Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Brothers as Keepers: Africa's New Sovereignty Regime

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Brothers as Keepers: Africa's New Sovereignty Regime

Article excerpt


In step with international trends, African states have since the end of the Cold War begun to embrace a new sovereignty regime of accountability. Based on a dual accountability of states--to their people at home and their peers abroad--this regime is a major departure from the traditional regime of sovereignty as impunity. The new culture of accountability finds expression in a network of institutions of continental governance, created by African states in recent years. While impressive in form and function, the actual success of these bodies depends largely on the political will of African leaders. It remains to be seen whether they will in word and deed be true to the demands of accountability.


If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson remarked in 1775, sovereignty is the final sanctuary of the autocrat in contemporary world politics. The principle of state sovereignty has for decades shielded autocratic rulers from foreign criticism of their excesses at home. Worse, these scoundrels among leaders have taken sovereignty as a license for impunity in ruling their subjects.

In the second half of the 20th century leaders of newly independent African states were among the staunchest upholders of sovereignty. Apart from emphasising the legal equality and territorial integrity of all states, African leaders were obsessed with a third corollary of sovereignty, namely non-intervention in the domestic affairs of states--specifically their own. The way they treated (and mostly mistreated) their peoples was regarded as a matter of domestic jurisdiction, out of bounds to other states.

The last 15 years or so have been witnessing an international trend away from the old conception of sovereignty as impunity. The emphasis is presently on sovereignty as responsibility, meaning that leaders are accountable to both their citizens and the international community for their behaviour in office. In Africa the old brotherhood of national leaders that--in the name of sovereignty and solidarity--closed ranks against outside interference, is now moving towards a situation where the responsibilities of sovereignty are making them their brothers' (and a single sister's) keepers.

This article investigates the development in Africa of what amounts to a new sovereignty regime--in terms of ideas, norms and practices--against the backdrop of broader international initiatives in this field. Africa's reinterpretation of sovereignty finds tangible expression in a network of institutions established since the late 1990s to constitute a comprehensive system of continental governance. Among the bodies are the African Union (AU), the Peace and Security Council of the African Union (PSC), the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), the Pan-African Parliament (PAP), and the African Court of Human and Peoples' Rights.


The essence of state sovereignty is the absence of any authority above the state; in other words, "(n)o other national or international entity can legitimately dictate a state's activities". (1)) Conversely, sovereignty is "the presence, within a governed political community, of supreme legal authority". (2)) These definitions imply that sovereignty consists of external and internal dimensions. Although commonly drawn by international lawyers and political scientists, this distinction is far from clear-cut. (3))

Internal sovereignty is defined as "the state's exclusive right or competence to determine the character of its own institutions, to ensure and provide for their operation, to enact laws of its own choice and ensure their respect". (4)) This, however, should not be interpreted as unqualified and exclusive power (5))--a status no modern state has enjoyed in practice. (6)) What internal sovereignty does require is constitutional separateness or independence. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.