Sovereignty is a kind of riddle. Once a unitary nation-state has been established, it’s historically been quite difficult for a group within that nation to claim independence. The inherent contradictions between a state’s right to territorial sovereignty on one hand, and a people’s right to self-determination on the other, has troubled international law since the early twentieth century. Postcolonial Africa is no different. It’s perhaps not surprising that most movements for self-determination have been achieved either through violence or due to the intervention or acquiescence of an external sovereign power. On the first, think Eritrea, for example. On the second, South Sudan; though it also was involved in a violent struggle for independence against Khartoum. Whether economic and political sovereignty is easily achievable, especially within the context of decolonization, has also been a hotly debated topic amongst nationalists, as the anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla notes. Yet despite numerous efforts by political thinkers — ranging from Hannah Arendt to Senegal’s founding President, Léopold Senghor — to champion federalist, non-sovereign, and non-nationalist alternatives, the nation-state has remained the dominant political model for much of the twentieth century into today.
One can see such tensions at play in the Catalan independence movement. And while much has been made of the implications of Catalonia for European movements (like the Basque and Scottish independence campaigns), less readily acknowledged is the impact this controversy is having on independence efforts on the African continent. In fact, proponents of separatist movements in Nigeria and Cameroon are watching the situation in Europe quite closely, hoping that it might set a more wide-reaching legal and political precedent.
Viewing European and African separatist movements through a common lens, and as part of a shared predicament, invites productive comparisons. And it also holds implications for those of us committed to a leftist, internationalist politics. It forces us to consider why certain secessionist movements receive greater global attention and whether all calls for self-determination should be taken equally seriously.
Several Nigerian writers have already drawn analogies between Catalonia and Biafra. As the writer Onyedimmakachukwu Obiukwu notes, October 1st is now a date fraught with significance for both nations. On that day in 1960, Nigeria achieved independence from British rule. For many Nigerian nationalists, this marks the beginning of the country’s “non-negotiable separability.” Privileging this moment also helps to delegitimize Biafran separatists (as Igbo nationalists became known), which was brutally suppressed by the Nigerian government in a civil war that cost a million lives in the late 1960s. Coincidentally, October 1st of this year was also the date of a referendum unilaterally set by the Catalan government to ascertain popular support for secession (but perhaps more importantly, to send a message to Spain’s ruling party, Partido Popular). Voters were met by Spanish police in riot gear, who used rubber bullets and tear gas in an effort to prevent the poll from taking place.
By noting this concurrence in dates, Obiukwu is able to point to more structural similarities. Separatist conflicts are often perceived as uniquely African problems (simplistically attributed to the continent’s “arbitrary” borders or its “tribal” divisions). Yet as the case of Catalonia shows, Africa is no anomaly. Nor is the continent pathologically inclined toward conflict. Europe, moreover, should not be held up as the normative model of nationalist cohesion. All nation-states subsume certain forms of difference onto themselves, and all are predicated on the suppression of competing nationalist visions. The transition and experiments with political federalism in both Nigeria and Spain over the last few decades have failed to fully resolve such tensions.
At the same time, both European and African separatist movements refract the possibility for conflicts to be prevented through the emergence of more layered, trans-territorial forms of sovereignty. The European Union has eased tensions along many (formerly “hard”) political frontiers. The freedom of movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — a status quo enshrined by the Good Friday Agreement — is now being threatened by Brexit. The potential for regional integration to enable overlapping nationalisms to coexist (and greater local autonomy to be achieved) was anticipated by a number of Pan-African thinkers. In the 1950s and 60s, African leaders — ranging from Kwame Nkrumah to Julius Nyerere — toyed with the idea of economic and political federations capable of tying African countries together and lessening the significance of colonial borders. Pan-Africanism was championed for many reasons —one of which was its potential to mitigate the threat of separatism and irredentism.
