Organization of African Unity (OAU)

views updated May 21 2018

Organization of African Unity (OAU)






The Organization of African Unity (OAU) was postcolonial Africas first continent-wide association of independent states. Founded by thirty-two countries on May 25, 1963, and based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it became operational on September 13, 1963, when the OAU Charter, its basic constitutional document, entered into force. The OAUs membership eventually encompassed all of Africas fifty-three states, with the exception of Morocco, which withdrew in 1984 to protest the admission of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, or Western Sahara. The OAU was dissolved in 2002, when it was replaced by the African Union.

The process of decolonization in Africa that commenced in the 1950s witnessed the birth of many new states. Inspired in part by the philosophy of Pan-Africanism, the states of Africa sought through a political collective a means of preserving and consolidating their independence and pursuing the ideals of African unity. However, two rival camps emerged with opposing views about how these goals could best be achieved. The Casablanca Group, led by President Kwame Nkrumah (19091972) of Ghana, backed radical calls for political integration and the creation of a supranational body. The moderate Monrovia Group, led by Emperor Haile Selassie (18921975) of Ethiopia, advocated a loose association of sovereign states that allowed for political cooperation at the intergovernmental level. The latter view prevailed. The OAU was therefore based on the sovereign equality of all Member States, as stated in its charter.


Article 2 of the OAU Charter stated that the organizations purposes included the promotion of the unity and solidarity of African states; defense of their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence; and the eradication of all forms of colonialism from Africa. Member states were to coordinate and harmonize their policies in various areas, including politics and diplomacy, economics, transportation, communications, education, health, and defense and security. Article 3 of the OAU Charter included among its guiding principles the sovereign equality of all member states, noninterference in the internal affairs of states, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the emancipation of dependent African territories. Although the organizations primary motivation initially was the liberation struggle and the defense of the independence and territorial integrity of African states, the OAU later expanded its scope of activities to encompass economic cooperation and the protection of human rights.


The OAUs Assembly of Heads of State and Government was the organizations supreme organ. It normally met once a year, in a different capital city, although it could also meet in extraordinary session. Although each state had one vote, the assembly tended to operate by consensus. Except for internal matters, its resolutions were nonbinding.

The Council of Ministers, composed of government ministers (usually foreign ministers), normally met twice a year or in special session. Subordinate to the Assembly of Heads of State and Government, the councils principal responsibility was preparing the assemblys agenda. The council implemented the assemblys decisions and adopted the budget. In practice it emerged as the OAUs driving force.

The General Secretariat was headed by a secretary-general, appointed by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government. The secretariat was responsible for the administration of the OAU. The secretary-general was initially envisaged as an apolitical administrator, but over time the office assumed a proactive role, including acquiring the power under the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention to resolve disputes. The General Secretariat became mired in controversy in 1982 when the decision was taken to admit the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic to the organization. Morocco challenged the legality of this decision as it claimed that the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic was not a state. Since 1975 Morocco had occupied most of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, and was engaged in a war against the Polisario Front, which had declared the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic an independent state in 1976 and was fighting for its liberation. The United Nations is still trying to settle this dispute.

The Commission of Mediation, Conciliation, and Arbitration, established as the OAUs dispute settlement mechanism, had jurisdiction over disputes between member states only. Member states, the Assembly of Heads of State and Government, and the Council of Ministers could refer disputes to the commission, but only with the prior consent of the states concerned. The commission never became operational because African governments were distrustful of third-party adjudication.


The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, established under the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (1982), became operational in 1987. Based in Banjul, Gambia, and composed of eleven individuals, the commission is a treaty monitoring body with the specific mandate of promoting and protecting human and peoples rights. Particularly important is its competence to hear complaints from individuals and nongovernmental organizations concerning alleged violations by parties to the Charter on Human and Peoples Rights. After an uncertain beginning, the commission is becoming a more effective defender of human and peoples rights. The commission now functions under the auspices of the African Union and shares responsibility for the protection of human rights with the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights.

