THE BIRTH OF THE OAU
By CAMERON DUODU
To us in Ghana, the conference that was held in Addis Ababa in May 1963 to give birth to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was as exciting as an international football match.
Lined up on one side of the “pitch” was a group of African states known as the ‘Monrovia Group’. Most of its members were drawn from an earlier group called the ‘Brazzaville Group’ formed in 1960 by mainly French-speaking countries that had gained their independence that year. (Initially, the group was a gathering of the ‘French African Community’ countries and was known as the “Afro-Malagasy Union” or “UAM”).
The countries in this ‘Brazzaville Group were Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Cote d’lvoire, Dahomey (now Benin), Gabon, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, the Central African Republic, Senegal and Chad. Later, the Group was expanded to include Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Togo, Tunisia and Congo (Kinshasa). In “journalistic shorthand”, especially in the Western media, they were usually described as “conservative” or “pro-western”. Yet ‘pro-Western’ Tunisia was given enormous assistance to the Algerians in their fight for independence against France! So much for accuracy in the reporting of Africa by the world media!, especially, the Western media.
On the other side of the imaginary ‘football pitch’ were the “Casablanca Group”. This Group emerged in 1961 and comprised seven countries: Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Libya, Mali, and Morocco. They were regarded as “radical” or at the very least, adherents of ‘positive neutrality’ or ‘non-alignment’. But this description, again, begged many questions. The Governments of both Morocco and Libya, for instance, were both feudal monarchies. How could they be described as “radical”, then? Morocco was a close ally of France, and to some extent, the US (the Voice of America had installed a powerful radio transmitter in Tangier to broadcast American propaganda to Africa and the Middle East!) Yet, because it belonged to the Casablanca Group — indeed, the Group was named after the Moroccan city where it was born – Morocco was somehow linked with “anti-Western” sentiment in Africa. Libya, for its part, was practically an American ‘business enclave’ in North Africa. So the ‘omniscience’ of Western journalists who engaged in labelling African countries, for convenience, needed to be called into question.
Now, one of the most vociferous advocates of African unity at the time was Ghana’s President, Dr Kwame Nkrumah. He made countless speeches about African unity and published an excellent and most informative book entitled Africa Must Unite. Nkrumah possessed a sharp analytical mind and he realised clearly that there were too many contradictions in the groupings that existed in Africa, including the Casablanca Group, to which his own country, Ghana, belonged. But he was pragmatic enough to accept that he could not isolate Ghana altogether from both of them. He was, however, tremendously disheartened by the existence of the two Groups, which only served to advertise the divided nature of Africa and undermined Africa’s voice at international forums, such as the United Nations.
President Sekou Toure of Guinea (a member of the Casablanca Group) was also unhappy with the political division prevalent in Africa, and he linked up with Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia to try and organise a conference of the foreign ministers of the two Groups, preparatory to a summit of their heads state.
When Dr Nkrumah heard of this, he was irritated that his former ally, Sekou Toure, seemed to be tying to steal Nkrumah’s thunder as the unacknowledged ‘father of African unity.’ Wasn’t it Nkrumah who had saved Guinea from collapse when it declared itself independent after voting “Non” in the referendum organised by France in 1958 and the French left Guinea precipitately, leaving the country penniless? Hadn’t Nkrumah come to the aid of Guinea with a “loan” (a grant, actually) of £10 million — probably worth about $200 million in today’s money)? Hadn’t Ghana and Guinea formed a ‘Union’, to serve as a practical example of ‘African unity’, which had seemed so desirable that Mali had also acceded to it and turned it into the ‘Ghana-Guinea-Mali Union’? Hadn’t Nkrumah also given Mali £5m — probably worth about $100m US today – to help it in its own development?
