Breaking Boundaries: Assessing the AU’s Legal Position on Self-Determination


Colonial borders in Africa have long been accepted as sacrosanct and not to be tampered with.[1] The OAU declared that “all Member States pledge themselves to respect the borders existing on their achievement of national independence”, in other words, to the principle of the inviolability of colonially inherited territorial integrity.[2] In the African context, the term uti possidetis entailed converting colonial borders into international boundaries since its launch in 1964.

The effectiveness of the AU is widely debated, and an evaluation of the AU’s legal stance in secessionist and self-determination movements in post-colonial Africa is necessary to assess its ability to effectively promote its goal of peace, stability, and development on the continent.

Self-determination is a crucial term in this article as the key reason for secession on self-determination, thus making it very important to define this word. During the French Revolution, self-determination was declared a right of nations to achieve statehood and sovereignty.

Since then, self-determination has become a political instrument in the quest by nations to determine their future destiny.

The Forced Annexation of Western Sahara

The first instance is cases in which countries that gained independence after colonialism were forcibly annexed by the neighbouring countries. This case has occurred in Western Sahara.

Spanish colonialism in the northwest part of Africa officially began in 1884. Up until the 1970s, Spain had, to a certain degree, administrative control of the region after officially decolonizing. However, Spain faced increasing resistance from the population of Western Sahara. Morocco and Mauritius had made plans to claim the land of Western Sahara. Morocco made their claim on historical context, and Mauritius based their claim on the shared dialect, cultural history, and geopolitical expediency.[3] In 1975, the International Court of Justice decided that the claims of Morocco and Mauritius had no base.[4]

Following the ICJ decision, the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro” (POLISARIO) was formed by natives to focus its efforts against Morocco and Mauritius, respectively.[5]

During that time, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was proclaimed as the government of Western Sahara, with the government in exile in Algeria, by the POLISARIO Front on the 27th of February 1976 and later recognized and admitted by the OAU in 1984.[6]

With the efforts of Algeria and Libya, the issue around Western Sahara was allowed to be re-opened and discussed, as shown in the OAU AHG/Resolution 92 (XV).

Following a number of subsequent summits held throughout the continent, particularly the Addis Ababa Summit, where a SADR delegation was invited to attend the conference, the Moroccan delegation left the meeting, later stating that the invitation extended to the SADR delegation was unacceptable for them and resigned from the OAU.[7]

Since being founded in 1976, SADR still has not gained independence, and the issue is still pending and waiting for a solution. Some factors that caused this are the limited resources given to the mission despite its complex mandate and the biased approach of some members of the UN Security Council, examples of biased members are the United States and, most importantly, France which have a good relationship with Morocco.[8]

The Rescission of Somaliland’s Voluntary Union

A rather distinct instance is the case of Somaliland, where the country rescinded their voluntary union with another country.

Modern Somaliland is a composition of the former British protectorate of Somaliland and the former UN Trusteeship under the administration of Italy in 1960. The Isaaq clan, which was predominant in the northern region, had been marginalized, and thus, an all-out civil war started in 1988 – 91.[9]

Founded by a group of Isaaq people living in Saudi Arabia in April 1981, the Somali National Movement (SNM) was created to overthrow Barre’s dictatorial government.[10] Finally, the de facto Republic of Somaliland was founded on May 18th of 1991, when the leaders of SNM and other representatives of northern clans met at the Grand Conference of Northern Peoples and recalled the 1960 Act of Union, which had unified the British colony and the Italian Trusteeship.

Naturally, the question arises of what the stance of the AU is and in what way the AU supported the independence movement of Somaliland. The documents of the OAU and the AU that have been longstanding emphasize the inviolability of borders. In this case, the OAU/AU based their stance on the Charter of the OAU and the Constitutive Act of the African Union, especially Article 4b.

            “Respect of borders existing on achievement of independence

Adding to that, it may be argued that by voluntarily joining a union and later rescinding its independence, Somaliland consummated its right of self-determination by using self-determination to join a union. Consequently, it cannot revoke that right of self-determination.[11]

The issue of the recognition of statehood can be argued by objective criteria and such based on subjective assessments, including the attitude of individual governments and the geopolitical interests of these governments.[12]

The most widely accepted objective criteria are the Montevideo criteria codified in the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. The Convention states that the criteria for statehood include a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to entertain diplomatic relations.[13] Overall, Somaliland satisfies each criterion, which would grant them official statehood.

