A look at previous secession stories around the world

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By Jim Asudi

Secession and marital divorce are triggered by identical factors including, inter alia, cruelty of the domineering partner, broken promises, and irreconcilable differences. However, unlike divorce where parties share matrimonial properties between themselves, secession is more of a geographical withdrawal of a people from the parent state, with the departing nation taking away only its manpower, movable resources and tax obligations.

In both cases, the desired end results are autonomy, freedom and independence. All these should inevitably lead to happiness. But happiness, as social scientists opine, is very elusive. This makes separation a risky adventure. The uncertainty of the business notwithstanding, the proponents of secession believe it is the safer path. The other is feigned love. This article takes a look at past secession stories in the world, with a view to discovering whether the breakaways usually bring about the calculated outcome – submitting to a government that reciprocates love.

A number of theories help explain this phenomenon.

Remedial Right Only

This theory advocates for separation in a case where grave injustices have been committed against the withdrawing state by the authoritarian parent state. As the name suggests, the aggrieved people invoke this theory as the last resort. Simply put, this model takes the view that the withdrawing unit cannot exercise the right to self-determination unless and until it is pushed to the wall.

The proponents of this theory are led by scholar Allen Buchanan, who, in his article titled Theories of Secession, argues that secession is not an automatic right exercisable at any time a party wishes but upon an occurrence of injustice. It is not a primary right but rather a right derived from incidences of violations of basic human rights. Buchanan writes that persistent large-scale violation of basic human rights is a sufficient ground for the victimised group to secede from the dictatorial regime.

Primary Right

This school of thought is the exact opposite of the Remedial Right Only theory. It holds that a people who share a lot in common – including culture and geographical territory – can choose to form a state without having first gone through any form of injustice. It borrows from the choice theory whose main idea is that a group of people/ethnic community has a right to determine which state they belong to at any stage of their lives. Emphasis is on the people’s present wishes and not past experiences.

In practice, however, the Primary Right theory is rarely considered as a ground to pull out. Most secession cases have been triggered by injustices ranging from economic exclusion, political tyrannies, all manner of discriminations and ethnic profiling including persecutions.

Plebiscitary theory

According to this school of thought, what is of primary concern is neither whether the withdrawing unit has suffered injustices nor if the group has an automatic right to self-determination. What matters is whether the aggrieved group can actually perform state functions. The theorists argue that the mere fact that a people want to form their own state is not an issue; focus should only be on whether the withdrawing unit can adequately perform the basic functions that justify and legitimises a state.

This sounds logical, but I disagree with this notion for three reasons. One, the fundamental basic duty of a state is to offer security to its citizens and to protect the rights of its people. Since secession is premised on the idea that the parent state has failed to protect a certain class or group of its own citizens, it cannot then be said that the same parent state is performing its basic duties to legitimise its statehood. By committing injustices against its own citizens who together form the withdrawing state, there is no gainsaying that such a state has failed. Hence, the withdrawing unit is not running into a state that may not fulfil its obligations but fleeing from one that has failed to justly treat all its citizens.

My second gripe has a historical perspective. Before African ethnic communities came together to form states, they did not start from ready infrastructure, performing economy and a good budget. The nations started from the scratch. Thus, the idea that there must be some state apparatuses before secession is initiated must have been birthed by prophets of doom who wrongfully foresee failure. Moreover, in a nation with the regional/devolved government system, the path is already set.

Lastly, in my view, human dignity is much more important than the economics of a country. It is like life; you cannot claim to be healthy when you are slowly consuming poison. Hoping is not enough; praying is, too, divinely to cure the messes of the almighty politicians. What has to be done is to secure that dignity at whatever cost, for the present and future generations. The new state can and will build over time. Tanzania is a perfect example of happiness over economic wellbeing. Kenya is rated above Tanzania in terms of GDP but the latter is put ahead by the World Bank on general citizen happiness, unity, the sense of oneness and life expectancy.    

A man waves South Sudan’s national flag as he attends the Independence Day celebrations in the capital Juba, July 9, 2011. Tens of thousands of South Sudanese danced and cheered as their new country formally declared its independence on Saturday, a hard-won separation from the north that also plunged the fractured region into a new period of uncertainty. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya (SOUTH SUDAN – Tags: SOCIETY)

Ascriptivist theory

This theory speaks a simple and brief language. It posits that every nation should form its own state. In the Kenyan context, it is that all the 45 tribes should form their own states. Reason? They can greatly develop separately since they have a lot less in common together. This theory has been dismissed to be promoting ethno-nation conflicts, as all those groups disintegrating into individual states will always have inter-ethnic tensions. In a world where cross-border trade is taking shape, no one wants to see Donald Trump’s border walls – concrete, electric or imagined.

