In the early hours of 25 September 2020, gunmen raided police stations in Mepe and Aveyime, two little-known towns in the Volta region of Ghana. The armed men were later reported to belong to the Western Togoland Restoration Front.
This is one of two or more separatist groups campaigning for the creation of a new nation from the boundaries of the former Trust Territory of Togoland under British administration, which has been part of Ghana since 1956.
The armed men seized two police vehicles, injured a police officer on duty and made off with a number of weapons, including 10 AK-47 rifles and four pump-action guns.
Before the situation could be brought under control by a joint military–police response team, the attackers had blocked major roads leading to and from the area. They also hoisted their new ‘nation’s’ flags and demanded that Ghanaian security agencies leave ‘their territory’.
Even though the Ghanaian authorities ultimately managed to step in and contain events, the group resurfaced four days later with an attack on a public bus station in Ho, the regional capital, where they set ablaze two vehicles.
The emotive nature of the development, the history behind the group’s emergence and the broader ramifications of its actions in one of Africa’s most stable countries have raised questions not just about the threat to Ghana’s territorial integrity but also about the management of secessionist tendencies in post-independence Africa.
Africa’s inviolable borders
Africa’s framework for the management of secessionist claims and demands for self-determination is anchored on the principles outlined in Article 2 of Resolution 16(1) of the 1964 Organization of African Unity’s Cairo Declaration.
In the declaration, African states pledged ‘to respect the borders existing on their achievement of national independence’. This means all borders are held to be inviolable. Since independence, this is one of the few principles to which all African countries resolutely subscribe.
African leaders have condemned all secession attempts since 1964, including in Nigeria’s Biafra, Senegal’s Casamance, Angola’s Caprivi and northern Mali’s Azawad.
They have also re-articulated their stance on the issue in Article 4(b) of the African Union’s (AU) Constitutive Act. The establishment of the AU’s border project is another indication of the seriousness with which African leaders view the issue.
Africa's tough stance against secession has ensured that state boundaries on the continent have remained more or less the same since the end of colonial rule, with the exception of Sudan and Ethiopia, despite the continent’s many internal diversity management challenges.
Compared to other regions globally, therefore, Africa has experienced the fewest attempts at secession. In some of these instances, such as the Nigeria–Cameroon border dispute over Bakassi Peninsula and the Namibia–Zambia dispute over Kasikili/Sedudu Island, the issues have been settled through international arbitration.
The neglect of reality
However, Africa’s assumption that ‘the borders of African States, on the day of their independence, constitute a tangible reality’ – key in the adoption of the inviolability principle – does not take into consideration that not all territorial borders are clearly demarcated.
It also glosses over the reality that not all groups in African states accepted the territories in which they found themselves in at independence.
The adoption of inviolability, although well intentioned, left no room for African groups to question colonial territorial allocations or to correct obvious demarcation mistakes.
Owing to this neglect of reality, pre-independence secessionist aspirations and self-determination demands were suppressed without finding lasting solutions. It has also made it difficult for AU member states to agree on situations such as Western Sahara and Somaliland.
In the case of the British Togoland crisis in Ghana, for example, irredentist demands by Ewe ethnic nationalists predate the country’s independence. Even though the United Nations (UN) General Assembly approved the union of the territory with the Gold Coast, based on the outcome of a 1956 UN plebiscite, successive governments in post-independence Ghana have had to deal with various shades of the same crisis.
The resurgence of the same issue in 2020 and crises such as the Ambazonia conflict in Cameroon thus illustrate the failure of their management both at the national level and within the confines of Africa’s declaration of the inviolability of colonial borders. They also show that secessionist tendencies, unless properly addressed, cannot be swept under the carpet.
Are African borders still sacrosanct?
The 2011 acceptance of self-determination in South Sudan, however, raises questions as to whether there are established exceptions to this principle.
At its 16th ordinary session the AU Assembly stated that South Sudan was an exception and did not ‘call into question the sacrosanct principle of respect of borders inherited at the accession of African countries to independence’.
However, the acceptance that there are exceptions, in and of itself, calls for a clear articulation of what the requirements are for such exceptions. This will give territories that are considering a peaceful breakaway a framework for informed engagement. In the absence of peaceful engagement by member states, secessions in Africa have usually been militarised, with dire implications for human security.
Secessionist demands are testament to the fact that relations among groups in a particular state are unequal. The management of secessions in Africa is thus very much a governance issue. The rise of secessionist movements raises questions about an underlying crisis of legitimacy linked to governance deficits, equitable distribution of resources and equal political representation of marginalised groups.
Good governance in such countries is, thus, a major preventive management option, rather than the use of the military.
The lack of political consensus in emerging democracies about threats to territorial integrity complicates matters, heightening the politicisation and militarisation of situations that could otherwise be resolved peacefully.
In fact, members of Ghana’s opposition have emphasised the political undertones of the secessionist flare-up ahead of preparations for the December 2020 elections in the country.
Military solutions still fail
Currently, Ghana’s government has declared its intention to crush the separatist movement. It is, however, clear that this does not necessarily always work and, when it does, is only a temporary solution. The crisis can easily return in a more sophisticated form. States dealing with secessionist demands must therefore consider other options in the interest of lasting peace and stability.
Limited attention to border issues a concern
Continentally, the importance of border issues – which are usually integral to secessionist considerations – cannot be overemphasised.
The AU’s border project, while strategic in maintaining the territorial integrity of member states, has not received the necessary level of attention in the ongoing reform process. It is not adequately provided for in the merger of the departments of political affairs and peace and security into the Department of Political Affairs, Peace and Security (PAPS).
The border project should be considered an important part of the reformed structures at the AU Commission.
The AU largely considers situations such as the Western Togoland conflict a domestic issue and does not easily pronounce itself on it. However, the wider implications of such issues for the stability of member states mean that regional bodies and the AU should keep these matters on their radar from an early warning perspective.