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European Journal of Social Sciences – Volume 6, Number 4 (2008)

Revisiting the Right to Self-Determination in Modern

International Law: Implications for African States

A.A. Idowu
Department of Public Law, Faculty of Law
Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria

By virtue of Article 3 of the United Nations Draft Declaration on the rights of indigenous
peoples, such peoples have the right to self-determination. Ipso facto, they can freely
determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural
development. The United Nations Charter1 also recognizes the principle of equal rights and
self-determination but the subsequent development of International Law has been such that
self-determination is now recognized as a right under customary International Law2. Other
subsequent developments in International Law in regard to non-self governing territories as
enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, made the principle of self-determination
applicable to such territories3. In the present world order, the right of self-determination has
assumed a subject of serious concern to all freedom-loving societies. What are the
constituents of the right of self-determination? What is the significance of this right in
Municipal and International Laws? What are the implications of the right of self-
determination to non-independent and independent nations particularly, in Africa? Should
the right of self-determination be limited to the activities of peoples of non-self-governing
territories? These are some of the questions requiring solutions through research methods
of primary and secondary sources of data undertaken in this article.

The right to self-determination of peoples is a fundamental principle of International Law4. This right
is said to have evolved and developed during various periods of decolonisation5. The scope of the right
post-colonialisation has been the subject of considerable debate and controversy6. In accordance with
the Declaration of the United Nations General Assembly7 on Principles of International Law
Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in line with the Charter of the United
Nations, it is also the duty of States to promote the right to self-determination of peoples. But the
implementation of the principle of self-determination requires every State to promote, through joint
and separate action, universal respect for, and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms
in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations Organisation.
Again, taking into account the particular situation of peoples under colonial or other forms of
alien domination or foreign occupation, the World Congress on Human Rights recognised8 the right of
peoples to take any legitimate action, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, to realize
their inalienable right of self-determination. The Congress considered the denial of the right of self-

Article 1.
See for example, the Namibia Case, (1971) ICJ, Report, 16.
Ibid. at p. 31. See also, the Western Sahara Case (1975) ICJ, Reports, 12 at 16.
See International Human Rights Text and Materials (2001) 2nd ed., Sweet & Maxwell, London, 76.
Ibid. 107.
39 U.N.G.A.R. (1994) Supp. 40 (A/39/40) 10-11.
2625 (xxv) of October 24, 1970
United Nations’ World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action) June 1993, Part 1. Paragraph 2.
European Journal of Social Sciences – Volume 6, Number 4(2008)

determination as a violation of human rights and underlines the importance of the effective realization
of this right.
Despite the above stated efforts of the United Nations Organisation, there are still incidents of
war, violence and civil disobedience in various parts of the world due to different forms of struggles by
peoples against activities of governments perceived to undermine their right of self-determination.
Such violent incidents have led to colossal loss of lives and property almost in the nature of the disaster
experienced during the Second World War and which led to the establishment of the United Nations
Organisation whose fundamental objective is to “…. save the succeeding generation from the scorch of
war which twice in our life-time has brought untold sorrow to mankind …”9 In order to sustain the
efforts of the United Nations Organisation in pursuing this laudable objective, the right of peoples in
all countries to self-determination must not be toiled with.
This article examines the meaning and relevance of the concept of self-determination in modern
International Law. It appraises the scope and the current status of the concept in the light of various
academic and judicial opinions as well as the divergent influencing factors in different nations. The
article proceeds to evaluate the implications of the right of self-determination for African States.

The Meaning of the Concept of Self-Determination

Self-determination may be defined as “the right of all peoples to determine their political future and
freely to pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Politically this is manifested through
independence as well as self-government, local autonomy, merger, association or some other forms of
participation in government. It operates both externally and internally to ensure democratic government
and the absence of internal or external domination. Umozurike’s definition10 bears a striking
resemblance to the definition in Article 1 of the U.N. Charter common to the two international
covenants on Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly and opened for signature,
ratification and accession on 16 December, 1966, which states as follows:
“All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right, they freely
determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural
The concept of self-determination consists of three fundamental aspects:
(1) The external aspect, by virtue of which peoples determine their international political status,
i.e., whether to enjoy complete political independence, or merely, self-government, merger
with another state, or one form of association or another. It also includes the right to decide
to retain a dependent or even colonial status.12
(2) The first internal aspect is by virtue of which the right of peoples to be the complete masters
of their own territories is recognized. Thus, a State may be theoretically independent, and
yet may be denied its right of self-determination as a result of the political domination of
another State or States, or because it is prevented from exercising its right to “freely pursue
its economic, social and cultural development”. Thus, soon after many afro-Asian States
assumed political independence in the sixties, they realized that as a result of the economic
domination of the developed States and existing practices in international trade, they were
not free to pursue, for their own ends, their economic, social and cultural development.
Consequently, both their political independence and their right of self-determination were

