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Monday, 8 July, 2002, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK
African Union replaces dictators' club
African leaders at 2001 OAU meeting
The OAU has been meeting for almost 40 years

A new wind of change is blowing through Africa.

The move from OAU (Organisation of African Unity) to AU (African Union) is supposed to be more than the dropping of one letter.

It is supposed to represent a shift from a "dictators' club" to a people-based grouping.

Everything of course depends on implementation.

Helped end white rule
Seen as dictators' club
New focus: economic progress, good governance

And given the sad record - and current problems, such as Aids - there must be doubts about how much can be achieved.

Aids alone is reducing life in some countries, especially in southern Africa, to nothing more than an existence.

Life expectancies are being cut to levels unknown since the 19th Century.

The OAU was set up to develop Africa after colonialism - and to help liberate Southern Africa from white rule.


The African Union reflects the developments in many parts of Africa in recent years, as democracy has started to take hold and a new emphasis has emerged which concentrates less on the battles of the past and more on the need to improve the lives of ordinary people.

The key shift is that the principle of state sovereignty has been abandoned.

It was the central belief of the OAU that nobody should interfere in anyone else's business.

A Mozambican grandmother, who now looks after her two grandchildren
Will the African Union work for ordinary people?
That was especially convenient for dictators.

Now the AU has as one of its aims the promotion of "democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance."

It will have the right to initiate a so-called "peer review" of a country's record, intervene if there is genocide and war crimes and impose sanctions.

Everything of course depends on implementation.

High hopes

Nobody is mourning the end of the OAU.

Yet when it was founded in Addis Ababa in 1963, Africa was full of pride and hope.

Its leaders were giants of their day.

Africa was coming out of colonial rule and many had led their nations to independence.

It was a time to be bold.

The OAU is the most difficult organisation I have ever seen

Amara Essy
OAU Sec Gen

One of the key figures was Dr Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana which became independent (and dropped its colonial name the Gold Coast) in 1957.

He believed that the African continent should be "united." But defining that unity was the problem.

The OAU solved the problem by praising unity in its language, but avoiding it in its practice.

The differences across the continent were just too many and the principle which the OAU adopted, of non-interference and non-intervention, simply meant that member states turned a blind eye to their neighbours.


When one of the founding members, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia gave a speech to the OAU, he was praised in its formal thanks for his "wisdom."

When the man who overthrew him in 1974 (and later murdered him and buried him under a latrine), Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, subsequently welcomed delegates back to Addis Ababa, he was thanked for his "warm and generous hospitality."

Colonel Mengistu went on to declare his "red terror" in which tens of thousands of opponents were slaughtered by his neighbourhood committees.

Kwame Nkrumah
Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup
It was one of the tragedies of the OAU that all that happened in the city where it was founded.

There were coups all over the place - including Nigeria (which had been the jewel in the British colonial crown in Africa and the hope for parliamentary democracy), Libya (which brought Colonel Gaddafi to power) and Uganda (in which Idi Amin rose to fame).

Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup himself.

It symbolised the problems Africa was having in developing stable government.

The OAU could say little and did nothing.


Even after the recent elections in Zimbabwe, it was still bringing forth its usual kind of statement when it objected to possible American sanctions:

"We are dismayed by this report, which amounts to interference in the internal affairs of a member state."

It was more successful over the years in trying to mediate in conflicts between states.

Colonel Gaddafi
Gaddafi is the driving force behind the union
It helped mediate a border dispute between Algeria and Morocco and between Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

One of the ironies was that the OAU insisted on preserving the borders drawn by the colonial rulers which often reflected spheres of influence rather than natural divisions.

The view at the time was also that Africa needed time to settle down.

And after all, it was achieving good economic growth of about 5% a year in the 1960s.

And the crisis in Southern Africa, where white rule was being confronted, was regarded as more of a priority for the OAU.

Faith lost

But Africa began to fail.

Economic growth gave way to debt repayments; the pioneering efforts to improve public health were swamped by Aids, wars were unending and famine stalked the land.

The people lost faith in governments and governments lost interest in the people.

President Robert Mugabe
Africa's leaders have backed Mugabe
According to Bernard Otabil of West Africa magazine:

"The people did not feel that the OAU satisfied their aspirations.

"It did not involve people on the ground. It was top heavy."

The Secretary General of the OAU, Amara Essy, who has helped to bring the new African Union about, was scathing about the old grouping:

"The OAU is the most difficult organisation I have ever seen", he told New African magazine.

Mr Otabil believes that the African Union is on the right course because it is less grandiose and hopes to be more community based.

It is also offering an economic dimension and seeks African integration into the world economy.

One of the main tasks for the AU will be to push forward with Nepad, the New Partnership for Africa's Development.

This offers a bargain with the West - you give us aid and we will put our house in order.

It is a long way from 1963.

The historic summit should create a new African Union.

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See also:

24 Jun 02 | Business
25 Jun 02 | Business
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