This contribution examines the African Union’s approach to South Sudan and Somaliland, as examples of secessionist movements in the Horn of Africa. It aims to explain why South Sudan received support for their right to self-determination and independence, while Somaliland struggled for international recognition.


The Right To Self-Determination Or Inviolability Of Borders In The Horn Of Africa? The African Union Approach

Kateřina Rudincová

From: Unrecognized States And Secession In The 21st Century

About this book

This book presents novel theoretical and empirical findings on the issue of unrecognized states and secession. The first part of the book conceptualizes unrecognized states as entities with a national identity and which have achieved political independence, yet are not internationally recognized as independent states.

It also addresses topics such as the role of superpowers in secessionist conflicts, ontological security in post-Soviet states, and factors influencing the legitimacy of secession referenda. In turn, the book’s second part presents selected case studies on various secessionist regions and territories, including Kurdistan, the Caucasus, Kosovo, and Bougainville. 


Editors and Affiliations

Martin Riegl

Institute of Political Studies, Charles University in Prague, Prague, Czech Republic

Bohumil Doboš

Institute of Political Studies, Charles University in Prague, Prague, Czech Republic

The Right To Self-Determination Or Inviolability Of Borders In The Horn Of Africa - The African Union Approach

Chapter 11 – The Right To Self-Determination Or Inviolability Of Borders In The Horn Of Africa? The African Union Approach

Publisher: Springer International Publishing

Author: Kateřina Ženková Rudincová

Kateřina Ženková RudincováDepartment of Geography,
Faculty of Science, Humanities and Education,
Technical University of Liberec,
Liberec, Czech Republic

Chapter length: 17 pages (pp 187–203)

First Online: 31 May 2017

This chapter is dedicated to the Charles University Research Development Schemes, program PROGRES Q18—Social Sciences: from Multidisciplinary to Interdisciplinary.

In this chapter



1 – The Right to Self-determination in the African Context

2 – Uti possidetis or Inviolability of Borders in Africa as Limit to Self-determination

3 – South Sudan: Secession by Consent

4 – Somaliland and Possibilities of Its International Recognition

5 – Conclusion: Possibilities of Border Revisions? South Sudan and Somaliland Compared


Author Biography


The contribution deals with the topic of the African Union’s approach to South Sudan and Somaliland as examples of the secessionist movements in the Horn of Africa. The main scope of the contribution is to answer the question of why South Sudan has been supported by the African Union in its struggle for self-determination culminating in secession, while, on the other hand, Somaliland has not been successful in its efforts to gain international recognition. Methodologically, the contribution presents a comparative case study and is based on the interviews carried out with officials at the African Union Commission and other experts in Addis Ababa in 2010 and 2011.


After the end of the Cold War, several separatist movements emerged in the Horn of Africa. Generally speaking, they pointed out that uti possidetis principle had been applied incorrectly in their cases and that they had been deprived of their right to self-determination and, therefore, they had a right to an independent existence. The independence of Eritrea in 1993 and that of South Sudan in 2011, respectively, can be seen as examples of this approach.

On 9 July 2011, South Sudan declared its independence, which was immediately recognized by the United Nations (UN), the states of the international community, and the African Union (AU). On the other hand, there are ongoing efforts of Somaliland to achieve international recognition and an increasing number of secessionist movements trying to escape from the conflicts within the boundaries of their parent countries, such as the re-formed Biafran movement, which emerged as a response to the violent attacks of Boko Haram in Nigeria.

There are two very different cases of disintegration processes in the Horn of Africa. On the one hand, there is a de facto state[1] of Somaliland, which has not managed to achieve international recognition yet, even though it meets the three basic criteria for the existence of an independent state set out in the Montevideo Convention, i.e. population, territory, and state power (Farley 2010, 805; Hoch and Rudincová 2015). Furthermore, it has managed to build a sufficient capacity to enter into foreign relations with other states and also has built up quite an extensive network of unofficial foreign and economic relations. On the other hand, there is a recently formed state of South Sudan, which was recognized by African countries, the AU, and the international community immediately after the declaration of its independence. The AU supported its independence despite the fact that it violates the principle of uti possidetis since South Sudan had never existed separately and promoted the right of South Sudanese peoples to self-determination.

