Southern Sudanese swapped the battlefield for the ballot box
two-and-a-half years ago, when they voted overwhelmingly to sever their
ties with Sudan. On July 9th 2011, jubilant street parties in the
capital city of Juba marked the creation of the world’s newest sovereign
state. But beyond South Sudan’s freshly drawn borders, some members of
the international community were worried. The secession, they said,
could spur on the dozens of other separatist movements in Africa. They
feared that it set a precedent that would threaten the integrity of
territorial borders across the continent.
Post-colonial Africa has a long history of separatist movements: a
predicament that dates back to 19th-century Europe. When colonial
leaders met in Berlin in 1884 to parcel out the “dark continent” among
themselves, they did so with scant consideration for divisions of
language, religion or ethnicity that already existed here.
Then when independence came to most African countries in the 1960s, the
continent’s new leaders agreed to stick to these borders. Maintaining
the status quo would have been in their interest for many reasons but
mostly because it provided a way to prevent potentially damaging
conflicts from erupting among themselves.
Since then, Africa’s borders have remained largely unchanged. Aside
from Namibia and South Sudan, the only other country in Africa that has
won legal autonomy since colonial independence is Eritrea, which after a
long and bloody war seceded from Ethiopia in 1993.
During the same period, in other parts of the world, many apparently
immutable boundaries have been challenged and changed. Since 1990
especially, more than 30 new countries have been created around the
world, as the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Balkan conflict
led to the formation of new states that reflect ethnic, linguistic and
nationalist divisions. Yet the map of Africa remains one drawn up by
foreigners, ignorant of extant ethnic and religious realities.
As democracy becomes more widespread in Africa and a new mood of
self-determination swells, the insistence on sticking to colonial
borders is facing growing popular challenge. Across the continent,
dozens of governments are struggling against rebel groups demanding
either greater autonomy or full independence.
“The old understanding of ‘Do not change the colonial boundaries’ is
over, in terms of people trying to find ways to govern their countries,”
says Annette Weber, head of Middle East and Africa research at the
German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). “And some
of the countries, in their current boundaries, just don’t make sense.”
She points as one example to Nigeria, a nation that is divided between
religiously distinct Muslim and Christian populations along a clear
north-south fault line.
Continued dissatisfaction with government leadership exacerbates the
problem, she says. “What we have seen in Africa is a lot of centralised
states where the leader is running the capital but not really reaching
out to the periphery. The state is so distant that it doesn’t feature in
the life of those populations.” These marginalised people, she
explains, often feel that they would be better off with “one
identity-based territory that binds them. Independence becomes a hope or
an expectation for them.”
newspaper in 2012 drew up a map of separatist
factions in Africa showing their various aims and claims. The map was
strewn with movements, which span the continent from the Casamance
region in southern Senegal to the Uamsho Islamists (the Association for
Islamic Mobilisation and Propagation) fighting for independence on the
already semi-autonomous Tanzanian island of Zanzibar.
The deteriorating political situation in Zanzibar is of growing concern
to the Tanzanian government for several reasons. Since 2012, the
tactics employed by Uamsho have become increasingly violent, causing
fatal clashes with local police and simultaneously jeopardising
Tanzania’s reputation for political stability. This is portentous
economically since the Indian Ocean island relies heavily on revenue
from tourists, who flock to its pristine beaches.
Kenya’s coastal region, similarly reliant on tourists for revenue
streams, has also been the target of attacks allegedly committed by a
separatist group—the Mombasa Republican Council, which demands
independence from the country’s mainland.
The case of the Bakassi peninsula in the Atlantic Gulf of Guinea
illustrates the power colonial boundaries still hold. Nigeria had been
administering the tiny oil-rich province since independence in 1960. In
2002, the UN’s International Court of Justice ruled that, according to
the ageing European colonial maps supplied by both nations in their bid
for ownership of the territory, Bakassi should belong to Cameroon. Four
years later Nigeria formally handed over the disputed peninsula to
The government in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, said that by following the
ruling it was respecting international law, but many people in the
Bakassi region were outraged, making it clear that they considered
Nigeria their home. Last year, a decade after the ruling, a declaration
of independence (made from a radio-station tower on a tiny island off
the peninsula’s coast) by the Bakassi Movement for Self-Determination,
drew brutal reprisals from the Cameroonian military.
These conflicts are by no means restricted to sub-Saharan states.
