The Organisation of African Unity (OAU), founded and launched on 25 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 the then-retreating European colonial forces.
The path to shaping and consolidating on this pan-African framework to tackle the burning issues of the time and the remnants of colonialism, and charting the course of total independence for all of Africa was tortuous.
The ideological gulf between leaders of the independent African countries at the time was real, and the retreating European colonialists in cahoots with American imperialists had a field day in manipulating the ideological divide. Prior to the founding of the OAU, leaders were denoting their respective ideological leanings in various groups.
The Casablanca Group consisting 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 as the Monrovia Group, proposed a moderate approach to continental unity, preferring incremental and gradual steps.
The need for unity
However, the diverging views of these groups did not undermine the overall vision of African unity and the paramount sentiment that continental unity could not come until colonial domination of every inch of the continent was totally dismantled. Despite the differing approaches to achieving the unity of the continent, there was a broad consensus that restoring the dignity of African people and enabling a roadmap to social progress and inclusive economic development would require political unity.
The founding of the OAU in May 1963 was a grand compromise in which various approaches to the challenges of the continent were subsumed into the overriding objective of continental unity.
It has often 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 with each other, while the higher goal of a dynamic and functional continent was put on the back burner.
Despite such 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 vehement in addition to the apartheid rule in South Africa. The OAU persisted with its militant advocacy, mobilising member states to contribute material and even military support to end the vestiges of colonial rule in the continent. The total commitment of the OAU to ending the minority regime in South Africa was unwavering.
Despite the paralysing impact of the Cold War and its own internal contradictions, the OAU was considerably successful in achieving one of its core objectives of ending colonialism in the continent. And in the discharge of this enormous responsibility, which was the very core principle of its charter, China and the former Soviet Union played unforgettable roles.
Both countries were dependable sources of moral, political, diplomatic, material and even military assistance in the project of the total liberation of Africa. Although the dream of a united Africa, especially the variant of a common continental government of a “United States of Africa,” has not been achieved, the project remains alive.
The OAU has also been criticised for being overly political, and not paying much attention to building economies of scale and other measures to foster economic integration. This is, however, not entirely correct. At its 1980 special session held in Lagos, the then capital of Nigeria, the OAU formulated its iconic Lagos Plan of Action for the Economic Development of Africa 1980-2000.
The preamble to the historic document adopted by the heads of state and government 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 stagnate and become more susceptible than other regions to the economic and social crises suffered by the industrialised 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 modernisation centred on the twin policies of reform and opening up.
The Lagos Plan of Action, the OAU’s most comprehensive and promising charter for economic integration, was derailed by the counter-measures of the Bretton Woods Institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Fund) that imposed the structural adjustment programme – the 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 organisation in limbo until it transited and transformed into the African Union (AU) at a conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2002.
The AU, though committing to building on the legacy of the OAU, developed a unique mechanism focused on tackling the practical issues faced by the continent. Peace and security, and economic integration through a horizontal network of various layers, including non-governmental groups, serve to generate momentum for a new vision geared towards a continental renaissance.
Engaging with a long-standing and important partner, China, which has traversed the path of “standing up” to the vicissitudes of imperialist domination and plunder to become both strong and prosperous, Africa is facing a new historical opportunity.
The deficits in infrastructure connectivity, funding and manpower which have historically throttled the effort to build continental economies of scale, enhance functional integration and sustain a common free trade area, are being addressed through the mechanisms of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative.
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 is practical, tangible and result-oriented, giving effect to the contemporary international trend of building a community of shared future for mankind. In many respects, the bold vision of the OAU, through the dynamism of the AU, is alive and well.
Charles Onunaiju is the director of the Centre for China Studies, Abuja, Nigeria.
African Times published the article in partnership with ChinAfrica. Momentous Trajectory– ChinAfrica