Wednesday, 4th October 2023

African unity at 60: Revisiting the 1963 Addis Ababa conference

By Adekeye Adebajo
05 June 2023   |   1:50 am
I recently visited the site of the birth of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa. The legendary “Africa Hall” located within the United Nations (UN) Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) secretariat, is now under reconstruction.

I recently visited the site of the birth of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa. The legendary “Africa Hall” located within the United Nations (UN) Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) secretariat, is now under reconstruction. A Tower of Babel, it is a massive building site with giant iron scaffoldings reaching to the sky: an apt metaphor for the unfinished efforts to build African unity 60 years after the historic meeting at which the OAU was born in May 1963. As Africa commemorates the diamond jubilee of the institutionalisation of African unity, it is worth recalling the “Grand Debate” at its creation to assess whether its lofty aspirations for unity have been fulfilled.

Not since the notorious Berlin Conference of 1884/1885 at which European imperial powers set the rules to carve up Africa, had a gathering on the continent been more significant than the 1963 summit in Addis at which the competing Brazzaville, Monrovia, and Casablanca groups were dissolved, and the OAU was born. 32 African leaders met for four gruelling days in the imperial capital of Addis Ababa to craft the organisation’s Charter. The contributions of six important “Founding Fathers” – Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Senegal’s Léopold Sédar Senghor, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella – essentially encapsulated these fierce debates. These six “Wise Men” – an Emperor, a visionary, a poet, a sage, and two revolutionaries – were mostly charismatic Philosopher-Kings, and, among their ranks, were some of the continent’s leading intellectuals.

The Emperor: Haile Selassie. The opening speech by Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, called for the unity of Africa’s then 250 million people, noting that: “An awareness of our past is essential to the establishment of our personality and our identity as Africans.” The Ethiopian monarch reflected the euphoria of the epoch, rousingly calling on the continent with the stirring words: “Our Armageddon is past. Africa has been reborn as a free continent and Africans have been reborn as free men. The blood that was shed and the sufferings that were endured are today Africa’s advocates of freedom and unity.” Echoing Kwame Nkrumah’s famous injunction about Ghana’s independence, Selassie exhorted that “Our liberty is meaningless unless all Africans are free.”

Appropriately, but without naming them, the Emperor acknowledged the struggles of heroes in the Diaspora – Edward Blyden, W.E.B. du Bois, Marcus and Amy Garvey, and George Padmore – who had contributed to African liberation. Selassie himself had belatedly embraced a Pan-African identity, with Ethiopia having been largely independent and suffering only a five-year Italian colonisation (1936-1941). But, even before South Africa’s great reconciliatory Prophet, Nelson Mandela, the Emperor noted:”Memories of past injustice should not divert us from the more pressing business at hand. We must live in peace with our former colonisers, shunning recrimination and bitterness and forswearing the luxury of vengeance and retaliation, lest the acid of hatred erode our souls and poison our hearts.”

Selassie then urged his fellow African leaders that: “It is our duty and privilege to rouse the slumbering giant of Africa, not to the nationalism of Europe of the Nineteenth Century, not to regional consciousness, but to the vision of a single African brotherhood.” The monarch used the ongoing Congo civil war as an example of the type of ethnic-fuelled crises to avoid. As the host, Selassie tried to steer a careful path between radical Casablanca “federalists” such as Ghana, Algeria, Egypt, Guinea, Libya, Mali, and Morocco and the more gradualist Monrovia Group to which most African states belonged. While speaking of Nkrumah’s political union as the final destination of African unity, the Emperor eventually embraced the gradualism of the majority Monrovia bloc by first removing the enormous political, economic, and socio-cultural obstacles from the path of continental integration.

