Reminiscences of history on Ethiopia’s role in the founding of the OAU

3 Feb

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin

Who is the founder of the OAU?

A few days ago, by accident the mouse pointer of my computer hovered over the question: Who is the founder of the OAU? The place was on . For some reason, it caught my attention.

I felt as if it were sort of extrasensory message for me. After all, don’t they say that coincidence, which some people also refer to as telepathy, is a state of mind that represents high-level percolation of events and thoughts of personalities?

In the case of the question above, admittedly it was something already on my mind especially after the events surrounding the convening of the 18th Summit of the heads of state and government of Africa Unity (AU) in Addis Abeba from 29-31 January 2012.

The new AU headquarters, built by China, as gift to Africa, next to it is Kwame Nkrumah's statue

I knew that for days I had felt serious reservations by the unveiling on 28 January of the statue of Ghana’s first President Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, a proud son of Africa’s who had introduced the continent to Pan Africanism, standing alone. It was and is no consolation for me that underneath the statue are inscribed the words, “Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God, Africa must unite.”

Nevertheless, the effort to stand him alone left a bad taste inside me; I see it as an attempt to systematically amend or revise history, especially the decisive activities of the other former leaders preceding the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963.

Not that I think is the final authority on this matter, but my reservation was all the more strengthened when I saw its answer, which confidently states:

    The founder of the OAU is Emperor Haile Selasie I of Ethiopia. as [sic] we all know that the two blocs namely, Monrovia and Casablanca did not see eye to eye. So it was left to this magnificent leader to bring together these two blocs.

Hence, the next thing I did was to check out the African Union’s (AU) webpage if they have pulled together a page on the history of Africa’s efforts in the struggle for continental unity and its origins. Foolishly, I thought I was lucky when I saw under ‘About Us’, ‘History’. I followed it and it took me to ‘OAU Founders’ (in plural).

I clicked it. To my disappointment, I only found the same title dead and faded. The rest of the page was silent, more as the silence of an abandoned territory after war or, at its worst, an abandoned cemetery. I said to myself, I must be fortunate, since this situation has compelled me to write this piece.

Before proceeding further, I should, however, assure my Ghanaian friends and readers that there is no snippet of doubt in my mind that President Kwame Nkrumah was the initiator of the Pan Africanist movement in Africa. He even endeavored to realize his dream of African Unity, making Ghana’s external policy an instrument toward that and by experimenting sort of loose union he had tried with Guinea in 1959 and Mali in 1960. Nonetheless, as successive events had shown, it was hardly something for which the time had come.

Therefore, note that my reservation here is in no way to question Mr. Nkrumah’s thinking on Pan Africanism or his contributions to continental unity that helped Africa to play an outstanding and decisive role in the anti-colonial struggle.

The problem is, of course, for obvious reasons in Africa — almost all of it personal and a mental state of African leaders — Africa has difficulties to come to terms with the past and history. This has not been possible for the simple reason because of the manner in which African leaders seize power and exercise their powers — by force and tyrannical rule. This has put them in a constant search for subterfuges to explain away their excesses. One of such efforts is their conscious effort to subject generations of Africans to systematic and brutal historical revisionism.

For instance, why should Meles Zenawi openly and systematically discourage erecting Emperor Haile Selassie’s statue within the premises of the AU, as one of the foremost fathers of the OAU? Why should that make the long gone emperor a threat to TPLF and EPRDF Chairman’s heavily fortified power? Is that not a clear-cut denial of history?

Believe me, I was never pro-monarchy yesterday; I am not pro-monarchy today. But I can see no reason why a country, its political leaders engage in a war with the past. The least favor they could their nations is to correct past mistakes; create better conditions for today and tomorrow, instead of historical revisionism!

This incident and the subsequent thoughts brought to mind the 1999 article by a certain Seleshi Yaleh, entitled Architecturally Speaking…On Heroes and Monuments: A Reflection on Discontinuity. Its truism and eloquence, behind which lies a fellow countryman’s frustration about our leaders needless war with history has spoken to me. In Ethiopia, it has been manifesting itself in the renaming of libraries, buildings and streets. He observes:

If rulers were reluctant about demolishing all traces of their predecessors; if rulers were confident about sharing the limelight with the heroes of the day; if rulers were wise enough to reward and honor indigenous accomplishment and achievement…their monuments, I am sure, would shine and sparkle for millennia.

Ghana honors Nkrumah

I respect Ghana for honoring its visionary son by stepping forward and managing to give Nkrumah’s contributions a pride of place in history. To start with in 2009, they won the approval of the AU summit to recognize and observe September 21, the birthday of Nkrumah, as Founders Day.

