Africa Day 2022 – Towards Africa’s Rebirth (Part I): Africa’s Separatist Movements – The case for a new approach



Author: The Prebendary (

After the November 2015 Paris terror attacks President Obama proclaimed “Nous sommes tous Francais,” meaning “we are all French”, recalling the French newspaper headline in the days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, “Nous sommes tous Americains.” (“We are all Americans”). But the truth is that we are not ‘all French’, nor are we ‘all Americans’! In the real world, the value of human beings is directly proportional to the priority placed on them by their own nation / race. American lives are valued because the USA places a high premium on the lives of their citizens, as do the French. If Africans / blacks fail to value their own people, others will not value them. This explains why, when worse catastrophe than the US or French terror attacks occur in Africa, no one proclaims “Nous sommes tous Africains!.” The most pernicious form of racism is not when others disvalue you, but when you disvalue yourself.

Africa Day is marked every May 25 to commemorate the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the African Union (AU)’s precursor on 25 May 1963. The year 2022 signifies the 20th anniversary of the AU (founded in 2002). This three-part reflection to mark the occasion will focus on three key ways in which Africa could demonstrate that it values its own people. Namely: by how Africa treats its separatist movements (political); by the philanthropic synergy of African private sector (economic), and by the promotion of an African lingua franca (cultural).

In this first part of the trilogy, the main point being made is that Africa should develop the willingness to amicably redraw its borders, without bloodshed. The political maturity that does not criminalize separatist agitation is particularly apt for Africa, whose national borders were determined by imperialist fiat, without African input.

Incidentally, the AU Theme for the year 2022 is Strengthening Resilience in Nutrition and Food Security on the African Continent. Africa’s worst famines have not been the result of poverty or climate change, but civil conflicts. Therefore, the most important way to avoid food insecurity in Africa is to prevent civil crises, which are often caused by the mishandling of separatist/rebel movements. Two of Africa’s worst famines in history were the Biafran famine (which inspired the formation of Médecins Sans Frontières in France) and the Ethiopian famine during the Eritrean war (which inspired Band-Aid in the UK and “We Are the World” in the USA). Both famines could have been totally avoided or greatly attenuated if the conflicts in Nigeria and Ethiopia had been resolved through referendums.

African governments (and the OAU/AU) have tended to regard separatism as taboo. This attitude needs to change, because the wastage of lives in Africa to retain troubled national unions is among the most catastrophic: Biafra cost 3 million lives, South Sudan cost 2 million lives and Eritrea cost 1 million lives (by comparison, Yugoslavia cost 260,000 lives; Chechnya 200,000 lives; Sri Lanka, 70,000 lives; and Kashmir, 60,000 lives).

Although formal colonization of Africa ended by 1980, it has been replaced by neocolonialism, with Western powers retaining economic control. Opponents of the neocolonial theory argue that excessive blame is placed on colonialism for Africa’s modern problems. Instead, bad governance is the real culprit. But it is precisely because African nations are artificial colonial contraptions that they do not inspire the depth of patriotism or quality of statesmanship needed for good leadership. In addition, African governments expend so much energy on “ethnic arithmetic” that they cannot focus squarely on development agendas. Moreover, because the citizens of Africa’s artificial nations lack uniting ethos, they can hardly speak with a common voice or to hold their leaders accountable. This lack of accountability in turn emboldens African leaders towards more and more impunity, creating an endless vicious circle.

Self-determination is critical for the development of Africa, not primarily as a cure for Africa’s ills, but as the most important mechanism for preventing bad governance. The mere fact that a constituent part (region, state or kingdom) of an African nation can choose to exit a political union without the fear of repression would be a strong deterrent against maladministration in general and ethnic marginalization in particular.

Therefore, Africa will not progress until the plebiscite becomes generally accepted as the proper response to separatist movements. The fact that African governments often prefer to endure intractable crises rather than seek peace via referendum is prima facie evidence that the political union in dispute is unpopular. The guilty are afraid.

In his ground-breaking book titled Emerging Africa, Dr. Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu argues convincingly that “the fundamental reason for Africa’s underdevelopment is the absence of a worldview in most of its constituent nations.” However, uniting ethos will continue to elude African nations, unless Africans open themselves to the possibility of the peaceful emergence of new and more cohesive nations. Far from being the bane of Africa, separatist movements can actually play a vital rôle in Africa’s search for healing, unity, renewal and progress. The OAU / AU’s policy of inflexibly upholding the inviolability of African borders is inimical to the peace and prosperity of the continent.