The African Court on Human and Peoples rights was established under a protocol to the Charter on Human and Peoples Rights in 1998 that came into force in 2004. The courts jurisdiction over human rights treaties is broad in scope. The Commission, African Intergovernmental Organizations, and participating states can submit cases to the Court, as can individuals and nongovernmental organizations with the permission of the accused state. Its judgments are binding, but it can also give advisory opinions.

The Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, and Resolution was founded in 1993 with the task of finding political solutions to disputes between OAU member states. Its primary objective was the anticipation and prevention of conflicts, with emphasis on the adoption of anticipatory and preventative measures, especially confidence-building measures. The mechanism operated subject to the fundamental principles of the OAU, especially with regard to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states and the principle of noninterference in their internal affairs. The mechanisms role was therefore subject to the consent and cooperation of the warring parties. The mechanism was able to mediate in various civil conflicts and participate in election monitoring, but it never acquired the capacity to provide peacekeeping forces.


The OAU had a mixed record. Its greatest success was in relation to decolonization. Other achievements included making significant contributions to the development of international law, especially in the fields of refugee law and human rights law, where several important treaties were adopted under OAU auspices, although in practice progress was slow and uneven. A court of human rights was envisaged, but the OAU was dissolved before it was established. Efforts were made to promote economic cooperation, and in 1991 it was decided to set up an African economic community, which in time was intended to lead to a customs union, a common market, and African monetary union. Little progress was made.

Overall, the failures of the OAU outweighed its successes. Arguably, its major failing was its inability to bring peace, prosperity, security, and stability to Africa. The OAU was found wanting in its responses to the tyrannies and kleptocracies ruining Africa, a deficiency that undermined its credibility. Its powers were too weak and its influence inadequate to deal with the internal and external conflicts, poor governance, human rights abuses, poverty, and underdevelopment from which much of Africa suffered. The OAU was also considered incapable of meeting the challenges of globalization. By the end of the century, reform so comprehensive was required that it was decided to start afresh with a new organization, the African Union, devoted to the political and economic integration of Africa based on respect for democratic values, good governance, the rule of law, and human rights.



Amate, C. O. C. 1986. Inside the OAU: Pan-Africanism in Practice. London: Macmillan.

El-Ayouty, Yassin, ed. 1994. The Organization of African Unity after Thirty Years. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Elias, Taslim Olawale. 1964. The Commission of Mediation, Conciliation, and Arbitration of the Organisation of African Unity. British Yearbook of International Law 40: 33654.

Elias, Taslim Olawale. 1965. The Charter of the Organization of African Unity. American Journal of International Law 59 (2): 24367.

Evans, Malcolm, and Rachel Murray, eds. 2002. The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights: The System in Practice, 19862000. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Kufuor, Kofi Oteng. 2005. The Collapse of the Organization of African Unity: Lessons from Economics and History. Journal of African Law 49 (2): 132144.

Magliveras, Konstantin, and Gino Naldi. 2004. The African Union and the Predecessor Organization of African Unity. The Hague, Netherlands: Kluwer Law International.

Naldi, Gino, ed. 1992. Documents of the Organization of African Unity. London and New York: Mansell.

Naldi, Gino. 1999. The Organization of African Unity: An Analysis of its Role. 2nd ed. London and New York: Mansell.

Gino J. Naldi

Organization of African Unity (OAU)

views updated Jun 27 2018

Organization of African Unity (OAU)

In 1963 the leaders of thirty-two newly independent African states gathered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to establish the Organization of African Unity (OAU), primarily intended to promote unity and cooperation among African states, uphold self-government and respect for territorial boundaries, and eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa. From thirty-two member states in 1963, the membership of the organization increased to fifty-three in 1994. With this growing membership also came more achievements, problems, and challenges.


The consciousness and movement for African unity is traceable to the ideas of Pan-Africanism, which originated among African descent in the Diaspora—in the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe. Pan-Africanists, both at the 1945 Manchester Conference in London and the 1958 All Africa People's Conference in Accra, unanimously spoke against the prevailing racism and colonialism. They called on Africans to unite in their fight for liberation. In 1957 Ghana became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence. In his independence speech, President Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972) declared that the independence of Ghana was meaningless unless it leads to the total liberation of the African continent. From 1957 to 1963, Africa's unrelenting struggle for freedom resulted in the liberation of thirty-two African states. However, the continent, as Haile Selassie (1892–1975), then emperor of Ethiopia acknowledged, lacked the mechanism that would enable it to speak with one voice. So, formation of an African organization became a necessity.