See the Preamble to the United Nations Cahrter.
Umozurike, E.: Self-Determination in International Law (1972), archon Books Publishers, Hender, Connecticut., 7.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both ratified by
Nigeria in July, 1993.
Examples are: The inhabitants of Gilbraltar who consistently preferred their colonial status with Britain to being independent as a separate state or as
part of Spain. The Falkland Islands had also prefered to remain a British Colony than as part of independent Argentina and Pueto Rico which also
preferred to remain in some form of association with the United States, rather than be fully independent.
European Journal of Social Sciences – Volume 6, Number 4 (2008)

curtailed. This led to the development of the concept of neo-colonialism, and the notorious
IMF conditionalities imposed on helpless African debtor States.13
(3) The second internal aspect involves the right of the people freely to choose their political
institutions, representatives and to participate in the process of governance. The definition
of the concept in the late post-colonial era, that is, in the eighties and nineties, have not
shown any significant change. Thus, F. Prazetanic defines it as:
“the right of a people or a nation to determine freely by themselves, without any outside
pressure, their political and legal status as a separate entity; preferably in the form of
an independent State, the form of government of their choice and the form of their
economic, social and cultural system.”14 Rosalyn Higgins also summaries the contents
of the doctrine as the right of a people “to determine their political and economic and
social destiny”15. Equally, Shaw has given a brief definition of the concept as the right
of all peoples to determine their political status and pursue their own economic, social
and cultural development16. All the above definitions similarly recognize the existence
of certain basic factors in the doctrine, namely: the right of a people to determine
freely, their political status and the form of their economic, social and cultural system.

Relevance of the Concept

The relevance of the concept and legal principle of self-determination seem not to require any
explanation or justification. The United Nations Organisation today, has nearly 200 members. In 1945
when the Organisation was established, there were just over fifty members States because those were
the only independent States in the world at that time. The other 150 or so territories were not
independent, but were colonies under the rule and control of some independent States. The
development and application of the principle of self-determination has ensured that over the last 50
years, these other 150 territories have emerged from colonialism to become independent states in their
own right, enjoying sovereign equality with their former masters and other members of the
international community. In Africa, there were in 1945, only two independent States, these were
Ethiopia and Liberia. It was the implementation of the right of self-determination that made over 50
former colonies including Nigeria, to become independent since 1945. In the seventies, the world
watched in some fascination, how the Portuguese and Spanish empires in Africa crumbled under the
might of self-determination, giving rise to the States of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and
Mauritania. But above all, the real miracle of our time was the collapse of the white minority regimes
of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa.
But that is not all. The very success of the principle has brought in its wake, a host of problems,
all over the world, Africa included. Once the external concept of self-determination was being fully
realized, the international community, became increasingly confronted with the internal aspect. This is
the right of peoples within an independent state, to freely choose their political institutions including
the right to break-away from their state to form a new state or to join another existing state. Thus, the
question arose whether self-determination was limited to territories under colonial rule or whether
within independent states, constituent ethnic groups and nations or peoples, were also entitled to self-
determination which could undermine the territorial integrity of such independent states. This problem
reared its head in Africa, soon after the massive flood of independence swept into the continent in

See Christos Theodoropoulos (unpublished) LL.M Thesis titled The Process of Restoration of Sovereignty to the People of Namibia in the light of
Contemporary International Law, 1878-1917, pp. 19-24, cited by Professor Itse Sagay in his paper titled; “Self-Determination in modern International
Law and its Implications for African States” delivered at a Lecture in the Faculty of Law, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, Nov. 18,
“The Basic Collective Human Right to Self-determination of Peoples and Nations as a prerequisite for peace: Its Philosophical Background and
Practical Application” in Reveue de droit International (1991), Vol. 69, 263.
“Post-modern Tribalism and the Right of secession” in Peoples and Minorities in International Law (1993), ed. C. Brolmann et al., Martinus Nijhoff
Publishers, 32.
See Shaw, L.: Title to Territory in Africa (1986), Clarendon Press, London, 93.
European Journal of Social Sciences – Volume 6, Number 4(2008)

