Ever since the winds of change swept through post-World War II Africa and brought independence to virtually all the continent, Africa has been trying to catch up with the rest of the modern world and to play a world role commensurate with its size, population, and resources.
The struggle continues to be a hard one.
One of the main vehicles Africans have chosen to advance their cause and interests is the Organization of African Unity, due to hold its annual summit in Tripoli, Libya, Aug. 5. Next year, the OAU will celebrate its 20th anniversary.
But as has happened before, this year's summit is overshadowed by uncertainty and internal bickering - to the intense embarrassment of most thoughtful Africans.
The incumbent OAU chairman is President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya. He is due to turn over the chairmanship for 1982-83 to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi at the Tripoli meeting.
However, the attempted Aug. 1 coup in Kenya raises the question of whether Mr. Moi will feel secure enough to leave Nairobi for the Tripoli gathering. This only compounds doubts gathering over the summit because the meeting might not get the necessary quorum to install Colonel Qaddafi as Moi's successor.
If that happens, it would be because enough OAU members backed Morocco in the Moroccan effort to exclude representatives of the Polisario guerrillas from the summit. The guerrillas are resisting Morocco's annexation of the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony.
(There are 51 members of the OAU, if one includes Polisario. The needed two-thirds quorum for important decisions is 34.) The reason for Africa's uncertainties and international faltering runs deeper than a dispute over Western Sahara or a coup in Kenya. Basically it is the result of having been excluded (except at the fringes) from the modernizing process that has shaped the world politically, religiously, economically, technologically, and geopolitically over the past 500 years.
In fact, Europe did not ''discover'' most of Africa - or Africa, Europe - until the 19th century. Despite benefits to Africa from the ''discovery,'' the relationship between the two proved mainly humiliating for Africans. In most cases, one of its most unhappy consequences was to reinforce one of the deepest racial prejudices of all: that between whites (the oppressor) and blacks (the oppressed).
That is why nothing stirs emotions more deeply in Africa than the survival of a white minority government in the redoubt at the southern tip of the continent, the Republic of South Africa. Nothing unites the often-divided rest of Africa more quickly and effectively than the offense it feels at the 4 million South African whites so easily maintaining sway over more than 20 million nonwhites.
The offense is all the deeper because South Africa is economically, industrially, and militarily the strongest power on the continent. Indeed, no other African state has the indigenous industrial-military base needed to wage a modern war without outside help. Small wonder then that the OAU treats South Africa as a pariah.
Many OAU members have in fact found themselves thrust overnight as independent states with little more than a subsistence economy into this technologically revolutionary last half of the 20th century.
If they had developed natural wealth of their own, it was more often than not a single raw material already locked into a subservient colonial supply situation. Examples of this are Zambia and Zaire with their copper, Ghana with its cocoa, and the Sudan with its cotton. This makes them unusually vulnerable to fluctuations in world markets.
Post-independence discovery of valuable mineral deposits, such as oil or uranium, has helped some OAU members. Most remarkable of all have been perhaps the consequences for the vibrant giant of black Africa, Nigeria, of the discovery of oil. But even such promising developments carry with them liabilities. Sudden wealth invested hurriedly in ambitious development programs proves indigestible and socially disruptive.
Wealth, when it comes, also feeds one of the biggest curses of newly independent Africa: corruption among those to whom the departing colonial powers bequeathed sovereignty. Over the past quarter of a century, many OAU members have had to face internal upheaval as the ''have-nots'' ousted from power ''haves'' perceived as excessively corrupt - only to become themselves corrupt.
The other big curse of the continent is ethnic or tribal rivalries within states whose frontiers were first arbitrarily drawn by European colonial powers regardless of natural boundaries or cultural dividing lines.
One of the earliest basic rules accepted by the OAU was that no attempt should be made to change these frontiers except by consent. It was a bold and brave decision - still generally respected - intended to head off the chaos and Balkanization likely if efforts were made to change frontiers by force. But the consequent internal strains are often great for many states - civil war in Nigeria in the 1960s, the long civil war in Chad, and the current tensions between Robert Mugabe's Shona-speaking and Joshua Nkomo's Ndebele-speaking peoples in Zimbabwe.
The founders of the OAU hoped that in banding together they might be able better to insulate Africa from the superpower conflict. In this, they have had their disappointments, too - as proven by the current presence of the Soviet Union's Cuban proxies in Angola and Ethiopia and the arrangements by which the United States has access to military facilities in Kenya, Somalia, and Egypt.
But failures and disappointments should not lead outsiders prematurely to write off the OAU. Africans have an inherent vitality and power of survival - often in the face of hostile and daunting geography and climate.
The OAU reflects that. It survives, if only just, after two bumpy decades. It has not been able to prevent violence across frontiers. There is fighting today across the Ethiopian-Somali border, across the Angola-Namibia border (involving in this case South Africans), and in Western Sahara (with Algeria offering sanctuary to Polisario guerrillas).
Like many of its individual members, the OAU operates on a shoestring and must contend with internal divisions, none greater than that between the Muslim, Arab north and sub-Saharan Africa.
Next: Africa's future