The Necessary Indeterminacy of Self-determination: Politics, Law and Conflict in the Horn of Africa

53 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2020

See all articles by Alex De Waal

Alex De Waal

Tufts University

Sarah Nouwen

University of Cambridge - Faculty of Law

Date Written: July 14, 2020


This article forthcoming in the journal Nations and Nationalism frames a special collection on Nationalism and Self-determination in the Horn of Africa. It introduces the key concepts (the Horn of Africa, self-determination and nationalism), discusses the international law on self-determination and demonstrates how the praxis of self-determination in the Horn of Africa has contributed to normative developments. On the basis of five case studies (pertaining to Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan/South Sudan) this framework article argues that nationalism and self-determination have had different meanings in the political cultures across the different countries of the Horn of Africa and across time. Rather than dismissing the concept of self-determination on account of its different meanings and understandings, we contend that such indeterminacy is unavoidable and should be welcomed. Nationalism is driven by historical circumstances that are contingent and often transitory. Self-determination claims based on such nationalism are equally contingent and transitory. When the principle of self-determination gets translated into concrete legal entitlements (for instance, a referendum on independence), it tends to solve one problem only by creating others. Instead, the pursuit and realization of self-determination require constant political processes. The papers in this collection highlight the challenges in giving effect to the principle of self-determination, including its subjugation to power politics. But they also show how the concept of self-determination does some important work in support of the emancipation of oppressed peoples: it provides a means to articulate the right to collective political agency. In this regard it is quite distinct, and more emancipatory, than other recent innovations in international norm-setting, such as the responsibility to protect (R2P), which depoliticize the specific situation and undermine the political agency of the suffering population.

Keywords: Horn of Africa; self-determination; secession, law; politics; conflict; R2P

Suggested Citation

De Waal, Alex and Nouwen, Sarah Maria Heiltjen, The Necessary Indeterminacy of Self-determination: Politics, Law and Conflict in the Horn of Africa (July 14, 2020). University of Cambridge Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 26/2020, Forthcoming, Nations and Nationalism, Available at SSRN: or

Alex De Waal

Tufts University ( email )

Medford, MA 02155
United States

Sarah Maria Heiltjen Nouwen (Contact Author)

University of Cambridge - Faculty of Law ( email )

10 West Road
Cambridge, CB3 9DZ
United Kingdom

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics