If you ask any historian who studies the genesis of the Organization
of the African Unity (OAU) that transformed in to the African Union a decade ago about its founding fathers, no one wasted time choosing leaders: Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Senghor of Senegal, Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Cote D’Ivoire and Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.
For good or bad individuals play a certain role in history. Considering this a statue was erected inside the newly built edifice to remember one of the founding fathers of OAU: Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Nkrumah deserves that status. He was the leader of the Casablanca bloc along with leaders of Algeria, Guinea, Morocco, Egypt, Mali and Libya who wanted a federation of all African countries. This group which was described as “progressive states” at the time was founded in 1961.
There was also a group known as the Monrovian bloc, led by Senghor of Senegal who felt that unity should be achieved gradually, through economic cooperation. It did not support the notion of a political federation as strongly suggested by the Casablanca bloc. This group was made up of Nigeria, Liberia, Ethiopia and most of the former French colonies.
There was a real ideological difference at the time. Because of this it was impossible to form one continental organization. That dispute was eventually resolved when Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I invited the two groups to Addis Ababa and held joint meetings. In an article written in the weekly Fethe Amharic news paper, Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam explained that the process was extremely tiresome at the time. “I am a living witness. I spent the night following the event unfolding and the effort made by the Emperor. Had it not been for the careful handling of the case by Emperor Haile Selassie I, OAU would have never been formed,” Mesfin wrote. Highly renowned historian, Professor Bahiru Zewde also expressed that the OAU was simply unthinkable without the Emperor.
Both expressed bewilderment for not having a thoroughly deserved statue of Emperor Haile Selassie at the newly built AU headquarters along with Kwame Nkrumah. Big leaders such as Senghor and Félix Houphouët-Boigny also deserve statues to be erected for them. Some feel this was a historical mistake by the organization.
The Organization of African Unity (OAU) was established on May 25, 1963 in Addis Ababa, under the signatory of 32 governments. The OAU was transformed into the African Union (AU) on July 9, 2002. The transfer took place when the South African President Thabo Mbeki was the last chairperson.
Ethiopia has remained the seat of the continental organization since its inception in 1963. But Addis Ababa’s role as the capital of Africa has never been smooth. Attempts have been made at least four times to take away the headquarters from Addis Ababa. The first attempt took place when the founding father Emperor Haile Selassie I was still in power. It was initiated by the newly emerging pan-Arab Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi a few months after he took power toppling King Idris I on 1 September 1969 in a bloodless coup at the age of 27. That same Muammer Gaddafi made another attempt during the regime of Mengistu Hailemariam to take the seat to his birth place at Sirte, in Libya, where he was killed last year ending his 42-year idiosyncratic rule.
When South Africa gained independence from the Apartheid rule the third attempt was made to take the headquarters to South Africa. The African great leader Mandela tore that plot to shreds citing the historical importance of Ethiopia and its leader Emperor Haile Selassie I. During the apartheid regime Mandela had taken training here in Addis Ababa at the Kolfe Police training camp.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi faced the fourth serious and well organized attempt by the late Muammer Gaddafi group. Meles successfully defended the historical heritage of his country to keep Addis Ababa as the seat of the AU. In fact that issue was closed by vote. The new magnificent AU headquarters, built by the Chinese state of the art design and construction at a cost of over 200 million dollars is a seal that Addis Ababa will remain the political capital of Africa.
The OAU was, however, successful in some respects. It has played a pivotal role in eradicating colonialism and minority rule in Africa. It gave weapons, training and military bases to colonised nations fighting for independence. Groups fighting apartheid such as the ANC and PAC, and fighting for the independence of Southern Rhodesia, currently Zimbabwe, ZANU and ZAPU, were aided in their endeavors by the OAU. African harbors were closed to the Apartheid South African government, and South African aircraft were prohibited from flying over the rest of the continent.
Many of its members were members of the UN, too, and they stood together within the UN organisation to safeguard African interests – especially in respect of lingering colonialism. The UN was convinced by the OAU to expel South Africa from bodies such as the World Health Organisation. In this regard the OAU was successful.
Another success story was the decision not to recognize new leaders coming through military coup d’état which was rampant in Africa in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. A number of new military coup leaders were rejected by the AU. That frustrated the military officers from taking power through the back door.
The AU deviated from its original directives of accepting the colonial boundary as is in 1982 when the OAU admitted Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic as the government of Western Sahara. Opposing this Morocco left the OAU on 12 November 1984; the only country so far who left the continental organization.
Eritrea 20 years ago and recently South Sudan formed independent states in violation of that long held tradition.
The organisation was widely derided as a bureaucratic “talking shop” with little power. It struggled to enforce its decisions but to no avail. Civil wars in Nigeria and Angola continued unabated for years, and the OAU could do nothing to stop them.
The OAU that had an aim of ensuring all Africans enjoy human rights, democracy and raise the living standards of all didn’t so far bear fruit. After nearly half a century of existence we are now seeing huge numbers of disaffected African people, unemployment is high, the gap between the haves and have-not is extremely widening, and the majority is socially insecure. People share the anger, passions, frustrations and hatred to their rulers in most parts of Africa. It is the only continent with many leaders glued to the throne for up to 42 years. The OAU or AU has no power to change this tragic event in the continent.
Though the erection of the new conference hall and office complex is a vital move on its own right, erecting the statue of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana alone among other founding fathers of the former OAU is a historical mistake that needs immediate correction as the adage goes ‘if you don’t know history, you don’t know any thing; you are a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.’