Now Sekou Toure was ‘organising ‘African unity’ behind Nkrumah’s back? Nkrumah immediately set his own secret diplomatic moves in motion to try and get the Monrovia and Casablanca Groups to merge and form a single continental organisation. He dispatched one of his most trusted aides, Kwesi Armah (better known as Ghana’s High Commissioner in London), to Liberia to see President William Tubman, who was widely respected as one of the ‘old wise men’ of Africa. Tubman had won this respect, despite his country’s extremely close ties to America. (Nkrumah had a high regard for Tubman personally: Liberia was the first country in Africa that Nkrumah visited officially, shortly after Ghana became independent in 1957. Tubman, in fact, played a prominent role, behind the scenes, in helping Nkrumah to organise a “Conference of Independent African States” in Accra in April 1958 — the first Conference of its kind ever to be held in Africa. It was attended by Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia.)
Nkrumah’s message was warmly received by Tubman, who set out to convince his fellow members of the Monrovia Group that the pressing issues facing the world and Africa – disarmament, the Cold War, non-alignment, economic co-operation with each other and with other nations, and, above all, how to safeguard the independence recently won by African and Asian nations – could best be addressed in unison. After all, there was the Organisation of American States (OAS) which united North and South America; the Middle East had its Arab League; the Western Powers were bound together in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation(NATO); while the Soviet Bloc had its Warsaw Pact. Why should Africa not emulate them by forming an organisation that spoke with one voice?
To his great credit, Tubman was able to persuade Emperor Haile Selassie — his old friend from the days when there were only two independent African States in the comity of nations — to work with him to get the Foreign Ministers of both Groups to meet at Sanniquelle in Liberia, to express an interest, through the “Sanniquelle Declaration”, in coming together in a common continental organisation.
But even as Dr Kwame Nkrumah was trying to sort out the diplomatic challenges in which he was embroiled on the continent of Africa, a new development occurred closer to home that was disastrous in the message it conveyed to the rest of Africa about himself. On 13 January 1963, one of Nkrumah’s bêtes noires in Africa, the President of neighbouring Togo, Mr Sylvanus Olympio, was assassinated in a military coup and his Government overthrown.
Many ‘political observers’ and journalists specialising in writing about Africa immediately concluded that Nkrumah was ‘behind’ this coup. This was because antagonism had existed between Nkrumah and Olympio as far back as the early 1950s, when the Gold Coast was about to achieve its independence and become Ghana. Part of the Gold Coast – Trans/Volta Togoland — had once been part of Togo, which was then a German colony. But after the defeat of Germany in World War One (1914-18), Togo was divided into two by the League of Nations (the World Organisation that was later to be replaced by the United Nations). One part was given to France to administer as a separate colony under a League of Nations “mandate”, while the other part was given to Britain to administer under the same “mandate” conditions.
But typically, the British did not accept the simple method of administering Trans/Volta Togoland as a separate territory (as the French had done), but instead, chose the fat more complex method of attaching Trans/Volta to its old colony next door, the Gold Coast. The British didn’t, of course, bother to ask the inhabitants of the two territories that were to be brought together in a ‘shotgun’ wedding, what their own views of the British plan were.
Had the British bothered to ask, they would no doubt have been told that the plan was a diabolical one. For it would segregate forcibly behind separate borders, ethnic groups that had traditionally lived as single entities before the European colonisers came. The Ewe people in particular, were deeply resentful of this division that was imposed on them, which separated many families from one another and thus placed tremendous social hardships on them.
Fast-forward to the mid-1950s. The British are now happily preparing their “model colony” in West Africa, the Gold Coast, for independence, to show the world that the ‘enlightened imperialism; the British had exhibited by granting full independence to India and Burma, had not ended in Asia but would be extended to Africa. However, the question of Trans/Volta Togoland then rears its head: what is to be done with it?
The ‘trusteeship’ arrangement with the United Nations that had replaced the League of Nations ‘mandate’ (after Word War Two) made it obligatory to ascertain the wishes of the people of any ‘trust territory’ — as endorsed by the United Nations – before any change could be effected in the status of the territory. The Gold Coast was to become the independent nation of Ghana. Fine. What was to become of the Trans/Volta ‘appendage’ of the Gold Coast? Was it to be allowed to achieve independence with the Gold Coast, or to secede and unite, instead, with the territory of which it had once formed part — now called ‘French Togoland’ and also envisaged, by France, to achieve independence soon, under the name of Togo?
