Opinionista Michael Khorommbi 28 January 2019

Self-determination and secessionism in Africa

The expectation that the historically oppressed can be liberated only through a separate territory and self-government seems perilous.

South Sudanese, citizens of one of the youngest and most troubled countries in the world, have witnessed their share of flawed peace or cease-fire agreements since gaining independence from Sudan in 2011. On 12 September 2018, two main rivals who have been at the centre of untold suffering post-independence, Salva Kiir, the incumbent president and Riek Machar, rebel leader and former vice-president, signed the so-called “final final peace agreement between them.

For many South Sudanese, their secession from Sudan, marked by one of Africa’s protracted civil wars, was supposed to usher in a new dawn of self-determination and self-responsibility — to command their own affairs. However, in a tragic twist of fate, this became a nightmare which has been marked by a brutal civil war that has killed thousands and displaced millions since December 2013.

Despite the latest, and encouraging, development for the country and region, why should South Sudanese at home and in the diaspora be optimistic about the so-called final peace deal which will bring an end to nearly five years of inconceivable violence and forced-displacement?

There should be no illusions — there is room for scepticism among South Sudanese after previously broken ceasefires and reports that fighting broke out after the signing of the latest deal.

On 15 December 2013, two years after this new state gained its independence, a political crisis broke out between two former generals: President Salva Kiir and Dr Riek Machar. The conflict erupted after a confrontation between the military forces of the country’s largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer (largest and second largest) who claim allegiance to Kiir and Machar respectively.

Thus far, there has much scholarly literature on how best to address the conflict and promote peace. Some scholars have underscored the indispensability of an inclusive and bottom-up agreement that addresses the root causes of the conflict and involves all grassroots stakeholders, including women and the youth.

Equally important, there are articles that seek to examine if the recent peace deal will prevent the country from reverting to another civil war in the months or years to follow. I highly recommend Mahmood Mamdani’s article which argues that the recent peace deal is not just between Kiir and Machar, as has been depicted by various media and news outlets.

The latest peace agreement also includes Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, and Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda as “guarantors” of the agreement. Mahmood states that the previous agreements shared a misconception that Sudan was the source of the turmoil in South Sudan, and consequently in order for peace in the country, Sudan had to be isolated.

Mahmood maintains that the recent agreement signifies an important turnaround, illustrating an understanding that Sudan “is the solution to peace in South Sudan”. I concur that by insisting on categorising the crisis as an ethnic problem, or in tribal terms, numerous political scholars ended attributing the crisis exclusively to Kiir’s Dinka against Machar’s Nuer.

On the other hand, The Sud Institute’s Jok Madut Jok reveals a point that is often overlooked, that “there are many hard questions about the nature of the conflict that have to be confronted on the way to reconciliation. Some of these questions concern the nature of the current conflict and other relate to past wars going back 40 years.”

Are we witnessing the secession curse, similar to the natural resources curse? The paradox that countries endowed with an abundance of natural resources such as the Democratic Republic of Congo often attract untold suffering to their own indigenous people and exploitation by different domestic, foreign state and non-state actors with self-seeking motivations?

What lessons, if any, could active separatist movements in Africa such as the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra or the secessionist former British Southern Cameroons or Ambazonia learn from South Sudan? What inspiration could they draw which could either lead them to continue seeking greater autonomy or to reach an amicable dispute settlement which will not result in autonomism and secessionism?

Many political science scholars have developed a rich set of theories to explain both the making and breaking of states. The core idea of most of these theories is that people separate from nations because of unaddressed historical injustices, exclusion, exploitation, marginalisation and when their rights cannot be secured within the framework of the existing political entity.

However, worthy of note is that in the case of South Sudan forming a functional state post-independence was not and continues not to be as easy as it seems, considering that South Sudan is characterised by a multitude of ethnicities and homelands.

In pursuit of sustainable peace, mediators, victims and perpetrators need to understand the following dilemma or paradox: Could the victims’ goals be maximised under the same territory by ensuring they have greater autonomy or representation within existing state institutions?

