African Union Research Paper

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The African Union is an international organization of African states. Formally established in 2002, it succeeded the Organization of African Unity, which was founded in 1963. Originally designed to advance the pan-African cause, the African Union still seeks to promote socioeconomic integration across the African continent, with the aim of achieving greater unity and solidarity between African countries and their peoples.

The African Union is in part the result of the end of colonialism in Africa and a burgeoning desire for a united African identity, called the pan-African movement. This movement gained real impetus following the Bandung Conference of 18–24 April 1955 in Indonesia where Asia and Africa came together to oppose colonialism and promote greater economic and social cooperation. Originally founded in 1963 as the Organization of African Unity (OAU), it was reconstituted as the African Union after member states ratified the Constitutive Act adopted in July 2000. In line with its origins, the OAU was largely concerned with economic and cultural issues, and while the member states professed pleasure with the performance of the OAU, they also said they wished to reform the relationship of the member states in an effort to better realize the goals of African unity on which the OAU was originally premised. As such, the AU has evolved more along the lines of the European Union, with organs such as an Assembly, Executive Council, Commission, Peace and Security Council, Pan-African Parliament, Economic, Social and Cultural Council, and Court of Justice. The evolving nature of the union has also seen it expand its objectives to include the promotion of democracy, human rights and good governance. This expanded agenda potentially conflicts with the organization’s traditional principles of observing state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.

The Pan-African Dream

By the early nineteenth century, many Africans who had been educated in Europe began to speak and write of an African identity that transcended linguistic and ethnic groupings as well as colonial identifications. It is not clear when the term pan-Africanism was first applied in this context, and most people who used the word appeared to recognize it as little more than a dream. The idea of continental unity was certainly on the minds of delegates from the Caribbean, North America, Europe, and Africa who met in London for the First Pan-African Congress in 1900. The congress called for an end to colonial rule in Africa, citing its negative effects on Africans and proclaiming the need for all Africans—including those of African descent outside the continent—to come together in support of a greater African social and political entity.

This congress was followed by numerous expressions of similar ideas, including important statements by the Gold Coast political activist Charles Casley- Hayford, as well as various organizational expressions, perhaps most notably the Universal Negro Improvement Association founded by the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey in 1914. Several international conferences promoting African solidarity followed, the first in 1919, coinciding with the Versailles Peace Conference at the end of World War I, followed by a series of others throughout the 1920s. By the 1930s, colonial governments in Africa grew deeply suspicious of activities claiming pan-African connections, but the dynamics stimulating ideas of African unity grew more forceful with the onset of World War II.

African Independence and Continental Unity

Following World War II, many politically aware Africans believed independence from colonial rule was certain, if not imminent. Confirmation of this idea came first in northern Africa, with Libya’s release from Italian control in 1951; but perhaps the most significant development was the creation of the new nation of Ghana, from the former British West African colony of Gold Coast, in 1957. Some African leaders, especially Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, saw this as a signal portending the creation of a unified, independent continent:

A union of African states will project more effectively the African personality. It will command respect from a world that has regard only for size and influence. . . . It will emerge not just as another world bloc to flaunt its wealth and strength, but as a Great Power whose greatness is indestructible because it is built not on fear, envy, and suspicion, nor won at the expense of others, but founded on hope, trust, friendship and directed to the good of all mankind. (Nkrumah 1961, xii)

Nkrumah actively campaigned for this principle of African unity, believing it would be the best way to encourage an end to all vestiges of colonialism on the continent. At a May 1963 meeting of African heads of state in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Nkrumah presented a formal plan to have all African nations join in the creation of such a union. By the end of the meeting, the more than thirty nations represented agreed to the creation of the Organization of African Unity.

Organization of African Unity

The OAU was in one measure a victory for the pan- African movement that had preceded it, especially in the arena of international efforts to remove all traces of colonialism in Africa. A nine-nation Liberation Committee worked to promote independence for Africans continuing to live under colonialism and also to bring about majority rule for Africans living in South Africa. These efforts were a substantial part of the successful international efforts that eventually led to the end of apartheid and to a new South African government in the 1990s.

But the price of this pan-African victory was a significant limitation of the scope and power of the OAU as an effective international organization. The core of this dilemma was in the first principle enunciated in its charter—“the sovereign equality of all member states”—which included a commitment to “noninterference in the internal affairs” of any member state (African Union n.d.a). In practice, this limited what the OAU might achieve in promoting many of its other goals, including the protection of the rights of Africans and the resolution of a number of destructive civil wars on the continent.

One expression of the frustration concerning these limitations was the complaint often voiced by Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania, that the OAU was merely a sort of trade union for African heads of state that allowed each of them a forum of international expression without any questions about their own sometimes destructive policies. Thus, rather than promoting any real unity, the OAU was seen at times to reinforce the unnatural divisions of the continent that had in fact been the legacy of colonial conquest and administration. Only terribly destructive conflicts in the 1990s in the Kongo, Ethiopia, Somalia, and still later in Sierra Leone and Liberia—the last two of which precipitated intervention by a group of West African states—brought the OAU policies of noninterference seriously into question.

A New Organization

African heads of state meeting in 1999 issued a declaration calling for a reconstituted continental organization modeled loosely on the European Union. One of the keys to the new African Union was a new principle written into its Constitutive Act, adopted in July 2000, which asserted “the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity” while also reaffirming the “sovereign equality and interdependence” of all the member states (African Union n.d.b). The AU actually came into existence the following year and was ceremonially launched at a summit in Durban, South Africa, in July 2002.

While the new organization has promised to focus more on economic matters, even moving toward an eventual common currency, given the instability in parts of Africa, the AU cannot help but be forced to confront contentious matters of politics. These efforts have been widely applauded internationally, with significant commitments from the United States and the European Union for a New Partnership for African Development created by the AU member states. But they have also proven to be divisive within the AU. For instance, in respect to the crisis in Zimbabwe— including widespread government violence and interference in elections—some members sought to suspend Zimbabwe and impose sanctions while others refused to interfere. The compromise was to meekly urge a negotiated solution between the ZANU-PF government of Robert Mugabe and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

Nevertheless, on occasion the AU has taken action to intervene in the affairs of member states in the name of peace and security. In 2004 the AU deployed a peacekeeping mission to the Darfur region of western Sudan to prevent inter-ethnic conflict and genocide. Peaking at around 7,000 troops, the AU mission eventually gave way to a United Nations Mission on 31 December 2007. In the absence of a functioning government, the AU has similarly operated a Peace Support Operation in Somalia since March 2007. In a similar interventionist fashion, the AU has suspended Mauritania and imposed sanctions and intervened in Anjouan, Comoros following coups and political turmoil in 2005 and 2007 respectively.

The African Union has a long way to go before it achieves the level of integration seen within the European Union. Nevertheless, the transition from the OAU to the AU has brought with it broader objectives and a restatement of its quest for unity. While the pan- African vision of its founders remains some way office, and while issues such as the state of affairs in Darfur and Zimbabwe are far from ideal, the AU has begun to take some steps toward achieving its original goals.


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  2. African Union. (n.d.b) OAU charter, Addis Ababa, 25 May 1963. Retrieved October 20, 2016, from
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  12. Martin, T. (1983). The pan-African connection. Dover, MA: Majority Press.
  13. Naldi, G. J. (1999). The Organization of African Unity: An analysis of its role (2nd ed.). New York: Mansell.
  14. Nkrumah, K. (1961). I speak of freedom: A statement of African ideology. New York: Praeger.

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