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

dowden9What would happen if African peoples where given the chance to vote in referenda to decide which country they wanted to be part of or if they wanted their own?

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

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8 thoughts on “Is the Crimea referendum a good model for Africa? – By Richard Dowden

  1. Northern Nigeria has lots of natural resources (men are dying in illegal gold mines, for starters), and this aside from its agriculture and cattle, much of which is consumed in the South. That said, Nigeria as amalgamated is clearly not working – except for the Northern ‘Big Men’, along with their southern counterparts. We are now in yet another national conference in which the colonial borders are sacrosanct before anyone has even begun deliberating on our future. It may be that 50-odd years of independence has bred a notion of ‘Nigeria’ that is broadly accepted, and with it a willingness to consider retaining the borders. But on what terms? That the country is made up of disparate religions, cultures and languages which formerly ruled themselves as they thought best is widely acknowledged but truncated by the present arrangement imposed from above – and all for the oil the Big Men (a severe minority, necessarily perhaps) currently enjoy.

    As for the south-west wanting to secede in 1999, this is strange to hear, although it’s true that it is the best placed to go it alone, unlike the ‘Ibo east’, which needed to take along the oil minorities if it was to stand any chance of being viable. Ironically, it is the same Igbos who have the most to lose in any future conflagration (which the Big Men appear intent on lighting) for reasons to do with their overcrowded homeland, which also suffers ecological problems. In Lagos State alone, they are reputed to comprise 40% of the population.

    For myself, I believe we need – and eventually must have – a confederation of some sort. It will draw on examples from elsewhere but will be tailored to the specific needs of this awkward entity, which has no parallel elsewhere. Unfortunately, the current conference, a replica of the one Obasanjo inaugurated in order to smuggle in his third-term agenda, is now being put at the service of Jonathan’s second-term (or is it third-term?) agenda.

    And so we go around in circles, evading the issue which Biafra attempted to pose, only to be crushed by the Big Men who dance to the tune of those who protect their money, hence the Trojan horse known as Okonjo-Iweala, whose Harvard education and World Bank credentials impress so many of our s-called public intellectuals in the pages of our badly-edited newspapers.

    In the end, of course, it is Nigerians who must solve Nigeria’s problems. One hopes they will do so sooner rather than later but it appears not given their apparent faith in the latest pow-wow.

  2. I don’t think ethnic agitations by themselves will force a break up of African states.

    Issues like youth unemployment, resource scarcity etc will result in youth restiveness – and the nation implodes from within (like Mali).

    For larger nations like Nigeria, there is no nation able to put them back together again if they implode – and we are on that trajectory.

    If implosion happens, the “big men” will simply take their money to Dubai or wherever (it will preferable to living in chaos).

    The only thing standing between the “big men” and 50 years of accumulated anger is the Nigerian Army. And you can see the Nigerian Army has SERIOUS challenges in the North East (please note: the Niger Delta Militancy is only dormant).

  3. I have now read one book and three essays by Richard Dowden, and I can say this: when it comes to Nigeria, you can always count on Dowden making at least one factual blunder.

    I refuse, at this time, to engage his mostly wrongheaded arguments about Africa, but I want to point out that Dowden can’t seem to resist putting his foot in it whenever the topic is Nigeria.

    From 2009 when he claimed, ‘The only non-northerner to rule Nigeria has been Olusegun Obasanjo’, to 2011 when he claimed, ‘[U]ntil Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun there was no written memory of what happened [during the Nigerian Civil War]’, it becomes even clearer with this latest piece that these falsehoods are his stock in trade.

  4. The Flawed Referendum Process in Crimea
    The free open civic civil social expression of a citizen is of crucial ordinal importance and an expressive referendum is one civic electoral instrument type process in which a citizen is able to advance and express an opinion on a matter of specific importance.
    A National Public Referendum is a social civic public policy endeavor not to be conducted in haste or when the existent social political posture is in a state of acute extreme emotional animation as this state of extreme animated emotion within the citizen decider may not provide an accurate descriptive reflection of the real expressive mood in long term prescriptive reflective consideration.
    A period of common pause considered reflection of the question ‘put’ allowing for full open citizen conversation including social civic civil dialogue ought to be allowed prior to a referendum type question/policy being posed and decided. This Crimean Referendum situation did not allow for this most essential civic civil common pause reflective timeframe. A Four [4] to Six [6] month time frame to discuss the question/policy to be decided by referendum would not be unreasonable as the question being ‘put’ is a question most ordinal and fundamental and ought not be decided in emotive haste.
    In my seasoned civic electoral opinion, this Crimean Referendum Process is constructively flawed in both civic process and in civil procedure. Therefore this Crimean Referendum should not be considered as binding upon the citizens of Crimea.
    If Africa were to embark on a similar type/kind of Referendum process where borders and other artificial impediments can be moderated/modified; similar civic civil electoral due process considerations must be instituted allowing full clear objective non emotive discussion as to the potential ramifications such a modification will entail. A Referendum detailing fundamental national issues of concern is not to be entertained lightly.

