Almost everybody will have heard about the right ho self-determination. It is said that this is a right all peoples have. But where does this right come from and what does it mean? Wat does it mean in an African context? That is what I will try to explore in this post.
The right to self-determination is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, as adopted in 1945, immediately after the end of the Second World War. Four African countries were amongst the first 50 signatories of this Charter: Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia and South Africa.
In Article 1, the Charter states that the UN is based on ‘respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’. This is nice, and peoples all over the world to this day are defending their claims to independence based on this principle. But has it always been like this? What does it mean? Where does this idea come from?
To understand the origins of the idea of a right to self-determination, we have to go back to the First World War of 1914-1918 and to the United States and its President at the time, Woodrow Wilson. The US had sought to understand the causes that led to the War and it wanted to establish a number of ideas and proposals that would prevent a new war. One of those ideas was the principle of self-determination.
Note that before the First World War, most nations in fact were multi-ethnic and the peoples in them did not have any such right. Going back to Pharaonic times or before, rulers generally received their legitimacy from God or the Gods and the people or peoples ruled by them were supposed to obey and be content.
In the words of the British monarchy: “Honi soit qui mal y pense” – evil is he who thinks evil of it. Countries like Poland and Ukraine were formed after the war. In part, the concept of self-determination was introduced to try to thwart the impact of the 1917 Russian revolution, which sought to establish a multi-ethnic proletarian dictatorship.
So – this principle of self-determination is a relatively new phenomenon. It is not something that comes from African, Asian or European political thought. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the idea was born in the US – a country which itself obtained its independence from Britain through war. It is important to realize that before 1918, no such formal principle existed – not in Africa, not in Europe, nowhere.
The principle of self-determination was accepted by Europe only after a further devastating war, the Second World War, at the founding of the UN. It became very important for Africa only fifteen years later, as the basis for United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) under titled Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples provided for the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples .
This resolution provided the formal underpinning for Africa’s decolonization, as monitored by the Special Committee on Decolonization, which was established in 1961.
So – under international law as it stands now, peoples have the right to self-determination. But what does self-determination mean? This has in fact been elaborated on in the same UN resolution. The resolution specifies that a people should be free to choose what it wants: either free association with an independent State, integration into an independent State, or independence. All three are legitimate options that comply with the principle.
To understand the full meaning of the principle, then, what remains is to understand what the word ‘people’ means in this context. Unfortunately, it is precisely this essential bit that has never been resolved. Wikipedia says: “A people is a plurality of persons considered as a whole, as in an ethnic group or nation.”
That seems a bit circular – people is a nation, but then what is a nation? A people? Merriam-Webster gives a more precise definition: a people is “a body of persons that are united by a common culture, tradition, or sense of kinship, that typically have common language, institutions, and beliefs, and that often constitute a politically organized group”.
Self-determination in Africa
So, then, how was Africa decolonized, if the UN knew what it meant by self-determination, but it did not know what is a people? What happened is that the UN did not look at peoples, but instead looked at what it called Non-Self-Governing Territories, accepting the territorial boundaries as they were at the time – essentially, the colonial boundaries.
Whatever those boundaries were – they did not follow ethnic lines. When Rhodes conquered Rhodesia, there were no Rhodesians living there. The colonial boundaries were determined in Berlin in 1885 – with no African involvement whatsoever and without regard of what African peoples may have wanted.
I think what the UN did at the time was understandable given the circumstances and it was widely supported in Africa as well. But not universally: in 1958, the first All-African People’s Conference denounced “the artificial boundaries drawn by imperialist powers” .
A few years later, in 1963, the OAU charter made no mention any more of self-determination, but instead defended the territorial integrity of its member states. Ali Mazrui has called this ‘pigmentational self-determination’ :
African leaders were in favour of self-determination, but only to the extent that it concerned independence from European domination. However, they did not realize that respecting European boundaries in fact also helped to preserve their dependence on their former colonial masters.
A reader may ask if I am more clever than the UN and if I in my turn can offer a clear definition of what a people is – and of what that would mean in practice for Africa. That is a point.
Even though I think that Western ethnologists have done more to divide than to unite the peoples in Africa – I cannot myself offer anything better than the still vague Merriam-Webster definition. I would venture though that if a group of persons chooses to call and manifest itself as a people – it probably is.
In 1981, the OAU adopted the African Charter on People’s and Human Rights (also known as the Banjul Charter). In Article 20, it states: “All peoples (…) shall have the unquestionable and inalienable right to self-determination. They shall freely determine their political status and shall pursue their economic and social development according to the policy they have freely chosen.”
So – the UN does recognize the right to self-determination and this right is also recognized by the African Union. This leads to only one possible conclusion: African countries have achieved independence, yes.
But African peoples, by and large, have not been asked for their opinion. In other contintents, people were asked, though it did not happen very often. Recent examples from Europe include the 1990 referendum which led to the independence of the Slovenian people and the 2014 referendum in which the Scottish people elected to stay part of the UK.
If we accept that peoples have the right to self-determination – then it is clear that many African peoples have not yet been able to enjoy this right. When will the peoples of Africa get the right to self-determination?
Bert is a Dutchman who was trained as a social scientist. He has been active in the environment and development movement in the Netherlands and else where, starting his ‘career’ in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Bert has lived in Kenya for four years and is passionate about anything related to culture and intercultural communications. He is a world citizen with a particular interest in Africa, loved for its diversity and richness.
 Cited in: Changing African Perspectives on the Right of Self-Determination in the Wake of the Banjul Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Kwaw Nyameke Blay, Journal of African Law Vol. 29, No. 2 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 147-159. Cambridge University Press.
 A. Mazrui, Towards a Pax Africana, London, 1967, p 15.