Secession: The Morality of Political Divorce

Published on 5th September 2017

The idea of secession is not new; it is as old as human civilization and pervasive across the globe. Conversations of secession are common especially after hotly contested national elections. In 1950s, during the civil rights struggle in the United States, Malcolm X urged black people to secede and form black people’s nation. In 2008, there was talk of secession in United States following President Barack Obama’s election. In 2017, before election some Americans flirted with idea of moving to Canada and following Donald Trump’s presidential victory, a couple of the States in America threatened secession. The United Kingdom remains in a perpetual threat of secession by Wales and Scotland.

Today there are at least 20 entities in African countries embroiled in the struggle for secession. Near at home, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Somalia are struggling with tribal separatists’ movement. In the early 60s, just at Independence, government got embroiled in internal war with Kenyan Somali insurgents seeking secession of the Northern Frontier District. I doubt we have forgotten about the low key Mombasa Republican Council claim that “Pwani si Kenya.” All these debates on secession have their reason(s). The point to note is that secession is not a new phenomenon!

Secession is not bad in itself; it is the motivation that has to be critically and radically interrogated. Secession theory gets its name from Latin word for withdrawal of a group from a larger entity. It can be withdrawal from a political entity, organization or even a union. In modern times, the most prevalent form of secession is withdrawal from communities through emigration for any reason. Majority of individuals who go for US & Canada Green Card Lottery, broadly speaking are secessionists venturing abroad for proverbial greener pasture.  Africans fleeing war and economic hardship at home for perilous attempts to get to supposed safe havens in Europe are also secessionists. I imagine that David Ndii’s platonic exhortation that a cruel political marriage is a necessary and sufficient condition for divorce qualifies him to be a secessionist. The others are Makau Mutua, Maina Kiai, et al., they always emigrate as political exit whenever Kenya experiences difficult times. 

Philosophers, since Plato have contended that the moral bonds connecting people to their communities can qualify the right to leave. The moment individuals feel the bonds have become so weak to sustain their community memberships they always have a legitimate exit option. According to Plato, a community is any form of institution ranging from family all the way to the State. Membership to these institutions is largely an act of actual and express consent. The notion of consent is sine qua non to the secession theory.  On the other hand, some scholars argue that membership communicates intention to behave in a certain manner and indicates awareness some type obligations. 

During US civil war battles, the Secessionists were resisted by Unionists politicians on the argument that consent posed legal and moral obstacles to Southern secession. Abraham Lincoln asserted that since Southerners had consented by participating in the national election of 1860, South should accept the political outcome even though the results disappointed many Confederates. For him consent was expressed in the involvement of collective exercise of decision on which way forward for the leadership of United States and therefore political exit was immoral as it betrayed bad faith and untrustworthiness.  

Today, President Abraham Lincoln would scold secessionists here at home that they were acting immoral by consenting to national elections as a neutral arbiter on how to build a more perfect union, called Kenya, and expecting their Opponents compliance when it serves their causes but then withdrawing the moment political tide turns against their interests.

In his writings, Harry Beran argues radically that people should not remain subjects to a political power to which they no longer consent. He is of the opinion that pursuit for freedom and self determination are sufficient reasons for separation. However, in Crito & Apology, we also read contradicting radically position by Plato’s teacher Socrates who remained in Athens and forfeited his life. In the two books, Plato writes that Socrates accepted the obviously unjust punishment, even though he was a very intelligent man and had the option of surviving in exile. 

Consequently, we must ask, why did Socrates not escape to exile, a form of political exit similar to secession? 

There are many responses to this question as there are different interpretations. Some have argued that Socrates chose death as an act of bravery with a sense of dismissal for the people who condemned him to execution. This helped to immortalize his teachings as escape from Athens would have turned him into a criminal on the run. Some have argued that Socrates agreed to be executed as a display of reverence for the rule of law in his Athenian democracy. Respect for the rule of law is a virtue that is usually exalted and championed in healthy democracies. It would follow that ultimate submission to this virtue is to submit to the law even at risk submitting to death.

In my opinion, Socrates felt that Athenian State had previously served him well, afforded him public goods such as infrastructure, protection and civil order necessary for his life and trade. Socrates believed that he owed Athenian State a moral obligation to abide by its laws in bad and good times. It would have been immoral for Socrates to break the laws of Athens to which he had pledged obedience. In essence, Socrates did not want to adulterate the State that he so loved, during inconvenient times.  In other words, an individual pledge of allegiance to the State forces on them political obligations. It is immoral for one to abandon their family at times of difficulties. As a child, the family affords you necessities for survival and flourishing until you are grown up. Similarly, the State also provides us with at minimum security a necessary condition for survival and flourishing. Therefore, just as it is immoral to abandon your family in challenging times, it is also immoral to depart your State in time of difficulties. 

In conclusion, we must all agree that Socrates’ genre of moral obligation challenge legitimacy of secession even as form of political exit. 

By George Nyongesa

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