African unity at 50: Trials and Tribulations

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When the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was formed in Addis Ababa, 50 years ago, on 25 May, 1963, by leaders of those African countries that had then attained independence, the continent was in the midst of a fierce ideological debate as to the thrust the ‘unity’ should take. Should immediate political integration prime over gradual political and economic cooperation? Fifty years later, the debate is still on.

It, however, would be economical with the truth to say that Africa’s characteristics have not undergone certain profound fundamental changes since the days of colonialism. Among some of the major landmarks is the political independence of the continent, almost complete with the dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa, save for the Republic of Mauritius which is still struggling to assert its sovereignty on all of its territories, including the Chagos archipelago (unlawfully excised by the British prior to independence) and Tromelin, under dispute with the French. The contribution of the OAU Liberation Committee (now dismantled), in the struggle for independence of African countries, cannot be sufficiently emphasised.

The path towards political cohesion however, both within the confines of the geographical borders of the continent and as a unified block on the international scene continues to be strewn with countless obstacles. The borders inherited, following the balkanisation of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884 --1885 called by the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, at the request of Portugal, have played unfathomed havoc among most of the fifty odd countries that were thus created, in complete disregard of cultural and linguistic affinities among the populations separated ruthlessly.

The post-independent regimes of a number of those countries contributed heavily in the turmoil that has plagued the continent since. No wonder, therefore, that it has been gleefully attributed such epithets as: Continent ofLost Hope; Continent of LongSnakes, Small Ladders! Internecine conflicts, military coups and dictatorships in most regions of the continent ensured a long-drawn instability Africa-wide, much to the extreme satisfaction of almost all former colonial powers. The latter, propelled by the Industrial Revolution, had, hitherto, exploited the continent for cheap labour and raw material. When the ‘winds of change’ blew across the continent, most of the former colonial profitmotivated companies, especially those involved in the extractive sector, ensured their survival by pitting one power-thirsty leader against another and indeed, one ethnic group against another. The Cold War exacerbated the situation in the seventies and eighties. Today, regrettably inter-state as well as intra-state conflicts still pervade causing an overflow in refugee camps and increasing the number of internally displaced people. Scarce resources are funneled towards the war effort, again, much to the satisfaction of the foreign arms industry and to the detriment of the people of the conflictravaged countries. It cannot be gainsaid that confl icts remain one of the worst failures of Africa’s efforts at unity.

Collectively, the African leadership has attempted to address this scourge that, along with poverty and other social ills, have earned the continent the disparaging description of a ‘scar on the conscience of the world’. The OAU developed a Mechanism for the Prevention, Resolution and Management of Conflicts, with a monitoring Centre at its headquarters in Addis Ababa. With the advent of the African Union, a Peace and Security Council has been set up to handle conflicts and other related matters. But the Organisation still operates under severe financial constraints and, towards that end, remains, to a large extent, dependent on partner-funding -- not an enviable situation at all.

A number of very important declarations and resolutions have been adopted covering a variety of sectors in the political, economic, social and cultural fields. The Cairo Agenda for Action of 1995, the outright condemnation of any unconstitutional change of government adopted in 1997 in Harare, Zimbabwe are, perhaps, among the most far-reaching declarations and decisions adopted and taken by the OAU, reconfirmed in the Constitutive Act of its successor, the African Union, launched in 2002. The erstwhile OAU principle of non-interference in internal affairs of member states has been replaced by a right to intervene in cases of gross violation of human rights and genocide. The AU is exponentially involved as facilitator and mediator in a number of conflict situations.

The Abuja Treaty of 1991 (in force since 1994) establishing the African Economic Community over a journey of 34 years remains the blueprint for the economic emancipation of the continent; the Regional Economic Communities, the building blocks of the Community, are gradually strengthening their bases and exchanging experiences with each other; the establishment of the NEPAD Agency as an operational arm of the AU is a major step forward within the context of the cooperation and integration policies; the African Peer Review Mechanism is another feather in the cap of the African leadership, with quite a number of member states having been peer-reviewed already on a voluntary basis.

Greater awareness has been built among the African citizenry in such fields as education and health, inter alia. Continental institutions, most notable, among others, being the Pan-African Parliament, are being established and gradually consolidated.

The AU’s summit of January 2012 has taken the momentous decision to create an All-Africa Free Trade Area by 2017. This decision requires close monitoring and regular evaluation of progress and constraints in implementation, if the target is to be met.

Adopting and maintaining common positions on matters of continental interest in international fora is, so far, not among the success stories in the quest of Africa for unity. The EU-imposed Economic Partnership Agreement parameters and the lost opportunity to elect an African Director-General of the WTO this time again after the 2005 attempt are just two instances where action has not followed intention!

Africa needs to be bold and remain focused if unity is to be attained!

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