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Self-Determination without Democracy: The Curious Case of the Horn of Africa

Berihun Adugna Gebeye, Humboldt Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, Heidelberg

[Editors’ Note: This is one of our biweekly ICONnect columns. For more information on our four columnists for 2021, please see here.]

What course the postcolonial state and its people should take to achieve liberation and self-determination, in the full sense of these terms, has been one of the big questions that has confronted Africans since the dawn of colonialism. While this question seems to be answered in much of Africa, it is still an outstanding issue in the Horn of Africa. There were two major ways of constituting self-determination after independence. One was by the complete redrawing of the colonial borders—either going back to precolonial times or forming a new political geography based on African terms and African values. The justification for this was that the colonial state – illegitimate and alien at its core by its very nature, form, and substance – is impossible to democratize without completely dismantling it.[1] The second was by adopting a theory of government within the existing borders, which not only would redeem the illegitimate origin and logic of the state but also could enable it to serve the needs and interests of its people. This was the most widely accepted route to full liberation throughout the continent not the least due to pragmatic, ideational, and international realities.

Accordingly, the territorial borders, peoples, and sovereignties of the colonial states were reaffirmed, while the theory of government has been contested. But the Horn of Africa has taken a slightly different route in constituting self-determination. Here, the contestation is not limited to the (liberal) theory of government, but also has extended to territorial borders, peoples, and sovereignties. It is not only the theory of government, but the state as such has been contested more than any other region on the continent. 

In much of Africa, the new leaders argued that the limited government instituted by the independence constitutions was a hurdle for development, social transformation, and nation-building. It was contended that an African theory of government should accelerate development, enable government, and bestow on the state the power and resources it needs to defeat ‘African real enemies’ – such as eradication of poverty and illiteracy.[2] In this light, it was claimed that multiparty democracy was a recipe for tribalism. Accordingly, one-party systems replaced multiparty democracy, and personal rule displaced separation of powers and checks and balances.  

However, the practice of one-party systems and personal rule did not bring economic development and a unified nation, nor did it confer the much-needed legitimacy to the state and government. The primacy of personal patronage, loyalty to and dependence on the presidency over constitutional rules and laws for opportunities in politics and in business drained the newly independent states’ hope for development and progress. The tendency and propensity towards corruption among those in government (public sector) and their affiliates in business (private sector), and the similar drive to exit among those marginal to these systems, further weakened the legitimacy of the states and governments.[3] The newly independent states became captives to their new presidents and their cronies, and vulnerable to capture by their opponents when circumstances permitted. Claims of nation-building and development turned out to be justifications for the personal rule of presidents and, at the same time, organizing principles for state capture by their opponents.

Nonetheless, the general distaste, protest, and struggle against unlimited government at home, and the triumph of liberal democracy abroad with the end of the Cold War, coerced many African governments to reaffirm and accept liberal constitutionalism in the 1990s.[4] Now, for better or worse, multiparty democracy with the protection of some fundamental human rights under a constitutionally limited government, has been put forward to realize liberation and self-determination in the African postcolonial state. Despite the persistence of forces of autocratization to different degrees in different states, there is a general consensus that self-determination could be realized through democracy.

But not in the Horn of Africa, especially in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia. Since the 1960s, the subject of political struggle in this region is not only about adopting a theory of government that would better realize full self-determination within the existing state, but also about creating or maintaining a state within which such self-determination could be exercised. In this process, two new states (Eritrea in 1993 and South Sudan in 2011) and one de facto state (Somaliland in 1991) have emerged. Ethiopia and Sudan face further fragmentation, and Somalia has been unable to establish even a stable central government since the 1990s.

The epicenter of “mega-politics” in the Horn of Africa revolves more around the politics of territorial (dis)memberment and autocratization than the politics of democratization and autocratization between or among contending political groups or actors. Precisely because of this, inter-state war and civil war are part of the mega-politics more than any other region on the continent.

Consider Somalia. As the Somali Republic was born in 1960 as a “nation-state”, the Somali leaders didn’t face the challenge of building such a state like other African leaders. However, they saw another challenge: that the state they inherited was not big enough and they had to establish what they called the “Greater Somalia”. Hence, the unification of all Somalis in the Horn of Africa became part of their national project. This means that the Somali Republic should include Somalis in Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. For this reason, the Somali Republic didn’t accept the colonial borders – one of the main rules of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) – and engaged in war or mayhem with its neighbors until the central government collapsed in 1991. Internally, Mohamed Siad Barre controlled government power in a military coup d’état in 1969, nationalized the economy using “scientific socialism”, and distributed assets to his own clan and supporters.[5] As the new state failed both, externally, to establish the “Greater Somalia” and, internally, to institutionalize the rule of law per the Constitution, the clan had become the primary unit of political struggle and, after the overthrown of Barre and the collapse of the central government, has remained the main normative and institutional order for socio-economic and political life in Somalia.

