The African Union, in its early days as the OAU, stood for something. It came up with principles to guide newly independent nations that have proved to be of durable value

It came as something of a surprise to learn that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped — among other things — that his trip to Kenya would lead to Israel regaining its “observer status” with the African Union. For the AU is not an organisation that many take very seriously.

The heads of state and government who meet in its headquarters in Addis Ababa from time to time may feel that these meetings are significant. But the Cold War days when the rival factions of East(China and the USSR) and West (the USA and Europe) struggled for influence over African states are long gone. Nobody in Washington or Brussels waits with bated breath to read the next “declaration” coming from an AU summit.

However, in the AU’s early days as the Organisation of African Unity, it did stand for something. With famous statesmen like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah; Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser; Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere; and our own Jomo Kenyatta – all of them national heroes – the early OAU could not be dismissed as a gathering of kleptocrats and tyrants of the kind we have learned to expect since then.

And this OAU did come up with a few principles to guide the newly independent African nations, which have proved to be of durable value.

One of these was that however irrational or inconvenient the national borders of African countries may be, they had to be regarded as sacred. The extent of this irrationality can be shown in many ways, right here in Kenya.

For example, when the newly ordained Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya, Jackson ole Sapit, held a meeting with former Tanzanian Prime Minister Edward Lowassa and former Kenyan Cabinet minister William ole Ntimama, the three were gathered as leading members of the Maasai community, which occupies ancestral land stretching from southern Kenya well into northern Tanzania (the Mara-Serengeti plains).

And while the citizens of Somalia are in a seemingly endless struggle for the restoration of peace in their country, their clansmen in Ethiopia’s Ogaden and Northeastern Kenya — all ethnic Somalis — have been citizens of stable nations with rapidly expanding economies for decades now.

The African founding fathers were aware that if their nations started to try and ‘rationalise’ their borders to take into account the possibility of unifying the various ethnicities occupying their border regions, it would prove to be a recipe for civil war. So they decided to let their irrational boundaries remain intact.

And we have to admit that were it not for the wisdom of our OAU founding fathers, African nations would have fought the kind of bloody wars which dominated Europe through some of the 20th century.

There are border regions of modern France, Poland and Germany for example, which in the course of European history, have belonged to some neighbouring country through conquest.

More recently we have seen the break-up of the Yugoslav federal state, and the subsequent wars which resulted from rivalries and disputes over the composition of the various new ethnically defined nations in the process giving the world the chilling term, “ethnic cleansing”.

This is precisely the kind of thing that the OAU founder presidents foresaw and were determined to avoid.

And from this we here in Kenya can draw a valuable lesson.

For only recently, there was an outbreak of inter-communal violence on the border of Nandi and Kisumu counties. And though we saw locals on both sides of that border declare that the violence had been instigated by “unknown outsiders”, and repeated emphasis that the two communities involved had lived in peace for decades, the fact remains the undercurrent in all ‘land clashes’ in Kenya is that there are those who believe they are ‘indigenous’ to an area, and others are considered to be ‘settlers’ even if they have lived there from well before independence.

At some point we will have to draw the line and have our entire top leadership – both in opposition and in government – declare in unison that Kenyans are free to live wherever they legitimately own land, and that no exceptions will be made to this.