Ironically, Britain (modern history’s greatest imperialist nation) has become a model of how to deal with separatism. Like most African nations, Britain had no constitutional provision for referendum. Nevertheless, in 2013, it allowed for a referendum in the Falkland Islands (claimed by Argentina), with 99.8% of Falklanders opting to remain British. In Gibraltar (claimed by Spain), a 2002 proposal for a joint British–Spanish administration was voted down by 85% of Gibraltans. For Scotland, a plebiscite was held in 2014, after the pro-independence SNP party won a majority in the Scottish Parliament. The sole referendum question was, “Should Scotland be an independent country?”, which voters answered with “Yes” or “No”. A “yes” vote would have led to the creation of a sovereign Scottish state. In the case of Ireland, the UK has officially committed itself to implement Irish reunification as long as a simple majority in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland votes for such in a referendum.

There are nine commonly raised objections to the use of referendums in settling separatist agitations. However, none of these objections can survive critical scrutiny; they merely expose the ignorance of those who proffer them.

First objection: Africans should eschew disunity and embrace unity. Separatists are agents of disunity.

Response: This objection arises from the tendency to confuse union with unity. But union could be an obstacle to true unity. Today, the Czech and Slovak nations are united as part of a peaceful and prosperous common market, precisely because Slovakia was allowed to exit the unwanted union of Czechoslovakia; with zero bloodshed and minimal red-tape – not even a referendum was needed. Union is a major cause of disunity among African ethnic groups.

Second objection: Rather than splitting, African nations should seek a larger pan-African union akin to the EU.

Response: It is impossible to unite fractious nations. The European Union which pan-Africanists so admire became possible only after Europe’s fractious nations split. The EU (founded in 1993) would have been “Mission: Impossible” if Ireland had not separated from the UK in 1916 or if Tito had lived to “go on with one Yugoslavia” beyond 1992, or if the nine million ethnic Germans who make up Austria were coerced to “go on with one Germany”, or if the half million citizens of landlockedLuxemburg were cajoled into remaining in “greater France”, etc. It is no coincidence that the EU was formed in the wake of the demise of Europe’s three unstable federations – Czechoslovak, Yugoslav, and Soviet, which all broke up within 12 months. Border adjustment is an imperative precursor to African unity.

We may contrast the unilateral militarist manner in which Cameroon treats its Anglophone separatists with Canada’s humane and respectful treatment of its Francophone separatists. In 1995, Quebec held a peaceful independence referendum, featuring the largest voter turnout in Quebecois history (93.52%). Quebeckers voted to remain in Canada, prompting the pro-independence premier of Quebec (Jacques Parizeau) to resign the very next day. Following that “no” vote, the Canadian federal government —at that time led by anti-independence Quebecois Jean Chrétien— asked the Canadian Supreme Court to clarify if Quebec could unilaterally secede. The Court affirmed that Canada would have no right to stop Quebec’s independence, if a majority of Quebecois should ever vote to leave Canada.

Third objection: Somalia, which is Africa’s most homogenous nation, with one ethnicity, language, faith and religious denomination (Sunni), is now a byword for a failed state. So homogeneity does not assure stability.

Response: Somalia is a victim of European interventionism in Africa. The colonizers divided Somalians into French Somaliland now Djibouti (French-speaking), Ethiopian Somaliland (Amharic-speaking), Kenya Somaliland (Swahili-speaking) and Italian Somaliland (Italian-speaking). Incidentally, the spark that led to Somalia’s crisis was the quest for “one Somalia” by then Somali leader, Siad Barre, leading to his invasion of Ethiopian Somaliland. Certainly, Somalia’s failure cannot be used to justify propping up unstable nations created by exploitative European powers.

In addition, Somalia stopped existing 30 years ago, although it’s a convenient AU/UN fiction to pretend it still exists. There are really three governments in Somalia – Somaliland, Puntland, and the UN-recognized regime in Mogadishu. Somaliland and Puntland are independent, while the Mogadishu regime is the least effective of the three. Basically, almost all the fighting since 1991 has been in Somalia, while Somaliland and Puntland have been largely peaceful.

Fourth objection: The continuing crisis in the newly independent South Sudan (SS) is a case against separatism.