I am not dismissing the armed struggle of the historically exploited, marginalised and oppressed, such as the South Sudanese before independence or of the Southern Cameroons, but speak as a peace studies scholar — in order to avoid similar repeated episodes of violence as in the case of South Sudan, we have to thoroughly cross-examine and avoid romanticising secessionism.

Could there be another alternative besides secessionism? And what is autonomy? And can it be achieved within an existing political entity? Secession is defined as “formal withdrawal from an established, internationally recognised state by a constituent unity to create a new sovereign state”.

This definition, that exclusively claims that secession is the right to establish a unitary state, is too simplistic and perilous. While this definition was adequate during the struggle for decolonisation, now it takes on the character of an inescapable concern.

The question that needs clarity for self-determination movements: Is “autonomy” as important as the acquisition of a distinct territory or could they seek greater autonomy under the existing territory?

If at all, it is the unwillingness and uncooperativeness of an existing repressive administration that is the motivation for secessionism or autonomism, thus the existing problem is not with the “political entity”, but the current regime in control of the entity.

For instance, the Cameroon conflict, which regrettably is not receiving the attention it deserves, gives the impression that the motivation for secession is because of the Anglophone alienation caused by the Francophone-dominated government.

Therefore, the idea is that the marginalised Southern Cameroons should establish a unitary state with a more co-operative administration composed of their own distinguishable people (tribal or ethnic) who will be more approving of their principles and will recognise their political and cultural rights.

If for the oppressed, arguments are based on a particular regime violating their rights, they can denounce their duty-bound alliance to the regime, not to the state.

However, one might interpose an objection: What if the tyranny of the majority ensures that the government cannot be transformed or obliterated, thus the oppressed need to create a new sovereign state? Thus, for the marginalised minority, having their own unitary state becomes a safe space for collective responsibility to maximise their cultural, economic and political rights.

It is the vocation of the oppressed, historically looted and subjugated, to interpret their own exclusion and suffering and it ought to be through their own inventiveness to seek ways to transform those injustices.

However, people should be cautioned that many of their so-called freedom fighters care enough about the armed struggle to autonomy or secession insofar as it is profitable. A historical analysis of some secession movements in Africa shows that for many revolutionary fighters secession is often used to camouflage different and sometimes their own interests.

There seems to be a misguided dominant narrative that argues that an ethnonational marginalised group should attempt to exit this current political entity or political framework to an alternative territorial arrangement that is superior to the old or previous one. Definitely, there is more to separatism or secession or autonomism than just escapism, as it is often been narrowly defined or communicated by secession movements.

A number of revolutionary fighters will definitely be dismissive of my arguments, saying that in most cases the story of transforming the state and reconciliation is written by the victor on behalf of the victim. Or what could have happened to Sudan if the South Sudanese had not been allowed to secede? More bloodshed? Further, they say: You cannot be in support of our cause and be neutral; true support is total separation — “to create a new, sovereign state”.

According to Steve Biko, “the revolutionary sees his task as liberation not only of the oppressed but also of the oppressor”. And often, both these liberations’ collective hopes and liberties can be achieved by negotiating an all-inclusive settlement under the existing political entity.

To sum up, I am not denying the right to secession for the oppressed or the marginalised — which is essentially rejecting structural and institutional violence, exploitation, poverty and state-sponsored political and economic exclusion. Because those who deny that right have a burden to recommend a rational alternative to withdrawal.

My argument is that if viable alternatives exist to secession (which is extreme) why should secession movements be accorded the right to leave altogether? And I still maintain that this is a logical and consistent argument. The expectation that the historically oppressed can be liberated only through a separate territory and self-government seems perilous.

In order for the struggle of the oppressed to have meaning, the oppressed must not only emphasise seeking territorial independence, but ways to recuperate or gain political and economic status within the current political entity. In addition, I am very supportive of an insistence on a hypothetical possibility of a better state of affairs or social order.

The rationale for proposing that we should be rethinking secession in the context of Africa initially arose when I spent a year in Cameroon and grappled with the idea that in Africa there has been an emergence of ethnic or tribal groups that are beginning to sentimentalise secessionism or autonomism.

And we should not say to the oppressed that the solution to their state of affairs lies only in doing precisely this — secession. DM

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