Secessionist movements in Africa in general argue by their right to self-determination in order to achieve international recognition. This is the case of both Somaliland and South Sudan, which are the subject of this study. The right to self-determination has been enshrined in a vast number of international documents of global and regional organizations. However, it is limited by the ongoing dedication of the international community to the territorial integrity of individual states. Even though the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) adopted in 1963 called for the self-determination of peoples, it determined the inviolability of existing borders in Africa at the same time. The possibility of the emergence of new states in Africa and their possible international recognition has been influenced by geopolitical factors and, therefore, the approach of the OAU and then the AU to these cases has not been consistent. On the one hand, the African Union supported the peace process in Sudan and its attitude to the possible secession of South Sudan has always been conciliatory. On the other hand, the possibility of Somaliland’s independent existence is still being denied by the AU, even though it has managed to achieve relative stability and positive political and security development. Therefore, this study will focus on the comparison of the AU approach to these two cases and will evaluate the factors which led to emergence of independent South Sudan on the one hand and to an ongoing denial of the international recognition for Somaliland on the other.

In this respect, this contribution focuses on the processes of disintegration in the Horn of Africa and possibilities of border revisions, with the emphasis mainly placed on the disintegration of the Somali Republic after the outbreak of civil war in comparison with the territorial disintegration of Sudan. A particular interest has been given to the position of the African Union as an important regional governmental organization. The main question of this article is why there are such different postures of this organization towards these two cases? And which conditions do the separatist movement have to fulfil in order to achieve support from the AU for its claims?

From the methodological point of view, this contribution is a comparative study (e.g. Lijphart 1971; George and Bennett 2005; Ženka and Kofroň 2012) aimed at determining the stance of the AU towards secessionist claims of Somaliland and South Sudan. These two cases have been selected because of their extreme diversity, yet territorial proximity. The underlying research was conducted at the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in October 2010 and between September and November 2011. During the research stays in Addis Ababa, interviews with the AU Commission officials and an interview with a former Somaliland’s foreign minister were carried out. These interviews are supplemented by the interview with the official of the Mission of the EU to the AU conducted in Addis Ababa in October 2010 and by the interview with Prof. Iqbal Jhazbhay, an expert on the issue of international recognition of Somaliland, in November 2011 in Addis Ababa. All the interviews had the character of semi-structured expert interviews which means that respondents were given the opportunity to freely express their opinions and stances.

Concerning the structure of the contribution, the first part of the chapter is dedicated to the examination of theoretical concepts, i.e. the right of peoples to self-determination and the principle of uti possidetis or inviolability of borders in Africa in particular. The second part of the contribution is focused on two case studies, South Sudan and Somaliland, and the concluding part is dedicated to their comparison.

1 – The Right to Self-determination in the African Context

The concept of the right to self-determination of peoples originated in Western political thought and was incorporated into the so-called 14 points after the end of the First World War. In fact, it was a plan for how to re-organize Europe and was worked out by American President Woodrow Wilson. The declaration, which recognized the right to self-determination in connection with the independence of colonial peoples, and therefore putting self-determination in the African context as well, was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1960 as a part of Resolution 1514-XV. This resolution states that all peoples have the right to freedom, sovereignty, and integrity of their territory. According to this resolution, “all peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development” (A/RES/1514 (XV)). Furthermore, the right to self-determination is stressed by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly Resolution 2200A (XXI) on 16 December 1966. The same principle was incorporated into the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted on the same day (A/RES/2200A(XXI)).

In the African context, the right to self-determination of peoples was incorporated into the founding documents of both the Organization of African Unity and the African Union, and into the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights (Banjul Charter) as well. The Banjul Charter was adopted at the 18th Assembly of Heads of States and Governments of the OAU in Nairobi in June 1981 and came into force in 1986. This Charter for the first time suggested the OAU’s commitment to the human rights agenda and its shift from the principle of non-interference to internal matters of individual states. It was adopted in response to the violent regimes in the 1970s, such as Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda or Jean-Bédel Bokassa’s administration in the Central African Republic. With their removal from power, the African states started to focus on the human rights agenda more and they were trying to prevent, even though not successfully and effectively, human rights violations.

Besides individual human rights, the Banjul Charter also incorporated the right to self-determination as a group right, which is stressed in Articles 19 and 20. Article 20 defines self-determination as the “right to free colonized or oppressed peoples from the bonds of domination” (CAB/LEG/67/3). However, the formulation of the unquestionable right of all peoples to self-determination in Articles 19 and 20 raises questions about whether self-determination should be understood solely in connection with colonized peoples or whether it applies to all peoples. Certain authors, such as Gittleman (1982), understand the right to self-determination solely in connection with the colonized peoples, and they deny the universal right to self-determination for other African nations. Therefore, they argue that in the post-colonial era, the exercise of this right has to be qualified as secession, which is perceived as mostly unacceptable in international law (Addo 1988, 184). On the other hand, if these articles apply only to colonial territories and peoples, the enforceability of the Charter would be very limited, since no colonial power has ever been a member of the OAU and, therefore, would not be subject to the African Commission’s decision-making. The African Charter is an agreement between sovereign African states and members of the OAU, and for that reason, it is not possible to enforce its effectiveness on the non-members of this organization. On the ground of this fact, the effect of the African Charter should not be limited solely to the colonized peoples (Addo 1988, 185).