The decisions of the OAU/AU seem very arbitrary. How come SADR is part of the AU but not Somaliland? Somaliland is a functioning country, which fulfills the Montevideo criteria, it was an independent country and does not want to secede but to dissolve the voluntary union.

The Reasons for the AU’s Discouragement of Self-Determination

In the past, there had been many reasons why the African States and, therefore, the AU discouraged self-determination, but from those reasons, two arguments were predominant. The first argument was that self-determination opposes the idea of African Unity and that the “domino effect” would appear if one state successfully claimed its independence.

According to the “domino effect” theory, if one ethnic group on the African continent successfully gains statehood, it could set off a chain reaction of similar aspirations for self-determination, resulting in instability and catastrophe. In order to stop the expansion of communism in Southeast Asia during the Cold War, the United States developed this idea. It proposed that, like a line of falling dominoes, forming a communist government in one country would result in the same conclusion in neighbouring countries.[14]

Another argument against self-determination in Africa suggests it could undermine unity by promoting territorial division. African leaders and organizations like the OAU emphasize territorial unity as a prerequisite for continental unity.[15] However, real-world cases like Somalia’s internal conflicts despite ethnic homogeneity and Ethiopia’s stability despite ethnic diversity challenge this viewpoint.

This argument cautions that, in the context of Africa, acknowledging the right to self-determination of one ethnic group could start a chain reaction that leads to continued unrest and upheavals. The President of the breakaway state, Biafra, Odumegwu Ojukwu, was one of the self-determination advocates.

There is only hope now that the legal stance of the AU changes for the better and determines more defined regulations regarding the issue of self-determination.

[1] Victor Osaro Edo and Michael Abiodun Olanrewaju, “AN ASSESSMENT OF THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE ORGANIZATION OF AFRICAN UNITY (O.A.U) TO THE AFRICAN UNION (A.U), 1963 – 2007.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, vol. 21, (2012) p. 41.

[2] Dan Kuwali, „Acquisition of autonomy – Application of the right of self-determination in Africa“in Redie Bereketeab (ed.) Self-Determination and Secession in Africa (Routledge 2015) p. 23.

[3] Matthew Porges, Western Sahara and Morocco: Complexities of Resistance and Analysis“ in Lotje de Vries, Pierre Engleberts and Mareike Schomerus (eds.), Secessionism in African Politics (Palgrave Macmillan 2019) p. 133.

[4] Porges (n 3) p. 134.

[5] Yasmine Hasnaoui, „Morocco and the African Union: A New Chapter for Western Sahara Resolution?“ Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies (2017) p. 3.

[6] Yasmine Hasnaoui, „Morocco and the African Union: A New Chapter for Western Sahara Resolution?“, Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies (2017) p.9.

[7] Youssef Dahmani, 12 November 1984 : “When Morocco withdrew from the Organization of African Unity” Yabiladi (Casablanca November 13, 2017).

[8] Andreu Solà-Martín, “Lesson from MINURSO: A contribution to a new thinking”, International Peacekeeping, Issue 13 (2006) p. 366.

[9] Ioan M. Lewis, “Understanding Somalia and Somaliland – Culture, History, Society” (Hurst Publishers Ltd 2009).

[10]  Tomás Hoch and Katerina Rudincová, „Legitmization of Statehood in de facto states: a case study of Somaliland“ in AUC Geographica 50/1 (2015) p. 40.

[11] Markus Virgil Hoehne, „Against the Grain: Somaliland’s Secession from Somalia“ in Lotje de Vries, Pierre Engleberts and Mareike Schomerus (eds.), Secessionism in African Politics (Palgrave Macmillan 2019) p. 254.

[12] International Crisis Group (n 45) p. 10.

[13] “Convention on the Rights and Duties of States”, signed at Montevideo, 26 December 1933.

[14] Jerry Mark Silverman, “The Domino Theory: Alternatives to a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.” Asian Survey, vol. 15, no. 11 (1975) p. 916.

[15] The Case for Recognizing Biafra, Government Printer, Dar-es-Salaam (1968) p. 5.


  • Conrad Metz

    Conrad Metz is a student at the University of Bayreuth, pursuing a degree in law with an additional degree in economics. He successfully participated in seminars offered by the Chair of African Legal Studies Bayreuth.

By Conrad Metz

Conrad Metz is a student at the University of Bayreuth, pursuing a degree in law with an additional degree in economics. He successfully participated in seminars offered by the Chair of African Legal Studies Bayreuth.

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