  5. I tend to agree with A. Kuffour in Dowden’s current assessment of Nigeria but disagree with Adewale’s remark that only the south west is a viable nation if Nigeria breaks up. Regarding Dowden’s statement that the north will no be viable so secession is not an option, this is just the normal flaw in examining everything from an economic perspective. yes Northern Nigeria might have no oil, but is oil the only resource? I agree that it will be landlocked and will have to reassess its priorities if there is no oil to keep it afloat, but that is not such a bad thing is it?
    Adewale must realise that Nigeria remains viable now because each region like it or not complements each other and just relying on Lagos and its growth will not sustain the south west if the country breaks up. Will Lagos’ large revenue base be able to sustain the poorer states in the region?
    Also a break up will result in a movement of populations across borders and apart from the north all other areas will experience a positive net migration which will be a social problem.
    It is quite easy to make sweeping statements about who benefits and who does not if Nigeria breaks up, but we need to look deeper to understand that that scenario might just not be beneficial for anyone or as rosy as it seems.

  6. Q1 .Is the Crimea referendum a good model for Africa? – By Richard Dowden
    A1. why should African always learn from Europeans?
    There is nothing to learn from Europeans by Africans judging from the colonialism. Africans must pursue Pan Africanism , meaning , to think outside the box of colonialism and neo-colonialism.
    I have copied the url link on Mr Thabo Mbeki speech for reference.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ll_aSVdBV3I

  7. Is self-determination self-legitimizing?

    Does every ethnicity, every religious sect, or every cultural group of a certain size merit its own state?

    Should we strive for a world of multi-ethnic nations, or mono-ethnic?

    It is significant that the history of European state formation was so very bloody: this is the model that was exported to the rest of the world — and the model that declared sacrosanct by the OAU.

    Westphalian statehood is designed to prevent interstate conflict by trying to contain interstate conflict: the prince has a free hand so long as he can enforce a solution that does not injure his neighbors.

    Today, we have begun to rethink that model. It is the sad irony of the last decade that so many characterized the Bush administration as a collection of warmongers with an outsized appetite for Middle East oil. Very few paid much attention to the neo-conservatives’ foundation assumption that what was good for the goose was good for the gander: democracy. And not just any democracy, but multicultural, multiconfessional, multiethnic democracy. Worse, it was Washington’s naive expectation that it could create winners and losers without provoking much violence.

    Since the crisis of Yugoslavian secession in the early 1990s, the world has become obsessed with learning the dark art of making omelets without breaking eggs. We want to negotiate every conflict. We want to ascribe deadly conflict to bad men alone, not socio-structural issues that continuously produce those bad men, any one of whom is rarely different than the others. We have abjured violence. Indeed, if the Western response to the Crimea crisis is any indication, we have abjured any action altogether if it means our own discomfort.

    I don’t know the answer. My sense is that most people who see themselves as victims of another people will not quickly lie down with them. This, I think, explains the taste for autonomy even after victory in places like Eritrea. Notice the irony here: in time, that conflict apparently transcended ethnicity. It had forged an entirely new national identity in Ertirea that perceived anti-Eritreanism as a fundamental property of the Ethiopian state generally, irrespective of shared ethnicity.

    Whenever I hear somebody defend the Russian involvement in Crimea on grounds that most Crimeans apparently supported secession, I am quick to ask, “Does that mean that you think that Abraham Lincoln was wrong to fight the American Civil War? Remember, Lincoln’s stated rationale was that no state could choose to leave the Union.” There is always a moment of hesitation before the careful reply, “Well, probably we should just have let the South go.” That begs my follow-up question: “Do you believe that we would be as prosperous today had the United States been divided into two countries?” The answer is always, “Well, no! We probably would have fought another war!” Again, I am tempted to sympathize with Luttwalk: maybe we ought to give war a chance.

    I’ve said it elsewhere and I’ll say it here: it always amazes me how readily the Serbians gave up on the idea of a federal Yugoslavia in which outside observers must have consistently identified them as the dominant player, choosing to have only a piece of a pie instead of sharing in the whole. Indeed, Milosevic alleged that he would have let Croatia go so long as he could keep lands settled by Serbs.

  8. If poverty can be “federated” on the basis of the ethnic ” turn- to- eat” philosophy as peculiar (or maybe not so) to the east African country of Kenya, then we can surely, at the very least, debate “federated” self-determination,aren’t we mature enough to do so? I hope some of the AU’s “town-crier” read these columns. If we keep postponing the inevitable it will be messy when it forces itself upon us.

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