Selassie, like Nkrumah, regarded the United States and Soviet Union as models of continental integration to which Africa should aspire. This was ironic given that both superpowers were, at the time, already conducting proxy wars in Africa that were fuelling conflicts such as that in the Congo. The monarch, however, reminded Africa about how long it had taken America and Russia to consolidate their unions, noting that: “When a solid foundation is laid, if the mason is able and his materials good, a strong house can be built.” He thus called on conferees in Addis to build a common African home by ending divisions and creating a single continental organisation with its own Charter, secretariat, specialised organisations, a development bank, and a defence system that would enable the continent’s armies to protect members from external aggression. With Ethiopia having been a founding member of the League of Nations in 1920, many of these ideas were based on four solid decades of multilateral diplomatic practice. The monarch thus urged the OAU to embrace the ideals of the Charter of the League’s successor – the United Nations – which he regarded as a protector of Africa’s sovereignty, urging Africans also to complement the UN’s efforts. The Emperor ended his speech by calling on African states to embrace the non-alignment principles of the 1955 Bandung Conference, including ensuring a nuclear-free continent.

The Visionary: Kwame Nkrumah. No figure is more intimately associated with Pan-African unity and a federalist vision of a “Union of African States” than Kwame Nkrumah. The Ghanaian leader was a widely-read and genuine intellectual, and not just a statesman. He was thus more grounded in theory than many of his contemporaries, and was impatient to fulfil his federalist vision. His speech in Addis Ababa did not disappoint. As he noted: “In the task which is before us of unifying our continent we must fall in with that pace or be left behind…. A whole continent has imposed a mandate upon us to lay the foundations of our Union at this Conference, it is our responsibility to execute this mandate by creating here and now the formula upon which the requisite superstructure may be erected.”

Nkrumah enthusiastically called for independence to serve as the prelude to constructing new societies and vanquishing neo-colonialism. He particularly singled out France, Portugal, and apartheid South Africa for criticism, while highlighting the Congo as a classic case of neo-colonialism. In support of non-alignment, the Ghanaian leader was particularly critical of unnamed francophone countries whom he accused of furnishing military assistance to their former colonial master – France – through military bases. He cautioned his fellow African leaders about avoiding the experience of Latin American states which, though independent for 150 years, had fallen prey to the U.S. imperialism as a result of a failure to create a strong Union. He then reiterated his consistent belief that Africans must seek first the political kingdom, and the economic and social kingdoms would subsequently follow. He thus called for a borderless Africa, a Common Market, and a Union Government with common Pan-African institutions in defence (an African High Command), foreign policy, common citizenship, a common communications system and currency, an African Monetary Zone, and a continental Central Bank. Nkrumah further argued for joint institutions in the areas of industries, agriculture, and hydro-electric power, insisting that a united Africa would not only attract greater foreign investment, but also create more of its own capital to facilitate industrialisation. For the Ghanaian dreamer, delaying the continental government would lead to fragmentation and strengthen the forces of neo-colonialism: words that would prove prophetic.

The Poet: Léopold Senghor. Senegalese poet-president, Léopold Senghor, was an intellectual Prophet of the concept of Negritude which sought to restore African dignity through glorifying its cultural past. As a politician, Senghor was the very antithesis of Nkrumah’s federalism, instead championing African cooperation in the economic, financial, cultural, technical and scientific spheres, while pursuing minimalist political cooperation in which African states harmonised their foreign policies. In Addis, the Senegalese poet lyrically pushed his ideas on cultural decolonisation, arguing: “The consciousness of our community of culture, our African-ness, is a necessary preliminary to any progress along the road to unity….it is on spiritual energy that we must call. We must forge together a common soul.” Senghor directly challenged Nkrumah’s federation as a recipe for disaster, instead arguing the case for gradualist integration, using sub regional organisations as building blocs for eventual continental unity. He criticised the Ghanaian leader’s idea of a Common Market as a limited customs union, pushing instead for an Economic Community that harmonised planning and promoted the free movement of goods and persons. Senghor ended by stressing the need to acknowledge that a Common Market would result in the loss of customs duties which helped protect infant industries and were vital to government revenues in every African country.

The Sage: Julius Nyerere. Tanzanian (then Tanganyika) president, Julius Nyerere, was a Philosopher-King who had translated Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, into Swahili in 1963. He often sought to steer a middle path between Nkrumah’s federalist Union and Senghor’s functional cooperation. Nevertheless, Nyerere often sounded as radical as Nkrumah in denouncing imperialism – “the slave raids organised all over Africa by those powers whose prestige was built upon the humiliation of Africa” – and in advocating for a “United States of Africa.” However, his vision recognised the realities of recently independent African states that were not yet prepared to cede their newly-won sovereignty to a supranational Union Government.

