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African International Legal Histories – International Law in Africa: Perspectives and Possibilities



Hitherto, the ‘African part’ of the history of international law has often been limited to the (critical engagement with) ‘the acquisition of Africa’ since the 1880s and questions of ‘state succession’ and international borders following independence starting in the 1950s. In this historical narrative, the dominance of colonialism is evident. It seems that ‘Africa’ as a narrative concept in international legal history remains tied to abstract contrasts such as ‘foreign domination’ versus ‘independence’, or ‘exploitation’ versus ‘development’. However, if twenty-first century writings about ‘international law in Africa’ and its histories remain shaped by this perspective, historians may lose sight of issues, questions, or ideas formed in historical Africa that do not fit into this preconceived dichotomous matrix. After discussing methodological challenges, this article asks for other ‘contacts’, other arenas of ‘internationality’ and international law in Africa’s pre-colonial past. These contacts reach back very far in history. Three arenas are mentioned: the Red Sea area and Ethiopian-Arab relations; the Indian Ocean rim; and finally, the case of nineteenth-century Ethiopia.



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Research Fellow of the Center for Global Constitutionalism, WZB Berlin Social Science Center [].



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1 Becker Lorca, A., ‘Eurocentrism in the History of International Law’, in Fassbender, B. and Peters, A. (eds.), Oxford Handbook of International Law (2012), 1034; Becker Lorca, A., ‘International Law in Latin America or Latin American International Law? Rise, Fall, and Retrieval of a Tradition of Legal Thinking and Political Imagination’, (2006) 47 Harvard Journal of International Law 283.

2 Young, C., ‘Self-Determination, Territorial Integrity, and the African State System’, in Deng, F.M. and William Zartman, I. (eds.), Conflict Resolution in Africa (1991), 320, at 343 (using this expression and referring to the Organisation of African Unity).

3 Ahmed, D.M., Boundaries and Secession in Africa and International Law. Challenging Uti Possidetis (2015), 3.

4 For an overview, see Sonderegger, A., Kurze Geschichte des Alten Afrika (2017), 10; Parker, J. and Rathbone, R., African History. A Very Short Introduction (2007), 2, referring to Mudimbe, V., The Invention of Africa (1988); Dübgen, F. and Skupien, S., ‘Das Politische in der Afrikanischen Philosophie’, in Dübgen, F. and Skupien, S. (eds.), Afrikanische politische Philosophie (2015), 9, at 10.

5 Jones, A., Afrika bis 1850 (2016), 18.

6 Elias, T.O., Africa and the Development of International Law (1972).

7 Toufayan, M., ‘When British Justice (in African Colonies) Points Two Ways. On Dualism, Hybridity, and the Genealogy of Juridical Negritude in Taslim Olawale Elias’, in Onazi, O. (ed.), African Legal Theory and Contemporary Problems (2014), 31, at 45 (quoting Elias, T.O., The Nature of African Customary Law (1956), 6).

8 Oduntan, G., International Law and Boundary Disputes in Africa (2015).

9 Ade Ajayi, J.F., ‘Colonialism. An Episode in African History’, in Gann, L.G. and Duignan, P. (eds.), Colonialism in Africa 1870–1960 (1969), vol. I.

10 Alexandrowicz, C.H., The European-African Confrontation. A Study in Treaty Making (1973), 127; cf. also Mudimbe, V. Y., The Invention of Africa (1988), 1.

11 Gathii, J. T., ‘Africa’, in Fassbender, B. and Peters, A. (eds.), Oxford Handbook of International Law (2012), 407, at 411.

12 Martineau, A.-C., ‘Overcoming Eurocentrism? Global History and the Oxford Handbook of the History of International Law’, (2014) 25 European Journal of International Law 329, at 330.

13 Jackson, R. H., Quasi-States. Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World (1990).

14 Mazrui, A., The Africans. A Triple Heritage (1986), 272.

15 Reyna, S.P., Wars without End. The political economy of a precolonial African state (1990).

16 Hunwick, J.O., Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire. Al-Sa’di’s Ta’rikh Al-sudan down to 1613 and other contemporary documents (2003); see Vansina, J., ‘A Comparison of African Kingdoms’, (1962) 32 Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 324 (classifying Sub-Saharan kingdoms); see Hawthorne, W., ‘States and Statelessness’ in Parker, J. and Reid, R. (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Modern African History (2013), 77 at 79f.

