African Unity: memories of hope 50 years ago

Fifty years ago, veteran Ethiopian journalist Tsegaye Tadesse was a fresh-faced reporter, covering the historic signing of the charter that would bring African leaders together.

"For the first time, Africa had come together," said 80-year-old Tsegaye, remembering the heady days in 1963 when he was working for the Ethiopian Herald newspaper, covering the historic inauguration of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the forerunner of today's African Union (AU).

Set up May 25 1963 in the Ethiopian capital, the body had 32 initial signatory governments, headed first by Ethiopia's Haile Selassie, with 21 more nations joining over the years.

Before the official inauguration, there was much debate about what the role of the organisation should be.

There was tension around the idea of forming a "United States of Africa", an idea promulgated by Ghanaian leader and pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, but disputed by many others.

There was also debate about whether South Africa should be allowed to join the continental body, according to Tsegaye, with an apartheid government in place in Pretoria.

Finally, he said that there was both quiet resentment and resistance from some former colonial powers such as France and Britain. They were less than enthusiastic about seeing their former colonies gain independence and unite together.

But the backroom disputes were masked by a sense of excitement and pride once the charter forming the OAU was inked.

"Once it was signed, it was jubilation," Tsegaye said.

The organisation would face many challenges, and be frequently criticised for ineptitude and failure to resolves the crisis the continent faced.

Critics said the OAU was a talk-shop for authoritarian leaders whose rhetoric at meetings in Addis Ababa rarely reflected any effort in their own nation to follow the most basic of human rights or freedoms.

But, at least on its founding day, there was a sense of hope and pride.

Set up to promote the "unity and solidarity of African states" as well as to boost "efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa", those who can remember the time of the signing say it showed for the first time the links across the continent.

"It was very euphoric, very exciting," said Konjit Sine Giorgis, who began working as a junior officer at the OAU in 1963. It came as colonial powers began to end years of foreign rule with African leaders taking control of their home nations for the first time in almost a century, she recalled.

"It was a special time because Africa was independent, getting independence," Konjit, now head of the AU's Permanent Representative Committee, added.

She remembered how she would deliver documents to the varied heads of state, saying she felt "privileged to witness history in the making.

"African countries were sitting together, managed to put aside their differences, and decided to come together."

For Konjit, it was the start of an important process.

"We all know that the last 50 years has been fraught with so many challenges, but through it all, we are all very proud of our achievements," she said.

The OAU was replaced by the African Union in 2002, with the pan-African bloc now including 54 members, with all but Morocco a member.