What’s the Problem with Secession?


It may be hard to believe anyone would be against, or at least not enthusiastic about, the impending secession of southern Sudan from the rest of the country. After all, the mainstream media has openly championed the cause for an independent southern Sudan and the vote in favor of separation in last month’s referendum was nearly 100 percent. And, of course, the right to self-determination is a fundamental principle of Marxism-Leninism, the very reason why progressive nations like the Soviet Union and Cuba supported Africa’s liberation movements and fought against imperialism during the so-called Cold War.

But on a continent of dozens of poor and weak nations, most only recently celebrating five decades of independence, not to mention numerous armed conflicts, the precedent set by southern Sudan’s breakaway concerns many Africans. The long, difficult process of uniting diverse peoples and forging a national identity within each country – especially with the added challenges of a neo-colonial global economy, misrule by parasitic elites, and backward ethnic and religious chauvinism – can easily be undone with calls for independence by opportunistic leaders. We all know sometimes it is easier to leave a relationship than to repair and strengthen it.

So what worries many observers it that the southern Sudan model – separation through the ballot box – will be viewed as an option across Africa by secessionist groups as well as countries experiencing political turmoil. The most obvious candidate is Cote d’Ivoire where a war that split the country and claimed thousands of lives nearly a decade ago seems on the verge of resumption. That West African nation has two presidents right now – incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, the presumed loser in November’s elections who still occupies the presidential residence, and Alassane Ouattara, the widely-recognized winner who meets with his cabinet in a hotel protected by UN peacekeepers. Their bases of support reflect Cote d’Ivoire’s division: allegiance to Gbagbo comes mainly from Christians and the southwestern part of the country, while most of Outtarra’s supporters are Muslim and hail from the north. Hopes of reuniting this once relatively prosperous and stable nation, hailed by the West as a capitalist “success story” in Africa, are fading. And there are many other relevant cases across Africa, such as the decades-long secessionist war in the Casamance region of Senegal, a movement for independence in the Cabinda province of Angola, and questions about the status of the island of Zanzibar within Tanzania. If southern Sudan could negotiate and vote for separation, why not northern Cote d’Ivoire, or Casamance, or Cabinda, or Zanzibar, or countless other places? Even within Sudan itself, what about secession for Darfur or the Nuba mountains, two other trouble spots in that enormous country?

Ali A. Mazrui, a leading African political scientist, warned of the possible domino effect of southern Sudan’s secession in a recent Guardian article titled “Is this Pakistanism in Sudan?” It was Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah who coined this term when he voiced his opposition to secession on religious grounds, a particular concern of Africa’s leaders since many countries, like Sudan, have significant populations of Muslims and Christians as well as many practicing other religions. Besides the religious plurality, Mazrui points out there are more than 2,000 ethnic groups in Africa. He argues: “If territorial self-determination was granted to even a tenth of them, it would be reduced to dozens of warring mini-states – especially when the location of minerals coincides with ethnic differences.”

The main argument against secession is that Africa’s economic and political position in the world is strengthened by unity and weakened by further division. Simply put, it is easier for capitalists to exploit and co-opt small, fragile, and underdeveloped nations. Nkrumah presented this thesis in his influential book Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, building upon Lenin’s classic work on imperialism. Nkrumah advocated an All-African Union Government to defend the continent against international monopoly capitalism and to develop a socialist economy. At the time Nkrumah wrote this book in the 1960s, many African nations had only recently become independent while others remained under colonial rule. As leader of the first sub-Saharan colony to declare independence, Nkrumah realized political independence was superficial since it did not guarantee economic sovereignty. The value of Africa’s raw materials and cash crops were determined by the west, plans to industrialize Africa’s economies were stifled by capitalist powers, and former colonial maters intervened in domestic matters. Many African leaders resisted continental unity, preferring to negotiate special deals with western nations. To Nkrumah, a champion of Pan-Africanism and socialism, the prosperity and stability of Africa could only be realized through unity, not division.