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The cardinal reason, therefore, that motivates separatists is that divorce realises human dignity which is an inalienable human right. Advocates of secession believe that all a man needs from his government is respect, freedom and to be treated ethically. Dignity, scholars have written before, gives an individual or a group a sense of self-respect and self-worth which leads to physical integrity as well as psychological empowerment and satisfaction.

So important is human dignity that Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), an instrument adopted by the United Nations General Assembly as the common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations, makes provision for human dignity in the following terms,

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood

Article 3 of the UDHR states,

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Without belabouring the point, it is clear the world everyone desires is a society where human dignity is acknowledged and protected by the government to which they submit. That government must treat all its citizens equally and with respect. Citizens must feel honoured and cherished, not as second-class or slaves.

But states – for selfish reasons – sometimes violate human dignity. It can do this in several ways. One is through humiliation, which, though difficult to define, connotes a situation where the government pushes one down and forcefully holds him there. Two is through instrumentalisation where people are treated as tools, machines or devices necessary for processing a greater and more important goal. In simple terms, people are called upon to water the mango tree but not to enjoy the fruits. Three is degradation, which simply means to put people to live in inhuman conditions. Four is humanisation, which is the worst form of violation. It is a case where people are treated as lesser human beings, like animals, like a child treats a dolly her age can no longer accommodate.

Violation of basic human rights and, in particular, human dignity, by states around the world is what has activated most separation movements. Though risky, preachers of the gospel of secession have always won the hearts of the people, not through unethical indoctrination but by selling a heart-piercing message – patience has its elastic limit and continuing to hold will only compound more misery.

But does secession realise the happiness separatists preach? The answer can only be assessed from the previous stories.

The fall of USSR (1991)

USSR was dissolved in 1991 into 15 countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. The main reason for the collapse of USSR was the economic crisis that hit the union. Miners and workers were on strike and the country was experiencing chaos across the entire land. The situation was the leader’s own making. He invested so much on nuclear reactors and war that he forgot to cater for the basic needs of the people. Democracy was outlawed as no elections had taken place for over 70 years. Dissidents were eliminated by the authoritarian regime. Things got thick in 1986 when an explosive was mistakenly ignited causing extensive damage and loss of life to the country’s nationals. A number of citizens fled to Israel and US. In 1988, civil war and violence broke out in Moscow when the government arrested reformists who wanted to influence state policy. The centre wouldn’t hold for long after that.   

But not all these countries broke into happiness. Ukraine has had leadership wrangles since. The 2014 revolution and pro-Russian insurgents continue to undermine the peace the nation desired. The lesson we learn here is that secession should be backed by a super majority of the voters otherwise there will always be disaffection from the minority that rooted for unity/stay.          

The dissolution of Yugoslavia

The main point here is the bitter inter-ethnic Yugoslavia war between Croats and Serbs. The dispute was occasioned by the Serb-dominated security structure that was responsible for the assassination of Croat political leaders. There were cases of abuse of human rights through the fascist group Ustase and disenfranchisement of certain groups. There were also questions of difference in the quality of life. In Kosovo, for example, residents complained of not drawing any benefit from being part of Yugoslavia. The situation got worse when the larger state got into crisis following the huge debt borrowed by the regime.

Croatia is a success story here. After the separation, the nation has experienced political stability and consistent upward economic growth.

Korea

The division of Korea into South and North was mainly due to the supremacy wrangles between US (South) and Russia (North). There was a bloody war in 1948 along the borders that prompted the intervention of the UN. The economic and democratic difference between the two states today speaks volumes on the leadership styles they adopted when they separated.

Eritrea

Eritrea was at first an autonomous nation. The autonomy was revoked by the Ethiopian government, which aimed to conquer the territory as one of its provinces. The UN granted Ethiopia’s wishes and the territory was annexed. This led to a civil war that lasted for 30 years. The two states were not colonised by the same European nation and had absolutely nothing historical to share. In 1991, Eritrea won the fight against Ethiopian soldiers and declared independence.

This is not a good case for comparative study as the foundation of separation was not abusive marriage but one forced by a partisan matchmaker.