In Addis, Nyerere urged African leaders to find a “common denominator” that would enable the continent to speak with one voice. Arguing that since “none of us is prepared in the name of unity to invite Napoleon to come and bring about such unity by conquest,” the only option was to build consensus through consent. In a subtle dig at Nkrumah, he praised Senghor as embodying his “common denominator”, while noting that the OAU Charter could not be revolutionary, as African integration had to be a gradual process based on what the political traffic could bear. Indirectly chiding Nkrumah, the Tanzanian Sage noted: “A true revolutionary is one who analyses any given situation with scientific objectivity and acts accordingly.” Nyerere concluded his contribution by backing Guinean leader Sékou Touré’s idea that African states should contribute 1% of their national budgets to the liberation of Africa.

The Revolutionaries: Gamal Abdel Nasser and Ahmed Ben Bella. Two North African revolutionaries round out our survey of the 1963 Addis summit: Egypt’s Abdel Nasser and Algeria’s Ben Bella. Nasser strongly supported Algeria in the savage war of independence waged by imperial France in which one million Algerians perished. In Addis, he cautioned that “the continent faces the most dangerous stage of its struggle and following the miracle of birth it faces responsibility for life, growth and strong survival.“ As one of the foremost Prophets of non-alignment, the Egyptian revolutionary criticised foreign military bases in Africa. He condemned the UN as an imperialist tool for US-led Western powers, citing the case of the Congo and the martyrdom of Patrice Lumumba. Nasser was also critical of the declining terms of trade of African raw materials compared to the ever-rising prices for Western manufactured goods, consistently urging that Africa employ an “organising mind and dynamic nerves” to take initiatives such as creating a Common Market to tackle the ravages of under-development.

Ben Bella’s Algeria had gained independence barely a year before the Addis Ababa summit. His speech thus reflected the revolutionary fervour of a blood-soaked birth following eight years of selfless struggle against unspeakable French colonial crimes. For Ben Bella, the main task of conferees drafting the OAU Charter in Addis was clear: ”this Charter will remain a dead letter unless we take concrete decisions, unless we lend unconditional support to the peoples of Angola, of South Africa, of Mozambique and others.” Instead of a development bank, the Algerian leader called for a blood bank to support the revolutionary martyrs engaged in Africa’s liberation struggles. He then closed with his famous paradoxically immortal words: “So, let us agree to die a little, or even completely, so that the peoples still under colonial domination may be freed and African unity may not be a vain word.”

The Diamond Jubilee: Feast or Funeral? Emperor Selassie ended his speech in Addis Ababa by asking whether history would remember the conference as a bold one at which African leaders had “bent events to their will and shaped the future destinies of the African peoples,” or be “recalled for its failures, for the inability of African leaders to transcend local prejudices and individual differences, for the disappointment and disillusionment which followed in its train?” Nkrumah’s hopes of continental government suffered a crushing defeat in Addis with the emergence of an OAU Charter that entrenched the gradualism of the majority of African states. The Ghanaian leader cut a lonely and distraught figure in Africa Hall, as he sat slumped with his hands in his face at the realisation that his lofty ambitions had been soundly defeated by pragmatic reality. Diallo Telli, the Guinean first OAU Secretary-General, would soon eloquently capture the atmosphere into which the continental body had been born, as one of “complete alienation, physical exploitation and spiritual torment.”

Six decades later, as the African Union (AU) struggles to fulfil the ambitions of its predecessor’s “Founding Fathers” for a united Africa, the jury is still out on the Ethiopian Emperor’s fundamental question on how history will judge the Addis Ababa summit. Both hope and disappointment continue to characterise Africa’s continuing quest for unity. It is appropriate to end this journey back to the painful birth of African unity, with a 1999 quote by then South African president, Thabo Mbeki, a key architect and host of the creation of the AU, and a Philosopher-King heir to Nkrumah: “We were mere schoolboys when we saw the black star rise on our firmament, as the colonial Gold Coast crowned itself with the ancient African name of Ghana. We knew then that the promise we had inherited would be honoured. The African giant was awakening! But it came to pass that the march of African time snatched away that promise. Very little seemed to remain along its path except the footprints of despair.”