Historical Background of the African Union

Hiruy Wubie and Zelalem Tsegaw Feb 29 2012

The creation of the African Union as a new Pan-African body is not a sudden happening that has not been anticipated in The African history. It was rather a result of the age-old process of pan-African movements in different courses of history. No one can dare to have a full-fledged figure of the historical roots of the African Union without paying much attention to the Pan-African movements, which may be considered as a founding stone of the OAU, the African Union and any other forthcoming political and economic integration between and among The African states. The spirit of Pan-Africanism has been used as an engine for the creation of cooperation of African peoples and states in different generations, and is expected to be the same in the future.


Having regard to the instrumental character of Pan-Africanism in any form of African solidarity, it seems imperative to define what it is. A Martini, in his includes this in the reference last. defineds Pan as Africanism follows manner:


Pan-Africanism is an invented notion. It is an invented nation with a purpose…. Essentially, Pan-Africanism is a recognition of the fragmented nature of the existence of African’s, their marginalization and alienation whether in their own continent or in the Diaspora. Pan-Africanism seeks to respond to Africa’s underdevelopment. Africa has been exploited and a culture of dependency on external assistance unfortunately still prevails on the continent. If people become too reliant on getting their support, their nourishment, their safety from outside sources, then they do not strive to find the power within themselves to rely on their own capacities. Pan-Africanism calls upon Africans to drawn from their own strength and capacities and become self reliant. Pan-Africanism is a recognition that the only way out of this existential, social and political crisis is by prompting greater solidarity amongst Africans.



As can be inferred from the above quotation, Pan-Africanism is neither a name of an African organization; nor an ideal imagination of what Africa should be in the future. It is rather an engine for a continued African solidarity and integration that can spur the effectiveness of Afro-Centric regional integrations. It has served as such in different times in history.

The idea of Pan-Africanism would remain futile unless it is capable of taking an institutional form. It can be said that Pan-Africanism has so far undergone three phases of institutionalization. By institutionalization we are referring to the coming up of an organization that claims to further the ideals enshrined in the Pan-African movement.

The first institutionalization of Pan-Africanism is the series of Pan-African Congresses. In describing this form of institutionalization, Martini stated ‘Depending on how one chooses to interpret or define Pan-Africanism, the first attempt to institutionalize If the goatali is  more them three gives, it has to follow the standardized from of quoting it Pan-Africanism can be situated either at the 1896 Congress on Pan-Africanism held in Chicago or at the creation of the African association in London in 1997. In both instances, the term ‘Pan-African’ was widely used to signify the coming together of people of African descent”.

In 1900, the first Pan-African conference was held in London where a new organization called the Pan-African Association was established with the objective of securing the rights of the African descendants. From that time on wards, up to seven Pan-African congresses were held in Europe and Africa with similar objectives of creating African solidarity.

The second institutionalization of Pan-Africanism came with the inauguration of the OAU in 1963. This achievement witnessed a greater commitment on the part of the African states to the Pan-African movement which served as a driving force for such occurrence. This historical trend goes ahead with the third institutionalization of Pan-Africanism under the existing African Union.

One might dare to internalize the proper link between the aforementioned institutionalizations of Pan-Africanism. In connection with this issue, Martini Timothy has the following to say. The fundamental insight gained from the emergence of the organized Pan-Africanism is that the power of individual country or society is amplified exponentially when it is combined with the forces of other countries and societies. It is a similar way of thinking that animated and informed the founders of the OAU and the present African union. This same type of thinking is potentially expected to animate and inform future generations of Africans and their diaspora to be  kin in promoting ever-increasing social, political and economic union.

Making the Pan-African movement a stepping-stone in the study of historical antecedents to the contemporary African Union has a lot to serve. If one knows the purpose of Pan- Africanism, then the steps to achieve its goals become clearer to understand it is in this context that one can be able to appreciate the emergence and concretization of the African Union. Considering the African Union as a new phenomenon that came into picture in the beginning of the 21st century is a regrettable historical mistake that can in no way give one a full-fledged historical picture of the Union. It would be more appropriate, to understand that the African Union is not a new happening, but the latest incarnation of the idea of Pan-Africanism. It is with this idea in mind that one can better understand the beginning and destiny of the African Union.

