Ever since the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, sceptics have beenr egularly predicting its imminent collapse. Now, 17 years afterward, this pan- Africanist movement has not only survived but expanded from its original 33 member- states to 50 -- the latest being Zimbabwe.
On the other hand, the OAU summit meeting, which has just concluded here, again has failed to undertake the vital reforms the organization's strong supporters believe are essential if it is to become really effective.
There is a promise, however, that these reforms will be undertaken at the next summit, due to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1981.
The Freetown meeting was important for a number of reasons. For the first time, OAU frankly faced up to the limits of African power in dealing with serious internal conflicts within one of its own member-states. A credo of OAU is that African conflicts must be handled by Africans themselves; and one of its perennial illusions has been that it is possible to create an African peace-keeping force capable of intervening when conflicts get out of hand.
Both these aspirations have been destroyed by the OAU's failure to stem the civil war in Chad, which day by day is bringing this poor and fragile Sahelian state nearer to destruction -- due largely to Libyan military intervention.
The OAU has set a time limit of two months for African governments to raise and pay for their own peace-keeping force in Chad. If that fails -- as seems only too likely -- this tragic conflict will be taken to the UN Security Council for international intervention, despite the risks that could entail.
A second important development at the summit was that, for the first time, its resolutions almost entirely omit the ritual denunciations of American, British, French, and West German "neo-colonialism."
For example, a resolution that expresses grave concern about the current military escalation in the Indian Ocean is completely even-handed, blaming impartially all the major powers for building up their military forces in the region. Both superpowers are asked to give up their military bases and not to seek to establish new ones.
Of special significance in this context was a unanimous resolution demanding that Britain should hand back the island of Diego Garcia to Mauritius. This resolution was initiated by the moderate Mauritius governemtn, which, if anything, is strongly Western- oriented.
But its remarkable octogenarian prime minister, Sir Seewoosagur Rangoolam, fears that if the United States were to carry out its plans to convert Diego Garcia into a major NATO base, his own exposed island would be drawn into a destabilizing conflict with other radical states in the region.
This, then, may be a moment for the US and Britain to reconsider the political implications of pushing forward with their current plans of making Diego Garcia into a major new military base in the Indian Ocean.
Only one set of resolutions still repeats the extremist cliches of the past -- those dealing with the Palestinian question. Israel is again characterized as "a racist state" that is described as being in collusion with "racist South Africa." There can be no mistaking the strength of African support for a Palestinian stat -- or the hostility to Israel's expanding connections with South Africa, especially since Prime Minister Menachem Begin came to office.
However, if the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Arab states that reject the Camp David accords were given a free hand in drafting the Palestinian resolutions, the Egyptians got their own way in penning OAU policy on the Middle east. Nowhere is there any hint of criticism of the Camp David accords, nor of Egyptian President Sadat's peace initiative.
Undoubtedly the most important of all the Freetown decisions affects Morocco. There now is a majority of African states (albeit only 26 to 24) that favors recognizing the Sahara Arab Democratic Republic as an independent, sovereign state. This would set the seal of victory on the long-draw-out struggle by the Polisario Front forces in the Western Sahara to oust Moroccan King Hassan's Army -- a victoyr the Polisario owes largely to Algerian support.
While the Algerians and their supporters favored an immediate decision to admit West Sahara into the OAU, more cautious counsels prevailed under the collective weight of argument deployed by influential countries such as Nigeria, Tunisia, Ivory Coast, and Senegal.
Morocco was given three months in which to enter into negotiations with Polisario and all the other parties involved in the Saharan conflict (notably Algeria and Mauritania) to work out an acceptable ending to this bitter conflict.
Since King Hassan has succeeded in making Morocco's claims to the Sahara into a great patriotic issue, it is going to require all the skills of this notable monarch to extricate his country from this conflict.
If he yields to Polisario (and thus also to algeria), he risks serious political opposition from the Army and, especially, the right-wing Istiqlal forces. But if he refuses to do so, he risks isolating himself from a majority of African states, which would then throw their whole weight behind the Polisario, thus leaving Morocco to face an even more menacing conflict.
The OAU skirted clumsily around one issue: acceptance of the new Liberian regime to a seat at the summit. Its charter takes a strong stand against political assassinations as a means of changing governments. Yet the African leaders agreed to let the unrepentent assassins of President William Tolbert take their place in their midst.
Although there was considerable support for Senegalhs President Leopold Senghor, who asked that the charter should be upheld on this principle, the issue was dodged. The new Liberian President, M/Sgt. Samuel Doe, was dissuaded from attending the conference in person, but his delegation was admitted.
However, Sergeant Doehs shadow hung heavily over the African leaders. A number of them, especially in West Africa, have reason to fear that junior military officers -- such as Sergeant Doe and Lieut. Jerry Rawlings of Ghana -- are lurking off-stage ready to act in the name of the have-nots at a time when the economy of most African countries is in serious trouble.
The economies are doubly hit by the crippling bill of oil imports and the higher cost of importing essential capital goods from the industrialized countries.