What can we learn from the secession trend?

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In his latest column for the Daily Nation, co-editor Nic Cheeseman asks what Kenya can learn from the recent spate of secession attempts – some successful, others not – from South Sudan to Scotland.

Secession continues to be a hot topic around the world. In part, this is because the right to secession has never been effectively established either morally or legally. Throughout history, many people have asserted their right to self-government, but the international community has typically been reluctant to support these appeals.

Historians and political scientists often comment on the fact that despite all of the criticism levelled at the arbitrary borders drawn by colonial governments in Africa, they have very rarely been revised. But the desire of minorities to go it alone has not gone away — fuelled by the strength of ethnic, regional and religious identities, and the repressive strategies of many governments.

Kenya has been no exception to this trend. At independence, for example, there were debates about whether Somali communities in the northeast of the country should stay in Kenya or be assimilated into a “Greater Somalia”. Similar debates continue at the Coast.

Ultimately, Kanu’s determination to retain a centralised and unified territory, and a colonial concern that tinkering with the country’s boundaries would open a can of worms, ensured that these demands were unsuccessful.

Despite this, secessionist sentiment has remained, most notably through the formation of the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) in 2010-2011. The MRC’s supporters claim it is the legitimate expression of the political and economic marginalisation of the people of the Coast.

Successive governments have accused it of being a terrorist organisation responsible for inciting public unrest. What is clear, is that despite the rhetoric from both sides the MRC is not particularly large or unified. In part, this is because of the many dividing lines that run through coastal society. It is hard to tell, for example, whether “the people of the coast” includes upcountry people or just the “original” inhabitants, and whether it includes people of all religions or is limited to Muslims.

The MRC has been keen to advertise itself as having both Christian and Muslim supporters, but it is unclear whether these different groups can really be unified around a common goal. Each of these communities has a different vision of what the coast should look like, and what its relationship to Nairobi should be. For this reason, the emergence of a concerted movement in favour of coastal independence seems unlikely. The one development that could change this calculation is if tensions continue to rise between coastal governors and the central government, fostering a stronger and more coherent coastal identity.

By contrast, in some other countries such as Sudan, the pressure for change was more widespread and powerful, increasing to the point where calls for self-government could no longer be denied, telling us about when secession works and when it doesn’t.

Lessons from South Sudan

Following a long and bloody civil war, the government of Sudan finally allowed South Sudan to become independent on July 9, 2011, inspiring celebrations around the world. Just two years later, this early optimism had turned to a deep sense of foreboding: Secession did not end the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. Instead, violent clashes continued, clustered around key border towns, disputed territories, and oil reserves.

In July last year the relationship between the two neighbours became so bad that the government of South Sudan went for the “nuclear option” of turning off the pipeline taking oil to the north —  undermining the revenue base of both governments.

Conflict with Sudan was compounded by mounting tensions between different factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement itself as an internal power struggle between President Salva Kiir and then Vice-President Riek Machar spilled out of control last December. Amid a deteriorating security situation, Kiir accused Machar and others of trying to overthrow the government. As the alleged coup plotters were rounded up, rebel factions led by Machar seized several towns, precipitating a descent into civil war.

The example of South Sudan is now often invoked not as a success story, but as evidence of why secession is a bad idea. But South Sudan is not a representative case. Almost all of the ingredients that tend to exacerbate political instability are present: weak political institutions, ethnic tensions, natural resources, high levels of unemployment, a militarised society, and a lack of experience with democracy. And even despite all of these factors, civil war would not have broken out if it had not been for a period of remarkably irresponsible political leadership.

The right lesson to take from the case of South Sudan is therefore not that secession can never work in Africa, but that it is important to think carefully about where conditions are likely to be more or less favourable.The context is not so bad in many other parts of Africa where two or three of the factors that can undermine secession hold sway, but not all six.

The coastal region of Kenya, for example, is not nearly as militarised as South Sudan, and has a much longer history of participatory politics.That said, control of the port of Mombasa, which is so important to East African economies, would almost certainly remain a contentious issue — in the same way that geo-strategically significant towns such as South Sudan’s Abyei became a major problem further north.

Lessons from Scotland

The case of Scotland is very different — although the presence of oil, and the question of how oil revenues can be used to sustain independence is an important common feature. Given that Scotland already enjoys a high level of economic and political development, the debate has focused more on the question of whether the country would be better off outside of the United Kingdom.

The referendum will not be held until September 18, 2014, and it is still not clear which side will win. The “Yes” vote argues that Scotland is strong enough to stand on its own two feet and that Scottish people would enjoy better public services if they go it alone. The “No” vote warns that on its own Scotland would become a small player in a large pond, unable to influence international debates.

As a result, they argue that England, Scotland, and Wales are “better together”. At present, the “No” campaign appears to be more effective. Although Scotland has North Sea oil to rely on, this will not last forever. The “No” campaign has played on the economic uncertainty that this generates, and on the thorny question of whether Scotland would be allowed to keep the pound as its currency. The three largest political parties in Westminster have all said that Scotland would have to start its own currency — a major undertaking.

All of these considerations would also hold at the Kenyan coast and other potential “secession” cases. Is it really plausible that such a small strip of land could be economically viable, even if it might be politically viable?

The coast lacks the oil that funds South Sudan and could fund an independent Scotland. It also suffers from a poor infrastructure and chronic underdevelopment. These problems are compounded by the fact that the area is too small to reap benefits from economies of scale or to evolve a balanced economy that would insulate citizens from the effects of fluctuations in tourist numbers.

The impact of independence

What is less appreciated in the debate on Scottish independence is the impact that it would have on the United Kingdom.

My father recently pointed out to me that if Scotland leaves the UK, it will necessitate far reaching changes to the political system that governs England and Wales. The most obvious is that the Labour Party wins many of its seats in Scotland. If these were to be eliminated, it would lose 40 MPs in Westminster, handing the Conservative Party an outright majority.

This is also an important consideration in many African states where parties support is geographically concentrated. Were the coastal region to go it alone, the biggest losers would be the Orange Democratic Movement, which has tended to poll well in the region.

Thus, in very different ways, the cases of South Sudan and Scotland illustrate that secession is a truly complex and difficult undertaking — one that is probably best avoided if there are no pressing reasons why it is essential. This raises the important question of what can be done to head-off secessionist demands.

As I write, the British Prime Minister David Cameron is reiterating the dangers that an independent Scotland would face while simultaneously outlining additional powers that would be given to the Scottish Parliament if the “No” vote wins. This is symptomatic of the “carrot and stick” approach that the “No” campaign has employed in the debate.

To date, the response of the Kenyan government to secessionist sentiment has involved quite a lot of sticks and not many carrots. This is a mistake, because one of the most effective ways to take secession off the agenda is to win the battle for hearts and minds. The biggest carrot that has so far been offered is, of course, devolution. Now that people at the coast have their own governors and county assemblies, the Nairobi government can argue that the coast already enjoys self-government and so has no need for independence. This is one of the many reasons why it is important that the spirit of devolution is respected.

Any efforts to undermine the decentralisation of power and resources, or to interfere with county elections, would only serve to fan the flames of secessionist sentiment.


This column was originally published on 13th September 2014.

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