By Ismail Lagardien
I have held several exchanges with European scholars about the potential emulative effects of secessionism in Africa (and of irredentism, for that matter) and the possibilities of fractionalisation on the continent. Two of these exchanges were with Canadian scholars who supported the secession and consequent independence of South Sudan without any apparent regard for the precedent this move may set for other similar claims elsewhere on the continent.
While one should, as a matter of principle, support claims to self-determination, African states, in particular, could face a domino-type effect if the extraordinary diverse groups within individual countries petitioned for secession or staked irredentist claims. Such a development may have disastrous consequences for a region that has seen quite enough conflict over the sixty years or so since the 1950s. Although it should be said that most of the conflict in Africa has been intra-state (within countries) and not inter-state (between countries); the Europeans, it should be said, have a history of inter-state warfare that is unrivalled….
Nonetheless, the two Canadians, an accomplished political scientist and an anthropologist, supported the secession of South Sudan without any apparent reflection on the historical significance or potential political ramifications of any emulative tendencies in Africa. My position was that I generally supported the right of people to govern themselves, but I also was (and remain) aware of the historical role of foreign intervention in Africa and, in particular, the potential for fractionalisation and conflict in the region. In response the political scientist suggested that Africa quite possibly needed more conflict. My immediate response, as an African and a political economist was that we could do with less conflict on the continent. While Africa’s conflicts over the past three or four decades pale into insignificance when compared to the tens of millions of people who were killed in the wars of the European world over the past century – from the First World War to the Srebrenica Massacre – any conflict in Africa, as elsewhere, can and should be avoided at all costs.
The anthropologist was adamant about South Sudan’s secession. Which, I said, may be justified… . I asked, however, whether she had considered the third principle of Article 3 of the Organisation for African Unity Charter (now, the AU), and its provision that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each state be respected. The basis of this third principle was to prevent the type of disintegration of states that we would witness when Yugoslavia collapsed in the early 1990s. Her response was curt: “I don’t care about section three or whatever you say it is.”
I asked both the political scientist (who also unabashedly supported the bombing of Libya by European forces), and the anthropologist whether they had considered the likelihood that groups across the continent may wish to emulate the southern Sudanese. The political scientist created a ruse; Eritrea had already set a precedent, he said. That was not the point. What I wanted to know was whether either one of them had considered the fact that colonial boundaries were drawn rather arbitrarily by the European powers in the 19th century, and that these boundaries had little or nothing to do with indigenous communities or groupings. It was disingenuous, I thought, for these same Europeans to now petition, directly or indirect, for the break up of African states, into ethnic groups, on the basis of self-determination only and without consideration of the potential for conflict on the continent.
There are, quite literally thousands of identity-groups in Africa and if one followed the principle of self-determination to its logical conclusion, each African state could end up like the former Yugoslavia, which produced unspeakable atrocities and nine new nation-states. While boundaries between self-identifying groups in Africa were fairly flexible in most cases across the continent during the pre-colonial period, colonisation created fixed border that separated communities and groups (ethnic, language, cultural etc). For instance, in the case of The Gambia, one of the smallest states on the continent in terms of population (fewer then 1.5 million people) and territory (11,300 square kilometers) has remained almost completely intact since independence in February 1965 because of generations of inter-marriage and the unifying force of Islam (90% of Gambians are Muslims), and the sharing of cultural heritage among people.
In terms of self-identified ethnic groups, The Gambians are usually classified into several different groups with its own indigenous traditions, language, social and historical background. The majority of the country’s ethnic groups belong to eight indigenous categories: the Mandinka (41%); the Wolof (15%); the Fula (19%); the Jola (10%); the Serahuli (8%); the Serer (2.5%); the Aku (0.8%) and the Manjago (1.7%) – all estimates. A simple look at a map of The Gambia (above) – a lozenge of land on the banks of the Gambia River surrounded by Senegal – reflects in many ways the absurdity of the colonial boundaries. Here it should be stressed that another reason why countries like The Gambia have been kept intact was precisely because the OAU accepted that the colonial boundaries had to be retained in order to avoid conflict and the disintegration of states in Africa.
Some of the questions that may be asked are the following: What would happen if ethnic groups in countries like The Gambia petitioned for self-determination – purely on the basis of the legal precedent set in South Sudan? What would happen if this emulative effect spread to a country like, say, Nigeria? By one account Nigeria has an estimated 250 ethnic groups. At the time of my exchange with the Canadia scholars the so-called Arab spring had reached Libya. I suggested, at the time, that continued and de-contextualised external support for ‘rebels’ – from the Europeans – without a considered response from African leaders, in the context of the original agreements on African unity enshrined in the Charter of the OAU, may engender deeper fractionalisation on the continent along perceived or actual language or ethnic boundaries. The political scientist said that there was a theory that ‘perhaps Africa had too little violence’. The anthropologist did not care.
The big question I posed when Libyans rose up against the governmemt of Muammar Ghaddafi was this: What would prevent self-identified groups in Libya petition for secession and the creation of an independent new state? In some ways the question is easy to answer. The Europeans would probably support the move – if it meant that they had greater access to the country’s natural resources. With the United States having all but secured the oil fields of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, there seems every possibility that the European Union would continue to support any move or process in Libya that would guarantee them access to the country’s natural resources.