Africa’s secessionism: a breakdance of aspiration, grievance, performance and disenchantment

Research reports and studies
October 2018
Mareike Schomerus, Pierre Englebert and Lotje de Vries

Secessionism perseveres as a complex political phenomenon in Africa, yet often a more in-depth analysis is overshadowed by the aspirational simplicity of pursuing a new state. This book chapter offers four interpretations of Africa’s secessionism: aspiration, grievance, performance and disenchantment. Secessionism remains a fundamental theme of African politics, despite being largely removed from the realm of the thinkable. Yet, South Sudan’s independence against all odds shows that African secessionism is also contradictory. Its aspirational simplicity obscures a complex political phenomenon that often couples a territorial demand with invocations of the right to self-determination. 

Claims are based on grievances, marginalisation, narratives and economic interests. The consequences of such claims vary; the two cases of successful post-colonial secession highlight that secessionism does not guarantee improvements. And secessionist claims rarely challenge the notion that the sovereign territorial state is the answer to Africans’ problems, rather than one of its roots.