Africans yearn to come and go within the continent without visas; to work where they like; and expect to be treated as if they were ‘home’ – despite being far away from the territorial limits into which they were originally born
To us in Ghana, the conference that was held in Addis Ababa in May 1963 to give birth to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was as exciting as an international football match.
Lined up on one side of the “pitch” was a group of African states known as the ‘Monrovia Group’. Most of it members were drawn from an earlier group called the ‘Brazzaville Group’ formed in 1960 by mainly French-speaking countries. (Initially, the group was known as the “Afro-Malagasy Union”)
The countries in this ‘Brazzaville Group were Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Cote d’lvoire, Dahomey (Benin), Gabon, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, the Central African Republic, Senegal and Chad. Later, the Group was expanded to include Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Togo, Tunisia and Congo (Kinshasa).
On the other side of the pitch were the “Casablanca Group” The Casablanca Group emerged in 1961 and comprised seven countries: Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Libya, Mali, and Morocco.
Now, it was not only Dr Kwame Nkrumah who was tremendously disheartened by the existence of the Monrovia and Casablanca Groups in Africa. President Sekou Toure of Guinea (a member of the Casablanca Group) was also unhappy and he linked up with Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia to try and organise a conference of the foreign ministers of the two groups, preparatory to a summit of their heads state.
Nkrumah heard of this and was irritated that his former ally, Sekou Toure, seemed to be tying to steal Nkrumah’s thunder as the unacknowledged ‘father of African unity. So he set his own secret diplomatic moves in motion to get the Monrovia and Casablanca Groups to merge and form a common organisation. He dispatched one of his most trusted aides, Kwesi Armah (better known as Ghana’s High Commissioner in London), to Liberia to see President William Tubman, who was widely respected as one of the ‘old wise men’ of Africa. Tubman had won this respect despite his country’s extremely close ties to America.
Nkrumah’s message spurred Tubman to convince his fellow members of the Monrovia Group that the pressing issues facing the world and Africa – disarmament, the Cold War, non-alignment, economic co-operation with each other and with other nations, and, above all, how to safeguard the independence recently won by African and Asian nations – could best be addressed in unison. After all, there was the Organisation of American States (OAS) which united North and South America; the Middle East had its Arab League; the Western Powers were bound together in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation(NATO); while the Soviet Bloc had its Warsaw Pact. Why should Africa not emulate them by forming an organisation that spoke with one voice?
But even as Nkrumah was trying to sort out the diplomatic challenges he saw in Africa, a new development occurred close to home that was disastrous in the message it conveyed to the rest of Africa. On 13 January 1963, one of Nkrumah’s bêtes noires in Africa, the President of neighbouring Togo, Mr Sylvanus Olympio, was assassinated in a coup and his Government overthrown.
Many political observers Africa and elsewhere believed that Nkrumah was behind this coup. This was because antagonism had existed between Nkrumah and Olympio as far back as the early 1950s, when the Gold Coast was about to achieve its independence and become Ghana. Part of the Gold Coast – Trans/Volta Togoland — had once been part of Togo, which was then a German colony. But after the defeat of Germany in World War One (1914-18), Togo was divided into two by the League of Nations (the World Organisation that was later to be replaced by the United Nations). One part was given to France to administer as a separate colony under a League of Nations “mandate”, while the other part was given to Britain to administer under the same “mandate” conditions. But typically, the British did not accept the simple method of administering Trans/Volta Togoland as a separate territory (as the French had done), but instead, chose the complex method of attaching Trans/Volta to its colony next door, the Gold Coast. The British didn’t, of course, bother to ask the inhabitants of the two territories that were to be brought together in a ‘shotgun’ marriage, what their own views of the British plan were.
Had the British asked, they would no doubt have been told that the plan was a diabolical one. For it would segregate forcibly behind separate borders, ethnic groups that had traditionally lived as single entities before the European colonisers came. The Ewe people in particular, were deeply resentful of this division that was imposed on them, which separated many families from one another and thus placed tremendous social hardships on them.