Interestingly, this was followed by a vision by a Ghanaian architect and sculptor by the name Dr. Don Arthur, an official in President John Evans Atta Mills’ office. He toyed with idea of the statue and the president welcomed and gave it his approval, according to Ghanaian news source . The Ghana government then insisted to the AU that the 3.5-meter statue, cast in bronze, would only be made in Ghana and was airlifted to Addis Abeba.

The statue was unveiled on 28 January, moments after the AU headquarters building was inaugurated by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, the outgoing Chairman of the AU and Dr.Jean Ping the AU Commission Chairman, who just lost his post. A few heads of state attended the unveiling of the statue, according to news sources, possibly because many knew that something was missing that day.

Most importantly, they all must have known for a fact that, along with President Kwame Nkrumah, it was Emperor Haile Selassie, President Sékou Toure of Guinea and President Modibo Keita of Mali who in the final hours spared Africa from utter failure in forging continental unity of purpose through a regional organization.

The secret of Ethiopia, Guinea and Mali’s success was in bringing together the so-called Casablanca and Monrovia blocs, an action which eventually led to the establishment of the OAU in May 1963 as symbol of Africa’ Unity.

Incidentally, I am elated in seeing this afternoon on ESAT’s webpage that two distinguished Ethiopian Professors Mesfin Woldmariam and Bahru Zewdie have also expressed their bewilderment by what now is seen as an attempt to eviscerate the frontal role other founding fathers of the OAU had played.

It is unfortunate that some leaders and officials of the AU turned a false default state to enable them get away with unacceptable actions. In other words, the omission of some aspects of history has been utilized with convenience of the jostle and bustle of a summit and willful historical neglect and irresponsible abandonment of the home countries of the other founding fathers, i.e., Ethiopia, Guinea and Mali in particular, so much politically self-absorbed and possibly with a sense of vindictiveness against the statures of long gone leaders that have done some good for their countries and Africa.

The difficult path of Pan Africanism

When one speaks of African unity, obviously he or she cannot separate it from its origin in the Pan Africanist Movement of the early 20th century, mostly associated with Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. In Africa, Pan Africanism was given root by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, who in his student days in the United States and the United Kingdom was an active participant in the struggles and activist movements of those days.

Upon his return to Ghana (Gold Coast then) in 1947, Nkrumah first became secretary general of the United Gold Coast Convention party, established by Dr. J. B. Danquah, whom he saw as enemy when he was in power and threw him to prison. Before that, however, he fully engaged himself in the anti-colonial struggle to help attain Ghana’s independence from Britain—more appropriately, home rule at the time.

Nkrumah thought he would do better in realizing the goal of independence and his life long ambition of African unity, more appropriately, Pan Africanism, which he not only practiced as politics but also lived it with as profound personal conviction. Therefore, in 1949 he established his own party, the Convention People’s Party. With that as a mass galvanizing force, he led a series of strikes and boycotts and eventually forced independence from the British in 1957.

To his surprise and dismay, not long after Nkrumah realized that since late 1959 Africa had been getting increasingly divided into north, east, South and west and other ideological groups. In fact, the more he tried on unity the more it became nearly impossible for him to see light of his nirvana in African Unity on account of the fact that Africa’s the division was getting deeper. At the same time, with economic factors and the clash of ambitions and intrigues within Ghana itself worked against him; his popularity sank at home.

The Casablanca and Monrovia blocs

Finally, the divisions within the different groups coalesced into two blocs — the so-called Casablanca and Monrovia groups. Nkrumah himself headed the Casablanca group.

The Casablanca bloc, according to Paul G. Adogamhe (PAN-AFRICANISM Revisited: Vision and Reality of African Unity and Development (2008), consisted, among others, of Ghana, Guinea, Morocco, Algeria, Congo, Mali, Tanzania, and Egypt. They favored political integration as a step toward economic integration and a socialist path to development.

This group had within it, among others, Ben Bella of Algeria, Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Ahmed Sékou Toure of Guinea, Modibo Keita of Mali, and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. The records show that this group was the hands on type and was impatient for the task in front of them, which means they were determined and but not strategic enough.

The Monrovia group was led by Nigeria’s Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and consisted of 24 countries, with Liberia and most of the French-speaking African countries. This group favored “functional approach to African Cooperation.”

The obstacle on the way toward African Unity was the lack of mechanism or a neutral country that could bring these two groups into talking. Since Ethiopia was not a member of any of them, it was being courted by both sides, which enabled it to understand better both sides. In terms of conviction, however, its sympathy was with the Monrovia group.

