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May 25, 1963: the dream of African unity


Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Mohamed V (Morocco), Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt), Ahmed Sékou Touré (Guinea), Modibo Keïta (Mali)

May 25 marks the 59th anniversary of World Africa Day, celebrating the establishment of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), since replaced by the African Union (AU).

World Africa Day will be celebrated two days late this year. In Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, the African Union (AU) will hold two successive summits on 27 and 28 May. The first will concern terrorism and other security and legal issues, such as war crimes. The second will relate to the theme of “unconstitutional changes of government”. A whole program for what the human rights lawyer, Jacqueline Moudeïna, defines as a "union of heads of state who cover each other".

These two summits will in any case be far from festive. If the date corresponds, within two days, to the creation of the ancestor of the AU, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), it is time for hot issues. But May 25, the date of World Africa Day, remains an opportunity to remember the raison d'être of the AU, and of the OAU before it.

The charter of this organization was drafted by Togolese President Sylvanus Olympio a few months before his assassination sponsored by France, the United States, and Eyadema Gnassingbé. Another participant in the writing of the OAU charter, a champion of the unification of Africa - despite the failure of his dream - the Malian head of state Modibo Keïta.

Among the objectives of the OAU, two in particular challenge us in retrospect. First of all, that for African countries to “coordinate and intensify their cooperation and their efforts to offer better living conditions to the peoples of Africa”. And then, the harmonization of the general policies of African States “in the following areas: politics and diplomacy; economy, transport and communications; education and culture; health, hygiene and nutrition; science and technology; defense and security,” reads the OAU charter.

The OAU was therefore a first sincere attempt to bring together the peoples of Africa and the African States. In reality, the body has had many failures, but also some victories. It is not certain that the African Union is attributed with such a positive record.

The OAU at the origin of African discord?

The OAU was founded at a time when many African territories were still under the yoke of European colonialism. Even in independent countries, Africa was plagued by foreign attacks.

But above all, the OAU was divided into two blocs. On the one hand, the defenders of the idea of ​​the “United States of Africa”, advocated by Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Modibo Keïta and Ahmed Sékou Touré. On the other side, more nationalist presidents, closer to the West, like Léopold Sédar Senghor, Habib Bourguiba, Félix Houphouët-Boigny and William Tubman. Between the two, many African leaders were torn. At OAU conferences, there was a lot of misunderstanding, even though the speeches tried to satisfy all ideals.

The OAU is often criticized for its lack of pragmatism or the immobility of its leaders. In reality, several member countries have never received aid from the OAU against foreign interference, like the Congo, Angola and Mali. In his book “The Collapse of the Organization of African Unity”, the Ghanaian Kofi Kufuor denounced “the constraints imposed on actions by the OAU charter”.

And, indeed, the principle of non-interference between OAU member states — imposed by the Monrovia group — has been the source of many problems. During the civil wars in Angola, Congo and Liberia, the OAU contented itself with rhetoric, avoiding deeds. And most of the initiatives for free trade zones, groupings of States, common education policies were doomed to failure for lack of political will.

Read: Does Africa have 54, 55 countries… or more?

The President of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, is more or less the only African leader who, in the 1980s, demonstrated that Pan-Africanism and development could coexist. And concerning the OAU, Sankara said that “Africa is facing itself with problems that the OAU always manages to circumvent by postponing their resolution until tomorrow. That tomorrow is today. We can no longer put off all these questions until tomorrow. That is why we find this crisis to be quite normal. It may even arrive with a little delay”.

Africa still disunited, and facing the same problems

Today, the principle of African unity seems impossible to achieve. In truth, since the deaths of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, then of Mugabe in 2017, and finally of Jerry Rawlings in 2020, there are no longer any African political figures who maintain the very idea of ​​African unity.

As for the heir to the OAU, the African Union (AU), it is clear that in addition to suffering from the same problems as its ancestor — division and apathy — it is confronted with other , even more serious, in terms of efficiency.

The AU will therefore “celebrate” this day of May 25 in a very sad context. The food shortage in the first place which, if it is often attributed to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and imports at a standstill, is really the failure of agricultural development in Africa. There was a time when the “cura annonae” meant, for the Roman Empire, that Egypt nurtured one of the most extensive empires in history.

In addition, the African Union will meet in Malabo cut off from four of its member states: Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Sudan. In Africa today, a country — Mali — is under an embargo from its neighbors, for matters which, in the end, are sovereign to it.

Read: What is the African Union really for?

But, above all, Africa is suffering from the same problems it suffered from 59 years ago. On security, education, health, trade, diplomacy and good governance.

On this last point, Human Rights Watch called on AU members to " tackling the issue of the democratic deficit and issues related to corruption, impunity, term limits and the need for free and fair elections, which have undermined development and encouraged changes of government that deprive African citizens of the right to choose their leaders”.

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