South Sudan, uti possidetis rule and the future of statehood in AfricaPosted: 26 April, 2012
The emergence of South Sudan has once again brought sharp focus on inherited colonial boundaries and the quest for redrawing them.The process that led to the independence of South Sudan,including the immense challenges it is currently facing in building a new state, has raised questions on whether new states will emerge and the viability of such entities. As an expedient politico-legal move, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1964 adopted the principle of uti possidetis (Latin for “as you possess, so you may possess”). Primarily aimed at maintaining the sanctity of colonial boundaries, the adoption of this principle was underlined by two interrelated motives. The first was to prevent violent conflicts between African nations over disputed territories and the second was to stem the tide of secessionist movements within national boundaries. The independence of Eritrea in 1993, South Sudan in 2011 and a number of dormant and active secessionist movements across the continent strongly indicate the problematic nature of colonial boundaries and the structure of statehood in post-colonial Africa. Since the 1960s, there have been secessionist movements in places like Nigeria (Biafra), Congo (Katanga), Angola (Cabinda), Senegal (Casmance), Mali (Azawad), Somalia (Somaliland), Ethiopia (Ogaden, Eriterea and Oromo), Sudan (South Sudan), Zambia (Barotse), Tanzania (Zanzibar), and Coromos (Anjouan) – see www.sscnet.uncla.edu/polisci/wgape/papers/4_Engelbert.doc.
The fact that only two secessionist movements have translated into statehood in the political history of post-colonial Africa should not necessarily be seen as the triumph of the uti possidetis rule. From a statistical perspective, it could be argued that this principle has successfully prevented the balkanisation of the continent. However, the impact of the conflicts over secession on the stability of the affected states cannot be under-emphasised. High death toll, displacement of persons, wrecked infrastructure, enhanced insecurity and zero development are some of the issues that highlight the need to pay serious attention to the factors that underline secessionist claims. On the one hand, from an historical perspective, some of the secessionist demands are very valid and cannot, therefore, be easily dismissed. On the other hand, the hard realities of statehood, such as the much needed technocratic skills, economic viability and security issues may render the secessionist demand for statehood unfeasible. In this respect, the task is to ensure the effective balancing of secessionist demands and continued stability/survival of affected nation-states.
This balancing will require that adequate attention is paid to matters such as marginalisation and exclusion, lack of development, the demand for (con) federalism, good governance, better (political) representation, and cultural and fundamental human rights. Ethiopia provides a good example as it provides its ethnic units “unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession”- Art. 39(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.This is not to suggest that African countries should incorporate the “right to secession” in their constitutions, rather it points to the necessity of creating a milieu that promotes greater autonomy and quality self-governance.
South Sudan’s independence provides a case study and inspiration for other secessionist movements across the continent. Whether or not it opens the floodgate for the creation of more states in Africa is not as important as understanding the issues that enhances the position of secessionists. The viability and/or stability of states affected by secessionism hugely depends on their ability to craft a politico-legal and economic framework for addressing such demands.
About the Author:
Dr Babatunde Fagbayibo is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Public, Constitutional and International law at the University of South Africa. His research interests include public international law, regional integration, the African Union and international politics.