The African Union at 55


2018 could be seen as the 55th “birthday” of the African Union, since its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, was established in 1963. The group’s objectives and influence have changed dramatically over those decades.

The AU Today

The African Union Peace and Security Council has established a good track record of intervening to mediate solutions to conflicts including Darfur (Sudan), the Comoro Islands, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Côte d’Ivoire. The Council has also sent African troops to do peace-keeping in cooperation with the United Nations.

I have been particularly struck by the actions of the Peace and Security Council to oppose military coups in Africa. In the early days of African independence during the 1960s and 1970s, there were military coups in a number of African countries. Thanks to the vigorous action of the African Union – which rapidly condemns military coups and works with governments to transition to democratic elections – military rule has become virtually extinct in Africa.  

The AU is also helping to make progress in economic development. It has recently embarked on the creation of an Africa-wide free-trade zone, which will enable African countries to manufacture commodities and sell them throughout the continent without concern for tariff barriers. This promises to create major market incentives for private investors. If this free trade zone can be accomplished in reality, Africa will be well on its way to spirited economic development and full membership in the international economic system.

While the African Union focuses on governance, peace, and development, the OAU’s overriding mission was to help fellow African nations break free from European colonial or white minority rule.

Origins of the AU

When the Organization of African Unity was formed in 1963, its member colonial nations were all part of the Portuguese empire: Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, and Sao Tome. At the time, Portugal was governed by a fascist dictatorship which declared all of their African colonies to be “overseas provinces”, and therefore not destined for decolonialization. Because employment opportunities were limited in European Portugal, a great number of Portuguese citizens emigrated to the African territories. Their presence in Africa added to those forces resisting decolonization.

The initial manifestation of the liberation struggle, as they called it, was the growth of armed rebel insurgencies against the Portuguese in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau, operating out of the newly independent nations of Tanzania, the two Congo Republics, Zambia, and Guinea (Conakry). These insurgencies developed into a major burden for the European Portuguese population because virtually every family had a son, husband or father fighting in Africa.  

The burden of the African wars became so difficult for Portugal that in 1974, mid-level army officers rebelled and staged a coup against the government.  Within a year, the new Portuguese government had granted independence to all of its colonies in Africa.

Southern Africa

The white minority ruled countries in southern Africa were the independent Republic of South Africa, the UN-mandated territory of Southwest Africa (now Namibia), and the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. The Republic of South Africa controlled Southwest Africa under a League of Nations mandate, expressing every intention of integrating the territory into its own white minority ruled nation. In Southern Rhodesia, the white minority had enjoyed self-government under nominal British rule since 1912. In view of developments in the other regions of Africa, the UK was refusing to grant the territory independence until full majority rule democracy was achieved.

In 1965, the white government in Southern Rhodesia illegally declared itself independent of the UK. This resulted in an economic blockade of the territory, causing the white population to become totally dependent for food, fuel and other necessities on neighboring South Africa. After the liberation of the Portuguese colonies in 1974-75, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger persuaded South African President Vorster to do what was necessary to bring about black majority rule in Southern Rhodesia. This took place during negotiations in the UK, resulting in the creation of the Republic of Zimbabwe in 1980.

The final acts of liberation took place in Southwest Africa in 1988 when the new Republic of Namibia was created, thanks to a US-led negotiation. This was followed by a 1990 decision of the white minority in the Republic of South Africa to relinquish power and write a new constitution establishing a non-racial democracy.

The New Mission

By the early 1990s, the OAU’s struggle for liberation had been completed, and it began to turn its attention to the continent’s numerous post-colonial challenges.

Colonial and white-majority rule left weak civil and political institutions in its wake, along with economic fragmentation and lethargic development. Extended civil wars stymied economic and democratic progress. Within the war-torn countries, agriculture, transportation, and industry were hamstrung. Neighboring countries were affected by refugee flows and interruption of commerce. 

At first, the OAU had a policy of noninterference because these conflicts were internal to sovereign members. The responsibility for finding solutions fell to the international community. 

In 1990, as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, I initiated two major mediation efforts for the civil wars in Ethiopia and Angola. These efforts proved successful, resulting in peace agreements being signed for both conflicts during the last week of May 1990. 

The following January, I addressed the annual meeting of the African American Institute, held that year in Cairo, Egypt.  My main theme was that the OAU needed to take over responsibility for conflict resolution among its own members. The organization needed to drop the barrier of noninterference in internal affairs; these civil wars were causing hardships beyond the borders.

The Secretary General of the OAU at the time was Ambassador Salim Ahmed Salim from Tanzania. He responded with agreement, subsequently taking the initiative to create a “Mechanism for Conflict Resolution.” This “mechanism” evolved over the years to a fully developed “Peace and Security Council” that very much resembles the Security Council of the United Nations in New York.