OAU as a Predecessor to the African Union

The aim of this section is not to give the detailed account of the OAU as an African organization. Rather the OAU is highlighted to show in way that it can be considered as a predecessor to the African Union.

The OAU, placed in a longer term of historical current, is a manifestation of the Pan- African movement which originated in the USA during the late 19th century. In the USA, thousands of blacks, with African origins found it intolerable to bear the agonizing experience of racial discrimination and alienation. Some of their prominent leaders, namely WEB Du Bois (1868-1963) and Marcus Garvey (1885-1940) raised a flag of revolt against the then prevailing injustice and chose to speak for the entire black race which was leading a dehumanized existence. They subordinated the immediate problems of American blacks to a grand and enlarged vision of Pan-Africanism, which, in essence, stood for the unity and dignity of the black race.

As it has been reflected by Harshe in an article in the USA, the Pan-African movement has grown, substantially, acquiring different forms with charging times. The period prior to the birth of OAU had its own historical contribution to fully appreciate the on going Pan-African process.

Prior to the birth of the OAU, there was an inter-state politics in Africa which was characterized by growing rivalry between the Casablanca and Monrovia group of states. This rivalry, at least for a while, hindered the realization of the OAU.

The Casablanca group was principally led by Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sekou Toure of Guinea, and Madibo Keita of Mali. The group vehemently opposed colonialism, racism and neocolonialism. Among other things, it opposed the Katanga secessionist movement, gave an extended support to Patrice Lumumba’s efforts to oust the Belgians from Congo, demanded French withdrawal from Algeria and was sympathetic towards the Soviet Union due to concrete Soviet support to their activities. This group had a more radical approach involving the creation of the federation of African states with joint institutions with a joint military command.

The Monrovia group, on its part, was constituted by the Brazzaville group including most of the moderate Francophone states such as Ivory Coast, Gabon, Niger, Senegal, Monrovia, etc. In addition, it had members like Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria and Somalia, which were neutral towards the rivalry between Casablanca and Brazzaville groups. It stood for the protection of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of its members. It defended the principle of mutual non-interference in inter-sate relations and welcomed interstate technical and economic cooperation. Instead of snapping the ties with the west, the Monrovia group sought western cooperation in the process of promoting development.

The rivalry between the Casablanca and Monrovia groups was not, however, an unbridgeable gulf that could prevent the birth of the OAU. Article Harshe stated three basic justifications for this historical scenario. To begin with, like the Monrovia states, the Casablanca states were also getting absorbed in the world capitalist economy despite their sporadic tirade against neo-colonialism and imperialism. The penetration of western finance capital in the extractive sectors of Guinean economy and Ghana’s membership of British Commonwealth amply illustrated this position. When succinctly expressed, both groups were eventually moving in the same direction. Secondly, despite their theoretical differences, both groups were keen to regulate and promote inter-state cooperation in Africa. Thirdly, though on their own ways, both groups aimed at liquidating colonialism and racism.

Harshe concludes that both groups had a lot in common. These commonalities were backed by the mediatory efforts of uncommitted (i.e. not strictly a proponent of either group) states like Ethiopia gave birth to the Organization of African Unity. Having passed all these ups and downs, the OAU was formally established in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in May, 1963. The OAU Charter presented both views but using the vision of the Monrovia group as its core.

Wolfer states the tension in early days of the OAU and the compromise adopted as follows. “The main contention that surrounded the founding of the OAU is well known: whether the institution should lead to a union of states or merely to an association of the independent units.” Nweke, also states “The OAU was the product of a compromise between African statesmen who wanted political union of all independent African states and those who preferred functional cooperation as a building block towards the construction of an African socio-psychological community”.

The above statements can create a historical link between the OAU and the African Union. In the contention that surrounded the founding of the OAU, the latter statement  views the OAU as an association of the independent units prevailed over the creation of a union of states. The latter view had to wait for another favorable historical ground to be a reality. Wolfer state that the former position which failed to be operational has left its foot prints in the naming of the organization. He states “the agreed name [for the organization] was proposed in French by President Hubert Maga of Dahomey (possibly at the instigation of President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana); and President William Tubman of Liberia insisted that the English translation be organization of (emphasis added) African Unity, rather than organization for African unity”.