Sudan and Ethiopia, however, have faced a different problem: how to realize self-determination within the existing ethnically and religiously diverse state. In Africa and elsewhere, the best way to realize self-determination in such diverse states, thus far, has been by establishing a democratic government that works for the people and the citizens on an equal basis.[6] But Sudan and Ethiopia pursued this project differently. While the central governments in both countries tried to maintain the state through projections of national identity and autocratization, some of their main opponents (especially in South Sudan and Eritrea) saw a future of separate statehood as the only way to realize their self-determination. In Sudan, Omar Hassan Al­Bashir who overthrew the elected government in 1989 officially established an Islamic governance system and authoritarian rule (until he was removed from power in a military coup in 2019), which further complicated the issue of South Sudan. In Ethiopia, both the imperial and military rulers considered pan-Ethiopian identity and centralization as systems of maintaining the Ethiopian state, which was not acceptable to the Eritreans. What was evident then and now is that like the unitarists, the secessionists in both countries don’t seem to believe in the power of democracy in realizing self-determination as part of a larger state. In fact, their experiment of self-determination has not considered democracy as an essential element of it. For example, Eritrea, after gaining its independence in 1993, established personal rule under President Isaias Afwerki and officially rejected democracy. South Sudan entered civil war soon after its independence. Despite their territorial independence, the people in these states still suffer from the new autocratic rules and, in the case of South Sudanese, civil war.

While much of Africa has transitioned from authoritarian rule to democracy in the 1990s in what is dubbed the “Second Liberation”[7], Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan have further fragmented and followed a non-democratic path. Somalia has become a classic failed state, fragmented along clan lines and unable to establish a central government (even in its authoritarian form). It has also faced the de facto secession and statehood of Somaliland. After the collapse of the central government, Somalis have followed their clan-based traditional governance system.[8] Ethiopia, after the secession of Eritrea, has followed the path of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the genesis for a new socialist federation was born in Ethiopia in the same year, as the Marxist-Leninist ethnonational groups – the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – controlled government power.[9] Like the previous regimes, the EPRDF saw the solution to the Ethiopian problem not through democratization, but through identity and centralization. The EPRDF decentralized the Ethiopian identity through ethnic federalism but maintained the centralized government power and authority by constitutional design and party ideology.[10] Sudan resorted to authoritarian rule and Islamic governance, even after the secession of South Sudan in 2011, under Omar Hassan Al­Bashir from 1989-2019. Therefore, it can be argued that the Horn of Africa has been outside of the third wave of democratization.  

As populism spreads globally even in established democracies on both sides of the Atlantic, a non-violent democratic protest movement brought down the authoritarian rulers of the EPRDF in Ethiopia in 2018 and the Al-Bashir regime in Sudan a year later. And Somalia has also been showing signs of stability with a federal arrangement. More than ever, people in the region seem to believe in the power of democracy to realize self-determination. It looks like the region is having its own “democratic moment”. Yet, the “mega-politics” of dismemberment and autocratization have once again brought a war in Ethiopia and complicated the democratic transition in Sudan. Will we see self-determination with or without democracy in the region? Only time will tell, but democracy is, thus far, the only trusted way of constituting it.

Suggested citation: Berihun Adugna Gebeye, Self-Determination without Democracy: The Curious Case of the Horn of Africa, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Jul. 28, 2021, at:

[1] Makau wa Mutua, ‘Why Redraw the Map of Africa: A Moral and Legal Inquiry’ (1995) 16 Michigan Journal of International Law 1113.

[2] HK Prempeh, ‘Africa’s ‘Constitutionalism Revival’: False Start or New Dawn?’ (2007) 5 International Journal of Constitutional Law 469, 475.

[3] Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton University Press 1996) 11.

[4] See Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (The Free Press 1992).

[5] Mwangi S. Kimenyi, John Mukum Mbaku and Nelipher Moyo, ‘Reconstituting Africa’s Failed States: The Case of Somalia’ (2010) 77 Social Research 4, 1349-50.

[6] See Madhav Khosla, India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy (Harvard University Press 2020).

[7] See Nic Cheeseman, Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures, and the Struggle for Political Reform (Cambridge University Press 2015).  

[8] You may also check this new book: Mark Fathi Massoud, Shari‘a, Inshallah: Finding God in Somali Legal Politics (Cambridge University Press 2021). 

[9] See Semahagn Gashu Abebe, The Last Post-Cold War Socialist Federation: Ethnicity, Ideology and Democracy in Ethiopia (Routledge 2014).

[10] Berihun Adugna Gebeye, ‘Citizenship and Human Rights in the Ethiopian Federal Republic’ in Adem Kassie Abebe and Amen Taye (eds), Reimaging Ethiopian Federalism (2019)10 Ethiopian Constitutional and Public Law Series, 9-44.

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Published on July 28, 2021
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