Organisation of African Unity (OAU)

Context: The Emergence of a Pan-African Rhetoric

The Organisation of African Unity (OAU), established on 25 May 1963, was the culmination of a number of diverse and far-reaching historical currents and political trends both on the African continent and abroad.  Of particular import to the ideological formation of the OAU was the late 19th century Pan-Africanist movement which emerged in the United States of America (USA) among Black American intellectuals such as Martin Delany and Alexander Crummel, who drew similarities between Africans and Black Americans.  The sentiment among these intellectuals centred on the belief that in order for black civilization to prosper, it was necessary to establish their own nation free from the USA where they would be able to pursue self-determination with dignity.  Largely influenced by their own religious - mainly Christian - beliefs, early Pan-Africanists sought to advance the spirit of Pan-Africanism through missionary work on the African continent. 

The ad hoc and wavering Pan-Africanist train of thought began to consolidate itself through the scholarship of W.E.B. Du Bois, a staunch advocate of African culture and history, who propounded the idea that colonialism lay at the heart of Africa’s economic, political and social problems.  Building on this, Marcus Garvey, a Black nationalist, further urged the return of Africans to the continent, which he attempted to facilitate through the establishment of a shipping company, the Black Star Line, aimed at transporting Black Africans back to Africa. This venture was unsuccessful due to obstruction by both the US and British authorities concerned with the future of their colonies.

On the continent itself, a number of prominent intellectuals and heads of state such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Kenya, Sékou Touré of Guinea and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia took up the cause of advancing the Pan-African ideal.  A series of Pan-African Congresses were convened to further the interests of African peoples and discuss methods to achieve unification, and at the fifth Congress held in Manchester, England and attended by Nkrumah, among others, a number of significant aspirations and concerns were voiced.   The Congress advocated for the “complete independence of the African continent and total rejection of colonialism and exploitation in all its forms,” and called for the unification of Africa through regional blocs and the adoption of democracy.  The Congress also voiced the importance of economic regeneration to replace colonial economies geared towards primary resource extraction and exploitation resulting in a phenomenon that would later be termed ‘Dutch disease’.  Of security matters, the Congress preferred to assume a stance of “positive neutrality” or non-interference, for which the OAU would later come under scrutiny.

 It was these concerns that had formed the basis of Ghana’s post-independence foreign policy, and Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana’s post-independence leader) categorically linked Ghana’s independence to the continent’s own, recognising that “the independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the continent.”  Nkrumah therefore established a series of conferences hosted in Accra between 1958 and 1960 with the aims of assisting countries still under colonial rule, fostering cultural and economic ties between countries and considering the issue of world peace.  Nkrumah also hosted the All African People’s Conference which convened liberation groups and African nationalist organisations, attended by the African National Congress (ANC)

The vision of a United States of Africa was, per contra, not supported by all, and not as radically as Nkrumah, Sékou Touré of Guinea and Modibo Keita of Mali would have preferred it. Despite a common vision, differing ideological commitments and diverging opinions regarding strategy and structuring of a continental organisation soon divided and obstructed the pursuit of unity.  The division led to the emergence of three ideological blocs on the African continent, split between the Casablanca Group (consisting of Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Libya, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria) which advocated for radical and full continental integration, the Monrovia Group (consisting of Nigeria, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sudan, Togo, and Somalia) which proposed a moderate approach to unification to be undertaken in incremental steps, and the Brazzaville Group (consisting of Francophone countries and led by Senegal and the Ivory Coast) which remained tied to the interests of France.  A number of African leaders, including Kenya’s Julius Nyerere and Nigeria’s Abubakar Tafa Balewa, were supportive of the ideal of African unity, but many felt that Nkrumah’s grand vision for a United States of Africa was overreaching and ran the risk of dissolving sovereignty and territorial integrity – a point of particular contention among countries who had recently gained independence and hard-fought-for sovereignty.  Perhaps Nkrumah naively pursued a single-minded Pan-African ambition with the assumption that other leaders would be of a like-minded predisposition. Nkrumah nevertheless underestimated the support for a continental union which would require the surrendering of sovereignty to gain a common monetary, foreign and defence policy, and by the time the OAU was established it presented itself as a diluted version of its former envisioned grandeur.  The turbulence of the early 1960s pressed the notion of African countries presenting a united front in the hopes of being taken seriously on the world stage, although the newfound OAU disappointed many of its founding members.      


Thus, between 22 and 25 May 1963, delegates from 32 African countries convened in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to establish the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), intended to form the continental base for pan-Africanism but resulting in a watered-down compromise between competing ideological blocs.  At the outset, then, complete unification seemed unattainable. The divisions rendered the construction of a union government based on a consensus of structural, military and political institutions untenable.  The OAU was thus founded with the intention that the organisation would proceed, incrementally, with unification until the eventual goal of a Union of African States was realised.  

Founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), 1963. Source: thisisafrica

While the immediate full integration of African countries was untenable, the OAU did make significant steps towards identifying socio-economic development issues which racked the continent after independence.  Thus, the OAU Charter outlined its objectives to

a) Promote unity and solidarity of the African states

b) To coordinate and intensify their cooperation and efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa,

c) To defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity and independence,

d) To eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa, and

e) To promote international cooperation, having due regard to the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This was to be achieved by calling on member states to recognise

1. The sovereign equality of member states,

2. Non-interference in the internal affairs of each state,

3. Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each state and its inalienable right to independent existence,

4. Peaceful settlement of disputes by negotiation,

5. Unreserved condemnation, in all its forms, of subversive activities on the part of neighbouring states or any other states,

6. Absolute dedication to the total emancipation of the African territories which were still dependent, and

7. Affirmation of a policy of nonalignment with regard to all other blocs.

Gradually, an additional 21 states joined the ranks of OAU member states, with South Africa becoming the 53rd and final state to join. 


Independence was a prerequisite for attaining membership status in the OAU, although policies of the organisation were not legally binding on member states.  The Assembly of Heads of State and Government acted as the executive body of the OAU which met annually and directed OAU policy.  The Assembly acted as the supreme organ aimed at discussing African concerns, integration and the harmonisation or the OAU’s policies and functions.  

The Council Of Ministers, consisting of foreign ministers designated by each member state, met biannually and was accountable to the Assembly.  The function of the Council centred on preparing matters of concern for discussion at Assembly meetings. The Council was also responsible for implementing decisions of the Assembly and the coordination of member state cooperation.

The OAU structure also included a Secretariat headed by an appointed Secretary General.  Article XVII of the OAU Charter made it abundantly clear that the Secretariat and the Secretary General were to remain objective and accountable only to the OAU, uninfluenced by member states and their respective governments. 

In an attempt to address the potential for inter-state disputes, the OAU Charter provided for the establishment of a Commission of Mediation, Conciliation and Arbitration which would allow for the peaceful settlement of disputes among members of the Organisation. 

A further allowance (Article XX) was made for the establishment of Specialized Commission through the Assembly, which included an Economic and Social Commission, an Educational, Scientific, Cultural and Health Commission, and a Defence Commission.

The OAU also established a Liberation Committee tasked with assisting liberation movements in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea Bissau through the provision of material assistance. 


Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the OAU faced considerable challenges to the execution of its objectives.  While it did undertake a number of important ventures, such as aiding liberation movements to overthrow colonial regimes, combating racism and apartheid and resolving boundary disputes among member states. 

One of the OAU’s greatest achievements was the assistance it provided to liberation movements, to which the organisation afforded Associate Member and observer status.  Article II (1)d of the OAU’s Charter, which states the intention “to eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa,” was perhaps the organisation’s most successful venture, restoring territorial integrity to many formerly-colonised states.    

A further achievement of the OAU was its encouragement of the development of regional economic communities such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the South African Development Coordinating Commission (SADCC), the North Africa-Greater Area Free Trade Area and the Central Africa-Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries.  Eventually, attempts at creating a continental body for economic development led to the establishment of the African Economic Commission through a treaty signed in Abuja, Nigeria in 1991.  The Abuja Treaty contained a blueprint for full continental economic integration which was to be achieved in 34 years (by 2018/2019), although at the time of writing (2015), prospects for this appear bleak. 

In terms of social achievements, the OAU facilitated the unification of trade unions through the establishment of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) and promoted youth organisations to further the leadership potential on the continent.  The OAU also attempted to deal more concretely with the issue of refugees by adopting the 1969 African Convention on Refugees and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights in 1981, which dealt with asylum and the obligation of states to provide asylum-seekers with at least temporary refuge.   However, the Refugee Convention never filtered down to national legislation and has thus remained mostly ineffective. 


In the aftermath of colonialism, many African states were ravaged by economic crises brought about by a plethora of internal and external influences.  Poor policy advice, resource deficiencies and a lack of institutional and physical infrastructure together with corruption, political instability and rampant underdevelopment served to hamper much of the socio-economic development pursued by the OAU.  Of the opinion that indigenous solutions were preferable to Western economic assistance, the OAU oversaw the 1991 establishment of the African Economic Community (AEC), intended to work towards the creation of free trade areas, customs unions, a central bank and eventually, a monetary union.   Despite initial optimism and the injection of billions of World Bank dollars, Africa’s debt crisis grew.  Many African leaders such as Yoweri Museveni of Uganda blamed this on exploitation by former colonial powers, and demanded that the World Bank and the West clear all Africa’s external debt.  This demand was met with a curt reply by the World Bank President, Barber Conable, who countered that “such an issue may and will never arise [as] African states have the moral obligation to pay their debts.”  OAU members, however, remained obstinate in their unwillingness to impose economic discipline and fulfil their obligations to the international economic order. Furthermore, the OAU’s encouragement of regional economic communities had the adverse effect of rendering economic relations problematic, due to blocs acting in their own regional interest.