Nkrumah’s vision of a United States of Africa and Nyerere’s hope for an East African Federation never came to pass. Nor is it clear that such federalist structures are always guaranteed to resolve or even mollify separatist aspirations. (As the EU’s reaction to the recent crisis in Spain shows, such political structures can sometimes serve to further reinforce/centralize power at the state level). Nevertheless, ongoing efforts to promote continental and regional integration in Africa may very well usher in solutions to the problem of secession.
For all the parallels that one can draw between the Biafran and Catalonian cases, there are also notable differences. While both the Spanish and Nigerian governments (as Obiukwu argues) have been “heavy-handed” in their approach to the respective separatist efforts on their soil, the degree of violence meted out by Nigerian officials in recent years has far outstripped that of Spain. Moreover, while the international frontiers of European states are perhaps no more or less “arbitrary” than those of Africa, African boundaries are arguably less politically legitimate. Many African political thinkers are in favor of either dissolving or remaking the continent’s inherited colonial boundaries — though this need not necessarily be achieved through separatism.
Perhaps most importantly, separatist movements in Europe and Africa look quite different when considered within a broader analysis of the global political economy. According to Nigerian journalist, Segun Akande, many easterners in Nigeria (where the Biafran state was to be established) are “reluctant to lend their voices to the struggle” both because of the memory of “the millions who died of starvation” during the Biafran civil war and “the current economic situation in the East.” Catalonia is the wealthiest region in Spain and occupies a very different position within the world economy. It’s questionable whether a Biafran state (even one that included the oil-rich Niger Delta) could ever enjoy the same experience of sovereignty. And as Pan-African activists have long cautioned, fragmentation is likely to lead to greater economic and political vulnerability on the world stage.
Movements for secession may refract a shared global predicament, but they can have profoundly different consequences in different parts of the world. Where, then, does this leave us?
One thing that recent separatist conflicts make clear: it makes little sense to either categorically support or categorically reject calls for secession. In addition, framing conflicts as a stark choice between “separatism” and “unity” can obscure the voices of those who seek alternative paths (or those who mobilize around secession claims for rhetorical and tactical reasons). In discussing her novel Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie remarked that she grew up feeling both Igbo and Nigerian. She attributes the Biafran civil war to political failures, rather than irreconcilable differences or in-born ethnic divisions. For journalist Kayode Robert Idowu, the conflict over Catalan should serve as a cautionary tale for Nigerians. According to Idowu, Nigerian federalism needs to be restructured, but not wholly abandoned.
Just as the “people” are not a homogenous body, the “left” is far from a unified entity — as evinced by recent debates amongst neo-Marxists in Spain. Additionally, separatism can be (sometimes simultaneously) driven by economically and politically progressive forces and conservative ones. Catalan undoubtedly has a right to hold a referendum without facing the threat of state violence. (Until then, it is also difficult to assess the degree of popular support for independence.) But referendums do not simply measure popular opinion; they generate types of political subjectivity. And as the case of Brexit attests, referendums do not always produce progressive results. Working solely through the legal mechanisms of the state can also foreclose more critical forms of political analysis. As Alberto Garzón suggests, it is worth asking whether “the national question” in Europe today is being “used as a populist channel for the frustration generated by the crisis of capitalism.”
In the end, neither pro-unification nor pro-separatist movements are able to solve the riddle: the dilemma of sovereignty. These include fundamental ambiguities at the heart of the nation-state, such as the kind of structural and demographic anxieties that fuel both minoritarian and majoritarian tendencies. For this reason, both pro-unity and secessionist supporters can at times be motivated by chauvinistic and xenophobic tendencies.
Which is why it’s so essential for political activists to understand the broader context in which separatist demands emerge, to consider the stakes and the alternatives, to listen to heterodox and minority voices, and perhaps most importantly, to examine the nationalisms that they themselves hold dear. However flawed and riddled with ambiguities, self-determination remains a powerful and important language for peoples the world over. But it’s also a language that needs to be carefully interrogated.