• Briefing
  • 5 August 2013

The formation of the African Union

At the end of May 1963, half a century ago, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was established in Addis Ababa.

At the end of May 1963, half a century ago, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was established in Addis Ababa. It had noble ideals, reflecting the wind of change which Harold Macmillan saw blowing across the continent – promoting the political and economic betterment of Africa and its people, combating colonialism and defending the sovereignty of African states. Africa seemed set on a solid pathway to progress, unlike its counterparts in southern and south-east Asia.

And for a while it seemed as if that sense of optimism was largely justified. But all too quickly the wealth of the continent was appropriated by the political elites and the Cold War – often an uncomfortably hot war in Africa – distorted political relationships and stymied progress.  Whether leaders were able to maintain peace and stability, or governed well, mattered less to the West and the East than which side of the political divide they lay.  The 1970s and 80s were as a consequence, for Africa, largely lost decades.

The end of the Cold War saw a major shift in the global political dynamic. As the countries of eastern and central Europe implemented political and economic transformation programmes – not least because that was a condition of membership of the European Community, to which many of them aspired – so economic and political governance became increasingly key elements in the relationship between donors and the countries of Africa.

Fifty years on

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2001 had as their overarching ambition the reduction by half of the proportion of people living in the world in extreme poverty, with a number of other Goals focusing essentially on primary health and basic education. The world has made remarkable progress against the MDGs – largely driven by strong economic growth in China and India and other countries which had seemed like hopeless cases – but with significant progress in a number of African countries too.  That has only been possible because of the establishment of a virtuous circle of better governance and increased peace and stability, leading to stronger education and health systems supported by robust economic growth.

That progress is in many ways symbolised by the transition of the OAU to the AU in 2002.  The OAU – essentially a club of unelected elites – became a more democratic institution, more focused on the well-being of its citizens and ready to intervene in cases of bad governance or a breakdown of peace and security.  Fifty years on, it remains a work in progress, facing many challenges, including the consequences of climate change and the need to create jobs for a rapidly increasing and youthful population.

The High Level Panel (HLP) created by the UN Secretary-General to make recommendations on what should follow the MDGs reported at the end of May. It identifies a number of challenges, including those above, and rightly concludes that the global community needs to address them together.  Africa, not least through the AU, is unquestionably now better able to play a full part in the discussions which will take place over the next couple of years about the sort of world we want to create over the next two decades in “our common interest” – the final words of the executive summary of the HLP Report, and the title of the 2005 Commission for Africa report.

Vision 2063

The AU Summit which took place in May, celebrating 50 years of the OAU / AU, has focused not just on the next two decades, but on the next half-century. ‘Vision 2063′ is of an Africa in 50 years free from poverty and conflict, with its citizens enjoying middle-income status and people-centred governance.  And going back to the language of the Commission for Africa and High Level Panel Reports, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia, in his capacity as Chair of the AU, spoke of Africans in the continent and peoples of African descent in the diaspora sharing a common history and a common destiny.

That is all of us. Because the scientific evidence is now overwhelming that we are all of African descent, with Asians, Europeans, Americans, Pacific Islanders and all the rest of us coming from an extended family group of a few hundred people who crossed to the Arabian Peninsula from the Horn of Africa some 76,000 years ago.  So we do have a common history.  We do have a common destiny.  And we do have a common interest. Just like any family.