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The organisation, renamed AU, may have fallen short of expectations, but it is soldiering on, writes Charles Onunaiju

The Organization of African Unity, founded and launched on the 25th of May 1963, was the highest and the most concentrated expression of Pax Africana in the twilight of colonial domination in Africa. It was Africa’s epic united front against the cunning shenanigans of then retreating European colonialism. The path to shaping and consolidating on this pan African framework to tackle the burning issues of the then, remnants of colonial vestiges and chart the course of total independence of all Africa was tortuous. The ideological gulf and rift among leaders of the independent African countries then was real and the retreating European colonialists in cahoots with American imperialism had field day in manipulating the ideological divide. Prior to the founding of the OAU, leaders were in various groups denoting their respective political temperament and ideological leanings. The Casablanca group consisting then, of Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Libya, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria wanted a radical and complete continental integration, while Nigeria, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sudan, Togo and Somalia known then as Monrovia group proposed a moderate approach to continental unity, preferring incremental and gradual steps. The Brazzaville group consisting of Francophone countries and led by Senegal then, remained tied to the interest of the metropolitan ex-colonial power, France. The diverging strategies of these groups did not dissipate on the overall vision of African unity and the overriding sentiment that the much sought-after continental unity cannot come until colonial domination of every inch of the continent is totally dismantled. Despite the differing approaches to achieving the unity of the continent there were broad consensus that restoring the dignity of her various peoples and enabling a roadmap to social progress and inclusive economic development would require a considerable measure of a political united front. The founding of the Organization of Africa Unity (OAU) in May 1963 was a grand compromise in which various approaches to the challenges of the continent were subsumed to the overriding imperative for a continental unity. Though, much has been said that the grand compromise weakened the platform from the very start, as the OAU remained more or less a “clearing house” through which various leaders and governments in the continent bargained and accommodated each other, while the higher principle of dynamic and functional continental took a backburner.

Despite this type of criticism, the OAU was forthright in its avowed commitment to rid the continent of colonial rule especially in Southern Africa where Portuguese colonial domination was recalcitrant and in addition to the vile racist minority rule in South Africa. The OAU persisted in its militant advocacy of mobilizing member states to contribute material and even military support to end vestiges of colonial rule in the continent. Even in the then, international atmosphere of cold war, the total commitment of the OAU to ending the minority regime in South Africa, including the obnoxious unilateral declaration of independence by a white racist clique in Zimbabwe was unwavering. Despite the paralyzing impact of the cold war, and its own internal contradictions the OAU was considerably successful in one of its core and avowed commitment to bring to a close, colonial domination in the continent. And in the discharge of this enormous responsibility, which was the very core principle   of its charter, the Peoples Republic of China and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) played unforgettable roles. Both Beijing and Moscow were dependable source of moral, political, diplomatic, material and even military assistance and support in the project of the total liberation of Africa from colonial domination for which the OAU was the most formidable pivot.

Despite that the dream of a United Africa, especially, the militant variant of a common continental government of a “United States of Africa” was not achieved, the project remained on course. The OAU has also been criticized for being overly political, without much attention on building economies of scale and other measures to foster economic integration. This is however, not very correct. The Organization in 1980 in its special session held in the then Nigeria’s Capital Lagos formulated its iconic “Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa, 1980 – 2000. In the preamble to the historic document adopted by the head of states and government at a special session lamented that “the effect of unfulfilled promises of global development strategies has been more sharply felt in Africa than in the other continents of the world. Indeed, rather than result in an improvement in the economic situation of the continent, successive strategies have made it stagnant and become more susceptible than other regions to the economic and social crises suffered by the industrialized countries: Thus, Africa is unable to point to any significant growth rate, or satisfactory index of general well-being in the past 20 years. Faced with this situation and determined to undertake measures for the basic restructuring of the economic base of our continent, we resolved to adopt a far-reaching regional approach based primarily on collective self-reliance”.

What followed in the 104-page document was an equivalent of China’s avowed determination around the same time to pursue a home-grown agenda of economic modernization centered on the twin policies of “reform and opening up.” The Lagos Plan of Action, OAU most comprehensive and promising Charter for economic integration and collective reliance of the continent was derailed by the counter measures of the Breton Wood Institutions (World Bank and the IMF) that imposed the structural adjustment program, a neo-liberal economic shock therapy under the ideological suzerainty of the so-called Washington consensus. The outcome would later become known as Africa’s lost decades. Other economic initiatives of the OAU like the African Economic Community faltered, leaving the organization in the limbo until it transited and transformed to the African Union (AU) at a conference in Durban, South Africa in 2002. The AU, though committing to build on the legacy of the OAU, evolved unique mechanism focused on engaging practical issues of the continent in its diverse dimensions.

Peace and security, economic integration through horizontal network of various layers including non-governmental groups serve to generate momentum for a new vision of African dream geared towards continental renaissance. Engaging a long standing and historic partner, the Peoples Republic of China, that have traversed the path of “standing up” to the vicissitudes of imperialist domination and plunder to become both strong and prosperous, Africa comes face to face to a new historic opportunity. The deficits of infrastructure connectivity, funding and manpower which had historically hobbled the effort to build continental economies of scale, enhance functional integration and sustain a common free trade Area is being addressed through the mechanism of the Forum on China-Africa cooperation, Belt and Road framework of international cooperation. For more than two decades and especially since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, 10 years ago, Africa and China have established a model of cooperation that are practical, tangible and result oriented, giving effects to the contemporary international trend of building a community of shared future for all mankind.

In many respects, the bold vision of the OAU, nurtured currently in the dynamism of the AU and enhanced through China-Africa community with a shared future, is alive, kicking, and a work in progress.

 Onunaiju is research director, Abuja based Think Tank

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