Ethiopia’s successful diplomacy heals the divisions

This is where Ethiopia’s diplomacy could pay a crucial role, especially with the advantage of being not committed to any one of the two groups. However, it was convinced that something had to be done to overcome the hurdles to unity.

Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Foreign Minister Ketema Yifru, according to a brilliant rendition of his performances by his son Mekonnen Ketema, who confirmed that his father endeavored to convince the emperor that Ethiopia must belong to “mainstream Africa” — meaning the Monrovia group. After hearing out Ketema Yifru’s views, the emperor summoned his officials to a meeting he chaired. Following that, the emperor gave his approval to Foreign Minister Ketema Yifru to take a position that protects Ethiopia’s interests and the future of Africa.

In the meantime, the foreign minister who had assumed his post only in June 1961 had already been working on plan how to bring the two blocs together, with approval of the emperor. He explored possibilities to bring members of the two blocs to a meeting in Addis Abeba. To that end, he first primarily focussed on President Sékou Toure of Guinea, a member of the Casablanca group, and the Guinean delegation to get his support to work together with Ethiopia.

As Egypt organized a conference of the Casablanca group in June 1962, to which Ethiopia was also invited, Foreign Minister Ketema had held discussions with the Guinean delegation with his plan in mind. Once he was satisfied with the positive response of the Guinean delegation, he asked the emperor to invite President Toure to Ethiopia for talks with him. He agreed and President Sékou Toure had his face to face with the emperor in Addis Abeba on 28 June 1962, which put on firm footing that there was chance for the Addis Abeba conference, more importantly the two blocs to work on their differences.

The emperor had already accepted Ketama’s plan on how to bring the two sides together, convincing President Sékou Toure that the division into blocs was detrimental to Africa’s interests. Using Ketema’s plan, he persuaded the Guinean leader to form partnership with Ethiopia. Once Guinea agreed to this position, Ethiopia secured a pledge that President Toure would speak in favour of unity. Following such arrangements, the emperor sent out invitations to the 32 African countries to attend a conference of both blocs in Addis Abeba.

Everyone responded affirmatively. This required, according to Makonnen Ketema, the Ethiopian foreign minister’s tour of all the capital cities to deliver the invitation personally and discuss with the government leaders of all the countries about the conference.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia had prepared draft agenda, which according to Makonnen Ketema’s The Creation of the OAU consisted of:

    • The establishment of an Organization of African States, with a charter and a permanent secretariat.
    • Cooperation in areas of economy and social welfare, education and culture, and collective defense
    • The final eradication of colonialism
    • Means of combating racial discrimination and apartheid
    • Possible establishment of regional economic groupings
    • Disarmament

In opening the conference, Emperor Haile Selassie told his colleagues the head of state and government:

    “We know that there are differences among us. Africans enjoy different cultures, distinctive values, special attributes. But we also know that unity can be and has been attained among men of the most disparate origins, that difference of race, of religion, of culture, of tradition, are no insuperable obstacles to the coming together of peoples. History teaches us that unity is strength and cautions us to submerge and overcome our difference in the quest for common goals, to strive, with all our combined strength, for the path to true African brotherhood and unity…Unless the political liberty for which Africans have for long struggled is complemented and bolstered by a corresponding economic and social growth, the breath of life which sustains our freedom may flicker out.”

Both the Casablanca and Monrovia blocs had also come to Addis Abeba with drafts of what their positions were. Following consultations at the level of foreign ministers, after some haggling, it was reported, they all agreed to work on the Ethiopian draft, aware that it could serve as a working basis since it had combined the essential positions of both sides.

In Addis Abeba, foreign ministers of the 32 countries, represented at the conference of ministers, finally drafted the OAU charter for approval by the heads of state and government. It was signed on 25 May 1963.Perhaps, it must have surprised every one of the leaders by the speed with which the two blocs came together and overcame their differences.

That is an important contribution Ethiopia has made to the establishment of the OAU.

Fortunately, with the establishment of the OAU, President Nkrumah must have drawn some degree of satisfaction to see in his own lifetime the emergence of a continental organization that became the leader in the liberation struggles to free those peoples and countries that still were under colonialism. Ghana provided weapons, as did Ethiopia to freedom fighters, especially in southern Africa.

Three years after the establishment of the OAU, President Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown in a military coup in 1966, while he was on a state visit to North Vietnam and China. He lived in exile in Conakry, Guinea.

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