The most important principles adopted at the founding of the Organization of the African Unity were promoting the unity and solidarity of African Nations; increase the co-operation between countries; and defend the integrity and territorial unity of member states. The leaders of the newly independent African nations well knew that the borders inherited from colonial powers did not respond to the expectations of the people. They were also aware that discussing them would open a Pandora box and delay development, with the great risk of causing war and divisions. Today, sixty years later, many of the inter-boundaries tensions are still fresh. African Union (AU) members are fifty plus, but there are another thirty or so would be nations that aspire to independence.
Many would like to follow the example of South Sudan, which seceded from the Sudan in July 2011 to become the latest African nation. One should not forget Eritrea, first country to become independent not from a colonial power but from another African country, in 1993. Yet, these two nations could still be seen as observing the OAU’s principles. Eritrea had been an Italian colony for many years before being joined to Ethiopia by the British after WWII. Eritrea’s independence did not go against the principle of territorial unity of pre-independence times.
South Sudan, instead, it is the first country born outside this principle and recognized by the international community, unlike Biafra. Biafra was at the centre of a brief but dramatic secession war that kept Nigeria in a whirlwind of violence (1967-70). In the end, Biafra did not succeed. South Sudan’s success, instead, rekindled the hope of some, and the fears of many African leaders. “We all have a north and a south – stated President Idriss Deby in 2010 – and if we accept the division of the Sudan, we might witness a domino effect which will affect us all, a true disaster for the continent”.
Yet, some of the regions claiming the right to self-determination today can claim a similarity with Eritrea. Western Sahara, for example, was a Spanish colony, and Spain had promised the Saharawi a referendum about their independence to be held in 1975. However, Moroccan King Hassan II pushed his people to the ‘green march’ and occupied two thirds of the region, while Mauritania occupied the remaining areas in the south. Mauritania left that portion of Western Sahara under the control of the Polisario, the Saharawi political-military movement for independence, in 1979. Morocco decided to keep a tight control on Western Sahara. Even though a cease fire has been in place since 1991, the referendum for self determination never materialized. The AU recognizes Western Sahara as a country, but the UN does not. Representation of the Saharawi Democratic Arab Republic is left to Mohamed Abdelaziz who has been the Polisario leader since 1976. Abdelaziz and his government have their seat in Tindouf, in Algeria, where they have to manage a growing pressure to reopen the hostility with Morocco, but also to counter criticism for their alleged involvement in drug trafficking across the Sahara and cooperation with the terror group Al Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb. Amnesty International has reported violations against human rights in Western Sahara both in the Moroccan and Polisario camps.
A second case is that of Somaliland, which self declared independence in 1991. That region was a British protectorate before being incorporated into Somalia in 1960. Declaring independence helped Somaliland escape two decades of war, which instead engulfed the rest of Somalia, but did not win international recognition. The de facto sovereign state participated to an international meeting for the first time in February 2012, when a concerted effort for the future of Somalia was held in London. The harvest was meagre: Somaliland received little attention and a passing reference at the end of the final document of the meeting recognizing the need to support the dialogue for the future between Mogadishu and Somaliland. However, the breakaway territory can boast for its present success. The land administered from the regional capital Hargeisa is not the richest in Africa. However, it escaped the destruction of war and held free and democratic elections in 2003 and 2010. President Kahin peacefully left power to President Ahmed M. Silanyo, who received a majority of votes in 2010. Those opposed to independence accuse Somaliland of human rights abuses, especially against women, and the lack of public debate about reunification with the southern part of Somalia. In turn, there are others who wish to break-away from Somaliland to form a new nation: Khaatumo.