Growing pains of African unity

Nearly 17 years have passed since the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) on May 25, 1963. Originally established to help bridge the political differences between three rival blocs of African states -- the so-called Monrovia, Casablanca, and Brazzaville groups -- the OAU has seen its role expanded and modified over the years. Yet the quest for unity has become, if anything, more elusive. As the 1980s begin, the OAU remains an organization struggling to find a purpose on a continent struggling to overcome desperate poverty and political instability.

If an increase in membership can be taken as a sign of health, then the OAU is robust as it enteres the new decade. From an original number of 32, OAU membership has grown to 49 -- an increase of more than 50 percent. Only a few areas have yet to achieve full independence, and in two of these areas, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Namibia (South-West Africa), significant progress is being made toward independence. Certainly this attests to the partial success of a primary goal of the OAU, the eradication of all forms of colonialism from Africa.

However, if over colonialism is moribond, various forms of neocolonialism and dependence thrive in Africa. In addition, South Africa remains a bastion of white supremacy and the last great challenge to the OAU's quest for elimination of white racism from the continent.

At the same time, an increase in numbers has brought with it the challenge of accommodating the interests of an ever more differentiated and divergent membership. The twin goals of eliminating colonialism and racism are no longer sufficient to paper over the significant differences that exist between African countries.

Conflicts between and within African states abound. In the last five years alone, fighting has erupted in the Western Sahara, twice in Zaire's Shaba province, in Angola, in Rhodesia, between Ethiopia and Somalia in the Horn, between Chad and Libya, and between Uganda and Tanzania. The inability of the OAU to successfully mediate these disputes has led to an upsurge of intra-African as well as external intervention to achieve military solutions to what have been essentially political problems.

These conflicts represented direct challenges to three fundamental principles of the OAU: the promotion of peaceful settlement of disputes; respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of member states; and the principle of nonalignment in international affairs.

In most of these disputes states were willing to entertain OAU mediation, but usually the political differences between the antagonists were insurmountable. This reflected less the weakness of OAU peaceful settlement mechanisms than the intransigence of the problems themselves. Nevertheless, an organization requires a successful track record or its members will develop other means for settlement of disputes.

In order to cope with the diversity of conflicts in the African milieu, the OAU has developed flexible and informal means to supplement its formal peaceful-settlement functions. Personal politics and initiatives among heads of state are commonplace. In other cases groups of states have worked toward resolution of disputes through numerous channels.

But OAU flexibility in handling conflicts has appeared hypocritical to some of its members. For instance, the OAU ignored the Libyan incursion and subsequent annexation of territory in Chad while condemning Somalia's seizure of the Ogaden -- despite Somalia's efforts to secure recognition for the rights of the Western Somali Liberation Front to self-determination from Ethiopia. The OAU's principle of the inviolability of colonial borders appears to be subject to selective interpretation.

The principle of nonalignment has also waned in the shadow of external intervention in recent African conflicts. Increasingly, Africans are relying on foreign military support -- whether Russian, Cuban, or French -- to resolve their domestic and foreign disputes.

Critics of the OAU have castigated its failure to adopt adequate peace mechanisms. However, the blame lies not with the OAU itself, but rather with the member states. The weakness of the OAU in maintenance of African security is merely a reflection of the lack of consensus among and within African states.

While questions of peace and security are important, the OAU's concerns extend beyond them to matters of economic development and promotion of human rights. With the start of this decade, there is hope that the OAU will make some progress in each of these areas.

Africa possesses 18 of the world's least-developed states. In an effort to address the poverty that plagues Africa, the OAU has established links with other third-world countries to OAU has established links with other third-world countries to lobby for a new international economic order. Closer ties have been established with the Arab League -- an institutional expression of the attempts by African governments to gain relief from the onerously high price of oil which has stalled momentum toward economic development.

During much of the past decade, the prospects for promotion and respect of human rights in Africa were inauspicious. However, several developments in late 1979 hold promise for the 1980s. In the wake of the fall of three African tyrants -- Amin of Uganda, Macias of Equatorial Guinea, and Bokassa of the Central African Empire -- the OAU embarked upon the creation of an African Charter of Human Rights which will, when implemented, provide institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights.

As the OAU limps out of the 1970s, its struggle for unity will continue amid political diversity and conflicts of interest, just as its struggle for economic well-being will press on amid persistent and widespread poverty.

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