Jan Erk | Academic

Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, and Unknown Unknowns

During my Faber Residency I worked on a comparative study of self-determination, secession, and constitutional autonomy in sub-Saharan Africa. It was especially the historical turning-points which I focused on. The overview of Africa’s post-war legal-political history helps me identify a number of factors that have come to play a role in the success or failure of secessionism. The study is driven by the belief that theorising on real-life issues like self-determination and secession require humility in scholarly projections and predictions. History is not a faultless compass, but it helps put the present in a different light and thus prepare us for the unknowns. The study’s aim is to distil lessons – or more precisely, insights – from sub-Saharan Africa’s past with an eye to the future of self-determination. Most of this is little known to Western scholars of territorial politics: Africa has successful federations (some democratic, others not), failed federations, failed confederal unions, de facto and de jure variations in territorial autonomy, federations which have turned themselves into unitary states, unitary states that have devolved power to regions, and of course a number of both successful and failed secessions across time and place. Following decolonisation, the continent had also adopted strong international measures against border-changes which were then drafted into the founding charter of the Organisation for African Unity (the precursor to the African Union). What is more, the international system within which African national politics takes place has gone through various geopolitical alignments which fluctuated during the course of the Cold War. The seven decades of postwar African politics includes a few lessons and a lot of insights into the politics of self-determination and secession. There are also many unknowns – especially emanating from the international level – which play a big role in rendering whether or not secessions end up getting international recognition. Some of these international ‘unknowns’ which the study covers build on my previous work on African territorial politics, some of them were extracted and identified during Faber residency. Insights from my previous work on secessionist politics in the western world was also distilled into the analysis. During my stay, intellectual exchange with fellow Faber residents also helped open potential new avenues for investigation. What was particularly helpful for the project was the interdisciplinary intellectual climate of Faber – especially breaking out of academic silos and the scholasticism that comes along with it. Instead, I was able to pursue a through and multifaceted treatment of self-determination through a combination of the scholarly lenses of Comparative Political Science, Legal-Political History, and Constitutional Law. We are in uncharted territory as our world rapidly changes. In these uncertain times we cannot have all our eggs in one disciplinary basket. The Faber residency has been a great experience in interdisciplinary exchange, intellectual creativity, free-thinking and reflection.