The OAU’s involvement in the Congo Crisis didn’t go beyond issuing resolutions and urging the conflicting parties to come to an agreement. As Ludo de Witte concludes, their attempts to find an African solution was “too little and too late” (de Witte, 2017: 115) and other actors and groups within the Congo, as well as the Belgium government and the US were stronger in their ability to act and overshadowed any attempt by the OAU to reconcile. Disagreement within the OAU prevented them from taking effective steps and in the historical narrative their involvement remains peripheral, or simply forgotten.

Sapin’s painting represents an artistic depiction of the historical narrative of the Congo Crisis. That the OAU is left out is telling for the way it is perceived by many Congolese. In his answers to the questions concerning their involvement in the crisis resonates an overall resentment against the organisation. This stems not only from their ineffective involvement in the first Congo Crisis, but rather in the fact that “they didn’t play a role in any of the Congolese crises.” Also Mweti Munya concludes that “the performance of the OAU in conflict resolution can be characterised by modest success in a few cases and dismal failure in most others” (Mweti Munya, 1999: 578). This explains why the OAU overall is remembered as having failed to act in a way that benefits the people, and rather is considered as benefitting only those in power and their western counterparts, as described by Sapin.

Just as in the Congo Crisis of the 1960s, the African Union, the OAU’s successor since 2002, is nowadays regarded not able to bring effective solutions to conflicts in the Congo, as in other regions in Africa. Sapin compares the OAU to “a surgeon which never succeeds with any of his operations”. He doesn’t deny their attempt and goodwill, but in general gives a negative account of the organisation, as not being able to succeed with any of their attempts so find solutions in crises. He points to the most recent example where the African Union is failing to bring peace to a conflict, which is to this day in January 2020 still ongoing. He mentions the situation in Beni, where conflict with a rebel armed group has led to multiple massacres perpetrated against the population. As Spain describes: “There are military units from the OAU out in the provinces, but they don’t do a thing! – Up to now, there is only death. There is only death – death continues.” People’s discontent with the inability of international organisations has led to widespread protests, directed mainly against the UN, whose MONUSCO forces are present in the region and have not managed to prevent ongoing massacres and even contributed to further instability. Newsreports show protests on the streets and people calling for the withdrawal of UN forces. The general mistrust against those international forces is also expressed by Sapin. He says: “If you consider this whole period which the Congolese people have lived through, there is not one Congolese person who has truly positive feelings about these organisations.” It becomes clear, that while the aspirations on state and organisation levels might be well intended, it often differs greatly to what is needed and perceived by the people.

In the following interview, conducted on the 14th of January 2020 with Sapin Makengele, he gives further insight into how the OAU is remembered, and how the African Union is perceived today. He also shares his opinion whether he regards the idea of Pan-Africanism as still relevant nowadays and, eventually, answers the question that initiated this article: Why the Organisation of African Unity is not depicted in his painting.

Here and here some more information on the alleged bugging of the Africa Union’s headquarters by China can be found. This article sheds some light on the involvement of Edem Kodjo in “political scandals” (See interview Sapin Makengele) regarding the 2016 elections:
“Kodjo’s facilitation finally culminated in a political agreement between Kabila’s coalition and the Union pour la Nation Congolaise, an opposition party led by Vital Kamerhe. Among other controversial decisions, the agreement stipulated that the current president would remain in power until elections were held and his successor assumed office, in line with the May 2016 constitutional court ruling. The rest of the opposition, which had boycotted Kodjos’s mediation, denounced the AU-led agreement. The effect was to split the country in two.”


Despite their absence in the painting, analysing the Organisation of African Unity in the Congo Crisis is an interesting case, both from the perspective of international relations between the newly independent African states, and from the perspective how the collective memory, as well as the artistic narration of history, is taking place.

It elucidates how independence posed new challenges to the African states and that it might be easy to speak of a united Africa, while the implementation was far more difficult. The Pan-African project which the Organisation of African Unity was meant to embody rather exposed conflicting views on foreign and domestic policies among its members.

