Secession movements

Continuing Tension in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip

Namibia is generally regarded as one of the most successful states of sub-Saharan Africa, with a stable, relatively democratic government, a high degree of press freedom, and a political-economic system that successfully translates wealth in natural resources (diamonds particularly) into broad-based gains in human wellbeing. Just this month, for example, Namibia announced that that it will be able to bring electricity to all rural schools in the country within five years, which would be a significant accomplishment in such a large, sparsely settled country.

Namibia, however, suffers from a major political dilemma in the Caprivi Strip, its long northeastern “panhandle,” a legacy of the European partitioning of Africa in the late 1800s. The people of the Strip are relatively isolated from the rest of country, and many have long held secessionist aspirations. A major push for independence was crushed in 1999, but fall-out from the event continues to generate tension. Trials of secession advocates continue, hundreds of suspects languish in prisons, and many Caprivian activists continue to advocate their cause from exile.

Such tensions intensified in mid April, as activists planned peaceful demonstrations, circulated petitions calling for the unconditional release of all political prisoners, and demanded a referendum on the political status of the Caprivi region. Such demands were rebuffed by the Namibian government, which refused permission for the planned demonstrations. Activists denounced the prohibition as unconstitutional, and vowed to continue the struggle through peaceful, legal means.

The upsurge in secessionist activities in the Caprivi Strip has been linked to recent events elsewhere in Africa, especially the proclamation of the new country of Azawad by the Tuareg movement of northern Mali. It has also been connected with the independence movement in Barotseland in neighboring Zambia, where “2,000 chiefs, indunas and headmen recently had a meeting where they demanded the secession from Zambia of the Western Province – formerly a British Protectorate.”

Meanwhile, villagers in the Caprivi Strip have been demanding help from the national government to protect their maize fields from rampaging elephants herds. According to a recent allAfrica article, neither the beating of massive drums nor the use of “chili bombs” have been sufficient to keep the elephants at bay. Locals are therefore asking for the instillation of electric fences to protect their crops and villages.


Somaliland’s Sovereignty and the Pandora Thesis

“The issue is diplomatically sensitive because recognizing Somaliland could set a precedent for other secession movements seeking to change colonial-era borders, opening a Pandora’s box in the region.”

-Ann Scott Tyson, originally reported in the Washington Post, 2007, reprinted in the Somaliland Times, issue 307. Emphasis added.

Those opposed to diplomatic recognition of Somaliland often warn that violent secession movements could break out in other countries if separatist leaders see the possibility of gaining international legitimacy. The frequently deployed Pandora’s Box metaphor attributes substantial powers to diplomatic actions: by withholding recognition from break-away states, the international community somehow keeps the malady of insurgency under constraints. But such an assertion is questionable for the world at large, and does not apply to Somaliland. When it comes to the Horn of Africa, the “Pandora thesis” makes little sense.

Since decolonization, African leaders have been especially keen to deny the legitimacy of secessionist movements, arguing that existing political boundaries must be maintained at all costs. Ironically, the devotion to the prevailing geopolitical structure rests on an acknowledgement of its unsound nature. Most African countries were established and bounded by European colonial powers oblivious to preexisting political, economic and cultural divisions; the geographical misfit between the indigenous and the imposed structures generates intractable tensions. Most African states are thus precarious, prone to ethnic and border conflicts. But any efforts to restructure the geopolitical framework to reflect the cultural fabric would be almost impossibly complicated, and, if attempted, could easily get out of hand, leading potentially to more rebellion, war, and state collapse. As a result, the granting of legitimacy to any self-proclaimed state has been viewed as a dangerous precedent, one that could lead to the general unraveling of the African geopolitical framework. Much better, the argument goes, for African countries to build new nations within their inherited borders.

Over the past half century, Pandora thesis has grown rather threadbare, yet it continues to inform policy. The idea that the mere recognition of Somaliland’s government could somehow destabilize Africa, setting off border conflicts and ethnic wars, is not credible. When applied to the Horn of Africa, it is laughable; what other ills could possible remain in Pandora’s box? Yet the notion is seldom questioned in either diplomatic or academic circles. In African statescraft, the inviolability of state boundaries remains an article of faith, and in the international order it is seldom questioned. Non-African governments, moreover, not wanting to seem imperialistic, generally defer to the African Union on such matters. As a result, or so it would seem, Somaliland remains a pariah country, unable to gain formal recognition.

But in actuality, the Pandora model, whatever its merits or faults may be, does not apply to Somaliland. Far from challenging European imperial boundaries, the recognition of Somaliland would actually reaffirm them. During the era of European domination, Somaliland was a British colony, whereas the rest of Somalia was under Italian rule. Here, it was the union of the two colonies in 1960 that changed colonial-era boundaries, not the proclamation of Somaliland’s independence. In addition, Somaliland’s leaders are not seeking to establish a new state, as their government is almost two decades old. And rather that seceding from a functioning state, Somaliland assumed independence as Somalia collapsed. In recent years, Somalia has existed more in the minds of diplomats than in reality, whereas in Somaliland the opposite conditions have obtained.