Article 20 permits the oppressed peoples to use any means recognized by the international community to free themselves. However, as the decision of the African Commission in the case of Katanga (ACHPR Com. 75/92 1995) indicates, any exercise of self-determination can be carried out solely in accordance with the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Independence may be achieved only by an agreement with the parent state or with its consent. Moreover, to achieve justified independence, a denial of participation on the basis of ethnicity or territoriality, and at the same time the violation of human rights to the extent which challenges the territorial integrity of a particular state have to be proven (Dersso 2012, 62–63). It follows that the Banjul Charter acknowledges the right of secession only as a last resort since secession inevitably challenges the current state borders in Africa. Therefore, international organizations including the African Union are not very willing to accept the border changes in the interest of preserving the stability of the international system.

2 – Uti possidetis or Inviolability of Borders in Africa as Limit to Self-determination

Due to the fact that the boundaries in Africa were established on the basis of various European powers’ agreements, they are often viewed as artificial constructs with considerable conflict potential. In fact, all the boundaries are man-made, artificial dividing lines drawn by people; i.e., in this context, the borders in Africa do not make any exception (Touval 1972, 3). However, many African borders consist of straight lines and, according to Herbst (1989, 674–675), up to 44% of African borders trace astronomical lines. The difference between African and European boundaries is that the borders in Africa have only recently been created and their delimitation was mostly a result of decisions made by colonial powers without any regard to the local population. The boundaries in Africa may be perceived as arbitrary or unreasonable for two main reasons: they do not respect local conditions, and they were designed by outside powers. Delimitation of the borders in Africa has often caused division of cultural areas between several states. Therefore, it is surprising that this problem has caused an outbreak of armed conflicts in Africa only on a limited scale (Griffiths 1986, 214). However, the Horn of Africa is one of the regions where the insensitive design of national borders led to separatist and irredentist efforts, as reflected in South Sudan and Somaliland in particular.

Since the newly established states in Africa feared potential separatism and claims of particular nations and ethnic groups to self-determination, the principle of uti possidetis or inviolability of borders inherited from the era of colonialism was enshrined in numerous documents adopted by the OAU. Therefore, the OAU Charter approached the issue of self-determination much more moderately, in contrast to the preceding resolutions adopted by the UN. According to paragraph 3 of Article III of the OAU Charter, “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each State and for its inalienable right to independent existence” is the crucial principle (OAU Charter 1963). The OAU Charter obliges the member states not to interfere in the internal affairs of other states. It also stresses the respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each state and its right to an independent existence. At the same time, the OAU Charter appealed to the complete emancipation of all African territories, which were still under colonial rule at the time of its adoption (OAU Charter 1963). However, the OAU supported the emancipation of African territories exclusively within the already existing borders, created in the era of colonialism, and refused to revise colonial boundaries.

During the struggle for independence, it was decided by African leaders that new African states would be created within the already existing colonial borders. Political representations of Morocco and Somalia strictly opposed this agreement, since both of these countries have had their territorial and power claims beyond the borders of defined territories. Delegates from the African countries decided about the inviolability of colonial borders in Africa at the OAU Conference in Cairo in 1964, and it was confirmed by the adoption of Resolution 16 (1), which deals with the territorial disputes between African states. This resolution declared that “all Member States pledge themselves to respect the borders existing on their achievement of national independence” (AHG/Res. 16(I) 1964).

The principle of territorial integrity and respect for state sovereignty was also incorporated into the Constitutive Act of the African Union, adopted in 2000 at the Lomé Summit in Togo and entered into force in 2001. These principles are enshrined in Article 3 which deals with the objectives of the Union (Constitutive Act of African Union 2000).