Algeria, for example, faces similar issues. Berber tribes in the
northern region of Kabylie have long agitated for greater autonomy from
the mainland. This is an underdeveloped territory, where water and power
supplies are dire, dissatisfaction is high, and insecurity rife. In
January 2013, two security guards were killed in an al-Qaeda-linked
attack on a gas pipeline 120km southwest of Algiers.
Many of the ethnic Kabylie have boycotted Algerian politics in recent
years and advocate for greater autonomy under a system that would
recognise their identity and allow them greater control over oil and gas
revenues, while remaining part of Algeria.
The list of these conflicts goes on and on: from Sudan to Western
Sahara, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Mali. Unsurprisingly,
this is not a situation that African governments are taking lightly. In
Zambia, for example, more than 70 separatists demanding independence for
Barotseland state in the impoverished Western Province were recently
arrested and are currently on trial for treason.
When Zambia’s vice-president, Guy Scott, spoke to Africa in Fact
the arrests and trial, he echoed the sentiments of officials across the
continent. “When the Tamil Tigers first started in Sri Lanka, we all
thought they were just a bunch of second-rate intellectuals, and look
how much damage resulted,” he says, referring to the independence
movement that took Sri Lanka into a civil war in the early 1980s. “I
think it is dangerous to underestimate these things. We’ve been taking
it quite seriously.”
While the dissatisfaction stems from lack of economic opportunity among
populations seeking greater control over their natural resources, the
government’s patience is limited.
“You can have sympathy, but I don’t think it’s helpful at this point,”
he says. “They set up the Barotseland Liberation Army, for example, and
that’s not helpful, even if it is only five guys with a penknife between
them. There is certainly no majority of people who want to separate
from Zambia. The rebels are young men mostly and what they want is a job
and money and education and food.”
In a bid to quell the movement, Zambia’s ruling Patriotic Front party
announced a revenue-sharing plan in 2012 that will use copper incomes to
try to foster development and reduce poverty in the region. But, where
necessary, the police will continue to make arrests. “I think the
crackdown continues,” Mr Scott says, “and it will until there are no
issues to be attended to.”
Whether any of these movements, even if successful, is likely win legal
independence is another question altogether. The experience of
Somaliland, a tiny breakaway state in the Horn of Africa, shows that
neither local governments nor the AU are keen to see the continent
further divided. “The AU is overwhelmed by fear that all the other small
separatist entities might try to become independent,” argues Ms Weber.
“They are worried [that recognising Somaliland] could set off a wave
where we would not see an end or a viable solution, so they are quite
cautious in taking the next step after South Sudan. I don’t see the
reality of the separation going through in the near future,” she says.
This is a warning that could apply to any other independence movement across the continent.
And even if Somaliland wins legal recognition, the experiences of
Eritrea and South Sudan are proof enough that secession does not
necessarily equal political or economic success.
Since its independence, Eritrea has disputed its borders, fought
another war with Ethiopia and clashed with troops from Djibouti. Its
tiny economy is growing at a fair pace. But the UN and NGOs accuse the
single-party state of brutal repression, including extra-judicial
killings and political detentions.
In its two-and-a-half years of independence, South Sudan has bickered
with Sudan over its rights to oil-export infrastructure, crippled its
economy by closing crude production, and warred over disputed borders in
the oil-rich Abyei region. Neither looks much like a developmental
The experience of these governments, born of failed leadership in
mother states, provides a valuable lesson. “What is often overlooked is
where these states come from,” Ms Weber explains. “Where did South
Sudan’s new government learn the business of statehood? They learned it
from Khartoum. And many systemic problems of neglect and exclusion that
we see from the government of Khartoum are now replicated in South
“Often separation results in a duplication of another failed elite,
without [an] understanding of what it is to be a government and to be
responsible and to represent the interests of the population. That’s not
a viable option,” she adds.
In Ethiopia, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an independence movement
established in 1973, appears to have come to terms with those
constraints. In 2012, it surprised observers by dropping its long-held
demands for secession, with spokesmen saying they would now work within
the political system “to struggle for freedom in consort with all
Thus fears of a domino effect emanating from South Sudan’s messy
transition were probably overblown. But the persistence of independence
groups reflects a bigger and more concerning trend: the failure of
leaders to deliver change. “I think there will be more separatist groups
calling for separation because they believe it could solve their
problem of neglect, but not necessarily because South Sudan set a
precedent,” Ms Weber argues.
If governments on the continent fail to address the root causes of
discontent—by providing more and better services, and helping to pull
people out of poverty—they can expect separatist movements to stir up
unrest for years to come.