n African Human Rights Law Journal - An unintended legacy : Kwame Nkrumah and the domestication of national self-determination in Africa

Volume 17 Number 1
  • ISSN : 1609-073X
  • E-ISSN: 1996-2096



In the early 1950s, the right to self-determination was a concept rich with disruptive potential for pre-independence Africa. Some saw the application of self-determination as an opportunity to redraw the continent’s colonial borders; others believed it would lead to a pan-African union of states. Through an analysis of legal, historical and political material, this article argues that between 1958 and 1964 Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, although ideologically a pan-Africanist, played a pivotal but unintentional role in entrenching colonial era borders in Africa. The article identifies three key ways in which Nkrumah shaped the law of selfdetermination in Africa: first, by actively campaigning against ‘tribalism’ in Ghana; second, by enlisting the UN to prevent the secession of Katanga in 1960, thereby creating a crucial precedent; and, third, by playing a leading role in establishing the OAU in 1963, which went on to endorse the legal validity of colonial frontiers. In this way, Nkrumah helped settle arguments around the authentic self-determination unit in Africa, forging an unintended legacy that continues to shape the legal and political contours of the continent to the present.

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