Agitations for self-determination have become commonplace in Africa, with recurring devastating effects largely responsible for its current social and economic retardation. They have fragmented many nations and divided others along religious and ethnic lines. Indigenous and foreign political scientists and observers have attempted to pinpoint the roots cause of these crises. The underlying causes are believed to include poor political structures, social and political inequalities, and colonial powers’ forceful amalgamation of regions with different ideologies and belief systems.
The imposed merger denied the indigenous peoples the opportunity to choose if they were ready to coexist. Therefore, since the start of their nationhood, many African countries have existed amidst mutual distrust and rancour.This has led to devastating unrest and bloody division in countries like Ethiopia and Sudan, from which Eretria and South Sudan emerged. There are several yet undivided ones that have also had their share of civil wars between some regions and their central governments.
Nigeria, for instance, has grappled with ethnoreligious unrest since its amalgamation in 1914. The mutual resentment would later degenerate into a full-blown civil war six years after independence between the separatist Biafra Army led by Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu and the federal military government from 1960 to 1967. Around 500,000 to 2 million Igbo civilians died from starvation. Though the country has managed to stay as one since the war, the perceived ethic marginalization and other widespread factors responsible for the conflict remain unaddressed. Over five decades after the war, the country still experiences separatist agitations from the same Biafra people and many other indigenous people, especially from the south.
In Cameroon, the Ambazonia people of the anglophone southern region have been at the loggerhead with the central government controlled by the Francophone region for the past four years. Began like a low-scale insurgency, the warspread into most parts of the southern regions within a year and resulted in thousands of deaths. Before gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993, the Eretria region fought the central government for years, resulting in thousands of deaths. Even after their separation, the two countries renewed their enmity, which degenerated during the border control conflict between 1998 and 2000, leaving gravy impacts on both sides. Similarly, the southern Sudanese engaged the then Sudanese government in an almost two-decade civil war. Before gaining independence, around 2 million people were killed, and at least one out of every five southern Sudanese were believed to make up the causalities.
The conflict between the Tigray rebels and the Ethiopian Army has been ranging for over a year, with 10,000 deaths and more than 230 massacres. In what started as a power tussle between a regional government and central authority, the crisis has plunged the country into its worst famine in decades and is gradually tilting towards another self-determination fight in a country that just lost one of its former regions less than two decades ago.
These cases and many similar others show that separatist agitations are more of an ideological struggle and cannot be effectively settled with military guns and barrels. Unfortunately, most African leaders have shown to only understand a forceful approach and are less concerned about resultant recurring bloodletting and economic losses from the wars. For the past six years of its administration, President Buhari of Nigeria has been fighting renewed and emerging separatist movements emanating from the Biafra people of the southeast, Odua nationalists of the southwest, and other regions in the country. Despite the government’s use of forceful arrests, imprisonments, and intimidations, the movements persist and have led to an overstretched military force. Similarly, the Paul Biya-led government of Cameroon has failed to end the Ambazonia War despite years of military repel.
Given the recurring nature of these crises, many analysts have suggested peaceful resolutions such as referendum and restructuring, which will give the agitating regions the first-ever chance to decide their nationhood. But checks by Immigration Advice Service show that some African countries do not make provision for such in their constitutions. The Nigerian constitution, for example, has undergone series of amendments since 1999, but in each of these amendments, there has always been a “dubious omission” of a referendum. This begs the question: who is afraid of the peaceful dissolution of these conflict-torn African countries? The answer may not be farfetched given the political structures in most African countries.
There are individuals and groups who benefitted from the long-existing rot in the system and would rather have the status quo remain. Major actors are politicians who have weaponised poverty, illiteracy, and religious indoctrination to keep the masses under their feet. There are poor African countries with some of the most expensive costs of governance in the world. Despite their outrageous salaries and allowances, these politicians still exploit the weak system to loot the treasury with reckless abandon, leaving their citizens even more devastated with hyperinflation, high unemployment rate, and other economic crises.
Similarly, some regions benefit at the expense of others and, as such, would always resist a breakup or restructuring of their countries. In Cameroon, the francophone region has ruled the country since its unification with the anglophone region in the 1960s. The incumbent, Paul Biya, has been ruling for the past 38 years after a peaceful transfer of power by his predecessor, Ahmadou Ahidjo. Apart from his sit-tightism, most of Biya’s policies have been found to be unfavourable to the British anglophone part of the country, leading to the current unrest. In the same vein, the underlying cause of the ongoing Tigray crisis is rooted in regional governance crises. In Nigeria, the revenue-buoyant southern region was believed to have been merged with the revenue-challenged north, so the former could subsidize the latter. And to date, northern Nigeria still benefits immensely from the oil revenue and VAT collection from the south due to the existing sharing formula that is more favourable to the former.
It is, therefore, not surprising to see those forces fighting to keep the countries together with coercion despite cyclical armed conflicts. At the same time, the agitators have proven to be resilient in achieving their mandate even in the face of fierce intimidation. It can then be deduced that leaders of such countries are only postponing the doomsday as their adamant non-negotiability stance puts their nations on a keg of gun powder waiting to explode.
Considering the conflict trend on African soil in the past few years, it is a no-brainer that the continent has had enough bloodshed and socioeconomic retardation for its leaders to re-strategize their approach to governance. It is high time they demonstrated selfless leadership and perhaps flexibility in their views. The law books should be reviewed and amended to reflect equitable resource control and political representation, and most importantly, rights to self-determination. With these in place, countries can coexist or separate peacefully if and when needed withoutbloodletting, displacement, starvation, and untold humanitarian crises.
Olusegun Akinfenwa writes for London Immigration Lawyer – a UK based law firm that offers immigration services globally, including the Republic of Ireland citizenship and immigration process.