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Lessons from Spain’s Catalonia, Iraq’s Kurdistan and Nigeria’s Biafra 


People holding Esteladas (Pro-independence Catalan flag) gather outside the Catalan parliament in Barcelona on October 27, 2017, during a plenary session to debate a motion on declaring independence from Spain.<br />The Catalan parliament will vote on how to respond to the central government’s planned takeover of Catalan political powers following an outlawed independence referendum.<br />/ AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA

The word of God says there are seasons and times and everything comes to be at the appointed time. From historical times, man has sought independence from oppression and injustice. Man has sought equity and fair play. There was a time slaves fought for independence. Slavery was abolished 1833 in the UK and in 1865 in the USA following many years of struggle including civil wars. After independence was won, they began to fight for equality and fair play. The last vestiges of segregation based on race were dismantled in the United States of America in 1964 through the civil rights act and in South Africa in 1994 when ANC took over political leadership.

Battle for national independence from colonial rule started in the mid 20th Century with India and Pakistan obtaining Independence from Britain in 1945 and by 1971 all the nations that were under colonial rule – British, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, etc had become independent.


Then the movement to seek self determination or secession to establish independent sovereign rule by regions or parts of existing independent nations started, several centuries ago. In 1830, Belgium seceded from the Netherlands; in 1838, Nicaragua seceded from the Republic of Central America; Ireland seceded from the UK in 1916; in 1945, Austria broke away from Nazi Germany; in 1965, Singapore was excised from Malaysia and very recently, South Sudan separated from Sudan. The Republic of Yugoslavia, after the secession of Croatia and Slovenia in 1991, dissolved into Bosnia, Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro and all the new states are doing very well, much better than Yugoslavia ever did.

The people of Catalonia, an autonomous community which is part of the independent State of Spain began their quest for full independence from Spain in the 17th Century (1640) when it first revolted against Spain. Since then it has been in the struggle, proclaiming a Catalan Republic in 1931 but this was reversed in 1932 and returned to an autonomous state, which it lost again in1939 after the civil war (1936-1939). In 1977 it was granted limited autonomy and in 1979 it received full autonomy. But in 2013, the Catalonian Parliament passed a resolution calling for referendum for total independence from Spain. This referendum after several twists and turns was held on 1st October 2017 and since then the struggle has come to a cantankerous impasse as the Federal Spanish Government sacked Mr. Carles Puigdemont, the President of the autonomous region of Catalonia with Headquarters in Barcelona. The Parliament was also dissolved bringing the hitherto autonomous region into direct rule from Madrid. The reasons they want full independence are well documented and they believe that they had followed the constitutional route to achieving their independence. They conducted a referendum which showed that 80 per cent of Catalonians supported the independence bid and the parliament eventually approved the declaration of Independence overwhelmingly. But the Spanish government called it a rebellion and as I write a court order is being sought to arrest Puigdemont, following the earlier arrest and detention of some of his lieutenants. What a long and tortuous road to freedom!

About the same time as the people of Catalonia were going through referendum in pursuit of their independence from Spain, the Kurdish people were also going through a referendum in a bid to gain independence from Iraq and establish their own Kurdistan Republic. Again, the referendum held on the 25th of September 2017 succeeded and before they could declare the Kurdistan Republic, Iraq armed forces invaded the Kurdish territory, temporarily halting the movement to independence because the Federal Government of Iraq rejected the referendum. In Nigeria we have seen the resurgence of the struggle for the independent State of Biafra. The first attempt made in 1967, collapsed in 1970 following a war declared by the Federal Government to force Biafra back to Nigeria.


Many people, especially people like General Yakubu Gowon, General Olusegun Obasanjo and General Muhammadu Buhari thought that was the end of Biafra. Then Chief Uwazurike came up with his movement for the Survival of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) in the late nineties. General Olusegun Obasanjo battled him and his group till they concluded that MASSOB did not represent any serious threat and everybody relaxed. In 2014, the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) came strongly on the scene. Nnamdi Kanu launched a virile verbal attack on Nigeria which led to his arrest and then an escalation of the demand for the sovereign state of Biafra. When it looked like the effort was gathering steam with talks of arranging a referendum, the Nigerian Federal Government attacked Nnamdi Kanu and his young followers using soldiers on operation Python dance, then described IPOB as a terrorist organisation and with the agreement of the governors of the South East states, proscribed IPOB, with a case of treasonable felony hanging on the neck of Nnamdi Kanu whose whereabout is unknown since the attack in September 12, 2017.

Is it a coincidence that these three independence struggles are going on virtually at the same time? Is it also a coincidence that the struggles have been aborted by the central governments using apparently the same methods – force & quasi legality? Can we say that we have heard the last of these independence struggles? What lessons can we draw from these?

First, the demand for self-rule, self-determination and independence as an inalienable right of man will never cease as long as the Earth remaineth. Second, because nation states especially those that emerged from colonial rule are mostly artificial creations, demand for independence or secession will continue. In my view, God created nations and gave each nation a common language. That was how God created national boundaries. What Lord Lugard and the British he represented did was to amalgamate several nations into one country for their administrative convenience. However, they left an autonomous regional political structure that would allow dominant language groups to manage their affairs while contributing to maintaining a central government. But the military changed the structure to suite their own administrative convenience and subsequent perpetuation of this perverted structure in a civil democracy has continued to stoke centrifugal forces worsened by unenlightened and parochial leadership.


Thirdly, use of force as we have seen in Nigeria and Iraq and to some extent in Spain will never bring permanent solution to the quest for self-rule or independence. Catalonia’s struggle has been ongoing for many years, the Biafra struggle resurfaced after nearly 50 years. I think countries like Spain, Iraq and Nigeria need to learn from other multi-ethnic and multi-religious federations that are living in apparent peace. Luckily, it seems that most Nigerians still prefer to live together if only the country can be restructured to remove the manifest contradictions, enthrone justice, equity and fair play.

Fourthly and lastly, history has shown that those who make peaceful change difficult or impossible only help to precipitate violent change sooner or later. My hope is that the Spanish government will not push Catalonia into violence with the strong-arm tactics it seems to have adopted. Iraq and the Kurds seem to be adopting dialogue and negotiation to resolve the problem, at least for now. Nigeria’s triumphant victory attitude over IPOB and the Biafra issues leaves much to be desired. It may be instructive to close with a quote from the State of the Union address of the USA President James Buchanan on December 3, 1860: “The fact is that our union rests on public opinion and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens in civil war. If it cannot live on the affections of the people, it may one day perish. Congress possesses many means of preserving it by CONCILIATION, but the sword was not placed in their hands to preserve it by force.”

Mazi Ohuabunwa, OFR. 

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