The Birth of the African Union

On July 9, 2002 at an meeting of African leaders in Durban, South Africa, the African Union was born. What is the African Union and Why was it formed?

While you may not of heard of the African Union, you have probably heard of the European Union with its 28 member states. The EU, to use the popular short form, is an organization of European States that developed out of the European Common Market (ECM), which in turn was founded soon after the end of World War II. The primary purpose of the ECM was to promote economic growth in Europe through inter-nation cooperation. As the result of success in economic cooperation the member states of the ECM decided to gradually move towards greater social and political cooperation through instituting the European Union.

The European Union is made of the following important institutions:

  • European Parliament (legislature) with elected members from each member country. The European Parliament is located in three different cities: the plenary sessions of parliament meet in Strasbourg, France; parliamentary committees meet in Brussels, and the parliament's General Secretariat is in Luxemburg. Can you think of reasons why the European Parliament is three different cities?
  • Council of the Europe Union. The EU does not have a president or prime minister (can you think why this is the case?). However the Council of the European Union functions as the executive branch of the EU. That is, it is the main decision making body of the EU. The Council is made of ministerial (cabinet) representatives from each of the 15 member countries. The Council meets in Brussels and Luxemburg.
  • European Commission: is the comprised of the senior European bureaucrats or civil servants. What do bureaucrats do? They are responsible for carrying out or administrating the decisions made by the Parliament and Council. The European Commission is headquartered in Brussels.
  • European Court of Justice ensures that the Community law is uniformly interpreted throughout the EU. It also has the jurisdiction to settle disputes between member states.
  • European Central Bank frames and implements European monetary policy; it conducts foreign exchange operations and ensures the smooth operation of payment systems

However, in spite of this close cooperation, the EU is not a federal system of government like the United States of America. Each nation-state in the EU maintains its own sovereignty. Perhaps over the next decades the EU will move towards becoming a sovereign United States of Europe, but at present the EU is working to promote greater cooperation between its member states. Today citizens of EU member states can travel freely without passports or visas between member states. Indeed, a citizen from Ireland, for example, can work in Germany without getting permission from the German government. This is not the case in North America; a US citizen cannot simply go to Canada and get a job without first getting a work permit from the Canadian government.

One of the most important indications of the success of the European Union was the introduction on January 1, 2002 of a single European currency called the Euro. Not all EU member states agreed to the new currency-Britain, for example, decided to keep its currency the Pound Sterling. However, most EU countries have adopted the Euro. This means that if you are traveling through Europe you can use the same currency as you travel in Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Greece!

What does the European Union have to do with Africa and the establishment of the African Union? Not much directly, but the EU provides the new African Union with a very useful model of for social, economic and political cooperation.

Background to the African Union: Pan-African Cooperation.

Cooperation between African nations did not begin in July 2002 with the formation of the African Union. Africa countries have a rich tradition of collaboration that dates back nearly 40 years to the formation of the Organization of African States in 1963

From the dawn of political independence in Africa more than forty years ago relationships between African countries have been very important. Although, as you know, there is great diversity in Africa, the many societies and peoples of Africa have shared experiences that brought a sense of unity and solidarity among African peoples and nation-states. The most relevant of these shared experiences was colonialism. [You can learn more about the history of coloration between African countries in Module Ten: African Politics]

Colonial oppression and exploitation within colonies helped unite different ethnic and religious groups in a struggle against colonialism. Not surprisingly, the feeling of solidarity carried across the national country boundaries established by colonialism. Leaders and citizens of countries that gained their independence early showed great support for the nationalist struggle in countries not yet independent. Many Africans agreed with a statement that was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s-No African is Free until all Africans are Free!

Official government support for those struggling for freedom, particularly in the southern African settler colonies of Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Namibia, and South Africa, was a central foreign policy focus of most African countries until these countries gained their independence.

Support for freedom and independence for all African countries was not the only uniting theme in post-independence inter-African policy. Most of the nationalist leaders who helped lead their countries to independence were influenced by the ideas associated with Pan Africanism. Pan Africanism, like most ideas, has different versions. But at the heart of Pan Africanism is the idea that all Africans have shared experiences that help unite them. These shared experiences are connected to the exploitation of Africa and Africans in the modern era, beginning with the slave trade and culminating in colonialism. Pan Africanists (promoters of Pan Africanism), argue that these factors unite not just the people living on the continent of Africa, but Africans in the Diaspora-most of whom had been forced out of Africa by slave trade and more recently by the lack of economic opportunity in a number of African countries.

The Pan-African movement, which began in the early twentieth century with a series of Pan African Congresses in Europe, from its very beginnings asserted that Africa and its grand diversity of peoples and societies, could only prosper economically and become free and powerful politically, if Africa was politically united in a Pan-African country-a United States of Africa. Pan Africanists were well aware of the fact that colonialism worked in Africa in part because European powers were able to separate societies and peoples through a policy of divide and rule. Pan Africanists argued that Africa could only be strong and take its place among the world's economic and political powers if it were united. An Africa divided into more than 50 countries, some which were smaller than a mid-size American state, was destined to be political an economically weak.

