The controversial referendum in the Crimean peninsula on 16 March, and its much-disputed accession treaty with Russia, has opened up a new can of worms in international politics. Russia maintains that it is only respecting Crimeans’ wishes for ‘self-determination,’ but is this true? And what does it say about other minorities who want out? Many African countries are a mosaic of ethnic groups and minorities. Could this happen here as well?
Meanwhile, Africa – especially South Africa, which is part of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) grouping – finds itself in a rather delicate situation in the clash between Russia and Western countries regarding the future of Ukraine. Many loyalties lie with Russia – but Europe is still Africa’s biggest funder and a major trading partner. The African Union (AU) has so far kept silent on the matter.
Brad Simpson, in a thought-provoking article in Foreign Policy magazine, entitled ‘Self-determination in the age of Putin’, points out that self-determination is ‘one of the most contested ideas of the 21st century.’ While the United Nations (UN) recognises the right to self-determination, it can mean many things to many people – and there are no hard and fast rules about the right to secede.
Self-determination can mean many things to many people
Simpson points out that recent cases of secession, like South Sudan in 2011 and Eritrea in 1991, were the result of years of conflict and human rights abuses, where groups chose to break away because they felt their minority rights weren’t protected. In recent decades, such examples are few and far between. Certainly, none of these cases saw a big power orchestrate events like Russia had done after the recent government changeover in Kiev. ‘While a right to secede does exist, Crimea's move departs from evolving international norms about secession. Yet that will hardly stop other groups from appropriating the Crimean example to suit their purposes,’ writes Simpson.
The question may be asked whether smaller entities in Africa will see this as an opportunity to state their case. What is good for one should be good for the other; after all, the borders of African countries were drawn by outsiders. Meanwhile, there are also isolated cases in Africa where regional strongmen, like Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, are accused of taking a Putin-like stance towards a neighbouring territory – in this case the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director of the Institute for Security Studies, says the default position of African countries and the AU has always been against secession, and for maintaining existing borders. This is in part due to the threat of break-up that various African states would face if minority regions broke away. This is the case in places like Kenya, where ethnic Somalis claim a region in the north of the country and Mali, where Touaregs claim a large part of the northern region.
Internally driven calls for self-determination also abound elsewhere in Africa. Many of these are solved through regional or federal systems, but in places like Senegal, where the southern Casamance province wants more self-determination, it leads to low-level conflicts.
The AU has always been against secession, and for maintaining existing borders
Festus Aboagye, Executive Director of the African Peace Support Trainers’ Association (APSTA) Secretariat in Nairobi, agrees that the status quo is likely to remain as it is. He attributes this to pressure from bigger states and the international community, particularly former colonial powers who are not in favour of redrawing Africa’s borders. The Somali expansionist idea – to get Somalis in Ethiopia, Kenya and even Djibouti to form one greater Somalia – will probably not succeed, he says. ‘That is a long shot, which the international community is not going to countenance. Ethiopia is a regional power in East Africa and has managed with alliances in the international community to stop Somalia from achieving this objective. The same applies to Kenya.’
Many of the struggles around ethnic identity in Africa have also of late turned to ‘some semblance of regional terrorism.’ This was, for example, the case in the north of Mali recently. South Sudanese, however, have never resorted to such tactics and have largely gained the sympathy of the international community for their struggle, Aboagye says.
It is possible that breakaways based on claims of self-determination could take place in the long term; the map of Africa will probably not stay the same forever. However, it seems unlikely, for now, that African regions would follow the same path as Crimea.
The closest example in Africa to what is currently happening in the former Soviet Union seems to be the dispute over the Western Sahara, and Morocco’s claims over the territory. Morocco has encouraged Moroccan settlement of the Western Sahara – the famous Marche Verte organised by King Hassan II in the 1970s – which could influence any referendum held there over whether the territory should belong to Morocco. Old historical claims and counter-claims also play a huge role here. Yet neither Morocco nor any of the surrounding states, including Algeria, is large enough to bully the others into either declaring the Western Sahara independent or accepting it as fully part of Morocco.
The biggest lesson for Africa from the Crimea-annexation drama might be that global power games are changing. Although this crisis harks back to the Cold War era, Cilliers points out that clearly, today, no superpower has the capacity to stop Russia from acting like a regional hegemon in the Ukraine. ‘What we are seeing is the realignment from a bi-polar to a multi-polar world,’ he says. ‘Previously the choice was between East and West. This enforced rigidity and stability, but now we have multiple sources of power,’ Cilliers says. This means that in the longer term, if a big, powerful country in Africa decides to impose itself on others, it could theoretically do so – and get away with it.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant