The Organization of African Unity

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The Organization of African Unity
Gordon S. Brown and Nicholas Cook
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Since the end of the Cold War, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) has
increasingly focused its activities on practical measures to deal with the continent’s
challenges of intra- and inter-state conflict and good governance. The organization will
probably be reconstituted in 2002 as the African Union, but its effectiveness will continue
to be challenged by chronic budgetary weakness and concern by some member states that
its activities could constitute intervention in their internal affairs. It is nonetheless
moving slowly to develop a more meaningful role and in particular is building up its
capacity to play an expanded role in conflict prevention. U.S. assistance dedicated to the
OAU’s conflict resolution activities expired in FY1998.
Founded in 1963 during the era of decolonization, the Organization of African Unity
(OAU) has as its primary charter objective the promotion of unity and solidarity among
African states. The OAU has served over the years as the primary forum for negotiating1
disputes among its 53 members and for forging common positions on African issues such
as decolonization and apartheid. The organization, however, has been widely seen as
ineffective in addressing intra- or inter-state conflict among its members. It has often been
precluded from playing a more active role in that area because the principles of national
sovereignty and non-intervention in member states’ affairs, written into its charter, have
been strictly interpreted by member governments so as to avoid any interference in
disputes they considered internal.
The OAU’s supreme organ is the Assembly of Heads of State and Government,
which meets annually, taking decisions by consensus. The Assembly’s work is
supplemented by bi-annual meetings of the Foreign Ministers, plus several standing
Commissions, but the organization’s day-to-day activities are carried out by a General
Secretariat based in Addis Ababa. The Secretary General, currently Salim Ahmed Salim

1 All African states are members except for Morocco, which withdrew over the organization’s
stance on the Western Sahara issue. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is a member.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress

of Tanzania, (whose current four-year term expires in 2002) is the effective voice of the
organization between Assembly meetings, but lacks substantive executive powers.
The OAU’s activities are hampered by a perpetual lack of resources. The operating
budget has stagnated at about $30 million per year for some time, and a large number of
members do not pay their annual assessments on a timely basis, if at all. Even though the
voting rights of members have been suspended at times due to non-payment, the
organization continues to suffer from budget shortfalls and arrears of almost $50 million.
Objectives and Priorities
Since the end of the Cold War and the elimination of apartheid, the OAU has
gradually directed its focus toward its second Charter objective, that of achieving a better
life for the peoples of Africa. It has developed a priority agenda which encompasses
regional socio-economic cooperation, integration and development, democratization and
good governance, and the promotion of human rights and the rule of law. Within that very
broad spectrum of possible activities, the organization has chosen to concentrate its limited
resources primarily on conflict prevention and resolution, arguing that the socio-economic2
agenda is not achievable without first reducing the scourge of local conflicts.
Conflict Avoidance and Resolution
The OAU Charter calls for the peaceful settlement of disputes between members.
Originally, it provided for a Commission of Mediation, Conciliation and Arbitration. The
Commission was never effective; hampered by the principle of non-intervention and
ignored by member states, it was eliminated in 1970. The conflict resolution role was
assumed, to the extent possible, by the Secretaries General. Facing the same constraints,
however, they had to limit their role largely to ad hoc efforts to mediate existing conflicts
or provide good offices for resolution. Clear successes were few, mainly on border3
disputes. Moreover, the failures of its two substantial interventions (an OAU-organized
peacekeeping force sent to Chad in 1982 and an underfunded Military Observer Group
sent to Rwanda in 1991), to some degree inoculated the organization against an activist
role in peacekeeping.
By the 1990s, U.S.-Soviet competition in Africa came to an end, but crippling intra-
and inter-state conflict on the continent persisted and even expanded. A consensus began
to develop among African leaders that envisaged a more dynamic OAU role in conflict
resolution – a goal championed by the then new Secretary General Salim. Salim prepared
a report for the 1992 Assembly, in which he proposed the abandonment of the strictly ad
hoc approach to conflict management and the establishment of a permanent and proactive
body. This body, to be known as the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management
and Resolution, was tasked primarily with conflict prevention. In the following year, and

2 OAU, “Enhancing Peace and Security in Africa: the OAU’s Program for Strengthening the
Conflict Management Center,” Addis Ababa, October 1999.
3 “An Assessment of the OAU Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution,”
Monde Muyangwa and Margaret Vogt, International Peace Academy, 2000.

