The future of one of Africa's fondest hopes is in the balance: that of the Organization of African Unity.
Nineteen of the OAU's 50 members have walked out and are threatening to boycott the organization's next summit meeting, due to open in Tripoli, Libya, Aug. 5.
The crisis comes at a time when the OAU is approaching bankruptcy and when its first genuine effort at continental peacekeeping - in Chad - is on the verge of failure.
The OAU budget for 1981-82 is about $20 million, but members have contributed just $4 million so far this year. Only 10 of the 50 members have paid all or part of their dues. Money has been borrowed to pay staff.
If its peacekeeping effort in Chad fails, the organization's prestige would suffer. Just over the past weekend, rebel forces led by Hissein Habre inflicted heavy losses of men and machinery against government troops in eastern Chad. Government forces were trying to recapture the strategic rebel-held town Oum Hadjer.
To add to the piquancy of the situation, the Tripoli summit in August will see Libya's maverick leader, Muammar Qaddafi, installed as OAU president for the coming year. Colonel Qaddafi's role in both Chad and in the events leading up to the split in the OAU has been controversial. Many outsiders wonder what effect his assumption of the presidency might have on the future of the organization.
The OAU was established in 1963, an expression of the ideal of political and geographical pan-Africanism that had buoyed so many liberation movements during the struggle for independence. But in practice, African unity has proven a will-o'-the-wisp.
The split now threatening the future of the OAU involves one of the main ethnic divides within Africa - that between the Muslim, Arab lands north of the Sahara and the almost exclusively black remainder of the continent south of the Sahara. The Arab lands have been OAU members from the outset.
Recently a crisis has developed between Arab Morocco and a majority of the OAU's black members over the Western Sahara.
King Hassan of Morocco is not the most popular of Arab leaders among other African governments. And his closer relationship to the US recently has not helped his standing with them. But the split at the moment is not pitting Arab OAU members against the rest. The 18 who have walked out with Morocco are mostly conservative, French-speaking, pro-US, sub-Saharan states.
The Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1976, when the Spanish withdrew. Morocco has since annexed the territory, but the Polisario guerrilla movement has dem'nded independence in the territory. The Polisario is actively backed by Algeria, which provides it with bases on its side of the border, and Libya. Its weaponry is of Soviet origin.
Polisario has a government-in-exile, based in Algeria, calling itself the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). It is pressing for admission as a full member to the OAU.
At last year's OAU summit, 26 of the organization's 50 members indicated they sided with Polisario against Morocco. But they refrained from pressing the issue of SADR admission to the OAU. Instead it was resolved there should be a cease-fire in Western Sahara, followed by a referendum on the future status of the sparsely populated but rich-in-phosphates territory.
Morocco concurred in this, but insisted that it would not negotiate directly with Polisario on a cease-fire. Negotiations, it said, must be between Morocco and Algeria.
There things stood until Feb. 22, when a full OAU council of ministers gathered in Ethiopia to discuss, among other things, arrangements for the proposed cease-fire. When delegates entered the council chamber, they found - between the places reserved for Nigeria and Rwanda - a seat labeled SADR. The clear implication: The SADR was being seated as a full member of the OAU.
It turned out that this was a unilateral initiative by OAU secretary-general Edem Kodjo of Togo. He had not consulted even Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, OAU president. Kodjo's apparent defense was that a proven simple majority (26 of 50) supported SADR admission, and that confronting Morocco with the SADR as a full member was the only way to get going any negotiations likely to produce a cease-fire in Western Sahara.
Morocco was outraged and walked out. The SADR representative was understandably gleeful as he took the place Mr. Kodjo had set for him.
The rest of the week was devoted to legal wrangling. Morocco argued that a simple majority was not enough to admit the SADR, an ''imaginary'' state. It said that a decision of this kind requires a two-thirds majority.
The Moroccan aim was to get a minimum of 17 other governments to join the walkout, thus preventing a two-thirds majority vote on the SADR issue. But this they were not able to do until the closing stage of the conference, when they won 18 to their side. But procedural rulings later nullifyed Morocco's effort.
Morocco says it will boycott the Tripoli meeting if the SADR is given status there.
An SADR delegation turned up March 15 for an OAU meeting in Senegal. But Senegal, the host, would not agree to seating it as a full member. The meeting was then cancelled.
This is but a foretaste of the wrangling likely between now and the Tripoli summit.