17 Scheiwe, K., ‘Was ist ein funktionales Äquivalent in der Rechtsvergleichung? Eine Diskussion an Hand von Beispielen aus dem Familien- und Sozialrecht’, (2000) 83 Kritische Vierteljahresschrift für Gesetzgebung und Rechtswissenschaft, 30.

18 See Pernau, M., Bürger mit Turban. Muslime in Delhi im 19. Jahrhundert (2008), 212.

19 Becker Lorca, A., Mestizo International Law: A Global Intellectual History 1842–1933 (2015), 10.

20 Hunt, L., ‘Against Presentism’, AHA Perspectives on History, 1 May 2002, available at

21 Dakas, D.C.J., ‘The Role of International Law in the Colonization of Africa. A Review in Light of Recent Calls for Re-colonization’, (1999) 7 African Yearbook of International Law / Annuaire Africain de droit international 83.

22 The Journal of Modern African Studies, less influential though, published one article by the barrister-at-law Nii Lante Wallace-Bruce. See Wallace-Bruce, N.L., ‘Africa and International Law. The Emergence to Statehood’, (1985) 23 Journal of Modern African Studies 575; see also Uzoigwe, G.N., ‘Spheres of Influence and the Doctrine of the Hinterland in the Partition of Africa’ (1976) 3, Journal of African Studies 183.

23 Ginther, K., ‘Preface’, in Ginther, K. and Benedek, W. (eds.), New Perspectives and Conceptions of International Law. An Afro-European Dialogue (1983), at v.

24 Becker Lorca, supra note 19, at 13.

25 Alston, P., ‘Does the Past Matter? On the Origins of Human Rights. An analysis of competing histories of the origins of international human rights law’, (2013) 126 Harvard Law Review 2043; Martinez, J., ‘Human Rights and History’, (2013) 126 Harvard Law Review 221, at 236.

26 Ahmed, supra note 3, at 4.

27 Martinez, J.S., The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law (2012).

28 Ibid., at 6; Martinez, supra note 25, at 221.

29 On the problem of ‘present-day relevance’, see Borowsky, P., Vogel, B. and Wunder, H., Einführung in die Geschichtswissenschaft I, Opladen (1989), 14.

30 See van der Linden, M., The Acquisition of Africa (1870–1914). The Nature of Nineteenth-Century International Law (2017).

31 Ibid., at 28.

32 Ibid., at 29, 245.

33 Cf. Martineau, A.-C., ‘A Forgotten Chapter in the History of International Commercial Arbitration. The Slave Trade’s Dispute Settlement System’, (2018) 31 Leiden Journal of International Law 219, at 222 (‘While the focus of the article is historical, the interest feeding it lies in the present.’).

34 Orford, A., ‘On International Legal Method’, (2013) 1 London Review of International Law 166, at 171.

35 Ibid. at 173–4.

36 Shahabuddin, M., Ethnicity and International Law. Histories, Politics and Practices (2016), 7.

37 See G. Simpson, ‘Call for Papers’, Leiden Journal of International Law Symposium on ‘The Trajectories of International Legal Histories’, 20 October 2017, available at

38 Cf. Jerven, M., Africa. Why Economists get it wrong (2015), 45, on the presentist dealing of economists with historical data about Africa.

39 van der Linden, supra note 30, at 28.

40 Koskenniemi, M., ‘Histories of International Law. Dealing with Eurocentrism’, (2011) 19 Rechtsgeschichte 152, at 155.

41 Hunt, supra note 20.

42 This is at least the impression created by the titles of the two leading series in the field: Studien zur Geschichte des Völkerrechts (Nomos) and Studies in the History of International Law (Brill).

43 See Okafor, O.C., ‘After Martyrdom: International Law, Sub-State Groups, and the Construction of Legitimate Statehood in Africa’, (2000) 41 Harvard International Law Journal 503, at 508, for another example of trying to ‘understand’ the ‘fragmentation of the post-colonial African state’ with an ‘exploration into the history of state-building in Africa’.

44 Caroni, P., Die Einsamkeit des Rechtshistorikers. Notizen zu einem problematischen Lehrfach (2005).

45 Armitage, D. and Pitts, J., ‘“This Modern Grotius”: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of C. H. Alexandrowicz’, in Armitage, D. and Pitts, J. (eds.), C.H. Alexandrowicz: The Law of Nations in Global History (2017), 1, at 1.

