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From the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to the African Union (AU): the 50-year path towards African unity

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On 25 May, a special African Union summit will celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the OAU-AU in Addis Ababa. The President of the European Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso, and the EU Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs, will be taking part in this historic event as part of the privileged relations between the two continental organisations that are officially linked by an EU-Africa strategic partnership. The European Commission is actively supporting several events organised by the African Union to mark this anniversary.

The birth of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) 50 years ago in Addis Ababa emerged from the aspiration towards an ideal of unity advocated by the fathers of independence. From 22 to 25 May 1963, 30 African countries took part in the conference in the Ethiopian capital which set up the OAU, which marked the arrival of the first pan-African organisation. A charter defined its objectives, principles and institutions.


The struggle against colonialism

Right from the outset, the main objectives of the organisation have been to eradicate colonialism and to combat racial discrimination. So its first resolutions were about combating apartheid and about the liberation movements. Among the OAU’s missions are strengthening unity and solidarity between African states, coordinating cooperation for development, preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states and promoting international cooperation in the framework of the United Nations.

Through its coordination committee for the liberation of Africa, the OAU supported the emancipation of African territories that were not yet independent. The aim was achieved in 1990 with Namibia securing its independence. Africa also witnessed the crowning achievement of its fight against apartheid with the liberation of Nelson Mandela and his election as President of South Africa. Thirty years after the creation of the OAU, South Africa became its 53rd member during the Tunis summit in June 1994.


OAU and the quest for political and economic unity

Since it was created, the OAU has given the peaceful settlement of inter-African conflicts a key place in its work. A mediation, conciliation and arbitration commission was set up for this purpose but its resources are limited and the organisation often uses Councils of Wise People or ad hoc committees to try to find solutions to disputes. An African Charter on Human and People’s Rights was adopted at the 1981 summit in Nairobi and led to the creation, in 1986, of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.

After the collapse of the communist bloc, the end of the Cold War and East-West confrontation, Africa had to redefine its policy against the backdrop of a proliferation of internal conflicts. At the Cairo summit in June 1993, it approved the creation of a mechanism to prevent, manage and resolve African conflicts. Its main body is made up of the heads of state of the member countries of the conference’s bureau in office.

The organisation is also involved in issues related to development and economic cooperation. The Lagos action plan, which was adopted at the April 1980 summit, was designed to  boost economic development and the integration of African economies by, in particular, recommending regional groupings and food self-sufficiency. In June 1991, it was replaced by the Treaty of Abuja, setting up the African economic community. This treaty envisages in particular the creation, within a period of 30 years, of an African common market, a parliament, a central bank and monetary fund.


The AU and the acceleration of the integration process

Despite limited capacity for action and low levels of financial resources, the intense diplomatic work done by the OAU has enabled it to confer a tangible reality on a united Africa. The continental organisation has given its member states a forum to adopt coordinated positions on common issues in international bodies and to defend the continent’s interests. Its initiatives were to pave the way for the birth of the African Union. In July 1999, during an extraordinary summit in Sirte, the OAU decided to set up a new organisation to replace it. The AU, officially launched at the Durban summit in 2002, was to be the spearhead tasked with accelerating and deepening the process of economic and political integration on the continent. Its founding act envisages bodies and institutions inspired in particular by the model of the European Union.

The African Union’s vision is to “build an Africa that is integrated, prosperous and at peace, led by its citizens and constituting a dynamic force on the world stage”. It is about moving quicker along the path of unity. It is also about a change of perspective through the definition of common policies in priority areas: defence, peace and continental security, integration of African economies, the free movement of people, goods and capital, food security, the fight against poverty, development, trade, the environment, the fight against pandemics etc. The peaceful resolution of conflicts is in particular at the heart of its concerns. In 2004, a Peace and Security Council was created. This new and key institution can, further to authorisation from the conference of heads of state, order military intervention in serious circumstances (war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity). This is the principle of ‘non-indifference’ which breaks with the principle of non-interference without exceptions set down in the OAU’s charter.

In 2007, the strategic partnership between the African Union and the European Union was launched.

Five decades after the creation of the OAU and 10 years after the creation of the AU, Africa has established a dynamic of progress. At the same time, it is aware of the challenges that it faces and the urgent need to give new momentum to its mission through pan-Africanism and an African renaissance. It is about freeing up potential and mobilising energy, which will enable the continent to become, through initiatives such as the 2063 Africa Programme, a emerging global power in the decades to come.