Is the Crimea referendum a good model for Africa? – By Richard Dowden

Wednesday, 19 March 2014
Richard Dowden

The referendum in Crimea is a dangerous precedent reminiscent of the Austrian Anschluss and the other uprisings in eastern Europe to join Germany in the 1930s. I used to think that Europe’s states had grown naturally, organically – in contrast to Africa’s imposed borders. That I thought was a major reason for Africa’s weak states and small local wars. Then I read up on the post World War One settlement and discovered that Europe’s borders had been reset by three men: Woodrow Wilson, the American president, and two Europeans; David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, and Georges Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France. As a result of the lines they drew on the map, the tribes of Europe were reorganised, some freed from foreign rule, some forced into countries they felt no loyalty to and some displaced and forced to leave their homes. It was a mess and planted some of the seeds of World War II.

Africa’s arbitrary borders, mostly drawn by people who had never set foot in the continent, have always been an obvious target for renegotiation. But Africa’s first rulers, who foresaw chaos and disintegration if the nation states were reconfigured, ruled it out. “Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each State” was one of the founding principles of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the forerunner of the African Union. Despite all the wars, internal and external, this principle has been pretty much adhered to by both presidents and people.

Loyalty to an African state is not always related to the ability of that state to make the lives of its people better. Patriotism, an emotional thing, does not take these benefits into account, even in countries where the majority of citizens are marginalised or oppressed by the government. Even in the catastrophic recent meltdown of South Sudan after just two years of independence, no one is advocating return to rule from Khartoum. In the dying days of Mobutu’s Zaire (now the DRC) I was astonished to find that people felt it to be a great country. I asked why Katanga, the rich south east province, didn’t secede – as it had in 1960. My suggestion was greeted with shocked surprise.

The reasons for separation may not be to do with regional identity or ethnicity. In Eritrea after the defeat of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 I suggested to the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) that, with the dictator gone, it would make more sense to stay as part of Ethiopia and benefit from all its resources than to go it alone. My suggestion was treated with shock. But, I pointed out, the Tigrayans who now run Ethiopia are your allies and are the same ethnicity as you Eritreans – you speak the same language, are part of the same culture, divided only by a colonial border. My Eritrean friends showed they had serious doubts about my sanity. “Ourselves Alone” had been their slogan and they would never give it up.

Some other examples: in 1991 the Somalilanders declared they would never be part of Somalia again, reversing their 1960 decision to join their fellow Somalis of the former Italian Somaliland (and after WWII a UN trusteeship) as one country.

Zanzibar and other islands off the East African coast would be a candidate to split away from Tanzania. The relationship has never been good since the British forced the merger on newly-independent Tanzania which led to the massacres of 1964. Zanzibar, its archipelago of islands and the coastal Swahili area, have a very strong culture and an unhappy historical relationship with the interior of Tanzania. They would almost certainly vote for independence. The growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the region and the prospect of large profits from newly discovered offshore gas fields will also heighten tensions.

In western Zambia the Barotse people want independence on the grounds that they were a British protectorate which had an agreement with the British South Africa Company in the 19th Century, giving it a separate status to the Rhodesian colony around it. But at independence it was forced to be part of Zambia. The struggle continues. After all Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho had the same status and were able to stay separate from South Africa.

There is also a small group in Uganda that is fighting for independence on the same basis. A greater threat there is that the Baganda, the largest ethnic group which occupies the core of the country, might demand more self governance. Meanwhile their rivals in Bunyoro are sitting on Uganda’s oil. What if the Bunyoro – like the tribe in northern Britain called ‘Scottish’ – decide they want all the benefit from the oil under their feet?

Then there is the north west of Cameroon which used to be administered by Britain while the rest of the former Germany colony was given to France. Anglophone Cameroonians have always felt marginalised but would they really want to join their fellow English speakers across the border in Nigeria?

And in Nigeria itself the power struggle between north and south, east and west is still at the heart of politics. The only part that might want to leave and manage its own affairs is the Ibo east but they fought a war to do that and lost. I was surprised that when democracy was restored after 1999 and the Yoruba in Western Nigeria threatened to secede even though the president, Olusegun Obasanjo, was himself Yoruba. It was explained to me that he was not giving sufficient resources to the Yoruba lords and politicians and they needed to remind him where his ultimate loyalty should lie. They succeeded. The south west did a lot better in his second term and talk of independence faded.

Could the north of Nigeria secede? Why should it? As long as Nigeria’s main revenue comes from cheques from oil companies, the north – or northern Big Men – will get some pay-off from oil. Without it northern Nigeria, resource-wise, has almost nothing. Secession is not an option.

There have only been two official changes to Africa’s boundaries since independence; the establishment of Eritrea and South Sudan. Both were done with the agreement of the mother country. Somaliland’s bid for independence has not officially succeeded because it had no regional African sponsor to push it through the African Union. Elsewhere the boundaries have been accepted, although Morocco seized Western Sahara contrary to international law and, with French and American protection, has held on to it ever since.

Only Ethiopia – for its own political reasons – gives the right to all its ‘nations’ to secede if they want to. That clause was created to allow Eritrea to become independent. No one else has been allowed to use it although the Ogaden Somalis would probably prefer to be part of Somalia or at least have their own separate state. But the very thought that there is an option available helps to guarantee that the Ethiopian government delivers development to all its nations.

I cannot draw any clear conclusions about loyalty to state, national coherence and ethnicity except that it is extremely hard to get right and there are no clear lessons. Remember – there are only two nation states in Africa with only one dominant ethnic group. One is Africa’s most successful country – Botswana. The other is the continent’s biggest disaster – Somalia.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. Follow Richard on twitter@DowdenAfrica