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Organization of African Unity

Pan-African organization formed in October 1963. Early in the twentieth century, American scholar-activist W. E. B. Du Bois began to organize a Pan-African movement. When decolonization was under way in earnest in the early 1960s, Du Bois' vision was realized when newly independent African nations gathered in Ethiopia in 1963 to form the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The history of the organization has been a stormy one, as it was often drawn into the midst of Cold War conflicts and geopolitics.

Preliminary discussions involving the organization of the OAU precipitated a rift between the Monrovia Group, consisting of medium and small African states, and the rival Casablanca Group, headed by Ghana's leader, Kwame Nkrumah. Generally speaking, the Monrovia Group sought a loose confederation of African states, while the Casablanca Group proposed a tighter union. On the surface, Nkrumah seemed the natural choice to lead a Pan-African movement, given his long dedication to nationalism and the hopes that Ghana would become a role model for economic development in Africa. But Nkrumah was also a man with vast personal ambition and dictatorial tendencies. Many people feared that his vision for the OAU was of an instrument to project his political influence far beyond the borders of Ghana.

The tension between the two factions might have left the OAU stillborn, but during the spring and summer of 1963, Ethiopian officials unsuccessfully mediated between the two groups. By October 1963, the delegates had finished the OAU charter and officially registered it with the United Nations (UN).

Still, its member nations were reluctant to delegate authority to the OAU to resolve African conflicts. As the shameful record of superpower meddling and proxy wars in Africa became public in the 1960s and 1970s, the OAU states resolved not to take sides in the internal affairs of other nations.

On the other hand, from its inception the OAU pledged assistance to the liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia, and South Africa, and a Liberation Committee was established to offer support to other African liberation movements that might arise. Comprised of Algeria, Egypt, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda, the Liberation Committee announced that it would adopt a variety of tactics, including economic boycotts and diplomatic campaigns, to assist liberation movements throughout Africa. The most controversial actions in this regard were direct monetary payments to liberation movements and the construction of military training camps. The available monetary funds were not substantial, standing at less than $2 million in 1964. And despite public pledges to make aid to liberation movements a top priority, the committee's budget was still less than $4 million in 1972.

Even though the OAU's monetary assistance was meager and had a negligible effect on the outcome of liberation movements, many Western nations disapproved of such support. They viewed many of the liberation efforts as anticapitalist and procommunist. The role of the OAU in leading many developing-world nations to sever ties with Israel in 1973 also created consternation throughout the West. Within the OAU, debates ensued about how to deal with the emergence of rival liberation movements in Angola, Rhodesia, and South Africa. The OAU offered to mediate between the rival groups, but its assistance was ineffective. The OAU also came under fire for failing to object to the arrival of Cuban forces in Angola during the 1970s. The OAU's silence on this controversial issue indeed suggested a double standard.

The human rights record of the OAU has been a topic of worldwide concern. During 1963–1982, the OAU received 6,800 complaints of human rights violations but only acted on 127 of those. In response to international criticism and pressure, the OAU approved a human rights charter in 1986, but enforcement remained sporadic at best.

The OAU record on refugee assistance has also been consistently dismal. In 1969, there were 500,000 refugees in Africa. By 1994, that number had skyrocketed to 6 million. Yet the OAU did little to intervene or mitigate the effects of what was clearly a humanitarian crisis, stating that refugee assistance would be akin to interfering in the internal affairs of its member states.

In 2003 the OAU, with great fanfare, announced a name change. It is now known as the African Union. Whether the organization can bring about positive change in Africa still remains to be seen.

Michael J. Polley

Further Reading
Laidi, Saki. Superpowers and Africa: The Constraints of a Rivalry, 1960–1990. Translated by Patricia Badouin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.; Yassin, Al-Ayoity, ed. The OAU after Thirty Years. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994.

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