South Sudan (2011)

South Sudan’s secession is recent. The cause can be simply understood as marginalisation government. South Sudanese are non-Arabs and Christians. They felt oppressed by their Arab and Muslim brothers from the North and thought it was their turn to sing the cliché “enough is enough”.

However, South Sudan is yet to know peace. There are persistent internal disputes within the borders of the new state. Different voices have been expressed on whether South Sudan was ready to be a state. In support of Plebiscitary Theory, researchers say the state was a pre-mature birth, as it had not laid a strong foundation for statehood. The nation was formed before problems of illiteracy were examined. Statisticians say 90% of South Sudanese women could neither read nor write as at the time of declaration of independence. Also, South Sudan had very few health facilities, poor transport network with farmers facing challenges of accessing the market, insecurity as the rebel militia took over as the army and, above all, lack of a clear plan on management of the oil sector. These have led to further tribal animosity and it is right to say the family broke away from the clan without first sorting out its equally acrimonious polygamous problems.   

Venice (pending)

The Italian region of Veneto, different kinds of literatures say, is not so much keen on independence but autonomy. In fact, a recent opinion poll shows majority of its people do not want out of Italy. So what’s the issue here? The separatists argue that their wealth needs to be protected from exploitation and corruption by the Italian leadership. The concern is that Venice has enough resources and unique needs that it can address on its own without involving the national government of Italy. They do not think they should be sharing laws and budget with mainland Italy. Other writers say the problem is the chaotic national policies that are also too abstract to meet their special needs. The region also thinks it has a rich history in art and merchant classes, which it should manage on its own.

Catalonia (pending)

Catalonians feel they are giving so much to the central government of Spain but getting very little in return. There are also claims of tax discrimination, with businessmen in the region bearing a heavier burden than the rest of the Spanish populace. The theme of the call for independence is economic justice. Catalonia is a powerful economic zone of Spain as it controls ports and many tourist sites.

There are other pending cases of secession, like Quebec from Canada and Kurds from Iraq. The issues are somewhat similar: discrimination, victimisation, marginalisation and exploitation.

From the stories, it appears most secession movements are built around the idea of a need to live in a free society where human dignity is protected and cherished, and to submit to a government that provides equal opportunities and resources to its people. This makes it sound divine. But, digging further, secession is without opposition, and the arguments against the idea have been many and varied.

Arguments against

The first issue is how to deal with members of the parent state who occupy the territory of the intended new state and members of the withdrawing state who have acquired and developed properties in the parent state. There is always the fear of victimisation among investors from either side who may, after the division, find themselves in “foreign land”. This is, however, not a big issue in the modern world. State divorce, as captured in the opening paragraph of this article, is more collective and geographical than it is about persons. An individual can choose which of the two states to belong. In states with dual citizenship, the problem is half solved.

Secondly, there have been concerns of wrongful taking. Those opposed to separation argue that the withdrawing state will take over and benefit from infrastructure like roads, ports, hospitals, institutions of learning etc., that were built by and at the expense of the parent state. Such commentators equate this situation to stealing as the new state is converting into its assets that which it did not build. The concern is sometimes addressed through imposition of exit tax by the parent state.

On my part, I tend to agree with the view that there is no wrongful taking. There are two reasons for this. One is that public debt can be shared by the two states. The apportionment of debt is usually done through a negotiated treaty between the two concerned states. Two, there is no wrongful taking as the funds that were used to build those infrastructure were tax paid by all the citizens, including members of the withdrawing state.    

Thirdly, secession is opposed because of the threat of anarchy. It has been argued that secession cannot solve much if the withdrawing unit is also composed of sub-units whose relationship is even shakier. The proponents of this view contend that secession only reduces the scale of wrangles. The possibility of the sub-units also breaking away cannot be overlooked.

So how do we go about these challenges?

Two things. One, secession should be supported not by a simple majority of the withdrawing state but two-thirds. This way, the threat of the new state disintegrating further will be removed. If the race is as tight as 60% pro-divorce and 40% against it, discontent will gradually eat the new state into pieces. A separation supported by less than 70% is a gamble.

The second thing that should be done is to prepare a draft constitution for adoption by the new state. The reason I say this is because secession is about the people. They must thus appreciate the risk they are running into before they take the path.

The Constitution will determine the way the citizens of the new state will be governed. It is the legal Bible. It regulates how the citizens relate inter se and with their government. Therefore, it is prudent that members of the withdrawing state read, understand and accept the constitution as the new order. The secession referendum question should then read:

Do you want XXXXX to become an independent state in the form of a Republic, governed by the proposed Constitution? ^

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