By incorporating these clauses into the founding documents and by the adoption of Resolution 16 (1), the principle of the right of African peoples to self-determination promoted by the UN has been replaced by the doctrine of the inviolability of borders in Africa promoted by the OAU and the AU. By this decision, all the efforts to revise inherited borders in Africa became de-legitimate and the separatist and irredentist claims have met with incomprehension. Newly emerged African states were concerned that their territory might be fragmented into smaller political units that would require autonomy or even independence. By adopting resolutions on the inviolability of borders in Africa, they intended to prevent the emergence of separatist movements and outbreak of new independence wars and conflicts. However, exceptions and at the same time precedents occurred in 1993, when Eritrea separated from Ethiopia, and in 2011, respectively, when the referendum on South Sudanese independence was held. Unilateral attempts to achieve independence also occurred, for example, in Somaliland, which declared independence in 1991. The approach of the OAU and later the AU towards the secessions in Africa seems to be ambivalent since the AU has promoted the formation of an independent state in South Sudan and, on the other hand, has railed very critically against the possibility of recognizing the separate existence of Somaliland.[2] The AU approach and arguments it uses to support its policy towards South Sudan and Somaliland are the subject of the following case studies.

3 – South Sudan: Secession by Consent

The entire area of Sudan was during the colonial era administered as an Anglo-Egyptian condominium. However, the British policy in southern and northern Sudan differed significantly. The British intended to use southern Sudan as a kind of barrier against the spread of Islam, and therefore, they supported Christian missions sent to southern Sudan for the purpose of converting locals to Christianity. The use of English at the expense of Arabic was promoted in the south as well and even wearing the traditional Islamic clothing was prohibited (Collins 2008, 35). Britain decided to administer Sudan using the so-called indirect administration, which means that it used local tribal rulers and existing political and social structures. However, due to this policy, British de facto separated “Arab” and “African” population of Sudan and created two distinct political and social entities. The reason for these measures was the attempt to limit the Arab-Islamic influence in the area and to maintain an “African” culture in southern Sudan (Idris 2004, 37–38). As Francis Deng states, the “crisis of national identity” was achieved in Sudan (Deng 1995, 9), since the local inhabitants maintained their ethnic identity and perceived themselves more as Dinka, Nuer or Shilluk than Sudanese. All these factors led to the outcome that South Sudan went through a different political and historical development, making it difficult to reunify the two parts of the country into one state (see Rudincová 2015).

Independent Sudan was established in 1956 following a referendum on independence on Egypt and inherited colonial boundaries created by international treaties. The newly formed Sudan was identified as an Arab-Islamic state, and the marginalization of the South occurred almost immediately after gaining independence (Illés 2011, 102). The denial of the right to self-determination of the southern Sudanese ethnic groups led to the outbreak of a long-term civil war in the South. The Sudanese government tried to resolve the rebellion by force at first, but in 1971, it realized that the military solution was impossible and agreed to peace talks with southern rebel groups. One year later, peace agreement between the Sudanese government and rebel forces was signed in Addis Ababa and the regional autonomy of South Sudan was recognized (Deng 2010, 35).

The period of peace in Sudan ended when President Jafar Nimairi declared Sudan an Islamic state in 1983 and introduced the Islamic law Sharia across the country. Immediately, opposition groups were created in southern Sudan. They demanded either the emancipation of the southern Sudanese peoples, as Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM), led by John Garang, or complete independence, as wanted by Anyanya II, or Southern Sudan Independence Movement (SSIM) (Prunier and Gisselquist 2003, 105).

During the conflict, there were several attempts initiated mainly from abroad to negotiate peace between the belligerent parties. Nigeria and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) chaired by Kenya were the most significant mediators in these negotiations. All of these initiatives, however, failed on key issues, such as setting the boundaries in case of formation of a new state in southern Sudan, or on the conditions of the referendum in the South (Prunier and Gisselquist 2003, 106).

The conflict in Sudan was not limited only to the area of this state, but it indirectly affected all the neighboring countries, themselves relatively unstable. As a consequence, their own political and security interests were reflected in the Sudanese peace process. For example, Kenya was involved in the peace process, which did not exclude the formation of an independent state in southern Sudan and endorsed the right to self-determination of the southern Sudanese population. On the other hand, Egypt stood up against it and clearly supported unified Sudan (International Crisis Group 2010, 1). Ethiopia, another important regional player, supported South Sudan in its efforts to achieve independence. However, at the same time, Ethiopia maintained good relations with Khartoum and following the secession of Eritrea used Port Sudan, as the secession caused a loss of direct access to the sea. Support of South Sudan by Ethiopia stems from the efforts to maintain balance and security in the Horn of Africa. Any conflict that would once again flare up in Sudan could also spill over to the Ethiopian region of Gambella, which belongs to the most unstable regions in Ethiopia (International Crisis Group 2010, 12–13; Riegl and Doboš 2014, 186–187).

