Placing Ethiopia in the Continental Organization

While celebrating the 50th anniversary of the OAU/AU (Organization for African Unity/African Union), it is imperative to critically examine the actual efforts exerted by member states in establishing and maintaining the continental body. What has come to pass in the history of the organization truly reflects the extent and level of commitment of African statesmen. Whatever credit is accorded to personalities or governments, or whatever criticisms are directed against these parties, in a way it represents the actual nature of the joint forum Africans have created. In this regard, the process of creating and maintaining the OAU/AU represents the reality on the ground and demonstrates what Africans have managed to accomplish. Here a brief attempt is made to assess Ethiopia’s role in all this.

In dealing with the nature of Ethiopia’s involvement in continental affairs one has to consider a number of factors. Wider issues have to be taken into account: the creation of a viable Pan African organization, the decolonization process and maintaining collective peace and security, while promoting Africa’s interests. Post-independence Africa witnessed differing positions on how these issues should be addressed and this divergence sometimes assumed an element of confrontation. Each section professed its own version of African unity, with distinct economic, social and political imperatives.

Generally speaking, Ethiopia’s contribution to the African struggle to create a united front surpasses the intermittent failures. Post-independence Africa did espouse the notion of continental unity but lacked the drive to overcome existing differences about how to realize the agenda. The rift that later evolved into the Casablanca-Monrovia camps began to manifest itself after the second Conference of Independent African States (CIAS) in Addis Abeba, in June 1960. So did Ethiopia’s assuming the role of bringing the two sides together. In spite of its association with the Monrovia group, the country professed a policy of neutrality and commitment to bring the conflicting sides together. In line with this, ample time and energy was spent realizing the goal of achieving some sort of continental unity.

Ketema Yifru, the accomplished foreign minister who master-minded and successfully lead the shuttle diplomacy, the closed door negotiations and all the effort that were necessary to bring the 32 heads of state to Addis for the formation of the OAU, with Boubacar Diallo Telli, a Guinean diplomat and politician, who too had an active role in the founding of the Organisation of African Unity. Diallo Telli served as secretary-general of the OAU between 1964 and 1972, replacing Kefle Wodajo.
Photo: oau-creation.com

Bringing divergent African states to a summit conference was no easy task. Neither was convincing them to set aside their respective ideologies to establish the OAU. Given the nature of African politics in that period, the obstacles Ethiopia faced looked almost insurmountable. Based on the overall spirit of the ‘continental’ Pan African Movement, particularly the decolonization process and the quest for some sort of political integration, Ethiopia prepared a draft charter for African unity which was later endorsed as the Charter of the OAU and the guide line setting the secretariat of the OAU. The organizational structure of the would-be-organization that Ethiopia proposed (an inter-state association of heads of state and government with a diluted authority of the council of ministers and a secretariat) was also accepted.

Seeking a compromise solution to the differing approaches of the Casablanca and Monrovia groups was what necessitated Ethiopia’s initiative. In retrospect, one can argue that there was no other viable alternative and Africa was not ready to entertain radical versions of associations. What Ethiopia sought and achieved represented a pragmatic approach taking into consideration the realities on the ground. If anyone is to be blamed for the weakness of the OAU and its failures to realize political and economic integration, something for which it is criticized today, it is not only Ethiopia but the entire continent because they willingly accepted the status quo.

Similar efforts have been exerted by successive Ethiopian regimes to promote and maintain what Africans envisioned when they created a viable continental forum. The country decisively intervened when the OAU faced imminent peril in 1965 and in the early 1980s, it played a role in transforming the OAU into the AU as well as the creation of regional and continental forums like IGADD/IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development), PTA/COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa), and NEPAD (the New Partnership for Africa’s Development). Ethiopian governments have pursued a consistent policy in advancing the interests of Africa. Likewise, they have played a crucial leadership role in all the periods of hardship. Ethiopia has shared the burden of collective misfortunes and enjoyed well-earned victories in the Pan African Movement. This unique commitment has earned the country the trust of Africa and contributed to its leadership role in regional as well as continental affairs.

