The Organization of African Unity (OAU) was formed on May 23, 1963, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, by 32 decolonized African nations. Built on Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah’s dream of Pan-Africanism, the OAU brought the opposing groups of African nations together in a single African organization. The founding members of the OAU envisaged this unity among African states as transcending racial, ethnic, and national differences. The main goal was not only to build an alliance between the African nations but also to provide financial, diplomatic, and economic assistance for those movements that were still fighting for liberation. OAU members guaranteed each other’s national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and economic independence and aspired to end all forms of colonialism and racism on the continent. The OAU officially agreed with the charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By the time it was replaced by the African Union (AU) in 2002, the OAU counted 53 out of the 54 African nations as its members.
In the context of decolonization and the cold war, the OAU saw itself as alternative. The alliance, cooperation, and unification of the numerous newly independent African states in the 1960s signified a period of emancipation and empowerment of Africa. It drew attention to the fact that solutions to problems that single member states faced after decolonization were transferable to others and made problem solving easier. It also decreased the possibility of Africa’s falling back into political or economic dependency on the former European colonizing nations. The OAU wanted to provide newly liberated African nations with a platform of their own. In conjunction with the young nations of Asia that had achieved national liberation they saw themselves as providing a third option beyond the ones of the superpowers.
While the organization promoted African culture, the agreements of cooperation also included other major fields such as politics, diplomacy, transport, and communication. Matters of health, sanitation, nutrition, science, defense, and security also became issues of joint concern. The agreement stated that disputes between states would be settled peacefully through negotiation, mediation, conciliation, or arbitration, while the organization condemned all forms of political assassination, any subversive activities of one state against another, and stood united in its battle against apartheid.
The OAU acted as referee in various border conflicts between neighboring African nations. For example, it helped to prevent the division of the national territory of Nigeria into separate countries due to armed battle between distinct ethnic groups in the Biafran War from 1967 to 1970. The OAU used its diplomatic power to strongly condemn Israel’s intervention in Egypt in the Six-Day War of 1967. It used political pressure, diplomacy, and economic boycotts to help end apartheid in South Africa. The democratic nation of South Africa joined the OAU in 1994 as the 53rd member nation.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and the host of the first OAU meeting, became the permanent headquarters of the OAU. The OAU assembly was made up of the heads of the individual African states. The organization employed over 600 staff members that were recruited from over 40 of its member states. The OAU had an annual budget in the range of $27–$30 million. In 1997 the OAU established the African Economic Community, which envisioned a common market for the entire continent of Africa.
After 39 years of existence, the OAU was criticized broadly for not having done enough for the African people. In its view it should have protected them from their own leaders who promoted corruption, persecuted political opponents, and created a new class of rich in their respective nations while the masses remained impoverished.