Why the Organization of African Unity survives

Even a cursory reading of the press in recent months would suggest that the Organization of African Unity (OAU), supposed symbol of African solidarity, is teetering on the edge of disintegration. The 1982 OAU summit failed because some member governments objected to the Polisario guerrilla movement being recognized as the government of the western Sahara. Some members were also less than enthusiastic about having Colonel Qaddafi OAU chairman of the year, and thus being Libya's guests for the annual summit scheduled for Tripoli.

Yet this year's disintegrating forces are not the first to have confronted the OAU, and it is worth pausing to ask why the OAU has for almost 20 years survived and commanded both African and international attention, considering it has been ill funded, ill staffed, and persistently confronted with disunity.

It is worth recalling that at its founding in 1963 the very Charter of the OAU was a compromise between different blocs and factions among independent African governments. Nkrumah's fervent hope and battle cry for ''union government for Africa'' was overtaken by the pragmatic compromises and the general perception on the part of African leaders that unity, solidarity, inter-African cooperation, and the ongoing battles against colonialism and southern African racism, to mention only the most obvious, woud be well served by a continental African organization. Reaching those goals was recognized to be a process rather than a reality. Today it is obvious that this continues to be a process rather than a reality.

In today's Africa, cynicism about the present and future coexists with a hopefulness that African peoples and the continent as a whole will somehow overcome their internal and external obstacles so that Africa will someday play a proud international role. Somehow, the OAU reflects both the cynicism and the hopefulness. Few Africans, apart from well-traveled government leaders, have either a visual conception of the edifice that is the OAU in Addis Ababa or a realistic sense of the OAU's budget, staffing, general competence, and role in African and international affairs. Yet most Africans who know of the OAU beleve it to be an important institution.

At African universities an astounding number of undergraduates and even graduate students writing theses in politics and international affairs are fixated on the OAU. They study how it was founded, its role in conflict management, and its current and future potential. Even Africans studying abroad are focusing on the OAU in remarkable numbers. At professional conferences on Africa, both in Africa and abroad, the OAU almost always commands one or more panels devoted to its affairs. The level of consciousness about the OAU and its importance as a symbol have in many ways been far more important than the realities of its shaky existence. We know that symbols are important in politics. It should not come entirely as a surprise, therefore, that as the reality of African disunity becomes ever more pronounced, and political and economic disintegration confront state after state, the OAU enjoys a certain degree of symbolic value associated with the somewhat euphoric post-independence years. Also, the OAU holds out a glimmer of hope for the future when greater unity and solidarity may once again be restored.

Clearly, the OAU needs strong visible leadership; and an experienced secretary-general of the continental and international stature of perhaps someone such as Salim Salim (Tanzania's foreign minister) would certainly help. So would some structural reorganization and, most urgently, a sounder financial footing. However, whatever changes and reforms may be forthcoming, the international community would be well advised to take the symbolism of the OAU, and thus African attachment to it, seriously. Whatever the rhetorical excess of the OAU in the past and the current state of disarray and uncertainty with respect to its future, the African continent and the international community will not be better off without an OAU.

What is at stake is Africa's ability to keep an important symbol afloat. That symbol stands for identity and dignity and a sense of autonomy.

What is at stake for the international community is also significant, because the OAU has in the past and could in the future play at least a modest role in monitoring and moderating inter-African conflicts. Such a role alone justifies international support and good wishes. Satirical and sneering commentaries from onlookers to the current struggles reflect only international insensitivity, as well as short-sightedness.

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