The great success of the peace talks was achieved on 9 January 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed between the Sudanese government and SPLM and ended the long conflict between northern and southern Sudan. In the Article 1.3, the agreement stated that “the people of South Sudan have the right to self-determination, inter alia, through a referendum to determine their future status”. Based on this statement in the CPA, the people of South Sudan received a six-year transitional period during which the transitional government should have been formed and they should have prepared for a referendum on independence (Deng 2010, 36–37). Due to the prolonged civil war and the feeling of great injustices that was deeply rooted among the inhabitants of southern Sudan, but also due to the location of oil reserves in the southern provinces, it was already a foregone conclusion that if the referendum on the independence of the southern Sudan was to be held, the majority of the population would vote in favor of this option. Ideas about a united Sudan would have been acceptable for the residents of the southern provinces only if the new state would be based on strictly secular principles and southern elites would be integrated into state administrative bodies (Kalpakian 2006, 54). However, provisions of the CPA were still designed to “make unity attractive” based on the efforts of John Garang to achieve a reformed Sudan, and secession was considered the last resort only if the Sudanese government failed to meet the requirements expressed in the peace agreement. Development of the CPA was a result of long-term negotiations, which were supported from abroad, especially from the USA, Great Britain and Norway and regional organizations, for example from IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) and the African Union. The referendum on independence took place on 11 January 2011, and people of southern Sudan voted 98.8% for independence with a turnout at 97.6% (Southern Sudan Referendum Commission 2011). Consequently, the independent existence of a new state was declared on 9 July 2011. The African Union surprisingly did not prevent the emergence of a new state in the Horn of Africa and, even on the contrary, the representatives of the Peace and Security Department of the AU welcomed the emergence of South Sudan with enthusiasm. South Sudanese independence was immediately recognized by the African Union and its member states, and South Sudan was officially accepted as a 55th member of this organization on 27 July 2011 (Tekle 2011). The main argument, which supported the creation of this state, is that the representation of South Sudan managed to conclude an agreement with a government in the north.[3] Moreover, the status of southern Sudanese nation was determined in a referendum, which was held on the basis of the CPA. Owing to the fact that southern Sudanese people identified themselves as a nation, they decided for independent existence based on the results of a referendum.[4] Therefore, it is possible to deduce that the AU allows the creation of new states and review of colonial borders solely in the cases when the agreement between the government and separatists has been achieved.[5] The emergence of South Sudan and its right to self-determination were also affected by geopolitical interests of great powers in the region. An important geopolitical and geoeconomic factor of the Sudanese conflict is an oil extraction in southern provinces. The countries, which participated in oil production in southern Sudan, had their own interests in the region. Therefore, they endeavored to reach safety in order not to jeopardize oilfields and pipelines and at the same time were trying to end the conflict between the central government and the SPLM (El-Tigani 2001, 50–51).

Recognized independence of South Sudan also suggests a changing international policy in Africa, which has become more focused on the issue of human rights, democratization and peaceful conflict resolution. The support of South Sudan by the AU illustrates this new understanding of African politics. Territorial changes are no longer understood solely as the cause of wars and violence but can be used as a last resort to settle disputes in the cases where other solutions are not possible. However, the AU approach to South Sudan may not be conceived as universal within African international politics, since there is still a considerable emphasis put on the inviolability of colonial borders and on the respect of territorial integrity.

4 – Somaliland and Possibilities of Its International Recognition

Another case analyzed in this contribution is Somaliland, which has existed as a de facto state since 1991, when the representatives of the Somali National Movement unilaterally declared its independence at the Grand Conference of Northern Nations (Shirweynaha Beelaha Waqooyi) on 18 May that year. Its territory corresponds to the former British Protectorate of Somaliland, while the southern regions of Somalia were administered under Italian colonial rule. Both regions went through different historical and political development and gained their independence in 1960. Even before uniting both former colonies into one state, there was a 5-day independent existence of Somaliland, recognized by 35 states (Jhazbhay 2003, 79; Bradbury et al. 2003; Bryden 2003, 342). Just this recognized independence in 1960 is the main argument used by the political representation of Somaliland to justify why the independence of Somaliland should be recognized once again by the international community.[6] The argument of a 5-day independence, however, can only be used as a legal issue, not a political one. The actual states’ politics and, therefore, their willingness to grant international recognition are influenced by efforts to achieve peace in Somalia, and Somaliland’s independence does not fit into this framework.[7]