‘The politicians who ruled in the Gold Coast, led by Dr Kwame Nkrumah (whose undeclared ‘deputy’ was a prominent Ewe, Komla Agbeli Gbedemah) wanted Trans/Volta to stay with the Gold Coast and become part of Ghana. But Ewe politicians in French Togoland and their Ewe allies in the Gold Coast — mainly the Anlos – wanted “Ablode”: that is the unification of Trans/Volta Togoland with French Togoland. That, they said, was the only just way to bring together again, the ethnic groups who had been forcibly separated from their kith and kin by the British and French colonialists.
In line with its ‘trusteeship’ policy, the United Nations decided to hold a ‘plebiscite’ in 1956 to allow the people of both parts of Togoland to decide on their own future. In the plebiscite, however, the majority of the people of Trans/Volta Togoland decided that they wanted to stay as part of Ghana. Sylvanus Olympio and his Ewe allies in Ghana were enraged. They never accepted that decision, and when Togo, in it s turn, became independent in 1960, it became a haven for opposition politicians who had fled from Nkrumah’s Ghana. Nkrumah returned the favour and Togolese opponents of Olympio were equally welcomed in Ghana.
Indeed, on the day of the coup in Togo, Radio Ghana made the mystifying announcement that a man called Antoine Meachi was leaving Accra for Togo! The clear implication was that Meachi would become one of the leaders of the new Togolese Government, or probably, even its leader. And he was an Nkrumah protégée of sorts.
In fact, the architects of the coup did ‘entrust’ the presidency of Togo to Meachi for a brief period, but the French, upon whom the Togolese ex-soldiers led by Emmanuel Bodjollé and Gnassingbe Eyadema (who had overthrown Olympio, were depending for money) manoeuvred to get Meachi replaced with their own nominee, Nicholas Grunitzky.
Of course, the Togolese affair played into the hands of all those who suspected Nkrumah of seeking to dominate the African scene by subverting the regimes of other African states, especially, his immediate neighbours. So his overtures to other African states in relation to African unity were received with a pinch of salt. However, Emperor Haile Selassie and President Tubman, among others, deduced that even if Nkrumah harboured ambitions to replace some African leaders with his own henchmen, Nkrumah would be much easier to control if he was inside the same organisational “tent” with them, than if he was left outside in isolation, to “piss into the tent”.
With the psychological preparation done at the Sanniquelle Conference, a series of follow-up meetings were held to harmonise views on how to proceed. It was agreed that the foreign ministers of Africa should meet in Addis Ababa in May 1963 to prepare an agenda for an African summit conference at the same venue immediately afterwards. Despite the well-known disagreement over whether a continental government should be formed immediately or step-by-step, a compromise agreement was hatched on a Charter which set out the articles of a body to be known as the Organisation of African unity (OA). The Charter was signed on 25 May 1963. That date has become known as “Africa Day”
Of course, the Charter, being the product of compromise did not fully meet everyone’s expectations, but was adopted as a document that would be improved by future generations. And indeed, the organisation that was formed in 1963, keeps changing. Several new Articles — and organisational bodies — have been added to those that were denominated in the original Charter of 1963, and the apex organisation itself has undergone a transformation in name, and is now called the ‘African Union ‘. And its chief official is now called its “Chair” instead of its “Secretary-General”.
It is left to new generations of Africans yet unborn to scrutinise it and reshape it in the light of their current realities, until it comes as close as possible to meeting the aspirations of the African people as a whole.
For Africans do deserve to be able, like, say, their European counterparts, to come and go across their own continent without visas, as was the case before the Europeans came and divided up the continent among themselves in their “Scramble for Africa”; to work where they like, within their own continent; and expect to be treated as if they were “home” – despite being far away, geographically speaking, from the territorial limits which they were originally born into.
Africans also want to be able to trade with one another without paying customs duty on the goods they export or import; to be able to buy and sell goods everywhere in Africa without needing to change currency. Above all, they want a supra-national body to be able to intervene effectively on behalf of any group of African people who are oppressed or discriminated against by their own Government, or are denied their human rights by a totalitarian Government.
Those were the dreams of our fathers. And it must be the goal of all of us to ensure that the dreams become a reality. In our lifetime.