The Assembly of the African Union has passed the Durban Declaration in tribute to the OAU and the launching of the African Union. The Durban Declaration describes the OAU in the following manner:-

The establishment of the OAU was a statement of determination to define Africa, not as individual countries but as collective bound together by geography, history and destiny. It was a self-empowering decision to find a framework for cooperation and forum for advocacy for African’s causes and for joint action. This determination found concrete expression in the objectives the founding fathers set for the OAU in its Charter of  promoting unity and solidarity among African states, of coordinating and intensifying cooperation for development, of defense for sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of African state, of eradicating colonialism and of promoting international cooperation within the framework of the United Nations. The founding fathers saw a common future for Africa not contained by borders, linguistic differences, color, religion or other divisive legacies of colonialism. They saw one Africa, united in its diversity, speaking one language of freedom, unity and development under the Organization of African Unity.

Article II of the OAU Charter specifies the OAU’s purposes and indicates areas of intra-African cooperation. The following are the purposes of the OAU: -

-      To promote the unity and solidarity of the African states,

-      To coordinate and intensify their collaboration and efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa;

-      To defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity, and their independence;

-      To eradicate all forms of colonialism in Africa, and

-      To promote international cooperation, having due regard for the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,

Article III of the OAU Charter lists down the principles of the OAU, which are derived from the postulated purposes of the same. The principles of the OAU: include

-      The sovereign equality of all member states;

-      Non interference in the internal affairs of member states;

-      Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each state and for its inalienable right to independent existences;

-      Peaceful settlement of disputes by negotiation, mediation, conciliation, or arbitration;

-      Unreserved condemnation, in all its forms, of political assassination as well as of subversive activities on the part of neighboring states or any other state;

-      Absolute dedication to the total emancipation of the African territories that are still dependent; and

-      Affirmation of a policy of non-alignment with regard to all blocs.

Many of the purposes and principles of the OAU were keen in those days. Most of them are, however, not pertinent to the contemporary situation of Africa. A clear exemplification of such a holding may be the last that state the  principle of the OAU i.e., affirmation of a policy of non-alignment with regard to all blocs. By now, the mentioned blocs, the capitalist and socialist blocs are no more in rivalry. That is way a need was felt to bring a timely organization for Africa.

It can be argued that the African Union was conceived in the womb of the OAU. Stated other wise, though the objectives and principles of the African Union and the OAU are different, as is evident from the surrounding historical conditions, the idea of establishing the African Union was consolidated inside the OAU. Baimu shares this opinion as “It was noted that in the period between 1966 and 1999 efforts were made to realize African unity through the means of economic integration. This was expressed theoretically in a number of OAU declarations, resolutions and plans of actions that were adopted between 1968 and 1980, and in concrete terms in the formation of several sub-regional blocs.”

The conception of the African Union inside the OAU is highly reflected in a number of resolutions, decisions and declarations adopted by the OAU Assembly of the Heads of States and Government with a desire to realize African economic integration. The Monrovia declaration of commitment on the guidelines and measures for national and collective self-relations in economic and social development for establishment of a new international order called for the creation of the African Economic Market as a prelude to an African Economic Community, and the Lagos Plan of Action (LPA) which was adopted by the second extra-ordinary summit of the OAU in April 1980 and envisaged the creation of an African Economic Community by the year 2000.

The idea of continental economic integration was concretized in the 1991 Abuja Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community, which was adopted under the auspices of the OAU on 3 June 1991 and entered in to force on 12 May 1994 after the requisite number of ratifications was attained. Article 6 of the Treaty envisages the establishment of the African Economic Community, AEC, as an integral part of the OAU upon passing six consecutive stages over a transitional period not exceeding thirty-four years. The Abuja Treaty envisions the establishment of the AEC as a goal that should be achieved through encouraging the formation of sub-regional economic bodies which would eventually amalgamate to create the AEC.