Legitimization efforts of Somaliland’s independence are also based on a different colonial past compared to southern Somalia and the fact that Somaliland in fact does not violate the colonial borders, since it only claims such a Somali territory which previously belonged to the British Protectorate of Somaliland and was recognized as an independent state in 1960.[8] The international boundaries of Somaliland are determined in Article 2 of the Somaliland Constitution. It states that “(t)he territory of the Republic of Somaliland covers the same area as that of the former Somaliland Protectorate and is located between Latitude 8′ to 11′30′ north of the equator and Longitude 42′45 to 49′ East” (Constitution of the Republic of Somaliland 2001). Therefore, in this case, the principle of uti possidetis, which means the inviolability of boundaries inherited from the colonial past, is respected. Somaliland uses its colonial past as well as the border issue to justify its efforts to achieve its separate existence since its political representation argues that it does not require anything more than merely maintaining the colonial borders.[9] As noted by the representative of the AU Border Program, “Somaliland is a victim of the principle of uti possidetis”. According to him, Resolution 16 (1) adopted in 1964 did not mean that colonial boundaries should not be revised afterwards and did not impose such a ban on demands of self-determination. However, African countries themselves “criminalized” self-determination, while trying to institutionalize the colonial boundaries, from which the local elites benefited the most.[10]

As representatives of the African Union declared during interviews, the separate existence of Somaliland has no justification due to the fact that the British and Italian colonies united into one state voluntarily and without any challenge of this act. Therefore, the doctrine of acceptance was applied in this case, which means that when a certain state persists and is not questioned, it comes into validity.[11] According to a former Foreign Minister of Somaliland, however, the act of uniting the British and Italian colonies into one state took place under a manipulated and rigged referendum and, therefore, it is considered to be invalid.[12] The Union of Somaliland and Somalia Law was passed by the Legislative Assembly of Somaliland on 27 June 1960, but it has never been signed by the southern authorities. A similar law, Atto di Unione, was passed in southern Somalia on 30 June 1960. However, this law significantly differed from the one passed in Somaliland and, therefore, it did not come into force (Poor 2009). Dissatisfaction of the representatives of northern Somalia led to the boycott of the constitutional referendum, and thus, the constitution was approved only due to the high voter turnout in southern Somalia.

Similarly to South Sudan, Somaliland also justifies its independence by the declaration that the right to self-determination of northern clans and their human rights have been violated (Jhazbhay 2003, 44) and, therefore, they should exercise their remedial right to self-determination. Marginalization of the northern Isaaq clan and the dictatorial regime of Siyad Barre resulted in a resistance struggle of the local population and the outbreak of civil war, which flared up in the north at first. All these factors led to the overthrow of the regime, and on 18 May 1991, the independence of the State of Somaliland was unilaterally declared. Its independence was confirmed in the “national referendum” held in 2001 (Roethke 2011, 37–38). However, the representatives of the African Union declared during the interviews that an all-Somali referendum is one of the crucial conditions for granting recognition. Moreover, the constitutional referendum held in Somaliland in 2001 is not, in their opinion, perceived as an explicitly expressed referendum on the independence of Somaliland.[13] In the case of South Sudan and Eritrea, however, the referendums held solely in the regions that tried to secede from their parent states were enough for the recognition of independence.

A relatively successful democratization process and the creation of representative institutions in Somaliland are the key arguments used by Somaliland’s political representatives in order to justify their demands for self-determination and independent existence.[14] At this time, Somalia is still a failed state and the internationally recognized Somali government does not have adequate capacities to provide internal self-determination. In this context, the right to unilateral remedial secession of Somaliland can be seen as justifiable. Secession and independent existence would contribute to the economic and political development of the country, and it could possibly positively affect the development of the entire region.[15] Although the international organizations have been recognizing the successes achieved by Somaliland’s government, especially in contrast to the development in southern Somalia, the successful peace process in Somaliland is perceived by them more as motivation for southern Somalia, but not a strong argument for international recognition.[16]

The AU fact-finding mission was sent to Somaliland between 30 April and 4 May 2005 under the leadership of a deputy chairman of the AU Patrick Mazimhaka. This mission found that Somaliland fulfils many aspects of statehood and positive developments have been achieved. It is expressed in the report, prepared on the basis of this mission, that the case of Somaliland deserves special consideration and may not be viewed as opening of the “Pandora box”. Consequently, the African Union should try to find a way how to deal with Somaliland without international recognition.[17] Another AU Mission sent to Somaliland between 12 and 14 September 2008 came to similar conclusions. At the summit of the Foreign Ministers of the AU in Accra, in the same year, however, the case of Somaliland was sidelined. Subsequently, in 2010, the Peace and Security Council of the AU recommended the Chairperson of the AU Commission to approach the cases of Somaliland and Puntland as parts of an overall effort to achieve peace and stability in Somalia (Clapham et al. 2011, 11). Somaliland applied for membership in the African Union in 2005. However, since it has not been internationally recognized, it may not be accepted as a member and, moreover, the African Union does not recognize observatory status.[18] On account of this fact, the political representation of Somaliland has been trying to establish unofficial political and economic relations with influential states, both in Africa and Europe. For example, Somaliland has opened its liaison offices in Great Britain, the USA, Ethiopia, Norway, and other countries. It establishes international relations by means of its Ministry of foreign affairs. Its political representation pays regular visits to European and African countries and the USA as well and, on the contrary, it welcomes delegations from all over the world. The most important political and economic partner of Somaliland in the region is undoubtedly Ethiopia, which has signed a number of bilateral agreements with Somaliland, for example, the agreement on the use of the port of Berbera on the Somaliland coast in 2006 or on the provisions of customs offices along the common border (Farley 2010, 789).