Undoubtedly, African leaders agreed to the need for African unity, but were divided on the choice of a unanimous strategy. According to April Gordon and Donald Gordon, the disagreement centered on whether full continental political unity should be established immediately at the founding of the OAU, or whether it should be accomplished progressively through a minimalist or building block approach. These two approaches to African integration were hotly and passionately debated and considered throughout Africa. Two groups emerged. The first group, led by Nkrumah, was known as the Casablanca Group (named after the Moroccan city). Otherwise called the radicals, the Casablanca Group called for a political union of African countries, patterned after the federal model of the United States. Again, it suggested that African development be based on socialist planning. The second group, Monrovia Group (named after the capital of Liberia), was led by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (1912–1966), prime minister of Nigeria. The group, otherwise known as the conservatives, in contrast, called for the creation of a looser organization and market-driven development. This division threatened to derail the course of continental integration. Nevertheless, the 1963 meeting united the opposing groups.

On May 25, 1963, Nkrumah of Ghana, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and Gamal Abdel Nasser (or Gamal Abd al-Nasir) of Egypt (1918–1970), convened a meeting of thirty-two newly independent African countries in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to deliberate on the desired African union. Delegates at the meeting understood that to wipe out all forms of colonialism from Africa, unity was crucial. Thus, the charter establishing OAU was signed on May 25, 1963, with the objectives of eradicating all forms of colonialism from Africa; promote unity and solidarity; coordinate and intensify cooperation and efforts to achieve a better life for the people of Africa; promote international cooperation and undertake collective and joint provision of resources and man power, which would enable Africa to achieve rapid development. The most important objectives that drove the OAU from its inception in 1963 to the economic predicament of the 1980s was the need to protect the fragile sovereignty recently achieved by African states, and to help those still under colonial or racist rule to achieve sovereign independence. In these respects, OAU recorded commendable breakthroughs. From 1963 to 1994, the Coordinating Committee for the Liberation of Africa provided financial and military support to independence movements in Angola, Algeria, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Príncipe, São Tomé, and white minority-ruled South Africa. A total of twenty-one countries were ultimately liberated, with South Africa becoming the fifty-third member on May 23, 1994. Nevertheless, OAU failed to pay equal attention to the issue of economic development.


Even though the OAU effectively pursued the goal of African liberation, it failed to confront the postcolonial challenges of endemic poverty, war, genocides, human rights and environmental disasters, or political instability and failures. The organization provided inadequate answers to these problems, and, as the Tanzanian President, Julius Nyerere (1922–1999) noted, the OAU was basically a talking club of African leaders with no power to back up its resolutions. Under the ruthless dictatorship of Hastings Banda (1898–1997) of Malawi, Emperor Bokassa I (1921–1996) of Central African Republic, Idi Amin (1924–2003) of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko (1930–1997) of Zaire, and Sani Abacha (1943–1998) of Nigeria, the OAU was helpless. Except for the courageous step taken by Nyerere to unseat Idi Amin in 1979, the OAU's principle of state sovereignty and nonintervention simply meant that the organization looked the other way while ruthless dictators abused the people and enriched themselves. Civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, among others, resulted from a struggle for power and allocation of resources. The ensuing division, instability, and uncertainty arrested sustainable development in Africa. Under this circumstance, as author S.K.B Asante noted, African states were not taken seriously by the international community as an important and effective partner in the global economy, and were increasingly swept aside by the intensification of economic globalization.


Mindful of the harsh prospect of marginalization, and the ineffectiveness of the OAU in providing the way forward, African leaders, in 1999, convened for an extraordinary session of the OAU in Sirte, Libya. The session discussed ways of repositioning the OAU not only to align with the emerging global, political, and economic developments, but articulate the preparation necessary to promote Africa's social, economic, and political potentials within the context of globalization. With the theme of strengthening OAU capacity to enable it to meet the challenges of the new millennium, the Sirte summit demanded, among other things, for the speedy establishment of all the institutions provided by the treaty establishing the African Economic Community (AEC) in Abuja on June 3, 1991 (called the Abuja Treaty) namely, African Central Bank, the African Monetary Union, the African Court of Justice, and the Pan-African Parliament.