Early in the post-colonial era the ideal of Pan Africanism came into direct conflict with the imperative of national sovereignty. Even among African presidents like Kwame Nkrumah (first president of independent Ghana) who were strong advocates of African unity, there was a realization that unity would take a long time to achieve. In the mean time, African governments had to institute policies that would defend their country's sovereignty. Not surprisingly, policies and practices that are aimed at protecting national sovereignty have the effect of making unity between nations more difficult!

Kwame Nkrumah: Father of African Nationalism and Committed Pan-Africanist

In 1999 the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), which has the largest English language listener-ship of any radio company in Africa, asked its listeners in Africa to nominate and vote for the most important African in the twentieth century. The overwhelming winner of this contest was Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972, who led Ghana to independence in 1957 and who was a committed Pan Africanist. This tremendous tribute demonstrates the high regard that people from every region of Africa have for Kwame Nkrumah, even though he was victim of coup d'etat in 1966 and died in exile in neighboring Guinea, 1972.

You can learn much about President Nkrumah by conducting your own research on the web. You may find it very interesting to study the life of this great proponent of African freedom and unity.

Or you can go to your school or community library and see if there are any biographies of Kwame Nkrumah available. A good biography written for students is: Birmingham, David, Kwame Nkrumah: The Father of African Nationalism (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998)

In spite of the tension between the imperative for sovereignty and the ideal of Pan African unity, the leaders of independent African nation states recognized the importance of dialogue and good relationships between their newly independent countries. In May, 1963 the leaders of 31 independent African countries meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia created the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The purpose of the OAU was to establish guidelines for and to facilitate strong relationships between independent African States. The OAU Charter (a charter is like a constitution) called for greater unity among African countries, but it established principles that made unity more difficult: For example:

Principle of inviolability of inherited boundaries. The word inviolability means "cannot be changed." In putting forward this principle the leaders of African governments stated clearly that the boundaries between countries that were established by colonial rule must not be changed. Can you think of reasons why the African leaders supported this principle?

Non-interference in domestic affairs. The OAU Charter states very forcefully that under no circumstances can one country interfere in the domestic (internal) affairs of another country.

These two principles firmly established the sovereignty of the nation state as being of greatest importance to African states. In spite of the rhetorical support for the idea of unity and Pan Africanism, the OAU Charter placed strong obstacles to achieving political unity.

The OAU has done much to promote economic and political cooperation between member states. Moreover, the OAU played a leading role in coordinating opposition to colonial rule. In particular, the OAU provided support for the struggles of freedom in the settler colonies of southern Africa-Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

Africa Hall
Africa Hall. OAU headquarters Addis Ababa, Ethiopia . Also the headquarters for the new African Union

From OAU to African Union

For quite a few years commentators and ordinary citizens from throughout Africa had come to question the effectiveness of the OAU. This is particularly true after 1994 when South Africa became independent. As discussed in the previous section, the most important goal of the OAU from its inception in 1963 was to support the struggle for political independence of all colonies in Africa. This vision united all independent African countries and the OAU was able to provide leadership in the liberation struggles in southern Africa-Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

However the OAU was not as successful in addressing other important issues in post-colonial Africa. For example the OAU's strong commitment to the national sovereignty of each country meant that the OAU was not able to effective intervene in the civil wars that devastated a number of African countries. Similarly, the OAU could not intervene in the member countries where civilian governments were over-thrown in military coups. [For more detail on military governments in post-colonial Africa look at Module 10: African Politics.]

Moreover, although the OAU had an economic commission this commission did not have resources or capability to facilitate cooperation in addressing Africa's economic problems. Similarly, the OAU did not have an African Court of Justice that could help settle legal disputes between member states.

Given these realities African citizens began to ask their leaders to seriously think of reforming the OAU so that this that it would be more effective in addressing Africa's economic, political and social problems, through promoting greater cooperation and unity among the 54 independent nation-states of Africa. Some people suggested that the OAU be disbanded and be replaced by an organization that was similar to the European Union, which by the 1990s had demonstrated its effectiveness in facilitating collaboration and unity in Europe.

At the 2001 OAU summit meeting of African presidents in Libya, the leaders committed themselves to the idea of developing an African Union to replace the OAU. As envisioned the African Union would have some resemblance to the European Union, but it would reflect the needs and realities of Africa.

In the past year Amara Essy, Secretary General of the OAU, worked very closely with leaders from throughout Africa to develop a Charter (constitution) for the new African Union. After much debate and discussion the on July 9, 2002 at last OAU summit meeting of African presidents they officially ratified the AU Charter for the establishment of the AU-and the simultaneous breakup of the OAU.
African presidents meeting in Durban, South Africa initiate the African Union
July 9, 2002

Amara Essy, Secretary General of the new African Union

Flags of member countries of the African Union at closing ceremonies of the first Assembly of the African Union, Durban, South Africa, July 10, 2002

Structure of the African Union

In its structure the AU somewhat resembles the European Union, but it also reflects the tradition of the OAU. The AU will be comprised of the following decision-making and administrative organs.

