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Africa: Separatism in Africa – Exploring Colonial Legacies

Diverse secessionist movements are back in the spotlight in Africa. The Tigray Region in Ethiopia is only one example. The roots often go back to the colonial era and some of these conflicts still smolder today.

Toyin Falola believes colonialism is at the root of all separatist movements in Africa. European colonial powers divided the continent between them at the Berlin Congo Conference in 1894-95 and at the end of World War I.

“They cobbled together hundreds of peoples and nations that had existed before into about 50 countries,” the history professor at the University of Texas explained to DW.

Existing structures or religious and ethnic affiliations were not taken into account by the Euopean powers.

The first two examples of sepatatism, Ambazonia and West Togoland, came about due to such arbitrary demarcations.

But it is not always so clear-cut, explains Lotje de Vries, an assistance professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Sometimes it simply isn’t possible to determine exactly when an area belonged to whom and whether or not parts should now be handed over to other forces. Zanzibar in Tanzania or Cabinda in Angola are such examples.

As co-editor of the book “Secession in African Politics,” de Vries was faced with the challenge of how to categorize the various separatist movements in Africa.

But her publisher was not particularly interested in the historical origins of the movements. Instead, they wanted to examine how the movements were born.

Ambazonia, Cameroon

After World War I, the German colony of Cameroon was placed under a British and French mandate. A referendum in 1961 sealed the future of British Cameroon: The northern region decided to join Nigeria, while the southern region aspired to become part of the Republic of Cameroon — the former French colony.

Today, Cameroon’s English-speaking population is in the minority — and complain of being marginalized compared to the French majority.

These tensions eventually boiled over into a violent conflict dubbed the Anglophone Crisis, which has resulted in more than 3,000 deaths.

Both the army and separatists have been accused of serious human rights violations. Three years ago, the two English-speaking provinces in the west symbolically declared their independence and proclaimed the”Republic of Ambazonia.”

For de Vries, the Ambazonian movement is serious in its quest for independence — mainly because it is the identity of its population which is at stake.

Western Togoland, Ghana

There are historical parallels between the origins of separatist movements in Cameroon and Ghana.

After World War I, the former German colony of Togo was divided between Britain in the west and France in the east. The British part ultimately merged with modern day Ghana.

Towards the end of September 2020, tensions in eastern Ghana, or Western Togoland, had flared up once more and separatists declared the territory a sovereign state. There had been earlier attempts beginning in 2017. A segment of the local population felt they were not adequately represented by the government of Ghana.

This region, ike Ambazonia, is part of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), which represents the interests of those that are not recognized as states by the United Nations (UN).

Biafra, Nigeria

In some conflicts, how states dealt with their colonial legacy after independence also plays a role in the emergence of separatist movements.

An example of this is the Biafra region in southeastern Nigeria. A few years after independence, a civil war broke out (1967-1970), which is estimated to have killed between 500,000 and three million people.

According to Falola, it was mainly caused by how the federal structure was implemented in Nigeria in the 1960s — or the “post-colonial mismanagement,” as he puts it. A key question facing the government was how to distribute power and revenues within the state.

“Whenever you centralize something too much, there are new subordinate crises,” says Falola. “You cannot centralize too much without marginalizing someone.”

Separatist sentiments have continued to flare up again and again in the southeast. “The conditions that led to Biafra are still there,” says Falola.

However, de Vries’ places Biafra in the category of cases where the threat of secession is seen as a means of exerting pressure to be heard and to win political weight.

Zanzibar, Tanzania

Throughout history, the Zanzibar archipelago has been under the rule of various powers.

Portugal was the first colonial power to exert its influence, followed by the Sultanate of Oman and Britain. For a time, Zanzibar was also an independent sultanate.

After it gained independence from Britain, a revolution took place in 1964. A few months later Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania.