ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The African Union on Saturday marked 50 years since the founding of a continentwide organization that helped liberate Africa from colonial masters and which now is trying to stay relevant on a continent regularly troubled by conflict.
Opening a summit of the African Union in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said the organization's original pan-Africanist aspirations remain relevant for a continent where many states are still struggling to overcome rampant poverty and violence.
"This historic day marks not only a great leap forward in the Pan-Africanist quest for freedom, independence and unity but also the beginning of our collective endeavor for the realizations of Africa's socio-economic emancipation," he said. "The major responsibility of the current and future generations of Africans is.to create a continent free from poverty and conflict and an Africa whose citizens would enjoy middle- income status."
AU chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said the pan-Africanism championed by the organization "united and inspired our people across the continent and globe never to accept oppression."
The festivities in Addis Ababa, where the organization was born 50 years ago, were attended by dozens of African leaders and foreign dignitaries including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Founded in May 1963 by a handful of liberated African nations, the Organization of African Unity – as it was known then – was at the time preoccupied with ending apartheid in South Africa and colonialism across the continent. Now the AU is focused on Agenda 2063, a blueprint that officials here say will eventually lead to the political and economic integration of Africa. African leaders are expected to discuss this 50-year strategic plan during the summit.
By the 1970s, after almost all of Africa had been liberated from colonialism, the Organization of African Unity set its sights on ending white racist rule in South Africa. The organization granted the African National Congress _the party of Nelson Mandela that has governed South Africa since 1994 _observer status at a time when it was still outlawed by South Africa's apartheid regime.
President Jacob Zuma of South Africa praised the AU in a statement Saturday, saying the organization was a force for freedom and the economic emancipation of all African people.
"The (Organization of African Unity) therefore created a mechanism for the African intelligentsia and those at the forefront of the struggle against colonialism to coordinate and intensify their cooperation to emancipate the continent from colonial subjugation," the statement said. "The OAU thus provided a sense of purpose for the African people to restore their freedom, dignity and to strive for a better life for all Africans."
The 53-member AU has been trying to emerge as a force for stability on a continent regularly troubled by violence, conflicts and coups. As the AU strives to make peaceful transfers of power across Africa the norm, it often sanctions coup leaders and suspends membership of states. But it also often fails to mobilize resources to enforce its decisions, the reason some activist groups want to see more robust action from the organization. This week a coalition of over 120 civil society groups from across Africa and the Middle East issued a warning about conflicts in Sudan, urging the AU to support a bolder approach to peace there.
The organization is still a long way from its founders' dream of a united Africa. South Africa is an economic power, while citizens in countries like Somalia, Sudan, Congo and Chad suffer from warfare and poverty. Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, is currently in the grips of bloody violence orchestrated by a radical Islamic sect that threatens to divide the country.
But the continent also boasts nine of the world's 15 fastest growing economies and remains attractive to Western and emerging powers looking for natural resources. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa says Africa's medium-term growth prospects remain strong, at 4.8 percent in 2013 and a projected 5.1 percent in 2014. The construction costs of the new building in Addis Ababa where celebrations are taking place were paid by China, whose growing economic footprint in Africa has been a cause for concern in the West. The visit to Ethiopia is Kerry's first trip to Africa as U.S. secretary of state.