46 Borowsky, Vogel and Wunder, supra note 29, at 14.

47 See Habib, M.A.R., Hegel and Empire. From Postcolonialism to Globalism (2017), 4964; Camara, B., ‘The Falsity of Hegel’s Theses on Africa’, (2005) 36 Journal of Black Studies 82; Bernasconi, R., ‘Hegel at the Court of the Ashanti’, in Barnett, S. (ed.), Hegel After Derrida (1998), 45.

48 See three autobiographical accounts by the most outstanding ‘pioneers’: Oliver, R., In the Realms of Gold. Pioneering in African History (1997); Vansina, J., Living With Africa (1994); Fage, J.D., ‘British African studies since the Second World War. A personal account’, (1989) 88 African Affairs 397; cf. also Henige, D., The Chronology of Oral Tradition. Quest for a Chimera (1974); Heintze, B. and Jones, A., ‘European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa before 1900. Uses and Abuses’, (1987) 33 Paideuma; Behrend, H. and Geider, T., Afrikaner schreiben zurück. Texte und Bilder afrikanischer Ethnographen (1998); Arnaut, K. and Vanhee, H., ‘History Facing the Present. An Interview with Jan Vansina’, (2001) 21 Forum: Nieuwsbrief van de Belgische Vereniging van Afrikanisten – Bulletin de l’Association Belge des Africanistes 11; Castryck, G., Strickrodt, S. and Werthmann, K. (eds.), Sources and methods for African history and culture. Essays in honour of Adam Jones (2016).

49 Gathii, supra note 11, at 409; cf. Landauer, C., ‘Things Fall Together: The Past and Future Africas of T. O. Elias’s Africa and the Development of International Law’, (2008) 21 Leiden Journal of International Law 351, at 361.

50 Vansina, J., Kingdoms of the Savanna (1966).

51 Oliver, R. and Fage, J.D., A Short History of Africa (1962); see the review by Uzoigwe, G.N., ‘A Short History of Africa by Roland Oliver, J. D. Fage’, (1978) 11 International Journal of African Historical Studies 137, on the book’s ‘instant success’.

52 Davidson, B., The Africans: An Entry to Cultural History (1969), 185, as quoted in Elias, supra note 6, at 13.

53 Landauer, supra note 49, at 363.

54 Elias, supra note 6, at 3 (‘Chapter 1, The Contribution of Africa to International Law’).

55 Elias, supra note 6, at 13. On the challenges of the pre-colonial sources, cf. Jones, supra note 5, at 32–9.

56 Habermas, R. and Füssel, M. (eds.), (2015) 23(3) Historische Anthropologie, ‘Die Materialität der Geschichte.

57 d’Aspremont, J., Besson, S. (eds.), Oxford Handbook of the Sources of International Law (2017).

58 It is undoubtedly bad style to flag one’s own work, but it is noteworthy that this author’s Naulila 1914. World War I in Angola and International Law: A Study in (Post-)Colonial Border Regimes and Interstate Arbitration (2016), is apparently the first among 35 volumes in the Studien zur Geschichte des Völkerrechts series that contains maps and photographs – other than portraits; also several articles in (2018) 31 Leiden Journal of International Law, contain photographs which attests to a new openness to sources other than texts.

59 Koskenniemi, supra note 40, at 170.

60 Landauer, supra note 49, at 363.

61 Koskenniemi, supra note 40, at 171.

62 Martineau, supra note 12, at 335.

63 Pitz, E., Verfassungslehre und Einführung in die deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte des Mittelalters (2006), 411. Es ist eine „Crux“ für die Geschichtsschreibung, wenn sie „die Rechtsbegriffe, deren sie sich bedienen muß, nicht begründen kann“.

64 Feierman, S., ‘Afrika in der Geschichte. Das Ende der universalen Erzählungen’, in Sebastian Conrad, S. and Randeria, S. (eds.), Jenseits des Eurozentrismus. Postkoloniale Perspektiven in den Ge-schichts- und Kulturwissenschaften (2002), 50, at 63; see Pernau, supra note 18, at 8.

