Why Scottish independence matters for Africa

2014-09-17

The Scottish vote for independence tomorrow, if successful, will have two important ramifications for Africa: one positive, one negative. The positive impact is that it could break the deadlock on global governance reform. Without Scotland, the kingdom would no longer be united, and its continued claim to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) would ring hollow. The negative is that it could lend new momentum to border changes.

The five permanent members of the Security Council, the P5, are the victors in a war fought more than half a century ago. Today the Council faces a debilitating, pent-up demand for reform that cripples its legitimacy and effectiveness when the UN is most needed.

The possession of nuclear weapons, rather than global influence (the two generally go together) is the main criterion for membership of the UNSC. The only justification for the continued seat of France and the United Kingdom (UK) on the UNSC is therefore an expensive relic from a time when countries considered these weapons to have practical utility. Today the nuclear arsenal of France and the UK is the price paid for continued UNSC membership; and these serve as an easy bulwark against nuclear disarmament by the United States of America (USA), Russia and China. A vote for independence by the Scots would present a historical opportunity to end farce and implement real reform.

A vote for independence would present an opportunity to end farce and implement real reform

The current African position on UN reform is set out in the Ezulwini Consensus, an effort to rally around the concept of an expanded UNSC to 20 or 25 members, which would include two permanent seats and five non-permanent, rotational seats for Africa. The allocation of permanent seats to specific countries is, however, an anachronism. In a world where democracy at national level is a growth industry, the only reasonable position is a Council where countries grouped in regions elect one of their members for a set (but renewable) term.

Scottish independence would open the door for Germany, a much larger economy and increasingly the leader in the European Union (EU), to make the case for either a single EU seat, or for a rotational seat where members of the EU are elected (or rotate) to the UNSC for a fixed term. This will require Germany to abandon its moribund G4 initiative (a joint initiative with Brazil, India and Japan for a permanent UNSC seat, which has failed to gain traction over several years).

If non-P5 countries play their cards well, they could force change and break the impasse. The potential benefits of UNSC reform are huge, since the lack of legitimacy is eating away at international security and development at a time when global challenges such as climate change, organised crime and terrorism demand global responses.

Crippled by its antiquated composition, the UN (with the Security Council at its core) is crumbling and becomes less relevant with each passing year. Instead of being at the centre of global responses, the agenda is driven by various clubs including the Group of Seven (G7), the Group of Twenty (G20), BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and others. None of these have the institutionalisation to give effect to their efforts, and they often serve to polarise rather than cohere. Without reform, the centre won't hold; and Scottish independence can begin to unlock this hitherto intractable problem.

This will not be easy. Russia managed to cling on to the seat of the former Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall despite the diminution of its global influence. Analysts in the England are already looking to the transition from the Soviet Union to Russia in 1991-2 as an example of ‘managing the situation,’ so as to ensure the UK’s continuation of its permanent seat should the Scottish vote yes.

Minorities in many of these countries will be empowered by the success of the Scots

But should Scotland leave the union, Wales would eventually follow, England would have to reposition many of its nuclear weapons and its global voice would become faint and distant, reflecting a smaller economy and limited military that even the most adept English diplomacy could not conceal. The last vestiges of the once-mighty British Empire would cease to exist, and the world would be presented with a historical opportunity to reclaim the UN to the benefit of a much larger community of nations – rather than the victors of the Second World War.

Ironically, it is the West (the US in particular) that would benefit most from the opportunity to embed a rules-based system, rather than clinging to a past system of privilege.

The negative impact of Scottish independence is that it would provide further stimulus to a global resurgence of sub-state nationalism, with potentially disturbing and destabilising implications for Africa.

At the time of the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, African leaders committed to respecting the colonial boundaries. This was in recognition of the potential turbulence that could follow efforts at redefining African borders along purported tribal or ethnic lines.

During the post-colonial period, a degree of national identity developed in most African countries – although it remains contested in those that have suffered from personalised rule and abuse. Generally inter-state war in Africa has declined, and so too have efforts at irredentism – until recently.

In retrospect, it is clear that the Cold War provided an external guarantee of African borders drawn during colonialism. Multipolarity is coming faster than anyone suspected, and in its wake, boundaries are easier to change where nationhood is shallow and government control weak.

The Central African Republic and Mali are already dividing along religious and ethnic lines, while Libya has effectively been split between a number of competing and overlapping fiefdoms, battling each other across the length and breadth of the territory. A Scottish vote for independence would provide an important stimulus in Africa for what is already a global trend.

As much as globalisation has unleashed individual empowerment owing to poverty reduction and a huge growth in the global middle class, poor governance and a sense of marginalisation from the centre are evident in many African countries, including Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Mali, Angola, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania. Minorities in many of these countries will be empowered by the success of the Scots to also exercise their wish for self-determination; and eventually the right to govern their own affairs.

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on alight in a small town in Tunisia on 17 December 2010, the subsequent events forced rulers from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen; ignited North Africa; and threatened stability in the Middle East. A tide of sub-state forces has subsequently been unleashed, which could undermine the rise of Africa and the hope for a more prosperous future of many of its citizens.

Research done at the Institute for Security Studies as part of our African Futures project clearly reflects Africa’s large governance gap. Most African countries lack the security, legitimacy and administrative depth required to manage development and provide security. Large, powerful countries such as Nigeria and South Africa are frayed at the edges, with social cohesion and national identity declining.

Although it promises greater future balance and equity, rapidly emerging multipolarity is proving globally destabilising, including in Africa. Careful stewardship is required and the UN, for all its deficiencies, lies at the heart of the associated efforts. Tomorrow, the Scots will play an important role in shaping our future.

Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director, ISS

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