When the bickering died down after the argumentative opening of the Organization of African Unity summit here last week, the delegates got down to the cold realities that face the future of their group and continent.

By the end of their deliberations, they had accepted, for the first time, that Africa faces a bleak future, including both increased political instability and weak, if not retrogressive, economies.

There was general agreement that the policies of the past had failed and that the OAU and Africa were at a difficult crossroads.

In an effort to stave off economic catastrophe, and its concurrent political turmoil, the African leaders made several proposals, each ties to the other, including an economic summit meeting in Lagos, Nigeria, to plan an African common market, the beginings of a human rights charter and a planned revision of the OAU Charter, which has been inviolate up to now.

Two root causes of Africa's limited development since the 1960s, according to delegates at the summit, are "the narrow nationalisms" that prevent regional economic cooperation and a weak history of protecting human rights.

Some delegates said Africa and the OAU have reached a turning point in their growth where the brutal suppression of dissidents or minority ethnic groups can no longer be glossed over and ignored in the name of once sacred "African solidarity."

That "head-in-the-sand" approach, they said, had been a major element in Africa's retarded political, social and economic development,

Liberian President William R. Tolbert Jr., the new OAU chairman, and Nigerian head of state Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, set the tone of the four-day meeting with a blunt appraisal of the OAU's 16-year history.

When the idea of an OAU was first proposed two decades ago at a meeting of independent African leaders in Sanniquellie, Liberia, the overriding concern of newly independent states was their hard-won national sovereignty, Tolbert said.

But sovereignty has became an obstacle to Africa's development and an "excuse for our not speaking out appropriately against inhumane actions to our fellow Africans by Africans themselves."

Obasanjo told the 3,000 delegates that myriad conflicts in Africa "all point to the inescapable fact of the structural and operational weaknesses of the OAU itself."

The Nigerian leader said the organization had survived for 16 years on principles of compromise, but therein lies its greatest weakness as well.

"Thus, for as long as the ideals which inspired its formation and which did not envisage it to be anything more than a forum remain unchanged," Obasanjo continued, "so long will the OAU remain ineffective in the face of the African problems of the last quarter of this century."

Limited economic growth, absence of human rights and poli!ical instability, delegates said, are inextricably intertwined in Africa's problems since independence from conlonial rule. Adherence to human rights principles would aid in creating the stability needed for development, they say.

There is a feeling that you can't have one without the other," said Abdulai Conteh, foreign minister of Sierra Leone. "I just hope [the proposals] are not just" one more items "African heads of state put on the shelf."

The theme of economic development coupled with a human rights program grew out of a symposium on economic and social development in Monrovia last February.

The symposium's bleak report on Africa's development needs was delivered and adopted at the summit here.

"Africa in particular," the symposium's report reads, "is unable to point to any significant growth rate or statisfactory index of general well-being" in almost two decades of independence.

Africa's gross national product, the report continues, accounts for "only 2.7 percent of the world product." Africa's $365 per capita income is the lowest in the world. Its infant mortality rate of 137 per 1,000 born is the world's highest figure. There is one doctor for every 672 city residents and one doctor per 26,000 rural farmers.

Among its recommendations for correcting this woresening situtation, the Monrovia symposium suggested an African common market, attacked "narrow nationalism" by calling for an end to visa requirements to make regional travel easier and stressed as need for an OAU human rights charter.

The report states that "no development or political stability is possible so long as individual and collective rights go unheeded and basic freedoms -- which are inseparable from justice and solidarity -- are ignored."

Mahdi Elmandjra, an economist who effecitvely lobbied the delegates at the conference to adopt the symposium's reports, said he was optimistic about its impact.

"Just two, three years ago," Elmandjra said, Africa's leaders "wouldn't have even listened to the report's conclusions. But they all know today that their national development strategies have been failures.

"They know they have to start doing something now or face disaster."

At the close of the summit Saturday, Tobert said the OAU could no longer be an organization of blind compromise. To achieve the stability Africa needs, Tolbert said the OAU cannot remain silent in future inter-African disputes.

"The OAU will look with great disapproval on acts of aggression" and "will not hesitate to condemn such violations of the charter, especially when they lead to bloodshed and political instability."