In Summary
  • Most analysts define secession as the unilateral political withdrawal from an established state.
  • In Africa secessionist movements can be traced to the first “Scramble for Africa” which began with the Berlin Conference of 1884
  • More often than not, governments are unable or unwilling to respond as expected to the perceived entitlements demanded by concerned citizens.
  • In Kenya, none of the various threats or attempts to secede since the 1960s have been labelled by those involved as acts of secession.
  • Self-determination is widely viewed as a positive step towards democratisation of the socio-economic and political condition of the people concerned,

Globally, secessionist movements and trends are as old as the history of the state system. Some scholars date it to the ancient Greek city states. Others date it to the period of the French Revolution, when the concept gained currency and became a major rallying point for statehood and sovereignty.

Over the centuries, as societies and political economies have evolved and acquired more structured governance systems, so have the people of the world become more assertive in demanding, exercising and guarding their perceived basic rights, entitlements and freedoms against any form of infringement.

In Africa, the increasing frequency of identity-based conflicts and secessionist movements can be traced to the first “Scramble for Africa” which began with the Berlin Conference of 1884 and completed by 1914.

This had enormous long-term impact on the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial African communities and political entities that found themselves arbitrarily partitioned by European colonisers. They became spheres of influence, protectorates, colonies and free-trade areas, with no consideration of the existing political geography and ethnic and cultural composition of the colonised.

SPLIT

As a result, most African countries have significant fractions of their communities split between two or three countries.

For example, the Maasai are split between Kenya (62 per cent) and Tanzania (38 per cent) and the Chewa between Mozambique (50 per cent), Malawi (34 per cent), and Zimbabwe (16 per cent).

Political historians and anthropological scholars have noted that there are about 231 ethnic groups in Africa, with at least 10 per cent of their historical homelands falling into more than one country.

Conscious that the boundary issue could later raise political problems, the founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU ) and its Charter in 1963, made a legally-binding decision to uphold the colonially-inherited borders of post-colonial states, making them sacrosanct and not to be tampered with.

Further, they ensured that this legal decision became part of international law and defined relations among African states. Despite their arbitrariness, these boundaries endured in the post-colonial era, but are increasingly being challenged; thus raising fundamental questions of the legitimacy of the post-colonial state.

UNHAPPY CONDITION

As the curtains fell on 2017, there were many in Africa and around the world who were dissatisfied with their governments, which they blame for their unhappy condition.

The 21st century and its information technology-driven globalisation, has facilitated the enormous pressure being put on governments and other institutions to democratise and uphold justice for all; become more inclusive and uphold the rule of law.

More often than not, governments are unable or unwilling to respond as expected to the perceived entitlements demanded by concerned citizens. The response to the ensuing sense of deprivation, exclusion and violation, may elicit several possible types of reactions; one of which is the desire to withdraw from the body polity to which the aggrieved persons belong and seek an alternative space for self-determination. Herein lie many of the secessionist tendencies, whether fully realised or not.

The concept of “secession” remains highly-contested both in its meaning and application. Significantly, most of the political units that have attempted or actualised secession, rarely term the act as “secession”. They either call it “self-determination”, “separation”, “self liberation” or “unilateral declaration of independence”. This is what Ian Smith did in the 1960s, when he seceded the current Zimbabwe from Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).

POLITICAL STANDOFF

Similarly, in October 2017, a Cameroonian scholar made a spirited case explaining that the move by Southern Cameroon to break away from the Republic of Cameroon was not secession but rather a struggle for separation from a state that he claimed the Southerners were never part of. 

In Kenya, none of the various threats or attempts to secede since the 1960s have been labelled by those involved as acts of secession. This includes the post-2017 election political standoff that escalated into threats by opposition Nasa coalition to form a parallel government while maintaining that this was not an act of secession. The secession label thus seems to be largely used by scholars and analysts.

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