Response: What the framers of this objection should ask is whether the outcome for SS would have been different if the referendum had come before (rather than after) fifty years of scorched-earth civil war. However, granted the grave challenges facing their new nation, no South Sudanese has yet expressed any regret for leaving Sudan. In Sudan, the South Sudanese were in a war without an end in sight, whereas now there is the possibility of peace through fraternal dialogue. In fact, the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury (mediators in the SS peace efforts) are scheduled to travel to SS in July 2022. Such a government-approved ‘pilgrimage of peace’ would have been unthinkable in the old Islamist Sudan, where the Southern Sudan Federal Party’s request that Christianity / English be included as official religion / language alongside Islam / Arabic, was met with fierce criminal prosecution by the Khartoum regime.

Fifth objection: Given the global population of 8 billion and 195 nations, the average population of an independent nation is about 40 million. Therefore, Africa, with a population of 1.2 billion should have no more than 30 nations.

Response: It is better for Africa to have 100 nations in a united and peaceful continent, rather than 30 crisis-ridden nations. Moreover, self-determination does not always result in more nations. In a referendum, ethnic groups might choose to remain in union, within the context of a true federation, a confederation or a commonwealth.  In some cases, mergers are needed. For example, the Niger and Benin Republics could decide to unite with their kin in the contiguous parts of Nigeria. In cases where an ethnic group has been split by the colonialists into several nations, the maps could be redrawn to consolidate them in one nation. For instance, the colonialists gerrymandered the Luo into several East African nations. Kenyans joke that a Luo president (Barrack Obama) is possible in USA, but virtually impossible in Kenya. There is no genuine reason why the Joluo cannot have one single Luo-majority nation.

African countries may take a cue from Liechtenstein (with a population of 38,334 people). It is hard to imagine that such a tiny country could create opportunity to further subdivide itself. But by her constitution, each of Liechtenstein’s eleven municipalities have a right to independence. The residents of each municipality are free to decide whether their town starts the secession procedure; the remaining citizens of Liechtenstein cannot block it. No municipality has so far used that provision. Indeed, the secession of some municipalities would result in awkward situations. If Schaan seceded, Liechtenstein would be divided into two disconnected halves. The independence of Schellenberg would create the world’s third smallest country. Finally, if Planken exited, it would become earth’s least populated nation.

Sixth objection: Sub-Saharan Africa should emulate the unity-in-diversity of older multi-ethnic nations like China.

Response: The “great” diversity of nations like China, India, USA, UK, etc. is more apparent than real. For instance, China has a uniting ethos based on the Confucian world-view. Over 90% of the Chinese self-identify as ethnic Han and over 80% speak Mandarin. India is basically a Hindu nation with Hindu-tolerating ethnic minorities. The USA’s uniting ethos – “Anglo-Saxon Protestant”, is similar to that of the UK. On the other hand, the English could not sustain a union with the Irish with whom they share one language and religion. Scotland and England have had one monarch for 300 years, yet the Scots chose self-government, and have not foreclosed the option of total independence – because of their desire to apply Scottish ethos towards solving Scotland’s problems. Turkey applied for full EU membership in 1987; yet for 35 years, the EU has not admitted Turkey, because of a clash of ethos.

Seventh objection: African nations are kept intact by divine intervention. Dr. Oby Ezekwesili’s claim that Nigeria is a divine project finds resonance in other African countries. Secessionists are rebelling against the will of God.

Response: All of Africa’s 54 existing nations are products of separatist movements. The true reason for Africa’s secessionist deficit was explained by Englebert and Hummel in a publication, titled Let’s Stick Together – Understanding Africa’s Secessionist Deficit, viz: “Over the last 40 years, Africa has experienced relatively fewer secessionist conflicts than most other regions of the world, even though it is otherwise plagued with political violence and its countries tend to display a higher prevalence of many of the factors usually associated with separatism… What accounts for Africa’s secessionist deficit (and) the resilience of its otherwise decrepit states? … What distinguishes African elites is the relatively greater material returns to sovereignty that they face. Given the continent’s poverty, the undiversified nature and commodity dependence of its economies, and the relative lack of accountability of state

power, Africa offers a significant material premium to internationally recognized sovereignty, tilting the odds for elites in favour of staying within the state … The material benefits to African elites of recognized sovereign states and the difficulties of obtaining international recognition for separatist entities … combine to create compelling incentives for political elites, ethnic leaders and other communal contenders to surrender identity claims and compete instead for access to the sovereign state and its resources, irrespective of the latter’s history of violence towards them.” In short (to use biblical lingo), Africa has a secession deficit because its elites worship mammon, rather than God.