1960. It is well known that the boundaries of African States are artificial, with nations and ethnic
groups split into two or three between different States, while incompatible peoples and nations grouped
together in States. It is of course common knowledge that these artificial states were delimited at the
Berlin Conference of 1884 and other follow-up exercises in 1904 and 1920. The latter involving the
division of German colonies amongst the victorious Allied and Associated Powers under the League of
Nations Mandates System. According to A.I. Asiwaju:
“It does not take much erudition to show the arbitrariness and artificiality of the inter-
colonial boundaries so negotiated for Africa under European domination. As indicated
in an often quoted after-diner humor by Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, at
the signing of the Anglo-French Convention of 1890 in respect of Nigeria’s northern
boundary, the Europeans themselves acknowledged the arbitrary manner of the
boundary arrangements. We have been engaged in drawing lines on maps where no
white man’s foot ever trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes
to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we have never known where
the rivers and lakes and mountains were.”17
Another Briton who participated in the drawing of the southern section of the Nigerian-
Cameroon border, was also recorded to have recalled, years after that:
“In those days, we just took a blue pencil and ruler, and we put it down at Old Calabar,
and drew that blue line to Yola… I recollect thinking when I was sitting having an
audience with the Emir of Yola surrounded by his tribe, that it was a very good thing
that he did not know that I, with a blue pencil, had drawn a line through his territory.”18
Consequently, hardly had the African States attained independence, when claims and counter-
claims were being made by one African State or the other on large territorial tracts of the other. Thus,
Somalia claimed large territories in Southern Ethiopia (Ogaden) and Northwest Kenya and in Djibouti;
territories in which there were large settlements of Somali speaking people. Morocco claimed the
whole of Western Sahara, Mauritaria and parts of Algeria. Mauritania and Mali were engaged in
territorial disputes, as were Ghana and Togo. These claims brought to the fore, the question whether
self-determination was limited to territories under colonial rule, or whether within the independent
African States, constituent ethnic groups, Nations or Peoples were also entitled to self-determination
which could undermine the territorial integrity of such States.
As was stated above, Somalia had never disguised its major objective of uniting all Somali
people in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti into what it called “Greater Somalia”. To justify these
irredentist claims, Somalia relied on the right of self-determination of all peoples including the Somali
population living in the other territories mentioned above. This claim was not limited to the population
of Somalis abroad only, but also to the territories occupied by them in Ethiopia and Kenya. In other
words, the reliance on the principle of self-determination involved transfer of territory and populations
from the Ethiopia and Kenya, to Somalia. The argument is that although there was no Somali State,
prior to colonization which resulted in the splitting of Somali clans under different colonial masters,
there was a Somali Nation and the Somalis now scattered in different States were entitled to exercise
their right of self-determination to join Somalia in a single Nation/State.
The principle of self-determination applied in this manner to independent States, was opposed
by other African States as being contrary to another major principle of international law, that is, the
territorial integrity of States. The organization of African Unity (OAU) states made their stand on this
matter very clear when they passed the Cairo Resolution of 1964, confirming the validity or even the
sanctity of colonial boundaries. In their resolution adopted on 21st July, 1964 at Cairo, the Heads of
state and Government of African States held that the borders of African States on the day of
independence, constituted, a tangible reality and therefore re-affirmed solemnly “the strict respect of all
Member States of the Organisation for the principle laid down in Article IV paragraph 3 of the

Jeffry Herbst, “The Creation and Maintenance of National Boundaries in Africa” in International Organisation (1989) Vol. 43, 4 Autumn, at p. 670.
European Journal of Social Sciences – Volume 6, Number 4 (2008)

Charter” of the O.A.U. on respect for territorial integrity and pledged themselves to respect the
frontiers existing on their achievement of independence.
The intention and spirit of the resolution is that the borders of African States at the date of the
resolution should remain inviolable and sacrosanct. No African State can lay claim to any part of the
existing territory of another African State. The borders were to become ‘frozen’ as they were.
Consequently, the question of claim to territories ‘owned’ before the European partition could not arise
once such territories were within the borders of another African State. As to the question of self-
determination, the resolution made it clear, by omitting the issue, that there could be no question of
self-determination of people within an independent African State. The attitude of the O.A.U. to
Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara and Biafra’s claim to independence, clearly ‘demonstrates at that
time (the sixties) the fact that no loopholes or exceptions were permissible in the application of the
resolution. But as will be seen later, time has brought with it a change of attitudes. There is of course,
some paradox in a situation in which the independent African States were giving validity to the
boundaries arbitrarily drawn up by the justifiably maligned Berlin Conference. The reason for this
attitude was obvious. There was hardly an African State that was not afflicted by the plague of artificial
boundaries and to accept the concept of self-determination as being applicable to the various national
groups in a State, was to institute a state of collective insecurity. Every member wanted to protect itself
from an attack on its vulnerable soft under-belly of artificial boundaries19.
And so the question that immediately arises is whether there is no concept of self-determination
outside de-colonisation. In other words, is it only the peoples of non-self-governing territories who are
entitled to self-determination or are peoples in independent states also entitled to exercise the right? Of
course if the answer to the first question is that there is no right of self-determination outside the
process of de-colonisation, then one immediate consequence would be that the concept has become
redundant, since virtually every territory is now independent. As one Writer has observed humorously:
“Self-determination in the African context was not a doctrine interpreted as creating a
populist entitlement to democracy, since de-colonisation was always followed in short
order by the single party state and authoritarian rule. It seemed that the new
governments of the former colonies regarded self-determination as a unique event
occurring only at the moment of a colony’s independence. What has been called “one
man, one vote, one time.”20
The issue of self-determination was prominent in the Western Sahara case.21 All parties
supported the right of the peoples of Western Sahara to self-determination, but appeared to apply
differing and self-serving contents to the concept. Thus, whilst recognizing that the principle applied to
the territory, Morocco argued that in that particular context, it had to co-exist with the principle of
territorial integrity, and that in certain cases, self-determination was deemed subordinate to territorial
integrity. In an attempt to reconcile the two concepts to suit its own particular claim Morocco made
three propositions:
(i) That the right of self-determination existed with regard to non-self-governing territories
in areas where no State had been recognized by the international community in the 19th
(ii) That the right did not exist in respect of independent States so as to destroy the unity of
such countries.
(iii) That in the case of States which had enjoyed international recognition prior to
colonization and had been dis-membered, such as Morocco, self-determination gave way
to reunification and the re-establishment of the former State’s territorial integrity.22

