At the 1870 Berlin Conference, Africa was divided up by the great powers of the day. The borders that were decided were arbitrary in their nature (to put it very politely). As the European powers began the process of decolonisation, so the arbitrary borders in 1870 were kept intact under the principle of International Law known as “uti possidetis”. The essence of this principle is that the territory captured by belligerent states at the end of a conflict remains the territory of the possessor unless this position is varied by treaty.

One of the more interesting applications of uti possidetis in history resulted in the British gaining possession of Manhattan Island from the Dutch and the Dutch gaining possession of Suriname from the British. Imagine … citizens of the land of the free and the home of the brave all speaking Dutch!

But back to Africa …

The Organisation for African Unity (or OAU), the precursor to the African Union, had as one of its founding principles the principle of uti possidetis. In essence, colonial boundaries would remain intact and should not be changed. It was perhaps hoped that if boundaries remained intact, African states would not fragment into smaller political units during the decolonisation process. The territorial integrity of African states has been consistently (and sometimes brutally) enforced since the decolonisation process began in the late 1950s. Examples that spring to mind include Biafra and Katanga.

Interestingly, South Africa has not been immune to having its territorial integrity unchallenged. Witness in the 1980s the claim by the Swazi government to certain parts of modern Mpumalanga province.

Break-ups and divorces are never easy and are invariably messy affairs, no matter how amicable the parties are. Now imagine a state going through “divorce” proceedings.

Next year the principle of uti possidetis will be challenged on, perhaps its grandest scale in modern African history, when citizens in southern Sudan will vote in a referendum that could see the secession of southern Sudan from the greater Sudanese state and become Africa’s newest country. The Sudanese government agreed to the holding of this referendum as one of the terms of the peace treaty that ended the civil war in Sudan, arguably Africa’s longest running civil war.

At present there are a host of issues surrounding the voting process. For example, registration of voters has barely commenced. Also it is unclear whether the Sudanese government will respect the outcome of the vote in the south.

The referendum also carries important economic consequences for Sudan. The majority of the oilfields within the Sudanese state are to be found in the south. As part of the break-up of the current Sudanese state the “northern” Sudanese government has indicated that it would want a portion of the oil revenues that the “south” Sudanese government generates — a form of alimony, if you will.

There are a couple of elements that will need to be looked at, if and when the vote occurs.

  1. Will the Sudanese government respect the outcome of the vote?
  2. How peaceful will the transition be?

With regards to the second consideration, based on available news reports it appears that the peoples of southern Sudan are a highly fractured body politic. The issue of how peaceful the transition will be thus extends not only to how the government in Khartoum will react, but also, will there be a violent jostling for power in the new state? While having a “Mandela” type figure that can unite a people undergoing a political transition is not a pre-requisite for a peaceful transition, such a figure could play an important role in cooling political tempers during such political upheaval. There does not appear to be any such central character that could fulfil such a role in the south of Sudan.

A further important consideration is how other states will react to the creation of a “South Sudan”. Could this event spark the imaginations of minority peoples in other African states or embolden other peoples (such as the Ogoni in Nigeria) to seek independence?

These are indeed interesting times for the African continent and the next few months will be an important indication of where the continent is perhaps heading from the perspective of territorial integrity.

Perhaps the people of Hout Bay may finally have legitimate use for those passports they’ve been printing all these years?


  • Warren has been specialising in information technology and intellectual property law for the past eight years and has become rather good at it during this time. His experiences have involved some interesting journeys along the information superhighway, including dealing with pirates in one form or another, mostly software though. Warren also has an MA in political studies and has been known to comment on matters including politics, economics, and international relations. Why? Because he can. The legal bit: any thoughts expressed on this blog are purely his own and can in no way be blamed on his parents, siblings or other immediate or extended family.


Warren Weertman

Warren has been specialising in information technology and intellectual property law for the past eight years and has become rather good at it during this time. His experiences have involved some interesting...

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