A problematic issue of the situation in Somaliland seems to be the fact that no agreement has been reached with the internationally recognized Somali Federal Government, which controls the southern parts of Somalia, and its predecessor, Transition Federal Government. In addition, some of Somaliland’s politicians have been steadfastly refusing any negotiations. The interviews, conducted at the African Union, however, indicated that an agreement with the Somali government is seen as a crucial point to recognize the independence of Somaliland from the African Union.[19] In this context, the talks between Somaliland and Somalia started in 2012 in the UK and continued by the negotiations mediated by Turkey in 2013. It was the first time Somaliland politicians met with their Somali counterparts and talks continued in Dubai, London, Djibouti, and mainly in Turkey since then. However, the talks were not successful at the end because of mutual distrust and blame, and the negotiations scheduled for 2015 in Turkey were postponed (Gamute 2015).

The issue of international recognition of Somaliland is affected by regional geopolitics since each of the regional powers has its own interests in this area. The African Union perceives the Somali government as the representative of entire Somalia; a similar view is held by Egypt since it supports a strong Somali state as a counter-balancing force to Ethiopia. Ethiopia has developed political and economic relations with Somaliland. On the other hand, it does not support the international recognition of Somaliland, since it worries that the recognized independent existence of Somaliland could cause insurgencies among the Somali population in the Ethiopian region of Ogaden. The Western states have adopted an attitude of non-interference in African affairs in the case of international recognition of Somaliland, and they have been waiting for African states to recognize Somaliland first (Lalos 2011, 811–813). The problem of Somaliland, according to the representatives of the Legal Counsel of the AU, is that it is “too successful” and, therefore, does not attract much attention of the international community.[20] In a similar fashion, Prof. Jhazbhay identifies as a problem of Somaliland its small size and importance. For this reason, Somaliland needs a patron state, which would contribute to its reconstruction and help it to achieve international recognition.[21]

Additionally, Somaliland’s ability to achieve international recognition is largely influenced by the interests and policies of regional powers, especially Ethiopia. It also occupies a prominent position within regional organizations, such as IGAD and the African Union. However, due to its position, Ethiopia, although it has developed a broad spectrum of unofficial relations with Somaliland, is not willing to be a proponent of international recognition of Somaliland since it fears to be accused of fragmentation of Somalia (Shinn 2002, 3).

5 – Conclusion: Possibilities of Border Revisions? South Sudan and Somaliland Compared

As the two analyzed case studies have shown, referring to a separate colonial past is an important legitimization factor in the African context. Member states of the OAU and later the AU have committed themselves to respect the territorial integrity of African states and the existence of borders inherited from the colonial past. These principles were enshrined in the OAU Charter, Resolution 16 (1) adopted in 1964, and the Constitutional Act of AU. For this reason, both South Sudan and Somaliland referred to the distinct historical and political development during the colonial era, in order to legitimize their claims to independence.

The interviews conducted have revealed that an important requirement for justifiable secession in Africa is negotiations with the parent state and the conclusion of an agreement under which the referendum on independence would be held. Based on this requirement, the independence of Eritrea and South Sudan was recognized by the international community. In the case of Eritrea, EPLF succeeded together with the EPRDF in removing Mengistu Haile Mariam’s regime by military means. Subsequently, EPLF was able to negotiate the holding of the referendum, under which the independence of Eritrea was recognized. Although SPLM was unable to defeat the Sudanese regime militarily, the result of diplomatic negotiations supported from abroad was the conclusion of the CPA. Under this agreement, a referendum was held and the vast majority of the South Sudanese population voted for the independence of South Sudan, which was recognized by the international community immediately after the declaration of an independent South Sudanese State. In the case of Somaliland, however, the situation is complicated by the fact that Somalia has been a failed state since the outbreak of civil war in 1991. Despite international support for the peace process and many efforts to create a representative and credible government in southern Somalia, for a long time, there has not been any credible partner who Somaliland would be willing to negotiate the future of its state with.

