Just 20 years ago, in the early hours of May 26, 1963, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was born in Addis Ababa. It was an exciting moment when all the independent African countries, minus only white-ruled South Africa, stood on the point of fulfilling the kind of pan-continental aspiration that has eluded every other continent in history.
The dignified Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, the first OAU chairman, hardly turned an imperial hair as he allowed himself to be warmly embraced by the young radical President of Ghana, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. It was Nkrumah who had been primarily responsible for seeding the pan-Africanist ideas on the continent itself, having picked them up as a student in the United States.
In 1963, with the tide of African independence in its first full flood, the continent seemed to have become young again, filled with green promise.
But 20 years on, the OAU looks somewhat tattered. Its future, though not in jeopardy, seems shaken after failure twice this past year to obtain quorums in Libya for the 19th African summit. The delayed summit now is scheduled to open in Addis Ababa on June 6.
A quorum is assured for this summit, but the organization still faces nettlesome problems. These include the adamant refusal of Morocco and 17 of its supporters to seat Polisario guerrillas as full OAU members to represent the Western Sahara; the question of who should represent the government of Chad, which has gone through virtual civil war; and hostility to Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi. Qaddafi himself was the reason a number of governments boycotted the Tripoli summit.
But even before Tripoli, there were signs that the OAU was in serious difficulty. It had failed to keep alive the sense of African ''oneness'' and brotherhood that was so strong at the end of the colonial period.
The OAU was itself born out of disunity between conflicting groups. Many of the newly independent states were still sharply divided between the former English-speaking and French-speaking colonies. Both these groups were internally divided between conservatives and radicals. And there was a feeling of mutual suspicion between sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab/Islamic north.
Today, little remains of those old suspicions. But new quarrels have grown up to test the seven principles to which all OAU member-states pledge themselves: to respect one other's sovereign equality; not to interfere in one other's internal affairs; to respect the territorial integrity (borders) of all states; to settle disputes peacefully through negotiations or mediation; to condemn all forms of political assassination as well as of subversive activities; to dedicate themselves to the total emancipation of all African territories; and to an affirmation of a policy of nonalignment with regard to all blocs.
Only two of these principles have been, more or less, faithfully observed: respect for the integrity of the borders inherited at independence, and support for the liberation of territories not yet independent.
Warlike border conflicts - always risks in a continent whose borders were artificially drawn to suit rival colonial interests - have been surprisingly few: a skirmish in 1964 between Algeria and Morocco, and an unresolved conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia over the Ogaden.
The war in the West Sahara is not really over borders, but over ownership of a territory - the former Spanish Sahara. There is also a simmering conflict between Libya and Chad over their border, involving the Aozou Strip, which is militarily occupied by Qaddafi's forces.
Many other border disagreements have either been resolved or kept under careful control. If it were not for the OAU, it is widely believed that Africa's border wars would have become a factor in continental instability.
The OAU's other significant triumph has been in harnessing the resources of its members behind the liberation struggles in Portuguese Africa and southern Africa. The OAU's liberation committee has been a vital instrument for the success, so far, in the struggle against Portuguese colonialism and the independence of Zimbabwe; nd for maximizing support for The South West African People's Organization in Namibia (South-West Africa); and for the il25l,0,19l,8 pguerrilla movements operating against South Africa.
Also among the OAU successes is development of an extensive network of cooperation agencies. There is hardly a field of development in which the OAU is not involved: education, trade unions, transcontinental highways, ports and railway systems, statistics and population policies, housing and welfare, science and technical programs, and formation of a pan-African news agency.
These agencies help set up a record of advances in Africa, but the continent has witnessed many failures since 1963 as well. None of of these has been more spectacular than the setbacks on the economic front.
The worst of all the failures is the growing inability of the continent to feed itself. Population growth is outstripping the expansion of food crops, and a number of countries are producing less now than they did in colonial times.
The OAU is the frankest critic of these shortcomings. Its charter setting out the requirements for the continent's economic future remains a seminal document exposing the failures and proposing remedies for this situation. But many Africans admit the follow-up has been less than impressive.
An effective follow-up, many Africa watchers say, requires a more dynamic leadership than the OAU has provided over the last decade. The organization's moral authority has suffered.
This chipping away of moral authority is partly because of the OAU's inability to resolve conflicts among its own members and partly because of its unwillingness to act against members whose policies run counter to the charter's principles.
The OAU has no power to discipline offenders; all it has is the moral power of persuasion. It used these powers to get Libya to withdraw its military forces out of Chad in 1982; but it fumbled its first attempt at an African peace-keeping force, which was put into Chad to fill the vacuum left by the Libyans. There has been almost no attempt to discuss what went wrong in Chad.
The OAU has also seen its moral authority eroded because of its protection of the principle that there should be no interference in the internal affairs of member states. Yet, there is a difference between physical interference (subversion) and indirect interference (criticism). The OAU did nothing while millions of Africans were martyred under the tyrannies of Idi Amin in Uganda, ''Emperor'' Bokassa in the Central African Republic, and Macie Nguema in Equatorial Guinea.
When Tanzania sent in its troops to help overthrow Idi Amin, the OAU tried to maintain an evenhanded policy between victim and aggressor.
However, there has been a trend for African leaders to demand that the OAU speak out against African tyrants as much as against colonial tyrants. How, asks President Nyerere, can Africans avoid being accused of double standards when they attacked South Africa but remained silent over what was happening in Amin's Uganda?
Disquiet over the OAU's failure to act in this area led, three years ago, to the adoption of an African charter on human and people's rights. So far, very few OAU members have signed the charter.
The question is whether the OAU stands any hope whatever of reforming itself, or even of surviving. The desire to maintain African unity remains strong, because African leaders recognize its practical value.
The only threat appears to come from a small group of more radical members - led by Colonel Qaddafi and Ethiopia's Gen. Mengistu Haile Mariam - who argue that it is better to split the OAU between militants and ''pro-American conservatives'' than to preserve a figment of unity if that deprives militant Africans of a cutting edge.
Such a split is, in any case, strongly opposed by a number of influential African radicals - notably Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Col. Chadly Benjedid of Algeria, and Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola. But a Libyan-Ethiopian breakaway cannot be discounted.
There is also a possibility that the OAU will endure and continue to achieve the sort of results it has shown itself capable of in the past, even if it ignores some problems.
The really challenging question, though, is whether the time is ripe, or will ever be, for the OAU to reform itself.
Based on its first 20 years, can the OAU turn itself into a more influential continental body? Or will it remain frozen within the structures established at its birth?