Regarding the aspect of memory and narration, this topic has been rather challenging on a personal level. In the course of working on it, I more and more asked myself “is this really relevant?” because the initial premise got confirmed that the OAU’s involvement was simply insignificant, especially compared to other actors in the conflict. Interviewing Sapin further created insecurity, because he saw the OAU in the Congo Crisis as meaningless and sometimes even seemed like he did not really want to talk about them.

After a short moment of doubt, I realised that while the OAU itself might be only a footnote in the narrative of the Congo Crisis, it nevertheless is an interesting case study when taking into account the historical narrative that prevailed. It shows that in the end, it’s not words but deeds (as trite as this may sound) that play a role for the population and the historical narrative that evolves from it. Although the OAU has emerged out of truly idealist ideas of Pan-Africanism and unity, its failures are much more remembered than its successes, or rather, not even their failures are regarded important. It is worth noting that the 25th of May, the day when the Organisation of African Unity was founded in 1960, is celebrated still today as “Africa Day“. Although their impact in conflict situations might be limited, its creation is still commemorated in Africa and the diaspora.

Africa Day is a day when many different cultures of people from all African backgrounds come together to celebrate the diversity of Africa, the organisation of the African Union in its objectives for a decolonised African state.  Although it looks to celebrate how far Africa has come, it is also a day to reflect on how far Africa still has to go in building a unified and decolonised continent.

The fact that, according to Sapin, many people don’t think much of the OAU or its successor the African Union today can be regarded as a legacy of their failure to include the people of Africa in their Pan-African project of solidarity and unity. Relevance of this topic can therefore also be found simply in the process of learning from the past: learning from the mistakes made by OAU, from the flaws in the Charter and the lack of internal coherence of the organisation. If the African Union takes into consideration where the OAU has failed it has the potential to create stability by integrating the continent politically and economically. Real unity can be achieved when political elites are no longer the main actors in creating it. New forms of technology and social media can lead to a renewed feeling of belonging and gives new opportunities of cooperation. Prof.dr. Ton Dietz mentioned this is his valedictory lecture “Africa; still a silver lining” in Leiden in 2017: “The growing connectivity of Africa’s economy and information technology is also fuelling regional integration and one may expect a growing importance of the African Union and of regional agencies. Recent strategy papers by, for instance, the African Union and the African Development Bank, like “Agenda 2063; The Africa We Want” show much vision and optimism and I think these visions and plans will be more than just rituals” (p.10). The question is if optimism and visions alone are enough – as this analysis has shown, the Organisation of African Unity was also founded in a climate of optimism and visions of a bright future. Sapin’s account of his own and that of other people’s opinion and feelings towards the African Union wasn’t speaking of much optimism. However, we need to be aware of the objectivity of his account, which is always shaped by personal experiences. Media plays another role in constructing people’s perception of certain events and organisations and is often more interested in problems and conflict than in success stories.

Fifty years after its creation, in 2013, was the idea of African unity still an aspirational goal for Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, but only if it comes in the shape of truly uniting the people and their governments, not solely their Heads of State. He states in the Guardian: “For African governments, unity would mean ceding some of their powers to a federal authority. And to realise even this minimum, they would have to make sure that the union was a people’s union, and not a union of African heads of state. But I have a feeling that most of these leaders would rather remain tin gods than have a God who can make tins. The days when Kwame Nkrumah could link the sovereignty of Ghana to that of the continent […] are a distant 50 years ago.

Does that mean the AU is not necessary? It is better to have a skeleton of a union than no union at all. The skeleton brings memories of a breath of life, but also dreams of a resurrection. For the sake of the people of Africa a strong, democratic African Union is needed today as much as it was 50 years ago. Despite its failures and weaknesses, the AU keeps the dream alive. And as Victor Hugo once put it: there is nothing like a dream to create the future.”

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o


Primary Sources:

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