65 Krüger, G., ‘Der Löwe lagert unter der Schirmakazie. Der (mögliche) Beitrag der Afrikanischen Geschichte zu einer Geschichtswissenschaft als Verflechtungsgeschichte’, (2014) 64 Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Geschichte/ Revue Suisse d’Histoire, 224, at 233 (Krüger speaks of ‘Begriffs-U-Boote‘ and stipulates: ‘Dieses Problem ist nicht zu lösen‘.)

66 Vansina, J., ‘Historians, are archeologists your siblings?’, (1995) 22 History in Africa 369; Robertshaw, P., ‘Sibling rivalry? The intersection of archaeology and history’, (2007) 27 History in Africa 261; see also the journal African Archaeological Review.

67 Haase, R., Einführung in das Studium keilschriftlicher Rechtsquellen (1965); Radner, K. and Robson, E. (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture (2011).

68 Ginther, K., ‘The Teaching of International Law under a Developmental Aspect. The Relevance of African Cases and Materials’, in Ginther, K. and Benedek, W. (eds.), New Perspectives and Conceptions of International Law. An Afro-European Dialogue (1983), 216, at 224; Ginther, supra note 23, at v.

69 Koskenniemi, M., ‘Expanding Histories of International Law’, (2016) 56 American Journal of Legal History 104.

70 See ‘List of Treaties’, in Alexandrowicz, supra note 10, 129–41.

71 See Rajkovic, N.M., ‘The Visual Conquest of International Law. Brute Boundaries, the Map and the Legacy of Cartogenesis’, (2018) 31 Leiden Journal of International Law 267, at 288.

72 Ade Ajayi, supra note 9.

73 Dugard, J., International Law. A South African Perspective (2001), 10.

74 See Landauer, supra note 49, and the other contributions in the same issue of the Leiden Journal of International Law (Issue 2, Vol. 21 (2008)).

75 Toufayan, supra note 7, at 32.

76 Elias, supra note 6, at 5.

77 Toufayan, supra note 7, at 36, 44 (referencing Ali Mazrui).

78 Gathii, supra note 11, at 411.

79 Altman, A., Tracing the Earliest Recorded Concepts of International Law. The Ancient Near East (2500-330 BCE) (2012).

80 Westbrook, R., ‘International Law in the Amarna Age’, in Cohen, R. and Westbrook, R. (eds.), Amarna diplomacy. The beginnings of international relations (2000), 2840; see also Török, L., Between two worlds. The frontier region between Ancient Nubia and Egypt 3700 BC – 500 AD (2009).

81 Hatke, G., Africans in Arabia Felix. Aksumite Relations with Himyar in the Sixth Century CE, Ph.D. thesis, Princeton University (2011).

82 Gerlach, I. (ed.), South Arabia and its Neighbours. Phenomena of Intercultural Contacts (14. Rencontres Sabéennes) (2015).

83 Nebes, N., Der Tatenbericht des Yiṯaʿʾamar Watar bin Yakrubmalik aus Ṣirwāḥ (Jemen). Zur Geschichte Südarabiens im frühen 1. Jahrtausend vor Christus. Mit einem archäologischen Beitrag von Iris Gerlach und Mike Schnelle (2016) (Epigraphische Forschungen auf der Arabischen Halbinsel, Bd. 7), 72.

84 Nebes, N., Könige der Weihrauchstraße. Zur Geschichte Südarabiens und Äthiopiens im frühen 1. Jahrtausend vor Christus (2014), 31, 3843 (43 on the ‘Bundesschließungsformel’); Nebes, N., ‘Epigraphic South Arabian inscriptions in Arabia’, (2007) 3 Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, at 153 f.; see Parzinger, H., ‘Vor und Frühgeschichte’, in Gehrke, H.J. (ed.), Die Welt vor 600. Frühe Zivilisationen (2017), 41, at 182.

85 Campbel, G. (ed.), Early Exchange between Africa and the Wider Indian Ocean World (2016); Dalton, H., Salo, J., Niemelä, P. and Örmä, S., ‘Frederick II of Hohenstaufen’s Australasian Cockatoo. Symbol of Detente between East and West and Evidence of the Ayyubids’ Global Reach’, (2018) 35 Parergon 35.