Ibid., 673.
See Thomas, F.; “Post Modern Tribalism and the right of Sucession” in Peoples and Minorities in International Law (1993) ed. C. Brolmann et. al.,
Martinus Nijhoff Publsiehrs,10.
I.C.J. Reports (1975) Pleadings CR, 75/8,11.
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The fine distinction between the Somalian and Moroccan arguments are worth noting. Whilst
both are claiming a pre-colonial existence for their larger nations, Somalia based its case on prior
existence as a nation of Somali clans, whilst Morocco based its on prior existence as a state, i.e. an
internationally recognized State which included Western Sahara. Again, Somalia’s call for the exercise
of the principle of self-determination for the Somali people of Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, entailed
their participation in a referendum to decide whether or not they wanted to join Somalia, or remain in
their current State. The states concerned opposed this call for referendum or Plebiscite on the ground
that it was against their right of territorial integrity. In contrast to Somalia, Morocco did not want a
plebiscite of the people of Western Sahara to decide whether they wanted to be independent by
themselves as State or they preferred to merge with Morocco. Morocco’s view was that self-
determination for the people of western Sahara, could be realised by their merger (re-unification) with
Morocco, without a referendum to determine the true wishes of the people on the ground that self-
determination in that sense, gave way to the re-unification and re-establishment of the pre-colonial
State’s territorial integrity. This leads us to a consideration of the present scope and status of the
concept of self-determination.

Scope and Current Status of the Concept

As stated above, there is currently a great controversy as to the present status of the concept. One
school of thought accepts the position of the Orgnaisation of African Unity (OAU) now African Union
(AU) that the concept is applicable to non-self-governing territories and peoples and that once a State
gains independence, the doctrine stops applying to it. The issue then becomes that of the sanctity of the
State’s territorial integrity. Self-determination and territorial integrity were therefore two stages in the
same process, the transition from a non-self-governing territory to an independent State. The
phenomenon is lucidly explained by Thomas Franck when he stated that the notions of Uti Possidetis
(territorial integrity) and self-determination were quite simply treated as aspects of the same
entitlement. According to him, peoples entitled to self-determination were defined as inhabitants of a
colony in which:
“The exercise of self-determination must occur, it was reasoned, within colonial
boundaries, which would remain sacrosanct, unless the people as a whole within those
boundaries freely elected to change them by integrating with another State.”23
Thus, Shaw, a proponent of this restrictive view of self-determination states that the concept as
a legal principle under international law has been restricted to the colonial situation. For according to
him, where a non-self-governing territory has attained independence, the principle of self-
determination coupled with territorial integrity will operate to protect the territorial unity and
framework of the new State. To him,
“Indeed a basic presumption of the application of self-determination is that it will be
exercised by the people in question within the territorial framework of the entity
administered by the colonial power before independence.”24 Consequently, in framing
propositions on the content of the doctrine, Shaw, rules out a right of self-determination
by resident minorities in an independent state.25 On the same basis, he has also
concluded that secession from a State cannot be based on the right to self-
determination.26 This is by no means an isolated view for according to Ambruster, the
sovereignty and self-determination are mutually exclusive because “the principle of
sovereignty excludes logically, the right to self-determination. If international law