The first generation of African leaders faced a vast array of obstacles to development, all rooted in colonialism: insufficient transport and communication infrastructure, export-oriented extractive economies, poorly educated citizens, and divided populations. Not only did colonial rulers favor certain ethnic groups over others in allocating scarce educational opportunities and administrative positions, but they created colonies of astonishing linguistic, ethnic, and religious diversity. Indeed, the borders of Africa largely were drawn up by European imperialists in the late 19th century during the infamous “Scramble for Africa.” As they carved up the continent, without African consultation, they divided up societies, disrupted trade networks, and ignored existing political boundaries. As a result, numerous ethnic groups found themselves split up by colonial borders, sometimes multiple ones, while individual colonies comprised a multitude of peoples who had no shared history of living together. Imagine if alien rulers occupied Europe 100 years ago and created a colony encompassing a minority of Germans, all of the Dutch, some French-speakers, a large population of Spaniards, and several Italian towns?

European authorities never fully controlled their colonies even after the so-called period of pacification at the turn of the 20th century. Africans resisted colonial authority, some areas remained outside the reach of imperialists, and the day-to-day operations of the colonial state were left in the hands of what Europeans called “traditional authorities.” Nevertheless, colonial rule had major economic, political, and social ramifications: the establishment of export-oriented extractive economies, the institutionalization of authoritarian administration, and the spread of bourgeois culture and values. Although trade unions, military veterans, women’s groups, and other mass organizations led the fight against colonial rule, the foundations of neo-colonialism were well-established in Africa’s new nations, ranging from gigantic Congo and Sudan to tiny Gambia and Togo, each economically more closely linked with their former European rulers than with their African neighbors.

While most of Africa’s founding fathers lacked Nkrumah’s vision, they foresaw the dangers of redrawing the map of Africa. So, when they created the Organization of African Unity in 1963, they decided to keep the existing borders intact.  And, despite the many upheavals in Africa in subsequent decades, including the catastrophic Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s, there has been only one exception to this rule: the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993. Unlike southern Sudan, there was some historic and cultural basis for an independent Eritrea since it had existed as a separate colony before being federated with Ethiopia in 1950. Nevertheless, on July 9 this year, southern Sudan will declare independence and become Africa’s 54th nation, “the first redrawing of an African colonial border by popular vote,” in Mazrui’s words.

Most of the corporate media coverage of this issue has been celebratory and shallow – for instance, where else have you read about African reservations about southern Sudan’s secession? – but there has been some reporting of the enormous challenges facing Africa’s newest nation. Grossly underdeveloped and poor, southern Sudan is dependent on foreign aid and deeply divided along ethnic and regional lines. Despite the almost unanimous vote for separation, the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) is dominated by the Dinka ethnic group and it still has to content with breakaway factions, as evidenced by last month’s armed clashes with a former leader’s militia that claimed 200 lives. While most of Sudan’s oil reserves are located in the south, all the pipelines run through the north to the country’s ports. Thus, difficult negotiations between southern Sudan and the central government in Khartoum lie ahead. Besides figuring out how they will share oil revenues, other issues include the status of Abyei, an oil-rich area sandwiched between north and south, the final delineation of borders, and the citizenship status of Sudan’s diverse peoples.

Despite misgivings about southern Sudan’s secession and the precedent it sets for the rest of the continent, it is important to recognize the struggles and sacrifices of millions of people in the country’s two decades of civil war. Clearly, secession is the will of the people who lined up throughout Sudan and eight other countries to participate in the mostly peaceful referendum that endorsed secession. But the sad fact is separation was not always the inevitable outcome: the SPLM leadership once comprised both southerners and northerners, including many Marxists committed to national unity, and many believe the movement’s deceased founder John Garang would have campaigned to keep Sudan united. Southern Sudan’s secession partly is the result of failed leadership in Khartoum: by marginalizing the south and encouraging religious intolerance, the corrupt ruling National Congress Party failed to make unity an attractive option for southerners. The voices for unity, including Sudan’s Communist Party, were largely silenced through a campaign of censorship and intimidation. Outside Sudan, the role of imperialists, from the corporate media whose analysis reduced Sudan’s complex problems to a Christian-Muslim conflict to multinational corporations eager to exploit the country’s oil and minerals, must not be overlooked.

In Voice From Conakry, a series of radio broadcasts delivered from exile after he was overthrown in a coup carried out with US backing, Nkrumah warned: “the progress of political movement in Africa will always be militated against by imperialism and its kindred forces.” Secession represents failure, for it undermines African unity. If individual nations cannot overcome their differences, how can a continent come together to advance economic and political sovereignty?

Photo: Voters line up to cast their ballot in the January referendum on secession. (by USAID.Africa)

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