Kosovo Independence: Which Way for Africa?

Published on 19th February 2008

Kosovo declared its independence to much jubilation by the majority ethnic Albanians and to the consternation of the minority Serbians and the Serbian republic. In essence, Kosovo has seceded from Serbia.


Since 1990, 33 new countries have been created through secession or merging. Much of these processes were after painful and/or bloody conflicts. Most of these countries were created from the disintegration of the former USSR and Yugoslavia. With exception of Eritrea in Africa, the rest of the countries created through secession and merging in this period have mainly been in Europe with a few cases in Asia. Looking farther back, the history of Europe is replete with secession and irredentism that was accompanied by bloody conflicts. The creation of modern day Italy and Germany in the second half of the 19th century as well as the demise of the Austria-Hungary empire and the Turkish empire at the beginning of the 20th century are but historical examples of these processes.


What has been the reason for all this? Ever since the French revolution, humanity has strived to unchain itself from the shackles of domination – class, race, gender, economic, religious……any form of domination. This war has been fought in the political arena, first through the civil route of representational democracy but if this did not work, people resorted to non-violent protest, violent protest and ultimately war to force a civil settlement. Along the way, individual leaders’ aspirations and those of groups that perceive themselves as being dominated have been confused, hijacked, subverted, and thwarted, in some cases extinguished. However, the groups outlived individual leaders and if the issues behind the perceived dominance were not addressed, the conflict would be postponed but not done away with.


Kosovo like Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro before it has unchained itself from Serbian dominance. East Timor in 2002 unchained itself from Indonesia. The former USSR republics broke away from the dominance of Russia and there are still groups within Russia and former USSR states like Georgia that are fighting to break away. We know of other ongoing conflicts – the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and the Basques in Spain amongst others. Other conflicts have been diffused through offering greater autonomy to regions as the United Kingdom did to assuage the feelings of dominance the Irish, Scots and the Welsh had against the English. In fact, in Northern Ireland it turned into a religious conflict between pro-monarchist Protestants and pro-republican Catholics that is still a thorny issue, while the Scots diplomatically push for more and more autonomy to date. (Interestingly, some pundits were quick to point out that Gordon Brown, a Scotsman, would not be easily accepted as prime minister of Britain by the English) Moreover, many powerful modern day countries have come up with systems of governance that make regions not only feel that they have a voice in central government but which have also devolved substantial power to the regions as is the case in USA, Canada, Australia, Germany, Britain to name a few.


This brings me back to my Africa. The continent where we have 54 countries most of which are ethnically diverse nation states put together during the partition of Africa by European states. To serve their brutal exploitation of the colonies, the colonial masters put up highly centralized structures such as the provincial administration system in British colonies and prefectures in Belgian and French colonies which were headed by central government appointees. On departing, the colonial masters ensured that they left their surrogates in power under structures that continued to concentrate power at the centre. Probably this was done in this way to ensure that there were fewer obstacles to the continued plunder of the continent under neo-colonialism. The new African leaders further weakened any form of local representative government. They plundered their nations wealth with the help of their capitalist or socialist patrons while excluding a large portion of their countries from the wealth and decision making processes of their countries.


Here comes my question. Why is it that the democratic western countries have never been supportive of secessionist movements in Africa to create more ethnically/culturally/linguistically homogeneous states as they have done in Europe for centuries? One fallacy that has been used by both the west and African despots is that such countries would not be viable as states. I disagree, and can point to just a few cases that could be viable – Sudan, DRC and Nigeria. The conflicts in these countries over the years could easily have been reduced if they were split and they would still have been viable having huge populations, landmass (Sudan and DRC in particular) and substantial natural resources. Moreover, there are many tiny countries in Europe that do not have natural resources yet are still very progressive in terms of human development.


Barring secession on account of viability of the states, there is the case of devolution of powers and resources to the regions with elected regional governments. Again, few leaders in Africa have seen it fit to have such systems in their countries. Some countries that have had conflict over the sharing of resources and power have however been driven to the realization that this is probably the only way their countries would hold together. So countries like South Africa and Nigeria have strong devolved government. Sudan after years of conflict between the north and the south has one. War in Ivory Coast has pushed them into one as has been the case in the DRC.


My native Kenya, at the moment in the throes of our most serious post independence crisis, still has a highly centralized government. Feelings of ethnic suspicion, exclusion and dominance, be they real or perceived have finally led the peeling of the thin veneer of national unity that has held shakily for almost forty four years. Anti-devolutionists insist that devolution will lead to ethnic strife and the ethnic cleansing of regions. The odd thing is that ethnic strife has been occurring intermittently under the current constitution and large scale ethnic clashes have been witnessed in this period of crisis. I would rather argue that the law enforcement agencies and the justice systems under the centralized governance system are the ones that are failing.


The second argument of the anti-devolutionists in Kenya is that while the rest of the world is moving towards integrating, devolutionists are seeking fragmentation. I see no evidence of political integration in any region in the world that is merging the sovereign identities of countries. If anything as I have outlined earlier, more countries in Europe are fighting for and getting their sovereign identities. There is definitely more economic integration but only where the citizens of sovereign states agree to it. Hence the EU expands as an economic bloc but has made little headway in political integration.


Should Kenya and other African countries explore devolution as a tool to bring stability and cohesion in their unitary states or shall we wait until separatism knocks on our doors?




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