Based on the Sirte Declaration, the Constitutive Act of African Union was adopted by the Assembly of Heads of States and Government of OAU at its thirty-sixth ordinary session in Lome, Togo, on July 11, 2000. Two-thirds of the member states ratified it. Meanwhile, the OAU remained operational for a transitional period of one year following a decision adopted in Lusaka, Zambia, on July 10, 2001. The next year, in Durban, South Africa, the OAU was replaced with the African Union (AU). The inaugural session of the new organization took place immediately at the same venue on July 9 and 10, 2002.

The AU was formed not only to accomplish greater unity and solidarity among African countries, but to ensure the acceleration of the political and socioeconomic integration of the continent. Of course, in the context of globalization, particularly since the 1990s, stronger integration in Africa became a precondition to improve its overall political and economic integration of Africa in the unavoidable world economy. As authors Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills rightly stated, AU might be seen as a mere baptismal name, or even a departure from the past disappointments of OAU. It might also be described as an old lady with a new dress, as Theodore T. Hodge noted. But what is remarkable, at any rate, is that AU opens a new chapter in African history when the paradigm of sustainable development is eventually identified and placed at the center of the continent's developmental concerns.

On the whole, efforts at African integration, symbolized in OAU, achieved the mission of ridding the continent of colonialism, but failed to achieve similar results in the social and economic spheres. Since the 1980s as a consequence, the postcolonial economy of Africa remained fragile. Frustrated with the apparent failure to address persistent socioeconomic problems in Africa, the OAU metamorphosed into AU, determined to take advantage of developmental opportunities implicit in the contemporary globalized economy.

see also Nkrumah, Kwame; Nyerere, Julius; Pan-Africanism.


Asante, S.K.B. Regionalism and Africa's Development: Expectations, Reality, and Challenges. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Gordon, April A. and Gordon Donald L. ed. Understanding Contemporary Africa, 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2001.

Herbst, Jeffrey, and Greg Mills. The Future of Africa: A New Order in Sight? Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2003.

Maluwa, Tiyanjana. "The Constitutive Act of the African Union and Institution Building in Postcolonial Africa." Leiden Journal of International Law, 16 (2003).

Wolfers, M. Politics in the Organization of African Unity. London: Methuen, 1976.

Organization of African Unity (OAU)

views updated May 11 2018


an alliance of african states (known as oau) formed for mutual support in economics, self-government, and security.

In May 1963, the OAU was founded at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, by thirty-two African states, including Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Libya, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia, and Sudan. Devoted to issues such as colonialism, economic development, and mutual security, the OAU, like most multistate coalitions, has had limited success in transforming its ideals into reality. Although the OAU was an active supporter of liberation movements in Mozambique, Angola, and Zimbabwe, it had difficulty providing more than moral and diplomatic encouragement; in intra-African conflicts, such as that over the Western Sahara, the OAU has found itself in a quandary. The Arab states of the Maghrib (North Africa) have been and continue to be its ardent members.

Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser pressured the OAU to his side in his stand against Israel, so through the 1960s, the OAU moved gradually toward the Arab camp. In 1971, the OAU issued a strong resolution criticizing Israel's handling of the Palestinian issue. By the end of 1973, all but four (Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, and Mauritius) of the OAU member states had broken relations with Israel. The Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel (1979) caused a slow process of renewal of diplomatic relations with IsraelZaire was first in 1982.


Amate, C. O. C. Inside the OAU: Pan-Africanism in Practice. New York: St. Martin's, 1986.

Mansfield, Peter. The Arabs, 3d edition. New York: Penguin, 1985.

zachary karabell

Organization of African Unity

views updated May 18 2018

Organization of African Unity (OAU) Intergovernmental organization. Founded in 1963, it aims to safeguard the interests and independence of all African states, encourage the continent's development, and settle disputes among member states. Its headquarters are in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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Organization of African Unity