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For nearly 40 years the Organizations of African Unity – the OAU – stood as the best hope for a politically unified Africa.
Founded on May 25, 1963 by Kwame Nkrumah, the Organization of African Unity promoted the unity and solidarity of the African states, defended the interests of independent African countries, and helped to liberate those nations which were still-colonised by Western powers – all while remaining neutral in terms of world affairs to prevent its members from being controlled once more by outside powers.
The power and influence of the organization and its leaders expanded from its birthplace and into the furthest Black enclaves, from Addis Ababa to Atlanta, Georgia until the organization evolved into its present incarnation called the African Union.
Early History of the Organization of African Unity
President Kwame Nkrumah entered the office of Prime Minister of Ghana in 1953. When he took office, Nkrumah made three promises to his people and the world.
1. That he would learn to govern effectively
2. That he would unify Ghana (at the time, Ghana was divided into four territories)
3. And that he would liberate Ghana from colonial control (at the time of his election, Ghana was still a British colony)
Nkrumah was, no doubt, an inspirational figure, a magnificent speaker, and a visionary. But the challenges that he faced were his lack of knowledge relative to governing a divided country, the strengths of his colonial overlords, and the tribal divisions that kept his new nation separated.
Within 10 years, Nkrumah had achieved all three goals. Realizing the success of his governing principles and the potential of a Pan-African union, Nkrumah expanded his philosophy of Ghanaian unity to the entire continent of Africa. Every African nation that had achieved independence wanted closer ties with other African nations, to both improve their ability to sustain themselves via trade and commerce, and to reduce the likelihood of further exploitation.
On 6 March 1960, Nkrumah announced plans for a new and unusual Ghanaian constitution. In it, Nkrumah proposed that Ghana become a republic, and would operate as such until the formation of a Union of African States, at which time Ghana would surrender its sovereignty.
This was an incredible concept; Kwame Nkrumah was so committed to the vision of a free and redeemed Africa that he was willing to subordinate his position and his entire nation to achieve it!
And he wasn’t the only one. The Ras Tafari (Emperor Haile Selassie) joined Nkrumah in the efforts to establish an African empire. Haile Selassie believed that economic cooperation versus political unity would be more effective and realistic, but agreed to mediate both sides of the debate and assisted Nkrumah in the establishment of the Organization of African Unity.
The organization became active on May 25, 1963 and was headquartered in Ethiopia. The Charter of the Organisation was signed by 32 independent African states.
Emperor Selassie served as both the very first and the fifth head of the Organization of African Unity – a position that would later also be held by Julius Nyerere, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Muammar Gaddafi.
What the Organization of African Unity Got Right…And Where It Went Wrong
From the very beginning, the Organization of African Unity was a political and economic organizations. That was its first problem. The primary failure of the Organization of African Unity was the lack of a standing military. From the very beginning, the Organization of African Unity was a political and economic organizations. That was its first problem.
Today, the United Nations has proven to be a capable organization only because they are able to carry out mandates with the force of arms. The OAU had no such force to back its resolutions. As a result, the organization was helpless to do all but decry the civil wars in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the human rights violations of many of the continent’s dictators (who were also members of the organization), and the genocides that were carried out from time to time in member nations – including the genocide in Rwanda.
Without force of arms, the OAU was more of a think tank and a talk-shop than an actual, effective organization. While the vision of the organization was noble, no vision can be achieved in the face of violent opposition without the righteous application of force. Any future organization that should come hereafter would do well to remember that lesson.
Aside from this one failure, the OAU did succeed in unifying Africa to an extent. This is an achievement that few other organizations can claim. By the time that the OAU was transformed into the African Union, 53 of the 54 African nations had joined.
And even without a standing military, according to sources the OAU played a vital role in freeing African nations from colonialism by supplying weapons, training and military bases to colonised nations fighting for independence.
South Africa’s ANC, the ZANU and ZAPU, were all successful due to the support of the OAU. In fact, when white South Africa refused to abolish apartheid, their harbors were closed, they were expelled from the World Health Organization, and South African aircraft were prohibited from flying over the rest of the continent – all thanks to the OAU.
The OAU had also established the African Development Bank, Africa’s answer to the European World Bank. The bank still exists today and makes loans, provides technical assistance, and coordinates the development of regional member countries.
The OAU also founded a number of specialized agencies to address problems on the continent. These agencies, many of which still exist, include
- Pan-African Telecommunications Union (PATU)
- Pan-African Postal Union (PAPU)
- Pan-African News Agency (PANA)
- Union of African National Television and Radio Organizations (URTNA)
- Union of African Railways (UAR)
- Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU)
- Supreme Council for Sports in Africa
It was these successes that would serve as inspiration for Malcolm X’s Organization of African-American Unity.
How The Organization of African Unity Inspired Malcolm X And the OAAU
Following his separation from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X met with President Kwame Nkrumah AND returned to the United States to establish the OAAU on June 24, 1964 in Harlem, New York.
Malcolm X, along with John Henrik Clarke, wrote the following into the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) Basic Unity Program:
- Restoration: “In order to release ourselves from the oppression of our enslavers then, it is absolutely necessary for the Afro-American to restore communication with Africa.”
- Reorientation: “We can learn much about Africa by reading informative books.”
- Education: “The Organization of Afro-American Unity will devise original educational methods and procedures which will liberate the minds of our children. We will … encourage qualified Afro-Americans to write and publish the textbooks needed to liberate our minds … educating them [our children] at home.”
- Economic Security: “After the Emancipation Proclamation … it was realized that the Afro-American constituted the largest homogeneous ethnic group with a common origin and common group experience in the United States and, if allowed to exercise economic or political freedom, would in a short period of time own this country. We must establish a technician bank. We must do this so that the newly independent nations of Africa can turn to us who are their brothers for the technicians they will need now and in the future.”
At the time of his death, Brother Malcolm was working furiously to establish and promote the young organization. The OAAU had the potential to be a grand, unifying organization that threatened to bring together the Blacks of America and connect them with other Black men and women the world over.
Such was the potential and the threat of the OAAU that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the nascent OAAU as a threat to the national security of the United States. It is no wonder, then, that Malcolm X was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom at the Inaugural rally of the organization.
Although remnants of the organization evolved into the survival programs of the Black Panther Party, the Organization of Afro-American Unity as it was died with Malcolm.
For the full program of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, please visit Malcolm X.org
The OAU Becomes the African Union
Today, the African Union is the present incarnation of Nkrumah’s and Ras Tafari’s grand vision. African Union member states cover almost the entire African continent and several African islands. According to the African Union website, the organization elected its first female leader – Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, South Africa’s home affairs minister.
“Voicing concerns over the post-coup crisis in Mali as one of biggest security threats to Africa, home to the priceless treasures of Timbuktu, the AU pitched for restoration of the civilian government in the West African state by July-end.
The AU is now expected to step up efforts to get the western regional bloc, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to support a plan for a possible military intervention in northern Mali, where Islamist militants have seized control and unleashed destruction of ancient holy shrines and artefacts.” (Source)
The vision of the African Union is that of: “An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in global arena.” Its mission, according to the website, is to become “an efficient and value-adding institution driving the African integration and development process in close collaboration with African Union Member States, the Regional Economic Communities and African citizens”.
It is up to us as Pan-Africans to hold the AU to this mission and vision, while remaining vigilant against the influence of corruption, both inside and outside of the organization.
And above all else, we must keep the vision of the Organization of African Unity alive through our works and our deeds.