in spite of member states’ concerns about its possible impingement on their sovereignty,
the Assembly agreed to establish the Mechanism.
The Mechanism. When the Mechanism was established, it was given the primary
mission of conflict prevention. This is both because that role was less threatening to the
sovereignty of member states and because the organization did not have the managerial or
financial capability to undertake peacekeeping operations. The Mechanism was provided
with an executive council, called the Central Organ and consisting of 15 member states,
which is elected annually and meets regularly at the level of Ambassadors to the OAU. It
also has a permanent body, the Conflict Management Center (or CMC), set up within the
Political Affairs Division of the Secretariat. The CMC is designed to provide the Secretary
General and the Central Organ with early warning information, analysis, and options for
action that would allow the OAU to play an active role in conflict prevention, management
or even resolution. It is financed through a Special Peace Fund, to which 6% of the OAU’s
annual budget is dedicated. This fund can also receive voluntary donations from member
states and other donors both within and outside of Africa. In setting up the Mechanism,
the Assembly provided a capacity for creation of observer missions to areas of conflict but
explicitly discouraged OAU engagement in peacekeeping. Instead, it encouraged recourse
to the U.N. for such expensive and difficult operations.
The Mechanism and the CMC have now been in operation for over 5 years and have
had some limited successes but have suffered from the OAU’s lack of resources. Until
2000, the CMC operated with a permanent staff of only 14, scarcely enough to perform
its basic function of providing the Secretary General with early warning information about
potential conflicts, much less their prevention. Although the permanent staff has since
been increased to 23 in an effort to build up its early warning and analysis capability, the
CMC is still dependent on outside donors to flesh out its planned roster of almost fifty
employees. Cooperation with the U.N. is substantial and growing, with standing liaison
arrangements with the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations providing for regular
exchanges of information and the U.N. Development Program providing five staff
members and other support to the CMC.4 The European Union also provides assistance.
The CMC’s current objective is to build up an early warning capacity that would
allow it to provide regular information and meaningful options to the Secretary General
for possible OAU interventions in developing conflicts. Although its analytical and
institutional capacity is being strengthened, the CMC will still have to base its analyses on
open source information or intelligence supplied by its member states – a potential
weakness in the event that member states chose not to cooperate. The CMC also plans
to develop a capacity to predict areas of potential conflict and to create models for conflict
prevention. On a more immediately practical level, it has begun, in cooperation with the
African Chiefs of Staff, to develop logistical coordination guidelines and standard
operating procedures, including rules of engagement, to guide future field missions.
Recent Conflict Management Activities. The OAU’s record, since embarking
on its more activist role, has been a mixed one. The Mechanism itself is very much a work
in progress; underfunded and understaffed, its specific achievements to date are generally
seen as minimal. Two OAU Observer Missions have been deployed under the

4 U.N. D. P. project RAF/997/028

Mechanisms’s auspices: a mission to Burundi from 1993-1996 and one to the Comoros
in 1997-1999. Both were modest successes and provided the Mechanism with valuable
experience for mounting and supporting such missions in the future. Even as the CMC has
been building up its institutional capacity, it has provided the Secretary General with staff
support for his own activist role. Moreover, the regular meetings of the Central Organ,
from which emerge authoritative OAU statements of position on African conflicts, have
served to acclimatize the member governments to a more interventionist OAU role.
While gradually building up his institution’s capacity to play a systemic role in
managing future conflicts, Secretary General Salim has continued to engage the OAU in
its traditional ad hoc efforts at mediation. Faced with a plethora of regional conflicts and
continued resistance by some member states to what they see as a potentially
interventionist OAU role, he has chosen his engagements carefully. For example, the OAU
has played no role at all in the Sudan conflict, and has taken a back seat in the Angola and
Congo mediation efforts. However, Salim has kept the organization active in the search
for solutions in other areas, through well-chosen special OAU fact-finding envoys or
mediators (for example to Liberia, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia/Eritrea, and the
Comoros). His active liaison with the U.N. Secretariat has facilitated the deployment of
blue beret peacekeeping missions once the regional parties have reached agreement, while
his coordination with the African sub-regional organizations has ensured that they and the
OAU were working in concert on resolving regional conflicts.
However, the only clear conflict management success that the OAU has been able to
record was its mediation effort between Ethiopia and Eritrea, led by Algerian President
Abdul Aziz Bouteflika, and actively supported by the United States. In the other conflicts
on the continent, the major role has been played by existing or ad-hoc sub-regional
organizations: the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Liberia5
and Guinea Bissau, the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Sudan
and Somalia, members of the South African Development Committee (SADC) in Lesotho,
the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and another ad-hoc grouping in Angola. The
OAU has welcomed the role and the resources of those organizations in managing or
resolving current conflicts, seeking to maintain its own broader policy role. However, the
rapid growth of their experience and capacity may, in time, create problems of
coordination for the more slowly developing OAU Mechanism.
Humanitarian and Economic Activities
The OAU’s mandate in the fields of economic and social development, human rights
and democratization, is much larger than its capability, particularly financially. Of
necessity, therefore, the organization has tended to draw up documents that affirm the
need for common action but leave implementation to members and seek major financing
from external sources. A case in point was the Abuja Declaration of April 2001, on the
HIV/AIDS pandemic. Such approaches, of course, are not without effect, as witnessed
by the 1995 Agenda for Action, which stimulated establishment of the U.N.’s Special
Initiative for Africa as a new source of assistance, both to member states and to the OAU.

5 More specifically, the intervention was carried out by the ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group
(ECOMOG), set up in 1990.