Thomas F.; “Post Modern Tribalism and the right of succession”, op. cit., 9.
Shaw, L.; Title to Territory in Africa (1986) op. cit., 9.
Ibid., 102, 215 and 216.
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guarantees the sovereignty of the existing States, it cannot permit, at the same time, that
this sovereignty is infringed under the title of the right of self-determination.”27
In the Frontier Dispute case between Burkina Faso and Mali, the International Court of Justice
(I.C.J.) appeared to have given some support to this restrictive view of self-determination, although its
claim that the doctrine and that of Uti Possidetis in the context of territorial integrity, are reconcilable,
reduces the effect of its pronouncement in this regard. According to the Court, although at first sight,
the principle of Uti Possidetis conflicts outright with that of self-determination:
“In fact, however, the maintenance of the territorial” status quo in Africa is often seen
as the wisest course, to preserve what has been achieved by the peoples who have
struggled for their independence, and to avoid a disruption which would deprive the
continent of the gains achieved by much sacrifice. The essential requirement of stability
in order to survive, to develop and gradually consolidate their independence in all fields
has induced African States judiciously to consent to the respecting of colonial frontiers,
and to take account of it in the interpretation of the self-determination of peoples.”28
The content of the Court’s Statement seem to limit the Principle to self-determination in the
African context and furthermore, the weight given to political, rather than legal considerations, greatly
reduces the potency of this passage as a legal authority for the restrictive view of self-determination.
It is worthy of note that even the Writers who take the restrictive view of self-determination,
admit that under certain circumstances, usually involving grave breaches of human rights, coupled with
the fulfillment of some conditions, there is a universal right of self-determination, outside the process
of decolonisation. Thus, John Dugard who states that self-determination does not normally include a
right to secede, provides the following stringent exception to the rule29. According to him, where there
is no agreement on the part of the component parts of a state to secession, the international community
will not recognize the secession unless the following circumstances are present:
(i) the people of the seceding territory constitute a distinct people, having regard to their language,
culture and historical experience;
(ii) the people have a clear historical claim to the territory in question;
(iii) the territory occupied by the secessionist group came under the control of the existing State by
some unjustifiable historical event (as in the case of the Soviet Union’s annexation of the Baltic
(iv) the will of the people of the territory has been expressed by means of a referendum or election
and shows very clear support for secession;
(v) the human rights of the people have been seriously violated and they have been denied proper
participation in the government of the State from which they wish to secede.”
The opposing school of thought contends that self-determination is a dynamic and versatile
principle which is equally applicable to all peoples regardless of whether they belong to a non-self-
governing territory or a fully independent State. Thus, Franck notes for example, that both the
Covenants on Political and Civil Rights and on Social Economic Rights, State in their first Article that
all peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right, they freely determine their
political Status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. He also refers to
principle VIII of the Helsinki accord of 1975 which stipulates that participating States will respect the
equal rights of peoples and their right of self-determination, and that “all peoples always have the right,
in full freedom, to determine, when and as they wish, their internal and external political status,
without external interference.” Franck then points out that since the end of the cold war era and
decolonisation, the meaning of the self-determination entitlement and its:
“territorial integrity counterpart has had to be considered in the context of burgeoning
post-modern tribalist secessionism, including separatist movements in the disintegrating

Quoted by Dietrich Murswick in his paper, “The Issue of Secession – Reconsidered” in Modern Law of self-Determination (1993) ed., Christian
Tomuschat, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 23.
Burkina Faso v. Mali, I.C.J. Reports (1986), 554,567.
“Secession: Is the case of Yugoslavia a precedent for Africa”? in African Journal of International and Comparative Law (1993), Vol. 5, 173.
European Journal of Social Sciences – Volume 6, Number 4(2008)

Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, Eritrea, Kurdistan, the Basque and Corsican regions,
Scotland, Wales, Tibet, Slovakia .. Quebec and in various “homelands” of Canada,
Australia, New Zealand and the United States.”30
Also agreeing that developments in the areas of human rights have had far reaching
consequences on the scope and status of self-determination, Rosaline Higgins declares that self-
determination is a contemporary, non-secessionist right of peoples within an independent State. A
bridge has been built from self determination as a process of decolonising to self determination as a
human right, a right of peoples. In the two 1966 Covenants on Human Rights, the right of self-
determination is presented as a free standing precept, no longer confined to colonization. Higgins
believes that the Committee on Human Rights established under the covenants, played a key role in
this evolutionary process. The Committee addressed the matter in virtually every single examination of
a State upon the report that it is required to submit periodically. In this regard, “the committee took a
robust view about continued application of self-determination to post-colonial situations.31” While
making a case for a universally applicable doctrine of self-determination based on human rights,
Christian Tomuschat stresses the fact that the emergence of international human rights law and its
consolidation amounts to a general recognition that states are no longer the sole subjects of
international law and that the main objective and raison d’etre of a State is to provide a service to their
citizens. If they fail in a fundamental way to meet their essential responsibilities; they begin to lose
their legitimacy and thus their very existence can be called into question. This situation is not one
which can easily occur. The conditions that call for such a development are very grave and include
failure to protect the life and physical integrity of citizens and a State machinery being turned into an
apparatus of terror which persecutes specific groups of the population. In that case, such groups cannot
be held to be bound to remain under the jurisdiction of that State32.
In his seminal article on democracy and the legitimacy of governments entitled “The Emerging
Right of democratic Governance”33, Franck traced the emergence of a universal right of self-
determination historically and identified three phases of its development, first after the first world war,
applicable to the territories of the defeated European Powers, Germany and Turkey, then after the
Second World War, and the establishment of the U.N.O, it became applicable to all colonies and trust
territories, and the third phase, when it became a right applicable to everyone as a consequence of the
provisions of the universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the two 1966 United Nations
International Covenants. The covenants, according to Franck, clearly intend to make the right of self-
determination applicable to the citizens of all nations, entitling them to determine their collective
political status through democratic means.
“It also, at least for now, stopped being a principle of exclusion (Secession) and become
one of inclusions; the right to participate. The right now entitles people in all States to
free, fair and open participation in the democratic process of governance freely chosen
by each State. When such participation is denied, when a people that, “is
geographically separate and is distinct ethnically and/or culturally,” has been placed
“in a position or status of suburdination” perhaps a secession option may re-emerge as
an international entitlement.”34
The pre-occupation of Writers with secession and self-determination is of course quite
understandable. After all, the earlier stages of the doctrine involved the political and legal separation
(“secession”) of the colony from the colonial power. It is therefore quite understandable when Writers
discuss modern self-determination in the context of the right of secession. But it should be stressed that
self determination encompasses secession. Indeed, the latter must be seen as the last option. Self-
determination entails, the right to participate in deciding, the structure of the state, the type of

