The Organization of African Unity has failed, twice in a year, to hold its annual plenary session. Riven by conflict among its members, as well as between its several groupings, the OAU no longer can claim to be an expression of any form of unity. Many inside and outside Africa fear that the OAU will collapse. Others think that it should.
Last month the OAU could not muster a quorum of African heads of state to convene its assembly in Tripoli, the capital of Libya. Two-thirds of 50 national constituents of the OAU are required, but only 30 consented to attend, many objecting to the fact that Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, the ruler of Libya, was slated to preside over the OAU if it convened. Some were incensed that Colonel Qaddafi had attempted to seat the delegation from Chad that, although Libyan-backed, had lost Chad's civil war.
Colonel Qaddafi, by refusing to accept that his clients had no mandate from the OAU, from their own people, or from the battlefield, unwittingly provided his already existing enemies with an excuse to prevent his automatic accession to the chairmanship of Africa's premier regional entity.
In August, the OAU failed in an initial attempt to hold its annual meeting. Then the problem was the Western Sahara. Earlier, at a foreign ministers' meeting in Zimbabwe, the secretariat of the OAU had admitted the Democratic Sahara Arab Republic into the OAU. (The Democratic Sahara is the national name adopted by the Polisario Front, a guerrilla movement, for the Western Sahara.) But Morocco governs the arid territory for which the front was seated, and has been engaged for six years in a bitter struggle to defeat the armed forces of the front.
Next year Ahmed Sekou Toure, the former labor leader and 24-year President of Guinea, is due to host the annual meeting of the OAU and become its chairman. Although Mr. Toure came to power as a radical anticolonialist, and for many years cooperated with the Soviet Union, he has more recently turned decisively toward the West, receiving sizable amounts of American investment, and official encouragement and praise from President Reagan's administration.
Mr. Toure, as a radical Muslim from a Francophone country, would be acceptable to virtually all of the other African states. But will the OAU survive? Should it survive?
Whether the organization survives depends on the efforts of self-appointed mediators, like President Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya, the OAU's last chairman. If they can find an amicable method of solving the Chadian and Western Saharan issues, then the OAU will continue at least to exist. The OAU will be able to stumble from meeting to meeting until a new outbreak of interstate hostility makes conciliation impossible.
Although there is no reason why the government which now rules Chad should not be seated by the OAU as the inscribed authority in its country, there is every reason why Libyan and Soviet-supported nations should want, by not seating it, to besmirch its legitimacy. For the same set of reasons, since there is no autonomous Western Saharan government fully in control of the once-Spanish Western Sahara, there should be no difficulty in not seating it and thus denying legitimacy to a guerrilla movement which is not a government.
But the politics of Africa are no less free of ideology than other regions of the world. Many African governments would prefer to demonstrate their antagonism to the monarchy of Morocco, and to side with Algeria, the principal backer of the Front. Some want at least the facade of unity, which the OAU provides, at all costs. The two instincts - to stand on principle and to support consensus - are thus in almost constant conflict.
What a quick look at the history of the OAU makes very clear is that these recent disputes only highlight basic cleavages within the continent. The OAU could not stanch the Biafran, Angolan, or Shaba wars, keep Ethiopia and Somalia apart, free the peoples of Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, and the Central African Empire from the clutches of odious dictators, or prevent Libyan intervention in the Sudan.
The OAU can claim a few successful efforts at mediation. But over the years African unity has become less and less plausible, the organization itself being more and more moribund as an effective regional spokesman and interlocutor. It wants to prevent disputes between African states and to bar foreign troops from African soil, but lacks both the joint will and the muscle. It waits to put a stamp of approval on any internationally validated Namibian conclusion, but the United States (sometimes in consultation with Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Tanzania) is actually in charge. It wants to bring about majority rule in South Africa but hardly knows how.
Yet the existence of such important issues mandates the survival of the OAU. Without the OAU Africa would truly have no voice. There is always the hope, too, that the chairmanship of a credible, strong leader could turn the tide of Africa's interstate and international relations. The dream of an Africa united is almost, but not assuredly, beyond recovery.