African Union Assembly. Source: African UnionSitting of the 30th Ordinary Session of the African Union Assembly [Photo: African Union©]

Nigeria played important roles in determining the final shape of the OAU formed in 1963 and its subsequent transmutation into the AU in 2001. Professor Alade Fawole maintains that Nigeria exerted considerable influence in the process leading to the formation of the OAU. The preparatory conference where the final shape and structure of the organisation were discussed was held in January 1962 in Lagos, Nigeria. The organisation – when it officially came into force – reflected substantially Nigeria’s perception, predilection and ideas of what the underlying principles should be, the institutional arrangements for driving them, as well as how issues on the organisation’s foreign policy agenda should be prioritised.

A major issue that reflected Nigeria’s considerable influence was the contention on what should be the methodology or modality for realising the African integration agenda. While there was a strong consensus on the need for integration, there were contrasting views on what should be the preferred technical framework or institutional arrangement to be adopted. The independent African states at the time were divided into two slackly ideological groups. While the radically-inclined Casablanca bloc was made up of Ghana, Guinea, Egypt and Morocco, the moderately conservative Monrovia group was composed of Nigeria and several Francophone African countries. As explained by Fawole, ‘the groups derived their appellations from the capital cities where their preliminary meetings took place’. While the Casablanca bloc was led by Ghana under the radical government of Kwame Nkrumah, the conservative Monrovia ideological bloc was led by Nigeria.

Both sides of the ideological divide clearly articulated their respective views on preferred styles or technical frameworks for pursuing the African integration agenda. The radical Casablanca group canvassed for straight-out political federation where all African countries would yield or give up their sovereignty to a supranational continental authority to be referred to as the United States of Africa. The argument of the radicals, particularly Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, was that the map of Africa was cluttered with politically and economically unviable states and that only a strong continental political union would guarantee development.

The conservatives, led by Nigeria, offered alternative ideas to counterbalance the arguments of the radicals. Nigeria’s prime minister, Tafawa Balewa, offered imposing ideas – built on functionalism and gradualism. While not totally rejecting the idea of a continental political union, the Monrovia group doubted its immediate operational relevance in the context of Africa. Rather than create an immediate federation of states, the bloc preferred the gradual approach to integration. Rationalising this position, the Monrovia group identified a number of issues that could make the idea of a continental political union totally unlikely. These included: Africa’s historical, cultural and linguistic diversity; poor transportation and communication networks across the continent; the dependence of the new African states on their former colonial overlords politically and economically; national leaders could not trade-off their hard-won independence without the consent of their peoples; and finally, judging by the foregoing, the conditions necessary for a successful political union did not exist in Africa at the time, and are still largely absent today.

Although the OAU that emerged in May 1963 at the Addis Ababa summit was the middle ground between the Monrovia and Casablanca groups, the structures bore essentially the signature of the former. Following Nigeria’s principled stand, the majority of African leaders at the summit favoured a continental organisation built on the philosophy of gradualism. Despite the seeming victory of gradualism, Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah still dissented by arguing for a politically united Africa with a common currency, common market, common system of defence, and an African central bank among others. At the end of the general disputation and debate, the summit adopted the moderate views of Nigeria ‘but for Nigeria’s mature and modest diplomacy in reconciling the Monrovia and the Casablanca ideologically-separated groups, the formation of the organisation in 1963 would not have been a reality’.

Again, it has been noted that the Charter of the OAU was substantially authored by Nigeria ‘under the supervision of Dr. Taslim Olawale Elias. Nigeria’s authorship is perhaps also attested by Sir Abubakar’s claim that he endorsed the Charter because it bore Nigeria’s imprimatur. Besides, there was a controversy on where to locate the Secretariat of the organisation. While the major contenders were Nigeria, Senegal and Ethiopia, ‘it took Nigeria’s maturity and respect for the Ethiopian leader, Emperor Haile Selassie, to give way to Ethiopia, and to also persuade Senegal to do same’.

The OAU provided the platform for Nigeria to extend its diplomatic reach and shape the outcomes of major events across the continent. Through the multilateral framework of the OAU, Nigeria championed the campaign against colonialism and institutionalised racism in Africa. As observed by Obasanjo, ‘we can now proudly say that colonialism has been completely dismantled, with its first cousin, the apartheid system in South Africa, also down and out, except for the existing challenges of social reconstruction’. In Nigeria’s view, ‘apartheid was a repugnant socio-political system and an insult to the dignity of the Blackman’.

Nigeria’s aversion for, and fight against, apartheid was supercharged by the country’s experience during its 30-month agonising civil war. During this period, apartheid South Africa, racist Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and pro settler-colonialism Portugal all supported the Biafran secessionists. Following this experience, successive Nigerian leaders became more outspoken in their opposition to institutionalised racism and colonialism in Africa during OAU summits and conferences. Nigeria also began to give open support and endorsement to liberation movements across the continent. The military regime of General Yakubu Gowon ‘unilaterally increased Nigeria’s contribution to the Liberation Fund of the OAU and buoyed the confidence level of the freedom fighters’. Nigeria’s leadership in this regard led to the dismantling of white minority rule in Southern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in 1980 and the emergence of non-racial democratic rule in apartheid South Africa in 1994.

The OAU mechanism also allowed Nigeria to contribute meaningfully to the maintenance of peace and security in Africa.

Segun Oshewolo is with the Department of Political Science and International Relations, Landmark University, Omu-Aran, Nigeria.