A further major challenge for the OAU was the fact that its deference to state sovereignty affected the Organisation’s efficacy in preventing and stemming conflict in its member states.  The OAU’s impenetrable respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity came at a cost; emerging dictatorships, coups and counter coups exacerbated political instability, and while Haile Selassie, Kwame Nkrumah, Abubakar Balewa and Sekou Toure – former founding fathers of the OAU – were overthrown (and murdered, in the case of Selassie), the OAU sat back and folded its hands.  Further government overthrows occurred in Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gambia, Chad, Guinea Bissau, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo in a series of coups and counter coups which established military dictatorships and set African states on a path to perpetual civil war.  The OAU failed to establish any proactive conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms, rather receiving aid from Europe, the United States and the United Nations.  The Organisation’s Liberation Committee, through its support of liberation movements, problematically entrenched the legitimacy of guerrilla tactics for regime overthrow which continues till this day.

By the 1990s, South Africa’s Apartheid regime was in fast decline and the majority of African states had shed their colonial administrations.  As decolonisation was the raison d’être of the OAU’s establishment, the factors binding African states against a common external enemy were no longer present and “the life-giving impulses of the OAU were now something of the past.”  While this was essentially a cause for celebration, the OAU had, from the outset, limited its scope as a driver of continental integration through constraints in its own Charter.  It was inconceivable that the Organisation could act as an efficacious peacekeeper on the continent, as there was hardly any peace to keep.  Furthermore, the desire of African leaders to cling to their Westphalian notions of state sovereignty had essentially rendered the OAU powerless through its own rhetoric of non-interference. Financial crises in many states meant that the OAU was perpetually underfunded due to the inability of member states – which relied mainly on external funding - to pay membership fees.  This lack of enforcement capabilities meant that the OAU could not enforce member state compliance with any of its decisions, instead relying solely on wavering political will.  Internal divisions meant that any attempts at organising a reactive and cohesive response to crises were limited, if not impossible due to their non-intervention stance.  Due to a requisite two-thirds consensus on all resolutions, factionalisation further complicated the resolution of pressing issues.  Therefore, when the continent collapsed into a plethora of intrastate wars and insurgencies following the fall of the Soviet Union, the OAU was rendered largely redundant.


With the battle for independence more-or-less won, attention was turned to Africa’s economic overreliance on former colonial powers, which was perceived to be the root cause of the continent’s poverty.  The OAU was forced to recognise its own inadequacies not only in terms of facilitating economic development, but also with respect to addressing Africa’s continual and seemingly intractable conflicts, for which its own Charter was to blame.  The Organisation had made little attempt to prevent the factionalisation of member state groupings which had been responsible for infighting within the OAU, and by the time the Organisation was dissolved in 2002 it had become, in the eyes of its critics, “an elite club of leaders largely cut off from their people,” protecting kleptocrats and dictators.

At the 35th OAU Summit of Heads of State and Government held in Libya, talks began of reforming and reconceptualising the OAU.  Libyan President, Muammar Al Gaddafi, called on the OAU to convene its fourth extra-ordinary session which would further consider the reformation of the OAU into a more capable and less constrained African Union (AU), which came into force in 2002.   

• Edo, VO. & Olanrewaju, MA. 2012. An Assessment of the Transformation of the Organisation of African Unity (O.A.U.) to the African Union (A.U.), 1963-2007. Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 21: 41-69.
• Gebe, Y. 2008. The Quest for a Union Government of Africa: Reflections on the Vision and the Realities of Political Integration. South African Journal of International Affairs, 15(1): 41-53.
• Harshe, R. 1988. Reflections on the Organisation of African Unity. Economic and Political Weekly, 23(8):373-376.
• Kufour K. 2005. The Collapse of the Organisation of African Unity: Lessons from Economics and History. Journal of African Law, 49(2): 132-144.
• Rwelamira, MRK. 1983. Some Reflections on the OAU Convention on Refugees: Pending Issues [Online]. Available:
•  Schalk, B., Auriacombe, CJ. & Brynard, DJ. 2005. Successes and Failures of the Organisation of African Unity: Lessons for the Future of the African Union [Online]. Available:
• Uku, GW. 1994. Organisation of African Unity. Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, 47(1): 29-33.