Brexit and the Politics of Micro-Nationalism in Africa

Published on 4th July 2016

On 24 June, 2016, the referendum called by British Prime minister David Cameron to give the people of the United Kingdom a choice between remaining in the European Union(EU) or leaving the bloc, resulted in a narrow victory for those who campaigned for the British isles to leave the EU. Whilst the long term economic impact is not yet clear, what was immediately apparent was the specter of the United Kingdom breaking up. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was ‘democratically unacceptable’ for Scotland to leave the EU when an overwhelming majority of Scots had voted to stay within the Regional Bloc. She emphatically made it clear that Scotland would demand a referendum to decide whether to stay in the United Kingdom or to become an independent republic. Similar voices were also heard in Northern Ireland with some politicians calling for a referendum to give the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to decide whether to stay in the UK or to become a part of the Republic of Ireland

The result of the Brexit referendum raises serious questions about regions in Europe that have been agitating for self determination. What will happen in Spain where the Catalonia and Basque regions have been seeking independence? Separatists who are advocating secession from Spain will obviously feel emboldened by the results of Brexit.  

Micro-Nationalism in Post-Cold War Africa

In Africa, where there has been a resurgence of micro-nationalisms since the cold war ended 25 years ago, secessionist groups will argue that just as the people of the United Kingdom have been given the opportunity to exercise their right to self determination; they too should be given a Brexit type referendum. It should be recalled that 22 years ago, the 6th UN Secretary-General and the first UN Chief from the African continent, the late Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali warned that the breakup of Yugoslavia could replicate itself in Africa with devastating consequences. The Egyptian diplomat/scholar foresaw a doomsday scenario of an escalation of micro-nationalisms in Africa as every ethno-political group might seek to secede from larger states as was happening in ex-Yugoslavia in the early 1990s

Africa has seen the creation of two new states in the post cold war era. In 1993, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia after a ruinous civil war through a United Nations organized referendum and in 2011, South Sudan obtained independence from Sudan after a prolonged horrendous bloodbath via a UN supervised referendum

Western Sahara

In Western Sahara, there will be renewed impetus by the Polisario Front to compel the Kingdom of Morocco to hold a referendum to offer the Saharawi people the choice of being part of Morocco or to become an independent sovereign republic. Morocco annexed this territory following the withdrawal of erstwhile colonial power Spain in 1975. The United Nations (UN) has deployed a peacekeeping mission (MINURSO) in Western Sahara since 1991, but very little progress has been made in finding a diplomatic solution to the standoff between Morocco and the Polisario Front. Morocco has offered a plan for autonomy for the Saharawi; whilst the Polisario Front has out rightly rejected the autonomy proposals. The Moroccan monarch King Muhammad VI is on record as saying that Morocco will never surrender the tiniest grain of sand in Western Sahara.   The situation therefore remains highly tense and armed hostilities may break out between the two protagonists any time. 

Nigeria; Resurgence of Biafra Nationalism

In Nigeria, agitation for restoration of the short lived (1967-1970) Republic of Biafra is on the rise. The prolonged detention of Biafra activist Nnamdi Kanu by the Nigerian authorities has raised the specter of armed conflict between the Nigerian armed forces and pro-Biafra militias in Southern Nigeria. The Brexit referendum will legitimize the demands of Biafra separatists who will argue that just as the peoples of the United Kingdom have been given the opportunity to decide their destiny, the people of Biafra deserve no-less. 

Zambia: The Barotseland Agreement

In Zambia, the result of the Brexit referendum and stirrings of independence in Scotland and Northern Ireland will fuel calls for restoration of the Barotseland Agreement of 1964, which would effectively lead to the secession of the Western part of Zambia from the state of Zambia.  Scores of activists who have been agitating for restoration of this agreement remain in Zambia’s prisons.

Senegal: Casamance Separatism 

In Senegal, the situation in the southern region of Casamance may be inflamed by the Brexit referendum. This region has been the hotbed of separatism since Senegal’s independence in 1960. The Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MDFC) was a cohesive force for separation from Senegal under its first leader, Catholic priest/guerilla Commander Father Diamacoune Senghor.  However, the MDFC splintered into a number of factions following Senghor’s death in 2007.

Forward Look

The lesson for African states facing secessionist/separatist/micro-nationalism tendencies is to practice inclusive and tolerant politics to ensure that all ethno-political factions feel fully represented in State governance and administration. 
By Dr. Njunga-Michael Mulikita

The author is Senior Lecturer in Political Science, Dag Hammarskjöld Institute(DHIPS), Copperbelt University(CBU), Zambia.

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