How to Create Your Own State: Lessons for the MNLA from Africa’s Successful Irredentist Movements

Today, the MNLA released a statement that they “irrevocably declare, as of this day Friday, April 6, 2012, the independent state of Azawad.” However a cursory look at post-colonial African history demonstrates that a declaration alone does not a state make. Signed in 1963, Article III of the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (the predecessor to the African Union) states that “The Member States…solemnly affirm and declare their adherence to the…respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each State and for its inalienable right to independent existence.” It is this part of the OAU Charter that cemented the subsequent practice by the OAU and its successor organization of rejecting attempts by irredentist movements or predatory nation-states to alter the borders of African countries as they existed at the time of their independence from European powers. Nonetheless, two examples stand out – Eritrea and South Sudan, which gained independence from Ethiopia and Sudan in 1993 and 2011, respectively. In thinking about these two cases, a few thoughts come to mind.

  • It can be very difficult for an irredentist movement to secure foreign support and/or recognition from the international community. Many countries do not wish to be accused of destabilizing the region, and some fear that other countries might support irredentist movements in their own country. I am more familiar with the case of South Sudan than I am with Eritrea, so I will use the former as an example. The late Southern People’ Liberation Army (SPLA) leader John Garang espoused, at least in rhetoric, a vision of “New Sudan” which was essentially a reformed Sudan in which all of Sudan’s people could live in a pluralistic democratic state. He was not only able to garner support from Sudan’s other peripheries for the SPLA’s vision, but he was also able to gain foreign support, since he did not openly agitate for independence. (The internal politics of the South during the second civil war are outside the scope of this commentary, but the “New Sudan” vision created numerous divisions within the South and largely faded away with Garang’s death in 2005 and the South’s vote for independence in 2011.) The lesson the MNLA can take from the case of the SPLA is that they might have been better off couching their struggle in terms of a war of liberation for all of Mali’s peripheries, as opposed to a purely regional independence struggle. The former could have been taken seriously as a legitimate struggle for human rights and civil liberties, while the latter is perceived as a threat to the international community’s notion of de jure statehood.
  • It not only takes a region to aspire to independence, but it also takes the acquiescence of the national government and the international community to make these aspirations a reality. In both Eritrea and South Sudan, independence came at the end of decades-long civil wars, was agreed to by Ethiopia and Sudan, and was the result of an internationally negotiated and moderated process that culminated in an internationally monitored referendum on self-determination. One difference between these cases is that Ethiopia agreed to the referendum and subsequent separation because they had been militarily defeated in Eritrea. In contrast, one of the reasons Sudan agreed to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was in order to facilitate its access the oil in the South during the time between the signing of the agreement in 2005 and the South’s independence in 2012. The lesson for the MNLA is that whether or not the Malian government is able to regain control over the Azawad region (doubtful), the group will need the government to agree to an internationally supported process that results in a referendum on self-determination in order for the international community to recognize the independent state of Azawad.
  • Previous cases of post-colonial state creation in Africa demonstrate that the success stories were administered as separate entities during the colonial period. Eritrea became an Italian colony, then a governorate of Italian East Africa, then a UN-mandated British protectorate, then an autonomous unit federated to Ethiopia in 1950 by a UN-resolution, and then was annexed by Ethiopia in 1962. The case of South Sudan is a bit different. As part of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899-1955), southern Sudan was administered separately from the northern part of Sudan between 1922 and 1946 as a result of the Closed Districts Ordinance (also known as the “Southern Policy”), but was then reintegrated with northern Sudan during preparations for independence in the late 1940s and early 1950s. With respect to this point on a region’s history of administration by colonial powers, Somaliland, which declared its independence from Somalia in 1991, is a slight exception. This region was administered as British Somaliland (with the exception of a few years as part of Italian East Africa), and then united with the Trust Territory of Somalia in 1960 to become the Somali Republic. Despite remaining relatively more stable than the rest of Somalia, Somaliland has been unable to secure international recognition as an independent state for the past 21 years. (This is complicated by the border dispute between Somaliland and Puntland – the autonomous region of Somalia to the east. Somaliland’s claims to legitimacy and territorial sovereignty are based on the colonial borders of British Somaliland, which are at odds with the borders of the clan-based, mainly Majerteen administration in Puntland). The MNLA’s state of Azawad is different from Somaliland because it lacks the legitimacy Somaliland claims in terms of colonial boundaries. However, Azawad is similar to Somaliland in that both territories lack the acquiescence of the central government (to the extent that they exist) and have secured no agreement with the international community for a referendum on self-determination.

The bottom line is, in spite of the international community making an exception for the independence of Eritrea and South Sudan, a line has been drawn that dictates which irredentist movements get their own state and which do not. Countries that are above the line, like Eritrea and South Sudan, were able to either defeat the original state or negotiate a separation, and were able to get the international community to agree to a referendum on self-determination. Aspiring countries like Somaliland and now Azawad, are below the line, as they have not been able to check the necessary boxes for international support. Despite the complete fabrication of many African countries’ borders, there is tremendous danger in diverting from this de facto pathway of negotiated and agreed upon independence that follows a war of liberation. Otherwise, we have no way of drawing the line between recognizing entities like Eritrea and South Sudan and not recognizing others such as Azawad, Somaliland, Cabinda, Katanga, Biafra…

One response

  1. […] Warner weighs in on the prospects for international recognition for the newly declared independent state of “Azawad” in northern Mali. She offers several important insights, especially the following: Previous cases of post-colonial […]

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