Happily Ever After? What Secession Means for New States in Africa

Secession movements are a dime a dozen. A quick Google search for “current separatist movements” yields almost 900,000 results spanning the globe. These movements typically result from protracted socio-cultural or economic grievances: violence, discrimination and lack of representation in government among others. Truly viable secession movements are far less widespread, which is explained by the simple fact that secession is incredibly difficult to achieve. Realistically, for a separatist movement to be successful, either large-scale international support of the movement is needed, or the parent, or rump state would need to grant independence to its breakaway state.

While separatist movements are extremely unlikely to succeed, a handful of states were created via secession in the last decade, so the question becomes: do populations of newly minted states fare better after secession? When examining successful separatist movements of the past, the results are not so clear. Without seceding, breakaway states will certainly lack representation in international institutions, will not possess the legality to extract their natural resources and will have no capacity to broker treaties with other governments. Beyond these points, though, the situation is less clear. In South Sudan, pockets of violence persist across the country, hampering the ability of people in these regions to grow food, thereby putting food-insecure regions at greater risk of triggering a humanitarian crisis. Questions of governance remain, too: Eritrea has been under authoritarian rule since its independence from Ethiopia, resulting in widespread unrest – particularly among the country’s youth.

The situation after secession can vary widely from country-to-country, largely dependent on the situation prior to independence. Does the breakaway state have an established economy? Has it established functioning institutions? What is the relationship with the parent state? While secession can certainly help to improve the quality of life for the breakaway state’s population, it is clear it does represent a panacea for marginalized populations.


About maisiepigeon

DC native in Denver. Second-year graduate student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, with concentrations in Sub-Saharan Africa and global health. Love travel, animals, warm weather, and Baltimore sports.
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3 Responses to Happily Ever After? What Secession Means for New States in Africa

  1. mjfarah says:

    Really interesting post Maisie. Secessionist movements in SSA does in fact produce an interesting puzzle that scholar Pierre Engelbert studies in his book ‘Africa: Unity, Sovereignty and Sorrow’. Englebert demonstrates that the lack of secessionist movements in Africa (especially when you look at the weak performance of the state) presents a growing phenomenon in political science that is worth assessing. He creatively reshapes the common discourse on African sovereignty rights and presents a unique analysis on the nature of African states today. And works under the assumption that if African states have failed in providing the most basic needs for their population, then why is it that the state’s authority hasn’t been challenged by opposition members? I wonder if you have encounter a similar puzzle during the course of your research? And do you think that Herbst would agree with Englebert’s analysis?

  2. waljemr says:

    I would anticipate that the structures of the state and the nature of patronage systems reduce the capacity of the population to adequately challenge sitting governments. Lack of educational structures and the fact that many are more concerned with daily subsistence rather than political actualization would further reduce the potential for political mobilization.

  3. sorensond says:

    Another problem confronting many newly seceded states is that these states have typically just finished fighting in a war significant enough for the remainder of the state to allow secession. This happened with both South Sudan and Eritrea. Under current ideas of sovereignty, there are so few options for secessionist movements to achieve their goals outside of violence. Ultimately, this history of violence will play a role in shaping the state that emerges, which I think helps partially explain outcomes in South Sudan and Eritrea.

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