Article 4 of the Abuja Treaty enumerates four basic objectives of the AEC. These are:

$1·         To promote economic, social and cultural development and the integration of African economies in order to increase economic self-reliance and promote an endogenous and self-sustained development;

$1·         To establish, on a continental scale, a framework for the development, mobilization and utilization of the human and material resources of Africa in order to achieve a self-reliant development.

$1·         To promote cooperation in all fields of human Endeavour in order to raise the standard of living of African peoples, and maintain and enhance economic stability, foster close and peaceful relations among Member States and contribute to the progress, development and the economic integration of  the continent, and

$1·         To coordinate and harmonize policies among existing and future economic communities in order to foster the gradual establishment of the community.

With the coming into force of the Abuja Treaty, the OAU committed itself with the realization of the aforementioned objectives and therefore it has to coexist with the AEC. The gradual operation of the OAU based on both its Charter and the Abuja Treaty made it clear that there is an emerging need to come up with an institution that would combine OAU’s political nature and the AEC’s economic character. At the same time, the end of the millennium led to a sense of urgency among African leadership to reposition the OAU in order to set the African continent as a whole on a firm path to development and peace in the new millennium. It was in this context that the forty four African leaders met in Libya from 8 to 9 September 1999 at an extraordinary summit of the OAU called by the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, to discuss the formation of a ‘United States of Africa’. The summit basically aimed at ‘strengthening OAU’s capacity to enable it to meet the challenges of the new millennium.’ It was there that the African leaders adopted the Sirte Declaration which called for the establishment of The African Union.

Having been instructed to model it on the European Union and taking into account the Charter of the OAU and the Abuja Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community, the OAU legal unit drafted the Constitutive Act of the African Union. The resulting draft Constitutive Act was debated on a meeting of legal experts and parliamentarians and later at a ministerial conference held in Tripoli from 31 May to 2 June 2000.

The Constitutive Act of the African Union was adopted by the OAU assembly of Heads of States and Governments in Lome in July 2000. By March 2001, all members of the OAU had signed the Constitutive Act and hence the OAU Assembly at its 5th extraordinary summit held in Sirte, Libya, from 1 to 2 March 2001 declared the establishment of the African Union. However, to fulfill the legal requirements for the African Union, the Constitutive Act had to wait for ratification by two thirds of the member states of the OAU. It was on 26 April 2001 that this requirement was met. On 26 May 2001, the Constitute Act entered in to force and thereby making the African Union a legal and political reality.

All what has been stated above might be taken as evidencing the assertion that ‘the African Union was conceived and be made realty in the womb of the OAU.’ It is this fact that capitalizes the importance of studying the development within the OAU to give birth to the African Union.

As has been stated earlier, the theme is not an in-depth analysis of the activities of the OAU. Rather it is a bird’s eye view of the same targeting on the historical tracks that led to the emergence of the African Union.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the OAU

The strengths and weaknesses of the OAU can be considered as good historical lessons to the African Union. In this section attempts to highlight The major strengths and weakness of the OAU.

To begin with its strengths, decolonization is the most important achievement of the OAU, which has to be written in bold. Decolonization, like colonization, is a long drawn out historical process. In an attempt to assist the decolonization process, the OAU established a Coordinating Committee for the Liberation of Africa in 1963. This Committee offered moral and material assistance to anti-colonial struggles in different parts of the African continent.

In describing OAU’s role in the decolonization process, it seems more appropriate if we reiterate the wordings of the Durban Declaration in tribute to the OAU. Paragraphs 3 and 4 of the Declaration state:

The OAU was instrumental in creating an African Identity and in promoting solidarity among the African people. Today, being an African is not a philosophical proposition but a reality. Today, our people find expression in a common identify as Africans. That common identity and unity of purpose become a dynamic force at the service of the African people in the pursuit of the ideals are predecessors believed in and in which we continue to believe. No where has that dynamic force proved more decisive than in the African struggle for decolonization. Africa saw its independence as meaningless as long as a part of it remained under colonial tyranny. Immense human and material resources were consecrated to the task of decolonizing Africa. Through the OAU Coordinating Committee for Liberation, Africa worked and spoke as one with undivided determination in forging an international diplomatic consensus for liberation and in prosecuting the armed struggle.

Strength of the OAU, is perhaps closely related to its actions against racism and Apartheid. The OAU resolutions have ritually condemned racism in general as well as the system of apartheid which institutionalized racism in South Africa and Namibia in particular. The strategy of the OAU for the liberation of the South Africa, in particular, has been a mixture of support for freedom fighters and appeal to the conscience of the international community. In 1991, the apartheid policy was done away once and for all and maked the final step for Africa in the struggle of political emancipation form colonial and racist rule.

Another strength of the OAU that is worth being mentioned is its important task in coming up with the establishment of that formed Abuja Treaty the African Economic Community in 1991. The Treaty seeks to build the African Economic Community through a common market built on the regional economic communities. This effort of the OAU proved to be instrumental as regional   economic communities are today consolidating and proving today to be engines for integration.

The major weak OAU’s weaknesses, is its principles related to the culture of non-intervention for which the OAU has been criticized. Among the principles of the OAU, as stated in Article III of the OAU Charter, non-interference in the internal affairs of member states is one. The OAU is blamed for taking a “hands-off” approach to internal struggles in member states. Though there were rampant political instabilities within the territories of its member states, the OAU miserably failed in taking an action due to the culture of non intervention. Capitalizing on this  point, Timothy Murthi stated that ‘Indeed the OAU did not intervene as much as it should have in the affairs of member states to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity which has bequeathed upon present generation of Africans the legacy of human rights atrocities and the domination, exploitation and manipulation of societies within states.”

Another weakness of the OAU is its failure to feature protection of Human Rights as one of its principal aspirations. This does not mean that Human Rights were wholly neglected by the OAU Charter since it makes references, albeit slight, to Human Rights. The principal objectives of the OAU have been to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its member states. That may explain why it took 20 years for the OAU to adopt a Human Rights document proper.

The Rationale for the Establishment of the African Union

The rationale for the establishment of the African Union is not something that is alien to what has been stated hereinbefore. It is a cumulative effect of the urgency to rectify the downsides of the OAU and build a new paradigm of African integration and solidarity that can enable the continent as a whole to coup up with the challenges of the day.

It has to be recalled that the idea of African unity was there even before the realization of the OAU. Elaborating this point, Baimu stated that despite the creation of the OAU, some African leaders, particularly Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, felt that Africans needed a stronger union than the one that had been realized in the OAU. Kwame Nkrumah is known for this famous speech that “Africans must unite or disintegrate individually”. In pursuance of this idea, he made an impassioned speech on the eve of the founding of the OAU, in which he argued for a union government of African states with a common market, currency, monetary zone, central bank, system of defense, citizenship, foreign policy and continental communication system.

The aforementioned proposal failed to be realized in those days. In fact, it evoked suspicion and animosity from a substantial number of African heads of state as they were jealous of their hard-fought independence and recently acquired presidential status for the sake of a continental union. Whatever the reason may be, the idea of African unity had to The wait for another period with comfortable economic and political factor propelling for its reality. This period began to come as of the 1980 due to multifaceted factors that urged Africa and Africans to come up with a firm integration and solidarity between and among themselves. Several reasons might be mentioned as pushing factors to African unity of which the major ones are discoursed below.

The first factor could be the fact that the challenges that Africa began to face as of the beginning of the 1980; were no longer the same as those of the 1963s. Eradicating colonialism and establishing the independence of African nations had been virtually completed except for the continued struggle in South Africa. The objectives and principles of the OAU were basically targeted at securing the process of decolonization. In the 1980s, this target became less important, if not totally not important, than it used to be when the OAU was founded. Hence, Africa is now in a state of a different scenario which demands a different solution from the one proposed by the OAU machinery. The OAU, as it has been stated in the preceding parts, deserves a credit in accomplishing its number one target. But, it has already become less important that paves the way for the creation of a new Pan-African body, the African Union.