Fast-forward to the 1950s. The British are busy preparing their “model colony” in West Africa, the Gold Coast, for independence. But the question of Trans/Volta Togoland has reared its head. What is to be done with it? The trusteeship arrangement with the United Nations that had replaced the League of Nations mandate (after Word War Two) made it necessary to ascertain the wishes of the people of any trust territory before a change could be effected in their status. The Gold Coast was to become the independent nation of Ghana. What was to become of the Trans/Volta section of the Gold Coast? Was it to be allowed to achieve independence with the Gold Coast, or to secede and unite, instead, with the territory of which it had once formed part — French Togoland?
The politicians who ruled in the Gold Coast, led by Dr Kwame Nkrumah, wanted Trans/Volta to stay with the Gold Coast and become part of Ghana. But politicians in French Togoland and their allies in the Gold Coast, wanted “Ablode” : that is the unification of Trans/Volta Togoland with French Togoland. That, they said, was the only just thing to do, as it would bring together again, the ethnic groups that had been forcibly separated from their kith and kin.
The United Nations decided to hold a plebiscite in 1956 to allow the people of both parts of Togoland to decide on their own future. In the plebiscite, however, the people of Trans/Volta Togoland decided that they wanted to stay as part of Ghana. Olympio and his allies in Ghana were enraged. They never accepted that decision, and when Togo, in it s turn, became independent in 1960, it became a haven for opposition politicians from Ghana who had fled from Nkrumah’s Ghana. Nkrumah returned the favour and Togolese opponents of Olympio were equally welcomed in Ghana. Indeed, on the day of the coup in Togo, Radio Ghana made the mystifying announcement stating that a man called Antoine Meachi was leaving Accra for Togo! The clear implication was that Meachi would become one of the leaders of the new Togolese Government, or probably, even its leader. In fact, the architects of the coup entrusted the presidency of Togo to Meachi for a brief period, but the French, upon whom the Togolese ex-soldiers led by Emmanuel Bodjollé and Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had overthrown Olympio, were depending for money, got Meachi replaced with their own candidate, Mr Nicholas Grunitzky.
Of course, the Togolese affair played into the hands of all those who suspected Nkrumah of seeking to dominate the African scene by subverting the regimes of other African states, especially, his immediate neighbours. So his overtures to other African states in relation to African unity were received with a pinch of salt. However, Emperor Haile Selassie and President Tubman, among others, deduced that even if he harboured ambitions to replace some African leaders with his own henchmen, Nkrumah would be much easier to control if he was inside the same organisational “tent” with them, than if he was left outside in isolation to piss into the tent.
With the psychological preparation done, a series of meetings were held level to seek views on how to proceed. It was agreed that the foreign ministers of Africa should meet in Addis Ababa in May 1963 to prepare an agenda for an African summit conference at the same venue immediately afterwards. Despite the well-known disagreement over whether a continental government should be formed immediately or step-by-step, agreement was reached on a Charter which set out the articles of a body to be known as the Organisation of African unity (OA). The Charter was signed on 25 May 1963. That date has become known as “African Day” The Charter did not meet everyone’s expectations, but was adopted as a document that would be improved by future generations. And indeed, the organisation keep changing. Several new Articles have been added to the original Charter and the organisation itself has undergone a transformation in name, It is now called the African Union. It is for generations of Africans yet unborn to scrutinise it and reshape it until it comes as close as possible to meeting the aspirations of the African people as a whole.
For Africans deserve to be able, like their European counterparts, to come and go without visas; to work where they like, within their continent; and expect to be treated as if they were “home” – despite being far away, geographically speaking, from the territorial limits into which they were originally born. Africans also want to be able to trade with one another without paying customs duty on the goods they export or import; to be able to buy and sell goods everywhere in Africa without needing to change money.
Those were the dreams of our fathers. And it must be the goal of all of us to ensure that the dreams become a reality. In our lifetime.
* Cameron Duodu is a Ghanaian journalist and writer.