Dr. Brad Simpson on “The Limits of Self-Determination”

Brad Simpson, Associate Professor of History at the University of Connecticut and panel speaker on state actors and foreign policies at the Remembering Biafra Conference, published an article in 2014 in the Journal of Genocide Research examining the boundaries of Biafran secession. Entitled “The Biafran secession and the limits of self-determination,” the article discusses important questions surrounding state sovereignty, African decolonization and self-determination as they relate to Biafran secession. In addition, Simpson argues that Biafra’s failed secession serves to highlight the open-ended and ambiguous nature of self-determination in the international realm.

According to Simpson, Biafran leaders proclaimed their independence and argued that the “desire on the part of the minority groups for self-determination is the active force behind the demand for the creation of more states,” (340). However Simpson also points out that the lukewarm reaction by the international community to Biafran secession implies that many people “rejected the premise and substance of [Biafra’s] claims,” (342), and the fact that only a few nations recognized Biafra as a state supports this notion.

Simpson also examines the relationship between the humanitarian responses to the Biafran conflict as it relates to the goals and ideals of self-determination. He notes that various French and German organizations working in Biafra supported self-determination as a reaction to accusations of genocide, massacre and forced starvation of the Igbo. However, many western governments, even those who provided relief and humanitarian aid to Biafra, did not recognize Biafra’s right to self-determination for the duration of the conflict and continued to support the Federal Military Government.

Later on in the article, Simpson looks at self-determination through the lens of post-colonial Africa, noting that many observers to the conflict both in Nigeria and abroad argued, “self-determination thoroughly carried out in Africa would end in each household or clan having its own separate flag.” (347). Even though Biafra had a population of 13.5 million at the time of secession, which would have made it one of the largest countries in Africa, there were many people who still felt that Biafra was too small of a territory to be politically or economically self-sufficient. Simpson explains that “Biafran leaders confronted not only deep international skepticism regarding the existence of an authentic national identity, but an even-shifting geopolitical and social scientific sensibility regarding the thresholds for state viability”(346).

In his conclusion, Simpson maintains that the most important lesson coming from the Biafran conflict is that international law is neutral when it comes to issue of self-determination in a post-independence state. However Simpson also notes that there has been a transition in how self-determination is viewed: in the 1960s it was viewed as the only option in response to claims for self-determination in the post-colonial era, but recent times have seen the development of a set of international legal principles that offer to resolve conflicts beyond the “potentially violent zero-sum logic of secession” (350).

Abby Pioch is the primary blogger for Remembering Biafra. She is a senior in the Elliott School studying International Affairs concentrating in international development with a second major in French Language, Literature and Culture and a minor in Political Science. She is a member of Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Sorority and currently tutors ESL students at the Washington English Center.