African unity: half a century’s checkered legacy

May 23, 2013 7:41 am
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Today's 54-member African Union (AU) is the successor of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), established amid the heady days as independence from colonial rule swept the continent in 1963/FILE

Today’s 54-member African Union (AU) is the successor of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), established amid the heady days as independence from colonial rule swept the continent in 1963/FILE
ADDIS ABABA, May 23 – Fifty years since African leaders gathered enthusiastically to launch a common bloc, heads of state will meet this weekend to celebrate despite a patchy record and still struggling efforts to unite the continent.

Today’s 54-member African Union (AU) is the successor of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), established amid the heady days as independence from colonial rule swept the continent in 1963.

At the milestone half century, commentators reflect the bloc’s mixed legacy: from the OAU years, when leaders shirked intervention in neighbourly nations and treated the organisation as a gentleman’s club; to the AU’s harder role in speaking out – and imposing sanctions – on nations not toeing the line.

“I’ve been working with the OAU/AU since 1996, and can attest to the progress, particularly in terms of peace and security as well as governance,” said Jakkie Cilliers, director of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

In recent years, the AU’s role in combat – such as its mission in Somalia to battle Al-Qaeda linked Islamists – has shown it can take concrete action, even if the funding for that mission comes mainly from Western backers.

At the same time, the splits revealed by the 2011 conflict in Libya – when members squabbled between those wanting to recognise rebels and those backing Muammar Gaddafi – showed its disunity and lack of global clout.

“Libya was a fractious issue with flip-flopping of member states who weren’t quite sure what their position should be,” said Alex Vines, of Britain’s Chatham House think tank.

Gaddfi’s death also stripped the AU of a major source of funding. Leaders will discuss finding backers for the cash-strapped body at a two-day summit following Saturday’s anniversary celebrations.

The AU took over from the OAU in 2002, switching its name in a bid to shrug off its troubled past.

“Most leaders were internally regressive in terms of democracy and human rights,” said Mehari Tadelle Maru, an independent analyst and former AU program coordinator, referring to the OAU era.

“But they were progressive externally because they were spearheading the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle,” he told AFP.

OAU non-interference in member states’ affairs allowed leaders to shirk democratic elections and abuse human rights without criticism from their neighbours, he said.

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