The right to self-determination of nations prevailed over the principle of uti possidetis in the case of South Sudan, since the identity of the South was formed during a long period of British colonial rule. South Sudan has managed to achieve independence and international recognition without any doubt because its political representatives managed to gain the support of the international community. Although the case of South Sudan showed more signs of secession than Somaliland, in this case, it was acceptable for the African Union to recognize its independence, because there was a long civil war going on that resulted in a humanitarian crisis. The protracted civil war led to the devastation of both the South Sudanese land and the local population, which provoked outrage around the world. For the African Union, in this situation, it seemed more acceptable to acknowledge the emergence of a new state in southern Sudan, which could lead to a greater degree of stability in the region. In this case, the question of whether recognition of Somaliland could also contribute to solving the long-term Somali civil war arises. Somaliland paradoxically does not enjoy much attention of the international community, because there is relative peace, institutions have been created there and certain success has been achieved in the area of democratization. Moreover, the people of Somaliland are still considered to be part of the Somali nation, and thus, the right to self-determination is being challenged in their case. As it is evident from the presented case studies, the right to self-determination of peoples and the principle of uti possidetis are used ambivalently, and in African politics and international law, they are still very vague terms. Each case is being treated differently, and the emphasis is also put on the perception of the state abroad and on the approach of the international community. For Somaliland, in order to achieve international recognition, the only option is to try to turn the attention of the international community to its case and gain political support from the African states in particular. Only African states can raise the issue of international recognition at the Assembly of the African Union. Due to the fact that Somaliland has been marginalized in international politics and more attention has been paid to the southern regions of Somalia, it will continue to be interesting to observe whether the political representation of Somaliland will be successful in its efforts.


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Author Biography

Kateřina RudnicováKateřina Rudincová is an Assistant professor at the Department of Geography, Faculty of Sciences, Humanities, and Education, Technical University of Liberec. She is dealing with international relations, politics, and border issues in Africa and, in recent years, has published in this field. Her main research interest is the territorial fragmentation of Somalia with a special focus on the emergence of Somaliland studied in comparison with the fragmentation of Sudan. She conducted three types of research at the Commission of African Union in Addis Ababa in the years 2010, 2011, and 2015.


[1] For various definitions of de facto states, see, e.g. Kolstø (2006), Pegg (1998), Piknerová (2009), Riegl (2010).

[2] Interview with the Peace and Security Council official, AU Commission, Addis Ababa, 7.10.2010.

[3] Interview with the Peace and Security Council official, AU Commission, Addis Ababa, 7.10.2010.

[4] Interview with the Political Affairs Department official, AU Commission, Addis Ababa, 15.11.2011.

[5] Interview with the Peace and Security Council official, AU Commission, Addis Ababa, 7.10.2010.

[6] Interview with Somaliland‘s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Addis Ababa, 15.10.2010.

[7] Interview with the Mission of EU to AU official, Addis Ababa, 29.9.2010.

[8] Interview with Somaliland‘s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Addis Ababa, 15.10.2010.

[9] Interview with Somaliland‘s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Addis Ababa, 15.10.2010.

[10] Interview with the AU Border Program official, AU Commission, Addis Ababa 18.11.2011.

[11] Interview with the Political Affairs Department official, AU Commission, Addis Ababa, 15.11.2011.

[12] Interview with Somaliland‘s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Addis Ababa, 15.10.2010.

[13] Interview with the Peace and Security Council official, AU Commission, Addis Ababa, 7.10.2010.

[14] Interview with Somaliland‘s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Addis Ababa, 15.10.2010.

[15] Interview with Somaliland‘s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Addis Ababa, 15.10.2010.

[16] Interview with the Peace and Security Council official, AU Commission, Addis Ababa, 7.10.2010.

[17] Interview with the Peace and Security Council official, AU Commission, Addis Ababa, 7.10.2010.

[18] Interview with the Political Affairs Department official, AU Commission, Addis Ababa 15.11.2011.

[19] Interview with the Peace and Security Council official, AU Commission, Addis Ababa, 7.10.2010.

[20] Interview with the AU Director of the Office of the Legal Counsel, AU Commission, Addis Ababa, 17.11.2011.

[21] Interview with Prof. Iqbal Jhazbhay, Addis Ababa, 18.11.2011.

Cite this chapter

Rudincová, K. (2017). The Right to Self-determination or Inviolability of Borders in the Horn of Africa? The African Union Approach. In: Riegl, M., Doboš, B. (eds) Unrecognized States and Secession in the 21st Century. Springer, Cham.

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

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