In the meantime, though, Ethiopia exploited the chance to promote its immediate strategic interests. Efforts exerted to promote the principles of national sovereignty; territorial integrity and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries were primarily intended as protective measures against Somali irredentism and Eritrean secessionism. Even if the level of security they provided for Ethiopia remains questionable, the country nonetheless managed to introduce them as collective African tenets.

Foreign Minister Ketema Yifru (left), Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold (center), and Emperor Haile Selassie I,
Photo: oau-creation.com

Simultaneously, Ethiopia campaigned vigorously to host the headquarters of the continental organization. Apart from the prestige it would bring to the country, it would enable Ethiopia to closely monitor the activities of the OAU/AU. After an intense diplomatic battle, which brought the country into a headlong confrontation with Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Libya, it has finally managed to secure the honor permanently. These achievements, however, entailed huge commitments from the country. The financial burden Ethiopia bore on various occasions and the efforts to sustain the notion of unity whenever the Africans faltered from course and put the very existence of the OAU/AU in danger were cases in point.

Africa was at the forefront of Ethiopia’s foreign policy activities since the 1950s. Successive governments accorded special attention to developments in the region and the continent at large. As a result, Africa remained the epicenter of Ethiopia’s diplomatic efforts to maintain immediate interests and to promote collective security. These parallel objectives often proved complementary, enabling Ethiopian governments to approach regional as well as continental affairs with genuineness and enthusiasm. Yet, the dichotomy between safeguarding national interests and advancing collective values time and time again posed acute challenges, setting the country on a collision course with fellow Africans.

Nonetheless, parallel to the objective of securing national interests, there was an undeniable commitment to the ideals of Pan Africanism and the creation of some sort of continental unity.

The roles Ethiopia played in the liberation movements of Southern Africa and the peaceful resolution of intra- and inter-state conflicts equally demonstrates its dedication to the African cause. The creation and stabilization of regional and continental organizations entailed considerable scarifies on the part of Ethiopia. Besides the financial burden most of them imposed on the country, the very nature of these institutions required continuous follow ups and interventions. It also played a crucial role in representing African causes on international stages and among the world community. The process required intricate acts of balancing polarized ideological groupings in the continent, most of the time accomplished after intense behind-the-scene negotiations.

This is not to say that Ethiopia, just like other member states, did not contribute to the bad state of affairs in African inter-state relations. It frequently deviated from collective decisions and on occasions ignored African calls for concerted action against common adversaries. As a leading protagonist of African unity, it was expected of Ethiopia to exert efforts to revitalize the OAU and the AU. Ethiopia clearly failed in this regard, contributing its share to the whole process.

Kefle Wodajo, one of the architects of the OAU establishment charter, was the first secretary general of the organization.
Photo: ethiopia.gov.et

However, no one clearly defines the limit of a true Pan Africanist. Until now, much emphasis has been accorded to the contributions of countries like Ghana, Egypt, Nigeria and Tanzania as well as their respective leaders. Often these were represented as the true torch bearers of the anti-colonialist struggle and Africa’s march to unity. However, in light of the actual course the movement had taken, if not the frustrations it has endured, Ethiopia’s contributions to the continent by far excelled the combined efforts of these countries and personalities.

The main tribute goes to successive Ethiopian leaders, for African politics is predominantly the affair of heads of state and government. They played a significant role in this regard. The contributions of Ethiopian statesmen like Aklilu Habta-Wald, Ketema Yifru, Dr. Tesfaye Gebrezgi, Kefle Wodajo, Getachew Kebret, Yelma Tadese and many others were also of paramount importance. All of them, both the heads of state and the diplomats, well understood the necessity of active engagement in African politics, and the reciprocal advantages this brings to their country and the continent at large. Together they accomplished a lot in the advancement of the interests of their country as well as that of Africa.

Belete Belachew

Belete Belachew (PhD) is Assistant Professor of History at Jimma University. He specializes in diplomatic history of modern Ethiopia as well as inter-state relations in the Horn of Africa and the African Continent. He can be reached at beletebelachew@yahoo.com

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