Towards an Appreciation of the Self-determination Definitional Gap in International Law: Lessons From African State-Practice

  • Gertrude Ansaaku University of Ghana
  • Roland Mireku Yeboah University of Ghana
Keywords: Self-determination, Colonization, Secession, Irredentism


Self-determination lacks adequate definition in international law. This has resulted in an inconsistent application of the principle and the prevalence of nationalist conflicts in the international system. Self-determination was instrumental in the granting of independence to European colonial territories in Africa from the 1950s to 1990. However, the African state has become intolerant to demands of that right by groups within its territory. Alternatively, this has contributed to the survival of most states in the continent. With the use of ten selected cases, the paper investigates the African application of the principle. It ascertains which of the interpretations of self-determination is legitimate in the African context. The aim is to draw lessons for consideration in bridging the definitional gap in international law. The paper concludes that the decolonization process and era in Africa provided an auspicious moment for the legitimacy and application of the principle of self-determination. This colonization can exist regardless of proximity of the colonizer to the colonized. Thus, a clear definition of self-determination is highly recommended particularly in a post-independence Africa to reduce the incidence of protracted nationalist conflicts.


Adebajo, A. (2002). Selling out the Sahara: The tragic tale of the UN referendum. Institute for African Development.

Benneh, E. (1999). Statehood, territory and recognition in international law: Their interrelationships. In E.K. Quashigah and O.C. Okafor (Eds). Legitimate governance in Africa: international and domestic legal perspectives. The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 375-401

Blay, K. N. B. (1984). Self-determination: its evolution in international law and prescriptions for its application in the post-colonial context (doctoral dissertation, University of Tasmania).

Brown, D. (1980). Borderline politics in Ghana: The national liberation movement of Western Togoland. In Journal of Modern African Studies, 18(4), 575-609.

Carley, P. (1996). Self-determination: sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the right to secession. Washington, D.C.: US Institute of Peace.

Calvocoressi, P. (2013). World politics since 1945. Routledge.

Chazan, N., Lewis, P., Mortimer, R., Rothchild, D., & Stedman, S. J. (1992). Politics and society in contemporary Africa, 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Cobbah, J. A. (1988). Toward a geography of peace in Africa: redefining sub-state self-determination rights. In R.J. Johnston, D.B. Knight and E. Kofman (Eds). Nationalism, Self-Determination and Political Geography. London: Croom Helm.

Coggins, B. L. (2016). The history of secession: an overview. In The Ashgate research companion to secession. Routledge (pp. 47-67)

Cooper, F. (1999). Decolonization in Africa: An Interpretation. In Africana: The encylopedia of the African and African American experience. New York: Basic Civitas (pp. 338-350).

Deng, L. A. (2001). Sudan. In J. Krieger et al. The Oxford companion to politics of the world. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Erk, J. (2018). Will the North’s secessionist winds blow south? The past, present, and future of self-determination and border change in Africa. In South African Journal of International Affairs, 25(2), 153-176.

Fall, A. (2010). Understanding the Casamance Conflict: A Background. KAIPTC Monograph, 7.

Krieger, J. et al. (2001). The Oxford companion to politics of the world. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Heraclides, A. (1991). The self-determination of minorities in international politics. London: Frank Cass & Company.

Johnson, D. D. P. (1999). Eritrea. In K. A. Appiah & H. L. Gates (Eds). Africana: The encyclopedia of the African and African American experience. New York, NY: Basic Civitas (pp. 686-687).

Krieger, J. et al. (2001). The Oxford companion to politics of the world. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Kromm, D. E. (1967). Irredentism in Africa: the Somali-Kenya boundary dispute. In Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, 70(3): 359-365. (14 October 2016).

Kim, G. (2016). Irredentism in Disputed Territories and Its Influence on the Border Conflicts and Wars. In The Journal of Territorial and Maritime Studies, 3(1): 87-101. (12 October 2020).

Nugent, P. (2019). Border Politics in Africa. In W.R. Thompson, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Oxford

Nawaz, M. K. (1965). The meaning and range of the principle of self-determination. In Duke Law Journal, 1965(1): 82-101. (17 September 2016).

Ofuatey-Kodjoe, W. (1977). The principle of self-determination in international law. New York, NY: Nellen Publishing Company.

Panter-Brick, S. K. (1968). The right to self-determination: its application to Nigeria. International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), 44(2), 254-266.

Parker, K. (2000, August). Understanding self-determination: The basics. Presentation to the First International Conference on the Right to Self-Determination. Geneva: United Nations. (12 October 2020).

Pazzanita, A. G. (2006). Historical Dictionary of Western Sahara, 3rd Ed. Scarecrow Press.

Selassie, B. H. (2001). Eritrean War of Independence. In J. Krieger et al. (Eds). The Oxford companion to politics of the world, 2nd ed. Oxford.

Small, A. (2017). An unintended legacy: Kwame Nkrumah and the domestication of national self-determination in Africa. In African Human Rights Law Journal, 17: 68-88.

Storey, D. (2016). Irredentism. In International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology. New York, NY: Wiley-Blackwell.

Touval, S. (1966). Africa's frontiers: Reactions to a colonial legacy. In International Affairs, 42(4): 641-654.

Young, C. (1991). Self-determination, territorial integrity, and the African state system. In F.M. Deng & I. W. Zartman (Eds.). Conflict resolution in Africa. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.