Thomas F.; “Post Modern Tribalism and the right of succession” op. cit.,, 15.
Ibid., 31.
“Self-Determination in a Post-Colonial World,” in Modern Law of Self-Determination (1993) op. cit,., 9.
African Journal of International Law (1992), Vol. 46, 58-59.
Ibid. at p. 59.
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government and the persons to be entrusted with political power in a state. It also entails, the civil and
political rights like the rights of association, to form political opinions, free expression including
freedom of the press, liberty of the person and so on. It includes the right of respect for one’s religion
and recognition and autonomy for distinct and different groups occupying different parts of the
territory of a State. Thus, the issues of federation and confederation, form part and parcel of the
concept of self-determination35.
It would be difficult to deny such rights to peoples in independent States, even minorities. The
question of secession therefore, cannot be seen or considered in isolation. The question must surely be
the circumstances in which a denial of fundamental rights reaches a level when the very survival of a
group is at stake or when the degree of inhuman and degrading treatment of such a group reaches an
intolerable degree. Will such a group not have a right to self-determination outside the oppressive
State? Thus, the issue cannot be whether self-determination exists in the post colonial international
law; it does. The question is the criteria for its application to different situations. The point being made
above has been graphically illustrated by Klabbers and Lefeber in their paper on Africa and the
conflicting concepts of Uti Possidetis and self-determination. In the first place, they asked “What
remains of the right of internal self-determination if a people pursues reasonable demands for
constitutional reforms in vain? In particular, it must be examined whether the right to internal self-
determination, in such a situation converts into a right to external self-determination?
Next, the Writers examine State practice in order to determine whether the preservation of the
territorial status quo is never overridden by a right of self-determination. After a very careful analysis
of secessions and attempted secessions and the reaction of the international community, they conclude
that, albeit grudgingly, the international community has accepted secessionist claims in the appropriate
cases thus:
“There is considerable doctrinal support for legal entitlement to external self-
determination, if a people have been deprived of its right of internal self-determination,
in particular, if this is accompanied by serious human rights violations. For a right to
external self-determination to arise, the violation of the right to internal self-
determination must be serious and persistent, and it must not have been possible to
enforce the right by judicial means.”36
The above principle is then applied to the analysis of the legal basis of some previous situations
as follows:-
1. Bangladesh: Secession took place after persistent political and economic oppression which
culminated in a military crackdown.
2. Yugoslavia: The disintegration of Yugoslavia was the result of a persistent refusal on the
part of Serbia to cooperate in a constructive manner in changes in the economic and
political structure of Yugoslavia which had become inevitable at the end of the cold war.
3. Syria: Syria seceded from the United Arab Republic because of the concentration of power
in Egypt and the creation of an atmosphere of terror under the cloak of union and socialism.
In conclusion the two Writers state that it could be maintained that a legitimate secessionist
claim exists if a period of domination has led to a dead-end situation which has resulted or is likely to
result in a Military crack down.”37
In support of the above submissions one can cite the recent and numerous cases in which the
right to self-determination has been exercised by peoples in independent States. These include: Zaire,
Congo, Liberia, Uganda, Eritrea, Angola, Mozambique etc. in Africa. The disintegration of the
U.S.S.R. into 14 different States, in 1991, the revolutionary changes from oppressive one party
dictatorship in Eastern European States, to multi-party democracies, the splitting of Yugoslavia into
many States, the peaceful division, of Czechoslovakia into Czech and Slovakia and the case of

Klabbers, J. and Lefeber, R.; “Africa: Lost Between Uti Possidetis and Self-determination” in C. Brolmann et al., Peoples and Materials in
International Law (1993) Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 43-44.
Ibid., 46, 47-49.
Ibid., 49.
European Journal of Social Sciences – Volume 6, Number 4(2008)

Cambodia, Nicaragua and Haiti. All these cannot be regarded as individual, isolated events, but part of
a norm creating consensus of the right to democracy, human rights and the rule of law and as part of
universal right of self-determination. The very fact that the U.N.O. not only condemned the overthrow
of the democratically elected Government of Haiti as illegal, but went on to authorize the Military
invasion of Haiti to expel the Military dictators and to restore President Aristide, is of great legal
significance in international law. It shows the ever growing potency, vitality and versatility of the
doctrine of self-determination. It has moved far beyond the narrow question of decolonisation and
emerged as a major principle of international freedom and welfare of all peoples.
The Helsinki Accord 1975, and the subsequent OSCE instruments like:
(i) The Copenhagen meeting of the OSCE on the Human Dimension (1990)
(ii) The Charter of Paris (1991); and
(iii) The Moscow Declaration (1991); all confirm the dynamism of internal self-determination.
It is also significant that a European State seeking to join the European Union will have to fulfil
the minimum conditions which give expression to self-determination of its peoples. These are that the
applicant States must be plural democracies; they must regularly hold free elections by secret ballot;
they must respect the rule of law; and they must have signed the European Convention on Human
Rights and Fundamental Freedoms38.

