Transforming The OAU - My Take! (Part 1)

By James W. Harris

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 2, 2002

The ongoing transformation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) into the so-called African Union (AU) seems to be one of the biggest jokes of the 21st century, if we were to take into serious consideration the one person that’s mainly sponsoring it.

At a time like this when the continent is facing mounting challenges to provide the basic needs (food, clothing, housing, medical care, clean drinking water, etc.) for its impoverished peoples, the move by Libya’s Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi to unify Africa under his ‘dictatorial’ wing would be further damaging to the continent’s overall image.

Seemingly isolated from most of the world for his alleged support of state-sponsored terrorism, it also would spell serious trouble for all the nations under the umbrella of the so-called AU if the Libyan ruler, as chief sponsor, were to emerge as the leader of a new unified Africa. This would mean basically that anything that affects Libya, naturally would affect the union as a whole. Or, wouldn’t it? It certainly is a scary idea no matter how one looks at it.

When Ghana’s famous son, the late Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Tanzania’s Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, amongst a host of other prominent African leaders, met in May, 1963, in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to initially discuss the formation of such a union, theirs were a genuine effort to integrate the whole continent for the common good of all its peoples. Before then, there were a lot of rivalry between Africa’s so-called ‘progressives’ on one hand, and the continent’s so-called ‘conservative aristocrats’, on the other. As the result, two groups emerged based primarily on their chosen ideology and timetable for the pursuance of complete unity of Africa.

One group, the Casablanca Group (the smaller or “radical’ group), led by Ghana and Guinea, wanted to move very quickly in forming an African union, while the other, the Monrovia Group (which had a larger membership), and led by Liberia and Nigeria, wanted to go slowly.

Although they were bitterly divided along ideological lines, leaders of the 32 “independent” African nations that attended the Addis Ababa summit overcame all obstacles, thereby, laying the solid foundation for what is today known as the OAU.

At first, it was very difficult to bring the two groups together as one would imagine, mainly because of their ideological differences. However, due to the exceptional diplomatic skills of a young Ethiopian government official, Mr. Ato Ketema Yifru, who was the then Foreign Minister under the late Emperor Haile Selassie, both groups met finally in Addis Ababa, with the Monrovia Group, led by the late Liberian President, William V. S. Tubman, carrying the day. It was later learned, though, that the real reason why the Monrovia Group had won was because of President Tubman’s stature and personal influence as Africa’s then elder statesman, who had no chance of being elected as the union’s first Head of State, given the young Dr. Nkrumah’s rise to prominence as a staunch pan-Africanist that was widely known across Africa and far beyond.

Therefore, it could be said that it was Mr. Tubman’s selfish but clever maneuver, coupled with other little squabbles at the time that led to the slow pace of achieving an AU from the start.

While those leaders, including Dr. Nkrumah should be commended posthumously and in life for putting Africa first, they should also be equally condemned for creating conditions in their individual countries that led to instability and therefore their eventual overthrow.

As much as their collective vision was good for the continent, the failure of African leaders, who founded the OAU, to foster peace and stability in their respective countries has resulted in major setbacks to the development, physical and otherwise, of the entire continent. You see, in order for any kind of development to take place anywhere, peace and stability become the prerequisite, without which, chaos results as we are now witnessing throughout the African continent.

Sadly today, egotism and the naked greed for power at all costs on the part of many leaders of the OAU seem to be the primary reason why peace and stability on the African continent remain far-fetched. And in order to stay in power for life, many of them (leaders) usually go to the very extreme beyond all common reasoning [sense], using utterly repressive methods to silence their opponents or critics.

Interestingly, unlike the 60’s when various African governments used repression based solely on ideological lines (i.e. unlawfully jailing an opponent because he or she had questioned a particular leader’s alliance, with, say, a communist regime), leaders in today’s Africa use repression exclusively for their own selfish interests (i.e. the criminal accumulation of wealth) at the detriment of whole societies.

But in spite of their collective human failings and shortcomings, the leaders of many countries that originally founded the OAU were very instrumental and dedicated in ridding the continent of colonialism, which at that time, had a very tight grip on most of Africa.

One can only hope and pray that the instability and chaos presently engulfing the continent would lead to some kind of house-cleaning, in which today’s strong-arm dictators would become relics of the past and replaced conveniently with popularly elected governments.

