Challenge of post-colonial Africa secessionist movements, violent or non-violent approach? by Emmanuel K. Abeng

Challenge of post-colonial Africa secessionist movements, violent or non-violent approach ? The Case of Southern Cameroons (Ambazonia) secessionist movement.
by Emmanuel K. Abeng

In 1993 and 2011 Eritrea had its independence from Ethiopia and South Sudan from Sudan respectively, this saw Eritrea becoming the 53rd African country while South Sudan became the 54th. In the case of Eritrea, the 1993 plebiscite marked the end of over 30 years of armed struggle against successive governments in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005) which lasted over 22 years saw the independence of South Sudan following an institutional peace settlement between the Sudan People‟s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) and the Government of Sudan (GoS) in 2011 (Kumsa, 2017; Fisher, 2018).

In fact, the African continent throughout its postcolonial history has experienced a substantial shortfall of successful secessionist movements. This basically means, the borders in Africa enormously stay the same as it was at the end of colonisation. To paint a clearer picture, the secession of Eritrea and South Sudan are the only successful cases in postcolonial Africa. This therefore stands as an extraordinary political development in the continent when it comes to successful secessions. The Organization of African Union (OAU) and the African Union (AU) successively, alongside international bodies have shown inclination towards preserving post-colonial Africa boundaries. This has been the case why secessionist claims have been difficult to recognise(McNamee, 2012). This posses a challenge to Southern Cameroons (Ambazonia) independence movement being recognised or achieving its claim to independence. This also has an effect on what a successful strategy will be for secessionist movements like Southern Cameroons (Ambazonia).

What is the nature of a successful secessionist movement strategy ?

Recent research by Chenoweth and Stephan (2013) found out that nonviolent actions (also called civil resistance) are much more fruitful than violent means to ends like anti-corruption and anti-regime campaigns. What this research noted was that nonviolent actions (civil resistance) does not apply to secessionist movements. Further, for secessionist campaigns seeking an autonomous territory the tactical logic of violence is more fruitful than nonviolent actions (civil resistance).

According to Griffiths (2015), this brings up the pertinent question, are secessionist movements more successful for using violent means to achieve independence? .

Strategies of secessionist movements using a violent or non-violent approach are determined by the institutional, legal and administrative possibilities that prevail within the contemporary ‘motherland’. Summarily violence as a strategy prevails more among secession movements with limited institutional/legal paths to independence. Further, secessionist movements’ approach can be determined by international norms and legal principles which govern the recognition of independence movements.

Administrative environment

Several scholars have highlighted an established pattern and how the domino effect may cause governments to adopt a more hardline position against secession movements in a bid to deter potential future secessionist. In this case, secessionist movements’ violent or non-violent approach are determined by the governments response. In the situation of binary states with just 2 identities, peaceful secessionist movements are more likely to succeed because the independence of one member does not risk further break up. So states can take a less maximalist approach(Freedman and Toft, 2004). Examples include Syria from the United Arab Republic in 1961, Slovakia from Czechoslovakia in 1993, Norway from Sweden in 1905 and the Flemish movement in Belgium. These 4 cases used a non-violent secession approach. 3 achieved successful peaceful independence meanwhile the Flemish movement still not a success, reasons tied to an unsettled answer among the flemish people which political future will be best. So, secession movements within binary states takes a non-violent strategy to be effective (Griffiths and Wasser, 2018). Griffiths and Wasser also noted non-violent secession movements had a higher success rate than violent ones. In the case of the Republic of Cameroon we see the state taking a more maximalist position towards the Southern Cameroons (Ambazonia) secessionist movement as means to curb any other future possibilities of fragmentation of a hugely diverse country. This has greatly influenced the violent strategy adopted by the secessionist movement which does not necessary amount to a successful strategy.

State institutions

Secessionist movements’ violent or non-violent strategies are also shaped by the institutional environment of the main state in which they are operating. There are two concrete examples, Catalonia and Scotland which go after their independence movement by using a non-violent means. In authoritarian and weak institutionalised countries like Philippines and Myanmar we see secession movements adopting a more violent strategy. 61% of secession movements were violent in authoritarian countries vis-à-vis 42% in democracies (Griffiths and Wasser, 2018). This is the case of Southern Cameroons (Ambazonia) secessionist movement which has adopted a violent strategy operating within an authoritarian setting in the Republic of Cameroon.

Griffiths and Wasser (2018) highlights that, non- violent or violent strategy of secessionist movements depends on the context, some have institutional/legal pathways to independence which influences the method used. No independence movement fighting against a contiguous state (not being interrupted by other land or water) has been able to gain independence without using institutional methods. Finally, no evidence suggests violence helps secessionist movements to achieve sovereignty. This conflicts with the assertion that secessionist movements which adopt a violent strategy are more successful than those movements which adopt non-violent means. This conclusion has serious implications on the future and strategy currently adopted by Southern Cameroons (Ambazonia) secessionist movement, a non-violent approach is effective and has higher success rate than violent strategy, taking into consideration as well no independence movement fighting against a contiguous state has succeeded by using any other means than non-violent institutional methods.


Freedman, L. and Toft, M. (2004). The Geography of Ethnic Violence: Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory. Foreign Affairs, 83(2), p.162.

Griffiths, R. and Wasser, L. (2018). Does Violent Secessionism Work?. Journal of Conflict Resolution, p.002200271878303.

Griffiths, R. (2015). Between Dissolution and Blood: How Administrative Lines and Categories Shape Secessionist Outcomes. International Organization, 69(03), pp.731-751.

Chenoweth, E. and Stephan, M. (2013). Why civil resistance works. New York: Columbia University Press.

McNamee, T. (2012). The first crack in Africa’s map? Secession and Self-Determination after South Sudan. 1st ed. Johannesburg: Brenthurst Foundation, p.3.

Fisher, J. (2018). State, society and struggle in Eritrea. African Affairs, 117(467), pp.338-340.

Kumsa, A. (2017). SOUTH SUDAN STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE, AND IT’S IMPLICATIONS FOR AFRICA. RUDN Journal of Sociology, 17(4), pp.513-523.

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