Implications for African States

From the above discussion, it would appear that the Independent States of Africa are as subject to the
doctrine of self-determination now, as they were as colonial territories. The Cairo declaration on the
sanctity of colonial boundaries has only a prima facie legal and political effect. In other words, in the
absence of any overriding factors, the colonial boundaries are valid and inviolable. However, should
any of the conditions for the exercise of external self-determination as described above, arise, then of
course, the Cairo declaration will be overridden and such a right of self-determination will prevail. The
Cairo Declaration cannot condemn any peoples to perpetual slavery, and oppression. This view is
buttressed by Article 20 of the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights which provides as
“(1) All peoples shall have the right to existence.They shall have the unquestionable
and inalienable right to self-determination.
(2) Colonised or oppressed peoples shall have the right to free themselves from the
bonds of domination by resorting to any means recognized by the international
(3) All people shall have the right to the assistance of the States’ parties …. In their
Liberation Struggle against foreign domination, be it political, economic or
As a Writer has correctly observed, whilst Article 20(2) is specifically directed to “colonized or
oppressed peoples, the other two paragraphs of Article 20, i.e. 20 (1) and 20 (3) are directed and are
applicable to all peoples39. The distinction is clearly deliberate, for Article 29(2) grants colonized or
oppressed peoples the more expansive right of resorting to armed conflict to effect their right of self-
determination. This is not expressly granted to other categories of peoples, who are not categorised
either as colonized or oppressed. It should be further noted that Article 19 of the Charter which defines
‘peoples’ does not qualify this term with ‘colonial’ or ‘oppressed’. Thus, the African right to self-
determination could not have been intended to be limited to colonial territories. In any case, even the
terms ‘colonised’ and ‘oppressed’ are used disjunctively in Article 20(2), with the resulting effect that

See Letter from the Netherlands Minister of Foreign Affairs to the Advisory Committee on Human Rights and Foreign Policy (June 1990) quoted in
Franck’s “Emerging Right to Democratic Governance”, African Journal of International Law (1992), 76-77.
Angela, M. L.: “The Southern Sudan: A Compelling Case for Secession” in No. 2 Columbia Journal (1994), Vol. 32, 430.
European Journal of Social Sciences – Volume 6, Number 4 (2008)

peoples who are not under colonial rule, but are oppressed, have a right of self-determination under the
African Charter.
The ease with which Eritrea was recognized by the International Community is only explained
on the basis of such an overriding right. Southern Sudan represents a classic case for the exercise of the
right. The overwhelming military might of the Sudanese Government has so far prevailed, but this is
likely to give way eventually to a new State of Southern Sudan.
Regarding Somalia, what emerges from the above discussion is that Somalia was not entitled to
claim the areas of Kenya and Ethiopia which constituted the basis of hostilities in the area. Mere ethnic
relationship is insufficient. We must also consider the condition of the Somali populations in Ethiopia
and Kenya. There is no evidence that they had been discriminated against or oppressed in any
particular way. The basis for their exercise of external self-determination was simply not there.
Regarding Western Sahara, the opposite was the case. Its peoples had emerged from
colonialism without first being allowed to exercise their right of self-determination. Rather, there was
an illegitimate attempt, to permanently deprive them of this right by carving up the territory and
dividing it between Morocco and Mauritania. It was therefore clear that only a fairly conducted
referendum or plebiscite as the U.N. and O.A.U. Planned to hold would be consistent with right of self-
determination of the peoples of Western Sahara. Happily, both of the major contenders, namely,
Morocco and Polisario had accepted the idea of a plebscite in principle. The world was then left with
the problem of establishing the modalities for a plebiscite that would reflect the true wishes of the
people of Western Sahara.
Other events which have confirmed and buttressed the continued application of the principle in
post-independence Africa, were those that occurred in Liberia, sierra Leone, Angola and Mozambique,
Zaire, Uganda, Sudan, Cameroon Togo, Nigeria etc. In Liberia, Sudan and Togo, we saw a
demonstration of the continued enlargement of the principle of self-determination, coupled with the
right to democratic governance, permitting a coalition of organised neighbouring States to intervene
forcefully in the affairs of a sovereign independent States, to restore the right of self-determination,
democracy and the rule of law. The same applied to Sierra Leone, where the military Junta succumbed
to the pressure of the international community that the exercise by the people of Sierra Leone of their
democratic right of self-determination must have to be respected.
The Bakassi Peninsula Case40 between Cameroon and Nigeria also typifies the extent to which
the right to self determination can be exercised to affect relations between sovereign nations even in
grave circumstances which prompted the intervention of the International Court of Justice. The World
Court had given judgement in year 2002 against Nigeria ordering a sizeable portion of the Bakassi
Peninsula known to be very rich in oil and aquatic lives to be surrendered by Nigeria to Cameroon. In a
bid to forestall a possible outbreak of war between the two nations, a mixed Cameroon-Nigeria
Boundary Commission was established to work out amicable modalities to enforce the judgement of
the ICJ.
Even though Nigeria Government had agreed in principle, to surrender the portion of the
Peninsular purportedly being occupied by Nigerians to Cameroon, the people of Nigerians who believe
that they had been occupying the area from time immemorial now insist vehemently that since they
have the right to self-determination, no government or court of law can uproot them from their
historical domain by ceding their territory to another nation. They are also averring that as free citizens,
they have their fundamental right to determine for themselves where they intend to live. Particularly as
Nigerians, they argued that it could not be tenable in law or reason to change their nationality at the
expense of the exercise of their right to self-determination41. Doing this, according to the Bakassi
indigenes, will create ugly situations now being experienced between Israel and Palestine as well as
similar crises in Sudan and East Timor.

