The Organisation of African Unity (OAU), established on 25 May 1963, was the culmination of a number of diverse and far-reaching historical currents and political trends both on the African continent and abroad.
Of particular import to the ideological formation of the OAU was the late 19th century Pan-Africanist movement which emerged in the United States of America (USA) among Black American intellectuals such as Martin Delany and Alexander Crummel, who drew similarities between Africans and Black Americans.
The sentiment among these intellectuals centered on the belief that in order for black civilization to prosper, it was necessary to establish their own nation free from the USA where they would be able to pursue self-determination with dignity.
The ad hoc and wavering Pan-Africanist train of thought began to consolidate itself through the scholarship of W.E.B. Du Bois, a staunch advocate of African culture and history, who propounded the idea that colonialism lay at the heart of Africa’s economic, political, and social problems.
Building on this, Marcus Garvey, a Black nationalist, further urged the return of Africans to the continent, which he attempted to facilitate through the establishment of a shipping company, the Black Star Line, aimed at transporting Black Africans back to Africa. This venture was unsuccessful due to obstruction by both the US and British authorities concerned with the future of their colonies.
On the continent itself, a number of prominent intellectuals and heads of state such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Kenya, Sékou Touré of Guinea, and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia took up the cause of advancing the Pan-African ideal.
A series of Pan-African Congresses were convened to further the interests of African peoples and discuss methods to achieve unification, and at the fifth Congress held in Manchester, England, and attended by Nkrumah, among others, a number of significant aspirations and concerns were voiced. The Congress advocated for the “complete independence of the African continent and total rejection of colonialism and exploitation in all its forms,” and called for the unification of Africa through regional blocs and the adoption of democracy.
It was these concerns that had formed the basis of Ghana’s post-independence foreign policy, and Kwame Nkrumah categorically linked Ghana’s independence to the continent’s own, recognizing that “the independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the continent.”
Nkrumah, therefore, established a series of conferences hosted in Accra between 1958 and 1960 with the aims of assisting countries still under colonial rule, fostering cultural and economic ties between countries, and considering the issue of world peace.
The vision of a United States of Africa was, per contra, not supported by all, and not as radically as Nkrumah, Sékou Touré of Guinea and Modibo Keita of Mali would have preferred it. Despite a common vision, differing ideological commitments and diverging opinions regarding strategy and structuring of a continental organization soon divided and obstructed the pursuit of unity.
Thus, between 22 and 25 May 1963, delegates from 32 African countries convened in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to establish the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), intended to form the continental base for pan-Africanism but resulting in a watered-down compromise between competing ideological blocs.
At the outset, then, complete unification seemed unattainable. The divisions rendered the construction of a union government based on a consensus of structural, military, and political institutions untenable. The OAU was thus founded with the intention that the organization would proceed, incrementally, with unification until the eventual goal of a Union of African States was realized.