The second pushing factor for the birth of the new African Union is the political global changes in the beginning of the 1990s That mainly characterized by the end of the cold war and the town fall of the Soviet bloc. This global change was not corroborated by a response form the side of Africa, despite the vital influence it had on the continent.  El-Ayouty, described this scenario by saying “With the end of the cold war, the world completely changed. Africa and the OAU, however, did not”.

The complete change in the global political order affected Africa in many ways. During the cold war, the two super powers, the USA and The USSR, were in a state of competition in most part of the world. They tried to assume leading roles in promoting their own ideologies and thereby assisted a country or a region which came to form a group within their spheres of influence. But the end of the cold war heralded the collapse of the USSR; the order of the game has begun to change.

While explaining the situation in Africa in his article entitled, ‘an OAU for the future: an assessment’, Yassin El-Ayouty said the following:

In the process of playing the friendship and cooperation game with either the East or West, Africa incurred the following hazards: It did not rely effectively on the OAU for conflict resolution; several of its states became pawns in the superpower chess games, the civil wars in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad and the Sahara were allowed to go on without African solutions, the motto of “African Solutions for African problems” become a hollow slogan…

Thus end of the cold war posed a threat that was different from what it had used to be there during the cold war. The end of the cold war heralded the dawn of the new era of globalization in which Africa has become increasingly marginalized and struggled to define its place and role in the new global system. The challenge has now become different. Rather than playing El-Ayouty’s chess games  on African soil, the great powers increasingly declined to assume leading roles in promoting peace and development in the continent. This forced Africa and Africans to reconsider the slogan That had been used at the founding of the OAU i.e. “African solutions for African problems”, which sang truer than ever before and dictated more by necessity than inclination.

The Durban Declaration of the first ordinary session of the Assembly of the African Union shares the above sated pushing factor for the realization of the African Union. The Declaration states the following:-

[I]n 1990’s, when the world was undergoing fundamental changes with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the redefinition of the global power relations, the OAU moved quickly to assess African’s place in the new environment and charted a course for itself, aimed at stemming its marginalization and ensuring its continued strategic relevance and to address the challenges of development and of peace and security in the continent.

The global change forced Africa to strive for its continued relevance. To that end, an incumbent was created on Africa itself to consider a new political and economic order securing “African solutions for African problems”. The famous speech by Kwame Nkrumah that states “Africa must unite or disintegrate individually” became more relevant.

The third pushing factor for the establishment of the African Union that is worth being noted here is the economic situation that was getting worse and worse in Africa. This may be considered as a sign of Africa’s marginalization in the world order of the day. It has been commented that ‘the economic crisis in the continent has now become literally a matter of life and death and has to be dealt with. In response to the economic challenges, the OAU came up with the Abuja Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community in 1991. As it has been stated under 1.1.1, the coming into force of the Treaty suggested the emerging need to come up with an institution that would combine OAU’s political nature and AEC’s economic character. This paved the way for the realization of the African Union.

The final pushing factor that contributed to the coming into feature of the African Union was the in-built weaknesses of the OAU. As it has been stated above, Africa is was supposed to really implement the slogan “African solutions for African problems”. This, however, was not possible within the existing framework of the OAU. Experts agreed that the OAU charter needed revision, most specifically with regard to the principles of sovereignty and non-interference. These were among the basic principles of the OAU Charter and their contention was not a simple matter. However, Africa was in a state of necessity to enable the regional organization to take measures in internal affairs of member states. Explaining this dilemma, Thabo Mbeki, the then President of South Africa, said the following on 5 December 2003. “there is recognition of the absolute sovereignty of the African sates. In spite of the sovereignty, we must be our brother’s keeper and strive to end poverty in our continent. We must think for ourselves and not allow others think for us”.

Among other things, Africa was forced by the aforementioned factors to come up with a re-invented notion of Pan-Africanism which would not limit itself in defending the rights of African states against external interference but to devise a scheme not to let Africa continue as a safe heaven for undemocratic leaders who assume power by virtue of an unconstitutional manner. The order of the day demanded Africa to firmly get together than ever before and solve its problems by its own. All these led to the birth of a new form of Pan-African alliance through the African Union.

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