Eighth objection: Once Africa starts redrawing its map, a Pandora box would open, which would undermine global order, security and stability. Eventually, every clan would want its autonomy. Where does one draw the line?

Response: African leaders have long used the Pandora thesis (or ethnic domino theory) as an excuse to delegitimize secessionism, arguing that existing political boundaries must be maintained at all costs. The irony is that the devotion to the “non-negotiability” of geopolitical structures rests on an acknowledgement of their unsound character. Thus, on the Fragile States Index (FSI), Africa accounts for 16 out of the world’s 20 most unstable nations. Incidentally, Africa’s most peaceful nation (Mauritius) is one of its smallest while Nigeria (Africa’s “giant”) is the world’s 12th most fragile nation. Bigness and blessedness do not always coincide.

The Pandora thesis, when applied to Africa, is ludicrous; for what other ills could possibly remain in the African Pandora’s box? The fact is that the Pandora’s Box was opened at the 1884 Berlin Conference, when European cartographers casually carved up Africa into political entities that did not reflect the regional human geography. Groups were lumped into non-identical and acrimonious conglomerations. For example, Tutsis were divided between Belgian Congo (now Rwanda) and German East Africa (now Burundi). The Belgians insisted on giving everyone a tribal label, thus hardening tribal identities that were formerly fluid. It was the seed thus sown by Belgium that led to the 1994 Genocide, when 800,000 Tutsis – over half of the Tutsi population – were massacred in 100 days.

Africa can only close the Pandora Box of 1884 by self-determination. Once African leaders can no longer avoid referendums through the pretext that their borders are immutable, the only way left to ensure political stability would be equity and good governance. Therefore, the referendum approach to separatism is naturally self-limiting.

Ninth objection: Separatism is best handled passively by masterly inactivity, rather than actively by referendum.

Response: This rather cynical “solution” is based on the premise that time is a great leveler, and would eventually yield a generation of Africans with no loyalty to their ethnic identity, culture, traditions, norms, values, language, heritage and history. The new “detribalized” Africa will have no Acholi, Buganda or Basoga – only Ugandans; no Venda, Xhosa or Zulu – only South Africans; no Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba – only Nigerians. In popular Nigerialese, the word “detribalized” has been misappropriated and is now misapplied to describe those who are claimed to be ethnically “color blind”. In fact, “detribalization” is defined as the process by which colonizers deliberately cause members of a primitive tribe to lose their inferior culture. Africa cannot afford to exchange its ethnic tensions for the anomie and social nakedness of a detribalized and detraditionalized continent. Peace at the expense of losing the ethnic ethos and genius of Africa’s diverse peoples would be the peace of a cultural graveyard – a pyrrhic peace.

CONCLUSION: Perhaps the most far-reaching legacy of imperialism was the artificial borders created during the Scramble. As Giles Bolton puts it in, Africa Doesn’t Matter, Africa’s map “has more straight lines on it than any other continent; and never before had so much been decided by longitude and latitude rather than tribe and topography.”

There was general optimism that post-independence, ethnic loyalties would fade. Tafawa Balewa (Nigeria’s first prime minister), while contributing to a debate in a 1959 motion for independence declared “I am confident that when we have our own citizenship, our own national flag, our own national anthem, we shall find the flame of national unity will burn bright and strong.” Sékou Touré of Guinea spoke similar words in 1959: “In three or four years, no one will remember the tribal, ethnic or religious rivalries.” This proved to be a false hope. But many Africans are still in denial, pretending that natural human differences (racial, religious, kinship, and/or linguistic) do not matter. Others are imprisoned in a “separatism-is-bad” mindset, because of a subconscious idealization or even worship of the Caucasian, leading to a near-superstitious belief in the sacrosance of colonial geographical entities.

None of Africa’s current secessionist movements can muster enough military power to force the central state to agree to separation or restructuring. In any case, Africans must stop making martyrs of fellow Africans over maps heedlessly drawn by imperialist entrepreneurs. The only way to reduce the burden of its colonial legacy is for Africa to embrace self-determination /separatism as an opportunity for growth, and not an excuse for oppression and bloodletting. Otherwise, Africa will NOT know peace and black/African lives will continue NOT to matter.

Africa is a strategic continent, and the outcome for Africa should be of concern to all. For Africa is both the world’s past and the world’s future – the oldest continent, yet the youngest in age and soon-to-be largest by population. Africa is the origin of humankind and the cradle of all civilization. Oui, nous sommes tous Africains!

Leave a Reply