But to really understand why Colonel Gaddafi would be the wrong person at this particular time to lead the new AU, as his personal involvement and drive are showing, one has to understand his mindset. Already, some of his blind supporters have begun to praise him for his efforts, even crediting him for being the first to propose the idea of an African Union. As you may have read in earlier paragraphs in this article or elsewhere, that claim is far from the truth as the whole idea of Africa uniting under one government [or Pan-Africanism as it is sometimes referred to] goes as far back as the 18th century.

However, the biggest skepticism Africans should have about the Libyan leader’s ability and readiness to lead an organization like the AU at this point in time, for the ‘supposed’ common interests of all Africans, has to do with the way in which he “tightly” runs his own country today.

Propelled into power in 1969 after successfully launching a military coup against the then King Idris I, the first ruler of “independent” Libya, Gaddafi immediately embarked on making radical changes in his country. Replacing the monarchy, which incidentally had drawn up a constitution, held some sort of elections and granted franchise to Libyan women for the very first time, among others, Mr. Gaddafi introduced in 1977 his personal brand of democracy, which he confidently referred to as, the Jamahiriya (“State of the Masses”).

One would think that under his system, the Libyan “masses” would be in total control of their lives and determine, through “free and fair” elections, how their country was being administered, but in reality, the so-called “People’s Conferences” and “People’s Committees”, through which government policies are implemented daily in Libya in some kind of hierarchical fashion, was nothing more than instruments used by Mr. Gaddafi to solidify his ‘permanent’ grip on power.

But despite Libya’s progress in some areas, for example, increasing its oil revenue intake to billions of dollars; attainment of a ‘relatively’ higher standard of living; implementation of large-scale agricultural projects, etc., it is still severely short on many others, particularly, human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of the press [media] and the rule of law, among others, without which, life becomes meaningless and desperately boring.

As the highly credible Amnesty International (AI) observed in one of its recent reports: “At the end of the 1980s, Libya introduced quite significant legal reforms in the human rights field with the Leader of the Revolution, Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, taking the lead in denouncing the arbitrary practices of the past and calling for the respect of human rights [in Libya].”

“However over the last few years [recently] the human rights situation [there] has seriously deteriorated with gross violations taking place systematically. These violations range from arbitrary arrest and torture to extra judicial executions and ‘disappearances’”, the report said. But you certainly don’t have to take the AI’s word! Just ask your Libyan friends, if you have any or talk to people in general. Some of my Libyans friends, who still have relatives back home, corroborated these observations and even give me a good idea about how living in Mr. Gaddafi’s Libya is really like. Personally, I wouldn’t dare to live there either – not under his rule!

With the rapid transformation of the OAU into the AU- thanks to the Colonel, who is the organization’s main financial backer - Africans throughout the continent and in the Diaspora ought to begin asking themselves some very tough questions as regard the practical impact of such a union on their daily lives, because life definitely won’t be the same ever again.

For example, are Africans ready to do away with the passports provided them by their individual governments for those of the AU [assuming that there would eventually be one central or federal government (under Colonel Gaddafi)]? Are Africans ready to put aside their ‘artificial’ boundaries [borders] and long-standing cultural differences to embrace each other truly as being ONE PEOPLE with one destiny? Would they want to live in a system, similar to the one that Mr. Gaddafi has put in place in Libya, where their lives would be run by committees or conferences from top to bottom [not bottom to top]? What’s about human rights? What’s about the rule of law? Freedom of the press [media], etc.? Will the so-called AU be any different from its predecessor, the OAU, in adequately addressing the numerous problems plaguing Africa today, including the dreadful HIV/AIDS pandemic that’s destroying countless lives across the continent?

Certainly, these are just starters, because I’m very sure that there are many, many more questions out there somewhere that need answers too. In fact, here are a few more: If Africa were to come together under one union, say, the AU, led or influenced by Colonel Gaddafi or others of his type, would Africans be free to practice whatever religion they want or would the “Sharia” [Islamic law] be the order of the day, considering the Colonel’s bias towards Islam? Would the “non-interference in the internal affairs of member states”, the clause that enables African governments to cowardly wash their hands off internal conflicts, especially those involving gross human rights abuses, cross over as the slogan for the new AU? Frankly, I have serious reservations as to whether we, as Africans, could get positive answers to many of the questions above. But you can rest assure one thing - that the AU, under Mr. Gaddafi or his personal influence, could be a nightmare for many Africans if it ever became a reality.

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