The Organization of African Unity conducted a worthwhile debate at its annual summit last week in Nigeria. The organization is showing signs that it could turn into a group of states to be reckoned with, by demonstrating a common interest and a realistic agenda.
Nothing could have more vividly illustrated the new realism of the OAU than its indication of some give in its tough stance on economic and political sanctions against South Africa. The 51-member group has staunchly supported sanctions for years and has taken its cue on when to lift the punitive restrictions from the African National Congress. Nelson Mandela, the deputy president of the ANC, addressed the summit in Abjua, Nigeria.
The OAU remains committed to the penalties but acknowledges the positive developments made recently in the racially divided nation. In its most open gesture to South Africa, the OAU promises to review its sanctions policy if the white minority government "adopts measures which lead to positive, profound and irreversible change towards the abolition of apartheid. . . . "
The leader in charge of the review is the new OAU chairman, Nigeria's President Ibrahim Babangida. That's good news for South Africa's President F. W. de Klerk because Babangida had indicated before the summit that he was prepared to promote initiatives to lift sanctions once the legal pillars of apartheid had fallen. Nigeria's role in the African debate is also significant because it is the most populous nation on the continent and a regional power in West Africa.
South Africa is also a regional power because of its economic strength; the gross domestic product nearly equals the total gross domestic products of the other sub-Saharan nations. Many African nations want the economic advantages that the end of sanctions would provide, but only if South Africa's political inequities are eliminated.
The OAU has rarely been a catalyst for change. Its annual meeting rarely produces serious and constructive sessions on important issues such as human rights violations. But the vigorous sanctions debate might become the model for a unified African effort toward solving African crises.