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The Organization of African Unity (OAU) was postcolonial Africa’s first continent-wide association of independent states. Founded by thirty-two countries on May 25 1963, and based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it became operational on September 13, 1963, when the OAU Charter, its basic constitutional document, entered into force. The OAU’s membership eventually encompassed all of Africa’s fifty-three states, with the exception of Morocco, which withdrew in 1984 to protest the admission of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, or Western Sahara. The OAU was dissolved in 2002, when it was replaced by the African Union.
The process of decolonization in Africa that commenced in the 1950s witnessed the birth of many new states. Inspired in part by the philosophy of PanAfricanism, the states of Africa sought through a political collective a means of preserving and consolidating their independence and pursuing the ideals of African unity. However, two rival camps emerged with opposing views about how these goals could best be achieved. The Casablanca Group, led by President Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972) of Ghana, backed radical calls for political integration and the creation of a supranational body. The moderate Monrovia Group, led by Emperor Haile Selassie (1892–1975) of Ethiopia, advocated a loose association of sovereign states that allowed for political cooperation at the intergovernmental level. The latter view prevailed. The OAU was therefore based on the “sovereign equality of all Member States,” as stated in its charter.
Aims and Objectives
Article 2 of the OAU Charter stated that the organization’s purposes included the promotion of the unity and solidarity of African states; defense of their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence; and the eradication of all forms of colonialism from Africa. Member states were to coordinate and harmonize their policies in various areas, including politics and diplomacy, economics, transportation, communications, education, health, and defense and security. Article 3 of the OAU Charter included among its guiding principles the sovereign equality of all member states, noninterference in the internal affairs of states, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the emancipation of dependent African territories. Although the organization’s primary motivation initially was the liberation struggle and the defense of the independence and territorial integrity of African states, the OAU later expanded its scope of activities to encompass economic cooperation and the protection of human rights.
The OAU’s Assembly of Heads of State and Government was the organization’s supreme organ. It normally met once a year, in a different capital city, although it could also meet in extraordinary session. Although each state had one vote, the assembly tended to operate by consensus. Except for internal matters, its resolutions were nonbinding.
The Council of Ministers, composed of government ministers (usually foreign ministers), normally met twice a year or in special session. Subordinate to the Assembly of Heads of State and Government, the council’s principal responsibility was preparing the assembly’s agenda. The council implemented the assembly’s decisions and adopted the budget. In practice it emerged as the OAU’s driving force.
The General Secretariat was headed by a secretarygeneral, appointed by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government. The secretariat was responsible for the administration of the OAU. The secretary-general was initially envisaged as an apolitical administrator, but over time the office assumed a proactive role, including acquiring the power under the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention to resolve disputes. The General Secretariat became mired in controversy in 1982 when the decision was taken to admit the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic to the organization. Morocco challenged the legality of this decision as it claimed that the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic was not a state. Since 1975
Morocco had occupied most of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, and was engaged in a war against the Polisario Front, which had declared the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic an independent state in 1976 and was fighting for its liberation. The United Nations is still trying to settle this dispute.
The Commission of Mediation, Conciliation, and Arbitration, established as the OAU’s dispute settlement mechanism, had jurisdiction over disputes between member states only. Member states, the Assembly of Heads of State and Government, and the Council of Ministers could refer disputes to the commission, but only with the prior consent of the states concerned. The commission never became operational because African governments were distrustful of third-party adjudication.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, established under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1982), became operational in 1987. Based in Banjul, Gambia, and composed of eleven individuals, the commission is a treaty monitoring body with the specific mandate of promoting and protecting human and peoples’ rights. Particularly important is its competence to hear complaints from individuals and nongovernmental organizations concerning alleged violations by parties to the Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. After an uncertain beginning, the commission is becoming a more effective defender of human and peoples’ rights. The commission now functions under the auspices of the African Union and shares responsibility for the protection of human rights with the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The African Court on Human and Peoples’ rights was established under a protocol to the Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 1998 that came into force in 2004. The court’s jurisdiction over human rights treaties is broad in scope. The Commission, African Intergovernmental Organizations, and participating states can submit cases to the Court, as can individuals and nongovernmental organizations with the permission of the accused state. Its judgments are binding, but it can also give advisory opinions.
The Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, and Resolution was founded in 1993 with the task of finding political solutions to disputes between OAU member states. Its primary objective was the anticipation and prevention of conflicts, with emphasis on the adoption of anticipatory and preventative measures, especially confidence-building measures. The mechanism operated subject to the fundamental principles of the OAU, especially with regard to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states and the principle of noninterference in their internal affairs. The mechanism’s role was therefore subject to the consent and cooperation of the warring parties. The mechanism was able to mediate in various civil conflicts and participate in election monitoring, but it never acquired the capacity to provide peacekeeping forces.
The OAU had a mixed record. Its greatest success was in relation to decolonization. Other achievements included making significant contributions to the development of international law, especially in the fields of refugee law and human rights law, where several important treaties were adopted under OAU auspices, although in practice progress was slow and uneven. A court of human rights was envisaged, but the OAU was dissolved before it was established. Efforts were made to promote economic cooperation, and in 1991 it was decided to set up an African economic community, which in time was intended to lead to a customs union, a common market, and African monetary union. Little progress was made.
Overall, the failures of the OAU outweighed its successes. Arguably, its major failing was its inability to bring peace, prosperity, security, and stability to Africa. The OAU was found wanting in its responses to the tyrannies and kleptocracies ruining Africa, a deficiency that undermined its credibility. Its powers were too weak and its influence inadequate to deal with the internal and external conflicts, poor governance, human rights abuses, poverty, and underdevelopment from which much of Africa suffered. The OAU was also considered incapable of meeting the challenges of globalization. By the end of the century, reform so comprehensive was required that it was decided to start afresh with a new organization, the African Union, devoted to the political and economic integration of Africa based on respect for democratic values, good governance, the rule of law, and human rights.
- Amate, O. C. 1986. Inside the OAU: Pan-Africanism in Practice. London: Macmillan.
- El-Ayouty, Yassin, 1994. The Organization of African Unity after Thirty Years. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Elias, Taslim O 1964. The Commission of Mediation, Conciliation, and Arbitration of the Organisation of African Unity. British Yearbook of International Law 40: 336–54.
- Elias, Taslim O 1965. The Charter of the Organization of African Unity. American Journal of International Law 59 (2): 243–67.
- Evans, Malcolm, and Rachel Murray, 2002. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights: The System in Practice, 1986–2000. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Kufuor, Kofi O 2005. The Collapse of the Organization of African Unity: Lessons from Economics and History. Journal of African Law 49 (2): 132–144.
- Magliveras, Konstantin, and Gino N 2004. The African Union and the Predecessor Organization of African Unity. The Hague, Netherlands: Kluwer Law International.
- Naldi, Gino, 1992. Documents of the Organization of African Unity. London and New York: Mansell.
- Naldi, Gino. The Organization of African Unity: An Analysis of its Role. 2nd ed. London and New York: Mansell.
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