African Unity Day: A Touchstone of Pan-Africanism

In Ghana, May 25th is a national holiday, with offices closed and a day off from school. It’s called African Unity Day and celebrates the founding of what is now known as the African Union.

Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was a major proponent of Pan-Africanism. As a philosophy, Pan-Africanism aims to promote solidarity among all people of African descent, whether on the continent or in the diaspora. A core belief is that the economic, social and political progress of people of African descent are all intertwined with each other and it stresses “collective self-reliance.”

One of the objectives of Pan-Africanism was consolidating power in Africa. By uniting the African nations, they would be able to compete with the United States and European Union economically, politically and socially.

The year after Ghana’s independence, in 1958, Nkrumah hosted the All-African Peoples Conference (AAPC) in Accra. Representatives from all the independent African nations, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan, at the time attended. This was crucial as it represented a meeting of not only black Africans but those countries that are also considered Arab under the umbrella of Africa.

Additionally, a representative from the freedom fighters in Algeria attended. His presence reminded the delegates of the struggle for emancipation across the continent and brought about a commitment to fighting colonialism.

In 1960, Addis Ababa held the second AAPC, welcoming the newly independent states of Cameroon, Guinea, Nigeria, Somalia and the United Arab Republic in addition to a representative from Algeria (still under colonial rule). While this conference was highlighted by a divergence of ideologies, it put everything in place for the the creation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963.

On May 25, 1963, 32 nations signed onto the creation of the OAU which had three primary goals: to facilitate the cooperation of African states, to defend sovereignty of the independent nations and to oppose colonialism. By the early 1990s all African nations were or had been a member of the OAU. (Morocco withdrew after the admittance of Western Sahara.)

Perhaps the greatest successes of the OAU were its roles in eradicating colonialism on the continent through its provision of arms and support to rebel groups and at ending apartheid in South Africa by closing ports to South African ships and closing airspace to South African planes. Criticisms of the organization are that it did not have enough power to effectively oppose human rights violations committed by member nations. In 2002, the OAU was dissolved and replaced by the African Union (AU).

The AU, in contrast to the OAU, has both a political and administrative body and is comprised of all 55 African nations.  It’s aims are similar to that of the OAU, but expand into the realm of protecting human rights and promoting development.  There are a number of economic communities, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which Ghana is a part of, within the AU largely based on regions, and there is a plan in place for the regional communities to merge into one larger community. The AU also sends peacekeeping forces across the continent as needed.

One of the questions that faces the AU is whether to pursue the idea of a federated governing body, what is often called the United States of Africa. This idea has both its supporters and detractors across the continent, and was originally a main part of the Pan-African philosophy.

Regardless of where that idea goes in the future, Ghana is all in on celebrating the unity of the African continent and its descendants across the diaspora with a national holiday to celebrate the creation of the OAU.


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