The Bakassi Peninsula Case: Cameroon v. Nigeria, (Equitoria Guinea Intervening) ICJ judgment of October 10, 2002.
See The Punch (Nigeria), Wed. Feb. 25, 2004, 1, 2 & 7 –
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In Nigeria, people are yet to enjoy a proper exercise of the right to self-determination. But the fact that
it will come in the fullness of time is incontestable. I do not refer merely to free and fair elections, but
to the more fundamental question of the structure and character of the Federation. The people must
have to meet at a Sovereign National Conference as they did in 1951 to determine the type of units that
are to constitute the Federation or Federations of Nigeria, and the powers each group is prepared to
surrender to a central government. Nigerians had already enjoyed the implementation of the external
aspect of self-determination when on October 1st, 1960, flag independence was granted to them. They
became theoretically free from external colonialism. Since then, the people have ironically been
subjected to internal colonialism. The struggle for the right of internal self-determination over certain
fundamental issues like resource control, discrimination, political marginalisation, ethnic segregation,
oppression etc. must continue to be fought aggressively so that Nigeria will eventually emerge as a
nation of free and independent peoples.
In order to respectfully uphold the rights of all peoples within a state, governments are called
upon to adhere to and implement fully, the international human rights instruments and in particular, the
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Concern must also
be given to the protection of individual rights without discrimination on racial, ethnic, tribal, religious
or other grounds42. In accordance with article 2 of the International Covenant on the Elimination of All
Forms of Racial Discrimination and other relevant international documents, governments should be
sensitive towards the rights of persons of ethnic groups, particularly their right to lead lives of dignity
and to preserve their identities under various constitutional frameworks.
One of the recently established controversial principles in the subject of self-determination is
that peoples of a sovereign independent nation can exercise their right of self-determination43 in grave
circumstances where they feel that their survival is at stake or when the degree of inhuman and
degrading treatment on them has reached an intolerable degree. The exercise of such a right can be
manifested in various forms like secession, open revolution or serious civil disobedience. In the case of
Nigeria for instance, people of the oil producing areas of Nigeria particularly in the Niger Delta, have
indicated their desire to assert their right of self determination with respect to the issue of resource
control and revenue allocation. They have been maintaining that governments over the years, have
shown little or no concern for their demands for proper protection of their environmental and equitable
allocation of sufficient revenue to their areas from where the greater percentage of crude oil which is
the mainstay of Nigerian economy is being produced.
It may be very difficult to adduce justifiable reason either, under international or municipal law
for blaming such a group of people if they decide to assert their right of self determination through any
legitimate means no matter its unpleasant consequences on the territorial integrity of the entire nation.
Hence, it is recommended that the National Political Reform Conference inaugurated in April, 2005 in
Nigeria, should critically examine the issues of resource control, revenue allocation and other
fundamental national issues being considered by different ethnic groups as inimical to their right of self
As for the African nations in general, no doubt, there are some countries of the continent like
Sierra-Leone, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, Liberia, Togo, Congo, etc. where there are
still pronounced cases of peoples fighting for their right of self-determination whether external or
internal. It should however be appreciated that the external aspect of the right of self-determination in
Africa is no longer accorded serious attention since most of the countries in the continent had gotten
their political independence from their various colonial masters. Nevertheless, almost all the
‘developing’ nations of Africa still have to intensify their struggle for their socio-economic

See the recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in March, 1996 as recorded in International
Human Rights Text and Materials (2001) op. cit,, 76-78.
See again, Article 20(2) & (3) of the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights.
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independence from those foreign powers which are in the habit of oppressing them through fiscal
policies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s terms and conditionalities.
Now that the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) is renamed the African Union (AU) with a
more comprehensive structure, daring objectives and political philosophy; its activities must be
focused on resolving all socio-legal and political problems of self-determination confronting the
peoples of the continent. By now, the continent should be viable enough to boast of countries
consisting of peoples whose socio-economic, cultural and political modes of development are less
inhibited by various problems arising from unlawful violation of peoples’ fundamental rights
especially, the right of self-determination.