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50 years of the Organisation of African Unity

By: Peter Knox SJ

On the 27th of May the heads of 54 African countries gathered in Addis Ababa to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity.  And on 1 June, Kenya, where I now live, celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence.  These two celebrations gave pause to reflect about what independence means, whether the high ideals of our founding fathers and mothers are being realised and whether the continent’s future really is as bright as all the hype. (See )

During their 50-or-so years of independence, states have exercised various types of economy and government, from monarchy to mutliparty or one-party democracy, from benign to tyrannical dictatorship, from kleptocracy to gerontocracy, from African socialism to free-market capitalism, from military rule to anarchy, from apartheid to ‘rainbow nation.’  In a continent where local chiefs and tribal structures still hold great sway, it is not self-evident that multiparty democracy should be imposed as a natural or appropriate form of government. The ‘Arab Spring’ and partition of Sudan show us that the forging of nations with a single united narrative is still a ‘work in progress.’

Africa’s citizens have suffered under structural adjustment programmes but also benefitted from billions of euros of foreign direct aid and famine and debt relief.  We ask ourselves why our countries so endowed with mineral and agricultural wealth are among the poorest in the world. How is it that colonial-era accords still favour multinational companies which vanish the continent’s wealth in the twinkling of an eye?  And why do our leaders repeatedly sign neo-colonial agreements that allow this to take place again and again?

Our continent, in some minds synonymous with corruption and poor governance, has benefitted greatly from international bodies to keep us honest and to help us deal with our affairs.  The Commonwealth and la Francophonie have been fora in which to wash the continent’s dirty linen, and from which to ostracize members not respecting the rights of their citizens.  South Africa and Zimbabwe come to mind as examples of this cold-shouldering. Members currently suspended from the African Union are Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau and Central African Republic. The ICC in the Hague has tried many Africans and found some guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. It is ironical that the leaders at the 50th anniversary celebrations should accuse the ICC of racism and ‘hunting’ Africans. The continent has relatively weak judiciaries and seen some of the worst offences against human rights. The leaders of Kenya and Sudan are currently being indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity, the former at the request of Kenya itself. The United Nations curently has 2 peacekeeping missions in Sudan, and one each in South Sudan, DRC, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali and Western Sahara.  

During this Year of Faith, we are also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II.  At the council, the bishops called for the strengthening of international organisations, international co-operation in economic matters, for Christians to be involved in international aid, and Church participation in the international community (G+S 83-90). We are urged not to remain distant from opportunities and problems in the international community. As we engage more with Africa, we come to understand that it is a continent of a billion people with vastly different cultures and histories. We recoginse a level of complexity that defies easy labels like “basket-case” or “dark,” or even Pope Benedict’s “spiritual lung of the world.”