that the founders agreed on with ease - a complete emancipation of the continent by liberating Rhodesia and countries still under Portuguese colonial rule and an end to apartheid in South Africa, as well as the second article of the charter which committed members to eliminating all forms of colonialism in Africa.
But, as Boutros Boutros Ghali, an expert in African diplomacy who was to become the UN Secretary General, pointed out in 1968 the charter was “a compromise between two theses, but more favourable to the thesis of an Africa of nations than to Dr Nkrumah’s federalist thesis”.
During a second summit in Cairo a year later, participants agreed not to change the borders inherited from colonialism.
Guided by this principle, the organisation tackled the first fratricidal war in one of its member states, the Biafra conflict in Nigeria.
It supported the central government in Lagos but behind the scenes some states, including some big players like the Ivorian Félix Houphouët-Boigny, backed the Biafran separatists.
The dogma of unchangeable boundaries was then accompanied by an unwritten principle, non-interference in member states’ internal affairs. These two principles rendered the debate on democratisation sterile. Democracy and human rights became taboo subjects and the OAU became a club of one-party states.
Effects of the Cold War
The new organisation was also influenced by the fallout from the Cold War, which opposed the US and the Soviet Union on the continent.
In Angola the two great powers flexed their muscles while their respective African allies clashed on the diplomatic front in the OAU Neither side pulled any punches. The organisation narrowly avoided falling apart in 1976 at the height of the Angolan civil war between Agostinho Neto’s Marxist government and Jonas Savimbi’s pro-Western rebels.
Memories still haunt older diplomats of long nights of violent debates leading to an unprecedented tie - 22 countries siding with the Luanda government and 22 in favour of the rebels. The organisation only just avoided a split.
Then yet another deeply divisive erupted. A case of colonisation stirred opened new divisions.
The independence of Western Sahara and the admission of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as the 51st member of the OAU led to a severe crisis, with Morocco, which still claims the territory, deciding to pull out.
Economics has to wait
It took the organisation 20 years to tackle the economic situation affecting its members.
At the start of the century, a majority of countries were saddled by debt, leaving the continent owing an estimated 200 billion dollars. This prompted Africa to call for a relaxation of repayment terms and a review of instalments.
The 1991 OAU summit in Niegeria adopted a treaty instituting the Economic Community of Africa. The timespan of the Abuja treaty was limited to 34 years, with the hope of reaching complete economic integration of the continent by then. The project was never brought up again.
Politics became the order of the day. The Berlin Wall came down, the bipolar world disappeared with it. But armed conflicts continued.
The new decade was marked by the emergence of democratic demands. Urban Africa woke up and started calling for an end to one-party systems. Certain countries hesitated to comply with this demand.
But in the name of the sacrosanct principle of non-interference, the OAU took no position on the question. And there was little echo of the movements towards democratisation in the organisation‘s meetings
Kadhafi pushes unity agenda
By the end of the 1990s regional powers, such as South Africa, Nigeria and Algeria, were showing little interest in the OAU.
The fiery Libyan Colonel Moamer Kadhafi who was isolated on the international scene took advantage of the relative vacuum and proclaimed himself the new champion of pan-Africanism.
With the liberal use of dollars and grandiose gestures, Kadhafi made the most of the 2000 Lomé summit, making fundamental changes to an organisation he described as ineffective and timid.
The birth of the African Union was celebrated in pomp in Lusaka, Zambia in 2001.
Its objectives were ambitious and inspired by the process that led to the creation of the European Union. The new African Union is made up of several institutions: a commission, a parliament, a court of justice, a central bank, a peace and security council for handling conflicts, a security council made in the image of the United Nations’ but without a right of veto.
The principle of non-interference was even re-examined, with the establishment of a mechanism for mutual surveillance.
With a volley of portentous declarations, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) was formed. It aimed to attract investment in Africa's infrastructure in Africa - roads, railways and electricity grids. There was much talk of billions of available dollars. But Nepad turned out to be an empty shell.
The new African Union and its array of institutions were built on shaky ground. As early as 1968 Boutros Boutros Ghali pointed out its weaknesses.
“Whatever may be the course of future evolution for the organisation,” he wrote, “it has to be recognised that its fundamental weakness is a result of the weakness of the member states themselves due to the partitioning of Africa”.
New versus old
From summit to summit the original split resurfaced. Supporters of the United Nations of Africa clashed with those taking a more cautious view that it should first of all reinforce major regional bodies.
The southern countries led by South Africa oppose Kadhafi’s old-fashioned, unionist ambitions. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki blocked several of Libya’s proposals. But the colonel received support from Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and, to a lesser extent, from Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
The new African Union is treading water. Mali’s Alpha Oumar Konaré, former president of the African Union Commission and a strong believer in the United States of Africa, on several occasions had to do a balancing act between the rival camps to avoid an overt crisis.
The virus of division still infects the Organisation of African Unity, 47 years after its formation. The participants may have changed, as well as the initials, but long-standing differences linger on.