The OAU has limited institutional capacity to deal with these issues at an operative
level. The member states’ concern for their sovereignty, coupled with the organization’s
budgetary problems, have hampered development of strong OAU institutions. An African
Economic Community, agreed to in 1994, is still awaiting ratification, as is a 1999 OAU
Convention on Prevention and Combating Terrorism. A Convention on Refugees, dealing
with treatment of refugees in camps, has been approved, but the Commission on Refugees,
Returnees and Displaced Persons has only monitoring and coordination authority and a
small program budget. Similarly, the limited staff of the Commission on Human and
Peoples’ Rights, established in 1986, has focused to date on building a baseline of country
studies from country submissions, and the Commission has made few if any
recommendations to the Assembly for action on specific human rights abuses.
...the new agenda for the resolution ofIn spite of these weaknesses,the OAU has gradually staked out
internal conflict must include thenew grounds for oversight, if not
fundamentals of governance. For, whileintervention, into its members’
classical negotiations can bring an end tointernal affairs. The 1995 Plan of
internal hostilities, it is only genuineAction, for example, dedicated some
political reform, economic development,29 of its 42 articles to issues of
and providing greater opportunity for alldomestic priority-setting or good
our people, which will act as insurancegovernance. The OAU has also been
against instability and conflict. Buildingactive in promoting democratic
democracy will require building theelections, sponsoring independent
institutions of democracy to oversee theelection commissions and sending
political process.out election observers on over fifty
-- Secretary General Salim Salim,occasions. And in an interesting but
still untested new departure, the6
Assembly took a decision in its 1999 Algiers conference not to recognize any
“unconstitutional” changes of government on the continent. Although guidelines and
definitions to flesh out the decision remain to be worked out, the OAU has staked out,
through that step, a basic position against military coups in Africa, and has accepted the
principle of sanctions against non-compliance.
U.S. Policy toward the OAU
Until the 1990s, the U.S. paid minimal attention to the OAU, limiting contacts largely
to liaison and information gathering performed by officers at the American Embassy in
Addis Ababa. Following the OAU’s shift toward a more active approach to conflict
management issues, however, it has drawn more favorable attention from the U.S.
government, and even, as in its Horn of Africa mediation effort, active U.S. support and
collaboration. In 1992, a presidential determination made the organization eligible for
American assistance; in 1994, the U.S. began to support the OAU’s conflict resolution
activities with an allocation of $1.5 million. That same year, the African Conflict
Resolution Act (P.L. 103-381) was passed, authorizing $1.5 million in foreign assistance
to the OAU annually from FY1995 through 1998, to strengthen the OAU’s conflict
resolution capability. Although that authority has expired, some Economic Support Fund
(ESF) and Peacekeeping (PKO) funds requested for FY2002 would help support the

6 OAU decision AFG/Dec.141 (XXXV) of the 35th Assembly, Algiers, 1999.

OAU’s conflict management activities in the Horn and Congo. In a parallel measure,
Congress has also authorized PKO funds to support the training of selected African
military units for peacekeeping responsibilities, under the African Crisis Response Initiative
(ACRI); the FY2002 request for such training is $20 million.
Prospects and Challenges
The OAU will soon be reconstituted into a new organization, to be called the African
Union. The change has been pushed by Libya’s leader Muammar Qaddhafi, who has
focused on Africa over the past few years. A new Constitutive Act 7 for the Union has
been approved by OAU members; it provides for new organs including an advisory Pan-
African Parliament, and approval in principle to eventually establish institutions such as an
African Central Bank and Monetary Fund. Qaddhafi’s energetic lobbying for the Union
has garnered the number of ratifications necessary for approval and – provided the
necessary instruments of ratification are deposited – the Union should be inaugurated
officially at the next annual meeting in 2002. While the terms of reference of the new
organization continue to enshrine the principle of non-intervention in member states’
internal affairs, they also include language that would authorize intervention in the internal
affairs of a member when the Assembly finds “grave circumstances,” i.e. human rights
violations or genocide.
Whether OAU or African Union, the organization will probably continue to suffer
from a lack of funding and from the unwillingness of many member states to grant it wider
powers. In spite of those constraints, the organization has been making progress in a
direction most see as positive. Under an activist Secretary General, it has gradually moved
into areas, such as democratization, human rights, and conflict management, previously
considered the exclusive domain of the member governments. Although achievements to
date have been limited, the focus of the organization has shifted, possibly permanently,
toward practical matters and effectiveness.
In the field of conflict management, in which the United States has substantial
interest, the OAU has made limited progress. It has begun to develop an institutional
capability for early intervention, to develop guidelines for observer and other missions, and
at the same time learned to share information and responsibilities with the U.N. and the
sub-regional organizations, which have played the prime peacekeeping roles in recent
conflicts. Most importantly, the organization’s new activist role, linked with actual
deployments by the sub-regional organizations, has led to wider acceptance of the idea of
international intervention in resolving Africa’s internal conflicts. However, the prospect
of a permanent, autonomous, African peacekeeping capacity, either under the OAU or in
coordination with the sub-regional organizations, remains, in the views of regional experts,
only a distant possibility.

7 Text available at