86 Casson, L., The Periplus Maris Erythraei (Greek-English) (1989), 61 f. (cpt. 14; 16).

87 Power, T., The Red Sea from Byzantium to the Caliphate. AD 500–1000 (2012); Pouwels, R.L., ‘Eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean to 1800. Reviewing Relations in Historical Perspective’, (2002) 35 International Journal of African Historical Studies 385; Mauny, R., ‘Le périple de la mer Érythrée et le problème du commerce romain en Afrique au sud du Limes’, (1968) 38 Journal de la Société des Africanistes 19.

88 Alexandrowicz, C.H., ‘The Partition of Africa by Treaty (1974)’, in Armitage, D. and Pitts, J. (eds.), C. H. Alexandrowicz, The Law of Nations in Global History (2017), 230, at 231.

89 Alexandrowicz, supra note 10, at 174. The index of the collected works of C.H. Alexandrowicz gives a similar impression. See Armitage, D. and Pitts, J. (eds.), C. H. Alexandrowicz, The Law of Nations in Global History (2017), 424.

90 Rubenson, S., ‘Some Aspects of the Survival of Ethiopian Independence in the Period of the Scramble for Africa’, (1961) 1 University College Review 8; Rubenson, S., ‘The Protectorate Paragraph of the Wichale Treaty’, (1964) 2 Journal of African History 243; Erlich, H., Ethiopia and the challenge of independence (1968).

91 Prijac, L. (ed.), Foreign relations with Ethiopia. Human and diplomatic history (2015).

92 Oppenheim, L., International Law (1905), 108.

93 Elliesie, H., ‘Treaties and Multilateral Conventions’, (2014) 5 Encyclopaedia Aethiopica 537; Erlich, H., Ethiopia and the challenge of independence (1968); Erlich, H., Ethiopia and Eritrea during the scramble for Africa. A political biography of Ras Alula 1875–1897 (1982).

94 Marx, C., Geschichte Afrikas. Von 1800 bis zur Gegenwart (2004), 69.

95 Menelik to French President Carnot, 21 April 1891, as quoted in Caulk, R., Between the Jaws of Hyenas’. A Diplomatic History of Ethiopia (1876–1896) (2002), 269.

96 Alexandrowicz, supra note 10, at 116.

97 Marcus, H.G., ‘The Foreign Policy of the Emperor Menilek 1896–1898. A Rejoinder’, (1966) 7 Journal of African History 117, at 122.

98 Tafla, B., Ethiopia and Germany: Cultural, Political, and Economic Relations, 1871–1936 (1981), 128 f.; see Franco-Ethiopian agreement of 29 and 30 January 1897, DDF XIII: 147; [British] Treaties with Ethiopia, and with Ethiopia and Italy respecting Frontiers between the Soudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, 15 May 1902. P. P. Cd. 1370. Treaty Series, No. 16. (1902); [British] Agreement with Ethiopia respecting Frontiers of British East Africa, Uganda, and Ethiopia, 6 December, 1907. P. P. Cd. 4318. Treaty Series, No. 27 (1908); see the map of 1908 detailing the boundaries of Ethiopia according to the relevant treaties reprinted in Zewede, B., ‘Boundaries with the Sudan’, (2003) 5 Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, 613; Marcus, H., The Life and Times of Menelik II: Ethiopia 1844–1913 (1995), 179–90.

99 Alexandrowicz, supra note 10, at 109; On 16 November 1909 President Fallières promulgated a law extending consular jurisdiction to French citizens and protégés in Ethiopia, see (1910) 16 Revue Générale de Droit International Public 680.

100 Quoted by Anand, R.P., ‘Influence of History on the Literature of International Law’, in Anand, R.P., International Law and the Developing Countries. Confrontation or Cooperation? (1987), 1, at 29.

101 Alexandrowicz, supra note 10, at 22.

102 Oduntan, supra note 8, at 6.

103 Becker Lorca, supra note 19, at 13.

104 Martineau, supra note 12, at 335.

105 Dübgen and Skupien, supra note 4, at 9.

106 Martinez, supra note 25, at 236.

107 Koskenniemi, supra note 40, at 171.

108 Chakrabarty, D., Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial thought and historical difference (2000).

109 Mensah-Brown, A.K. (ed.), African international legal history (United Nations Institute for Training and Research) (1975), 1, quoted in Gathii, supra note 11, at 417.

* Research Fellow of the Center for Global Constitutionalism, WZB Berlin Social Science Center [].


African International Legal Histories – International Law in Africa: Perspectives and Possibilities



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