Recurring Separatist Agitations in Africa: Exploring Renegotiation and Dissolution as Possible Way Out


By Olusegun Akinfenwa

There are 54 countries in Africa, and at least 25 have experienced active separatist conflict. The crises have become commonplace, resulting in the division and fragmentation of some of these countries, such as Eritrea from Ethiopia and South Sudan from Sudan. There are also many yet undivided ones but highly polarised along religious and ethnic lines with recurring and widespread agitations that have crippled their socio-economic developments.

March 21, 1990 marked the end of colonial rule on African soil after South Africa formerly relinquished control over Namibia. Over three decades of independence from western rulers, the continent seems to be in conditions worse than the days of colonialists due to incessant unrests.

Nigeria is one of the countries that has grappled with secession-related crises since its independence from Britain in 1960. This was the genesis of the bloody civil war between the separatist Biafra Army led by Odumegwu Ojukwu and the federal military government. The war lasted from 1967 to 1970 and led to 500,000 to 2 million deaths.

From 1961 to 1991, Eretria was at loggerheads with Ethiopia in the struggle for an independent nation. Before it finally gained freedom in 1991, the war claimed the lives of thousands of Eretria soldiers. Even after the bloody separation, the two countries still renewed their enmity, which escalated during the 1998-2000 border control fight, leaving each with devastating effects.

Many political analysts have attempted to substantiate the underlying factors causing and fuelling these recurring conflicts.  Identified major culprits include the forceful amalgamation of regions with different social and political ideologies by foreign colonial governments, poor political structures, and greed by many past and present African leaders.

Most amalgamations of countries in Africa were not done in the interest of the indigenous people, who clearly had no say in the merger. Some view them as a mere act of economic gain and colonial convenience for western powers.

For instance, the 1914 amalgamation of Nigeria was said to have occurred because the British colonizers desired a contiguous colonial territory extending from the arid Sahel to the Atlantic Coast. Northern Nigeria was revenue-challenged while the southern part boasts of sufficient revenue that exceeded its administrative costs. Because administrative-wise, it favoured the colonizers to have one coherent colony instead of two, the prosperous south was, therefore, joined with the disadvantaged north so the former could subsidise the latter.

This marked the start of distrust and rancour between the two regions with distinct ideological differences. The north is a Muslim-dominated region and the main centre of the Islamic empire, the Sokoto Caliphate. Northerner’s socio-political leanings and solidarity were toward the Middle East and the wider Islamic world. On the other hand, the south is more diverse, and its major socio-political influences are inherent in Western and traditional African values. So, looking at the two jurisdictions’ contrasting backgrounds, merging them together in the first place was clearly not in the best interest of the indigenous peoples, and it may be a mirage expecting them to unite truly. This is because neither of the two sides has ever genuinely demonstrated the willingness to relinquish its long-held ideologies and beliefs.

For instance, the north still practices sharia law, and their administration of this Islamic governing system has been found to exhibit many flaws, such as discrimination and human rights abuses and convicting people, including minors, for blasphemy. To date, the conflict-torn north still benefits massively from the mineral resources-rich and more economically viable south.

In Cameroon, there remains no love lost between the and English-speaking and the French-speaking regions since the 1961 amalgamation, and the age-long distrust has prompted the call for an independent nation by the Anglophone region.

The year-long power tussle between the Tigray region and the central government has claimed about 10,000 lives in Ethiopia and caused over 230 massacres. It has led to the country’s worst famine in decades. While the root cause reeks more of a supremacy fight between the central authority and a regional government, it is now tilting towards another separatist conflict as more Tigrayans now favour and clamour for an independent nation of their own.

The lopsidedness in the political structure in most countries makes some regions lord it over the others. Since the unification of French Cameroun and British Southern Cameroon, only the Francophone speaking leaders have ruled the country. The English-speaking regions are therefore less represented, and many of the central government’s policies are said to be unfavourable to them.

Nigeria’s major revenue is derived from crude oil from the south-south Niger Delta region. But the same region suffers impoverishment and degradation from decades of oil spills and gas flaring that leave their waters and the entire ecosystem in a mess and affect fishing activities, which is the indigenous people’s primary source of income. In contrast, most of the oil blocks there are owned by influential individuals from the northern part of the country due to the highly politicised economic structure.

These persisting sheer inequalities are largely responsible for the recurring clamours for self-determination. Given the human and economic costs resulting from these conflicts, peaceful dissolution through referendum should perhaps be explored. Sadly, most African leaders seem adamant in upholding their long-held on-negotiability stance. In Nigeria, for instance, there is no provision for a referendum in the constitution. Despite the series of amendment the constitution has undergone, there has always been a dubious omission of such provision.

Obviously, the state of affairs across the continent favours the politicians who amass wealth for their unborn generations from the rots and are bent on maintaining the status quo. They have created laws and environments that daily widens the disparity between them and the masses and seem to have weaponized illiteracy and poverty to keep the general public suppressed. It is unimaginable that Nigeria, the world’s poverty capital, runs one of the most expensive bureaucracies globally, especially at the legislative and executive arms of government at the federal, state, and local government levels.

It is difficult to ascertain the exact human and economic costs of armed conflicts in Africa due to many underestimated and unreported cases. However, given the conflict trends in the past few decades, the continent has suffered enough deaths, forceful displacements, and other humanitarian crises that should prompt African leaders re-strategize their approach to governance.

The volatile situation has plunged Africa into a growing devastating refugee crisis, with many displaced persons seeking refuge outside the continent. Europe, for instance, is one of the continents that has recently recorded a surge in asylum-seeing Africans. Some of these migrants access Europe through unconventional and dangerous routes, including boat rides through the Mediterranean Sea. They endanger their lives and risk it all with the hope of someday securing permanent residence in countries, such as the settlement status in the United Kingdom and green card in the United States. In the past seven years, over 20,000 migrant deaths have been recorded at sea. Despite that, more Africans are still willing to explore the route just to flee the hardship at home.

Obviously, many African countries are sitting on gun powder, as no entity can progress with such a high level of recurring crises. The underlying causes must be tackled headlong. The continued discountenance of the masses’ feelings and views regarding their nationhood could be tantamount to postponing the doomsday, as no amount of peace talks can be fruitful without equity and respect for human rights. It is high time African leaders amended their law books to truly reflect equitable political representation, resource control, and, most importantly, rights to self-determination. This will allow people to reassess or renegotiate their nationhood and employ peaceful dissolution in the event that co-existing brings more problems than opportunities.

About the Author

Olusegun Akinfenwa writes for Manchester Immigration Lawyer. A law firm based in the United Kingdom and offering immigration advice services globally, including the Republic of Ireland citizenship and immigration process.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.