Name-change or game-change?

A delegate at one of several pre-conference conferences on the African Union asked the obvious question: “So the OAU will drop the ‘O’ from its name at the Durban summit in July. What else will change?”

Depending on the depth of commitment by African leaders, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) could be changed in little more than name only, or it could transform the rules of the intergovernmental game in Africa.

Rule number one has always been respect for national sovereignty and non-interference in the affairs of member states. Since its inception in 1963 the OAU promoted these principles in the context of decolonisation, apartheid and the Cold War.
But sovereignty and solidarity have been misused as an excuse to look the other way when member states abused their own peoples.

Thirty African states attended the OAU’s founding conference, and membership has grown to 53 over 40 years. Morocco is the only non-member, having withdrawn in 1985 over the admission of the Western Sahara.

South Africa was the last member to join the OAU in 1994.

The 1960s were a honeymoon period for newly independent African states. On average, the economies of sub-Saharan Africa grew at a rate of more than 5% a year from 1965 to 1973. The summit resolutions of this era reflect this optimism. But what was not on the agenda is as interesting as what did appear.

There was silence about the coups d’etat and dictatorships starting in the 1960s with the Congo/Zaire, Burundi, Nigeria, Libya, Uganda, Ethiopia and so on. Since the 1960s 25 African presidents and prime ministers have lost their lives in revolutions, yet this was unmentionable at OAU summits.

For example, the traditional vote of thanks to the host country, in 1970, in Ethiopia “acknowledges His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, for the wise and constructive influence he exercised at this session, by the depth, spectrum and wisdom of His opening address”.

At the next meeting in Addis Ababa the OAU “expresses profound and deep-felt gratitude” to Selassie’s murderer, “Chairman Mengistu, Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Socialist Ethiopia for his warm and generous hospitality”.

Discourses that develop within groups like the OAU can endure after the political context has changed. Assertions of sovereignty, solidarity and non-interference may be reasserted in the resolutions of the African Union summits even when they have been removed from treaties and protocols.

For example, the LomÃ

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