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Monday, 9 July, 2001, 20:06 GMT 21:06 UK
Q&A: African Union

After 38 years, Africa is replacing the Organisation of African Unity with the African Union. The idea is to unify the continent and improve living standards.

What's the difference between the OAU and the African Union?

The African Union will eventually have a common parliament, central bank and court of justice.

In theory, these will give ordinary Africans a greater say in their continental leadership, create and run an Africa-wide economy and make abusers of human rights accountable for their actions.

OAU Secretary General Dr Salim Ahmed Salim says it will take "at least a year" to set these up.

Cynics aren't holding their breath.

Why bother with the change?

During the Cold War individual African countries were important global diplomatic players, courted by both east and west eager to expand their spheres of influence.

Since 1989, their international influence has been greatly reduced and they have decided that Africa must be united if it is to make its voice heard in the global economy.

As Africa emerged from colonialism in the 1960s, some leaders such as Ghana's Dr Kwame Nkrumah argued that Africa could only survive as a single entity.

Others such as Felix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast believed that the newly independent countries must first build strong nation states.

The OAU was created as a compromise between these points of view.

When Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi first suggested creating a "United States of Africa" two years ago, leaders of the continent's powerhouses South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt reacted with scepticism.

Now it seems that African leaders have decided that unity is an idea whose time has come.

One reason is that most region's of the world are forging bigger economic blocs and Africa does not want to be left behind.

Is economic union possible?

The biggest obstacle is that many African countries still conduct more trade with their former colonial masters than with each other.

The African Union is an attempt to end this situation by making trade within Africa easier, reducing bureaucratic obstacles.

The idea is to first build regional blocs in west, central, east, north and southern Africa and then ultimately merge these into one big economy - on the basis that bringing four or five groups together is easier than negotiating with 53 countries at the same time.

In the long run, a common African currency is envisaged - most francophone countries already have one, the CFA franc, guaranteed by the French treasury.

It will be difficult expanding this to the rest of the continent - and the French link would have to go.

Another problem is the wide divergence in living standards - South Africa's economic output per person is more than 10 times that of Nigeria.

Can the African Union stop wars?

This is a key consideration.

United Nations Secretary General Koffi Annan says that unless conflicts end, "no amount of aid or trade will make the difference".

A political union - also a long term objective - would ideally prevent one country from destabilising its neighbours.

At present, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone all accuse each other of backing rebel movements which have turned their common border into what has been described as the world's most dangerous place.

The European Union was established after World War II and has achieved its primary goal of preventing another continent-wide war.

Now Africa's leader hope to follow the EU's path to peace, unity and prosperity.

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See also:

08 Jul 01 | Africa
OAU considers Morocco readmission
25 May 01 | Africa
OAU gives way to African Union
25 May 01 | Africa
The future of African unity
02 Mar 01 | Africa
Leaders agree on African union
11 Jul 00 | Africa
United States of Africa?
09 Jul 01 | Africa
Farewell to the OAU
09 Jul 01 | Africa
Gaddafi eludes Lusaka's press
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