The insistence on the colonial-era map more generally stumbles on the fact that boundaries periodically shifted under the European rule. In 1925, for example, Britain transferred Jubaland, then part of British East Africa (Kenya), to Italian Somalia, ostensibly to reward Italy for its participation on the allied side during World War I. One might therefore argue that it is not so much colonial boundaries as those of the immediate post-colonial period – when a unified Somalia did exist – that should be regarded as sacrosanct. But here too, the logic fails. In 1993, the international community accepted the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia, reinscribing the map of the colonial period, when Eritrea had been an Italian possession while Ethiopia remained independent. It thus appears that European colonial boundaries apply everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa except Somaliland. If one were to follow established precedent consistently, Somaliland would have to be accepted as a sovereign state.

The Somaliland quandary reveals the pretence that lies at the heart of diplomatic practice. A certain amount of dissimulation is of course necessary in international relations, but in this case it is taken to almost comical extremes. After almost two decades of chaos, the possibility of a united Somalia reemerging as a stable country seems vanishingly slight, yet diplomats cling to the idea, refusing even to consider alternatives. As a result, double-speak becomes necessary. As the informed comments of Somalilandersister show (posted on this blog on May 12), Ethiopia in practice fully recognizes Somaliland’s sovereignty, yet the Addis Ababa government must pretend that it does not in order to follow the general consensus.

Undue significance is attached to the ideal world concocted through the international system of mutual state recognition. Is it even reasonable to argue that the mere acknowledgement of Somaliland could somehow strengthen separatism elsewhere in Africa? Did the international acceptance of Eritrea in 1993 embolden secessionist movements elsewhere with the lure of geopolitical legitimacy? I have difficulty imagining rebel leaders rallying their troops by invoking foreign diplomats acknowledging foreign governments. If anything, post-Cold War global history demonstrates the opposite phenomenon; the periodic recognition of new sovereign states has had little impact in other areas. The separation of East Timor from Indonesia did not open a Pandora’s box of separatism in Southeast Asia any more that that of Eritrea did in Africa.

The Pandora thesis exaggerates the significance of the formal structures of global politics. As such, it flatters the egos of politicians and diplomats, endowing their actions with powers that they do not possess. Such a disconnection from reality can have negative consequences, as the people of Somaliland can well attest. The international snubbing of Somaliland’s government has generated intense anger in the country and among its expatriates, as some of the comments to last week’s Geocurrents postings indicate. Although I was disappointed that several commentators interpreted my essays as showing hostility toward Somaliland, I can certainly understand their frustration with the outside world and its refusal to acknowledge their successful efforts at state-building in the region of the world where it is most desperately needed.

The Republic of Lakotah, The Alaskan Independence Party, and the Second Vermont Republic

Many Native Americans are worried about the reduction of tribal sovereignty. A few are so angry at the United States that they have declared independence. In 2007, Russell Means and a few other Lakota (Sioux) activists delivered formal papers of separation in Washington, D.C. They insisted that their self-proclaimed Republic of Lakotah was not seceding from the union but reasserting its own sovereignty. The Lakota, in their view, had signed treaties of dependency as a sovereign nation; as these treaties were not honored by the United States, they were effectively annulled, restoring Lakota independence. The republic’s organizers did say that they would consider entering a Compact of Free Association with the United States, following the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.

In practice, the self-proclaimed Republic of Lakotah means little. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has deplored it as a publicity stunt, noting that its core members have no formal positions in tribal government. Few of the elected leaders of the eight reservations in the so-called republic have expressed support. While Russell Means claims that a sizable percentage of the Lakota people favor the declaration, others disagree. Support is even less certain among the non-Lakota Indians of “Lakotah,” and is undoubtedly extremely low among the non-indigenous people – who actually constitute the overwhelming majority of the proclaimed republic’s inhabitants.

Lakotah’s leaders sought international support, requesting recognition from Russia, France, Bolivia, and a few other countries. They have been rebuffed by all, even Venezuela. But the would-be republic has found support from two secessionist movements elsewhere in the United States: the Alaskan Independence Party, and the “Second Vermont Republic.” Such movements seeking to dismember the United States are small, but they are growing rapidly.

Modern secessionist groups in the United States are a diverse lot. Most follow a conservative-populist philosophy with libertarian tendencies – but not all. The Lakota activists are generally regarded as far left, but their politics are actually more complicated. Many of their libertarian platforms mesh well with those of the Alaskan splitters, including their support of the gold standard. The Second Vermont Republic, by contrast—founded by a former Duke University professor—is squarely leftist, “opposed to the tyranny of Corporate America.” But regardless of their divergent views, those who would secede from the union agree on one thing; they want to see the United States dismantled. To that extent, they are natural allies.

Although the Republic of Lakotah has largely been ignored by the media in the three years since it was declared, its leaders remain undeterred. As the group’s website recently announced, “On March 30, 2010, the Republic of Lakotah will repeat its position to the United States, and will transmit its communication to the President of the United States and to the Secretary of State, demanding that the United States cease and desist its activities in Lakotah territory, and insisting that the United States withdraw its presence from our homeland.”