1. The Assembly of the Union: The AU Assembly will be the primary decision making body of the AU and will be made up of the Heads of State of each of the 54 member countries. The Assembly of the AU will meet at least once a year it will be the supreme decision making body for the Union. The Chairman of the Assembly will rotate each year between the presidents of the member states. The Assembly in structure and function is almost exactly the same as the OAU Heads of State Summit, which also met once a year and which was the supreme decision making body of the OAU.

2. The Executive Council of the Union: will be comprised of the foreign ministers (same as Secretary of State in the US) and will meet twice a year in regularly scheduled meetings. The Executive Council will be responsible for making decisions and developing policies in areas of common interest to the member states including: foreign trade, energy development, food/agriculture, water resources, environmental protection, transport and communications, education and human resource development, health, science and technology, immigration, and social security. Foreign ministers had similar responsibilities in the OAU

3. The Pan-African Parliament: "In order to ensure the full participation of African peoples in the development and economic integration of the continent, a Pan-African Parliament shall be established. The composition, powers, functions and organization of the Pan-African Parliament shall be defined in a [future] protocol relating thereto." (from the Constitutive Act of the African Union). This is a brand new feature of the AU; the OAU did not have a parliament.

4. African Court of Justice: This will be a new institution. The OAU did not have an inter-African court. Although the powers and function of the African Court of Justice have not been established, it should assist in settling legal disputes between member countries and help secure justice against sever human rights abuses anywhere in Africa.

5. The Commission of the Union: will serve as the Secretariat of the Union. As is the case of the EU the AU secretariat will be responsible for administering the projects of the AU and carrying out the decisions made by the Assembly and Executive Council of the Union. The Commission (like the OAU) will have its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and it will be headed by the Secretary General of the African Union. The Secretariat will be comprised of AU civil servants who be recruited from and will serve in all of the member states.

6. The Permanent Representatives Committee: Just as there are ambassadors to the United Nations from each of the UN member states, so too there will ambassadors form the AU member states who will be specifically assigned the AU and who will reside in Addis Ababa. These representatives will meet regularly in the Permanent Representatives Committee.

7. Financial Institutions of the AU: The AU will develop in the near future three brand new economic institutions: The African Central Bank; The African Monetary Fund; The African Investment Bank. These new organs will work towards promoting economic growth, development and cooperation within and between member states.

8. Specialized Technical Committees: to promote cooperation and collaboration in addressing social, economic and political issues in Africa the AU will establish the following special commission which will be staffed by AU civil servants: Committee on Rural Economy and Agricultural Matters; Committee on Monetary and Financial Affairs; Committee on Trade, Customs and Immigration Matters; Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, and the Environment; Committee on Transportation, Communications and Tourism; Committee on Health, Labor and Social Affairs; Committee on Education, Culture and Human Resources.

In its composition the AU does have some similarities with the OAU, but there are also important differences. For example:

  • The AU will have a Parliament with representatives for each member countries. The Pan-African Parliament will be more representative and allow for a much greater diversity of voices to be heard than was the case in the OAU.
  • The African Court of Justice will provide a place where disputes between nations can be heard in an unbiased venue. Just as importantly, the AU will be able to hold those guilty of gross human-rights abuses accountable for their actions.
  • The African Central Bank, the African Monetary Fund, and African Investment Bank will provide strong institutional support for economic cooperation and coordination throughout the continent. Perhaps in the not too distant future the AU will institute a common African currency similar to the Euro in the EU.

Supporters of the AU point out that in addition to the structural differences from the OAU, that the AU Charter commits the Union to be more actively engaged in the affairs of the member states than was allowed by the OAU charter. Given the OAU strong commitment to the complete sovereignty of each state, the OAU was not permitted to intervene in the internal affairs of a member state. Consequently, in its 40 year existence the OAU never directly intervened to stop a civil war or human rights violations, not even in 1994 in Rwanda during the genocide that killed more than 500,000 people in the space of a few months.

The AU Charter specifically commits the AU to intervene in civil wars within member states and when there are clear indications of human right abuses. Moreover, the AU promises to promote democracy and good governance in its member states. This is a great change from the OAU charter that clearly prohibited the OAU (or any member states) from intervening or interfering in the internal political affairs of any member country.

Will the African Union be as successful as the European Union in realizing it goals and agenda? Of course, it is much too early to answer this question. Africans from across the continent have many different perspectives on this question. Some people are quite optimistic that the AU will play a positive role in promoting cooperation, democracy and economic development. Others are more pessimistic believing that Africa's political and economic problems are too complex to be effectively addressed by the any organization. The pessimists also think that in spite its Charter, some of the African presidents who make up the AU Assembly will not permit the AU develop the power necessary to effectively engage Africa's political problems, particularly if this means intervening in the internal affairs of African countries.

You can explore a wide diversity of African reactions to the AU by reading African newspapers.