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The deceptive seduction of secession

The British-Nigerian director of Radio Biafra; whose bid to resurrect the 50-year-old dispute was initially dismissed by most Nigerians as an agitation, gained notoriety when he was arrested by the Nigerian Department of State Service DSS in 2015.

Political activist and leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement, Nnamdi Kanu (L), wearing a Jewish prayer shawl, poses in the garden of his house in Umuahia, southeast Nigeria, on May 26, 2017, before commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the war on May 30. The war was triggered when the Igbo people, the main ethnic group in the southeast, declared an independent breakaway state, the Republic of Biafra. / AFP PHOTO / STEFAN HEUNIS

Over the last few years, the Biafran secessionist movement; whose failed bid to split from Nigeria led to one of the bloodiest civil wars since World War II, has resurfaced under the leadership of political activist, Nnamdi Kanu, and his Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) platform. The British-Nigerian director of Radio Biafra; whose bid to resurrect the 50-year-old dispute was initially dismissed by most Nigerians as an agitation, gained notoriety when he was arrested by the Nigerian Department of State Service DSS in 2015, on terrorism and treason charges. His recent release from detention; albeit on bail and with strict conditions, and the ultimatum given by northern youth groups for Igbo residents to exit the northern part of the country, has heightened tensions and revived the national debate around Biafra. This renewed debate made me explore similar movements to assess the chances of success, the cost and what the new republic might look like in the event of a successful breakaway. While there are hundreds of secessionist movements around the world, their rate of success is incredibly low and when they do, they often don’t deliver the reforms they advertise.

In 1941, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, which affirmed the rights of all peoples to choose the form of Government under which they wished to live; and urging the restoration of sovereign rights and self-government to those who had been forcibly deprived of them. That declaration codified self-determination as a fundamental human right and the international standard for any group of people seeking redress from systems or structures that disparaged them. This quest for self-determination has been the basis for revolutions, decolonization, separatist movements, dissolutions, and perhaps most frequently secession. Although most nation states have had to deal with some level of secession at some point in their history; including active movements like the Basques, Biafrans, Catalans, Quebeckers, Kurds and the Welsh among others, the success rate is alarmingly low.

Since the charter was ratified in 1941 there have been fewer than a dozen successful secessions. These include Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971, Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993, Timor-Leste from Indonesia in 2002, Montenegro from Serbia & Montenegro in 2006 (which was more of a split than a secession), Kosovo from Serbia in 2008 (although it hasn’t been fully recognized as a nation state) and South Sudan from Sudan in 2011. The abysmal success rate is due in part to the fact that the very entities these factions seek to leave have to ratify their exit, and because they almost always oppose these secessionist movements; for primarily territorial and economic reasons, the only option left is usually an involuntary exit.

This is the choice Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu made when he declared the southeast portion of Nigeria, the Independent Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967, following a breakdown of negotiations with the Nigerian Government. The new republic lasted about five weeks before the Nigerian Government sent in its troops to recapture Biafra. The Biafran military, which was about half the size of Nigeria’s, was severely underequipped and did not have the support of the international community, and so was at a tremendous disadvantage. After 30 months of intense fighting, the Biafran leader fled into exile, the troops surrendered and the independent republic was dissolved.

In his acceptance of Biafra’s surrender, Nigeria’s Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, famously remarked the war had no victor and no vanquished, just a victory for common sense. While his words were instrumental in the reconstruction and reunification of Nigeria, the estimated loss of about 1 million civilians lives on the Biafran side told a different story. The Biafrans suffered a disproportionate loss of lives and treasure, while most citizens elsewhere in the country went about their daily business without much disruption. Most movements that have attempted or succeeded in seceding have done so amid significant violence and mass casualty, begging the question: “what is the cost of secession?” It is impossible to talk about secession without factoring the repression that often necessitates the desire to break away. In the case of Biafra, the impetus for secession was the persecution and massacre of the Igbo Christians in the Northern part of the country, which resulted in a mass exodus of Igbos. They asserted that Nigeria’s oppressive military government had made it impossible for them to continue to live freely in the country. While they had a justifiable reason for concern, the Nigerian military governments opposition to the move, which it saw as a territorial and economic loss, meant that violence was the most likely outcome. In addition to the colossal levels of civilian casualty, the civil war resulted in about 100,000 military deaths, more than 2 million internally displaced and over a million refugees. According to a declassified CIA report on the war, the economic cost of the war was several hundred million dollars. The Biafrans bore the brunt of the loss, thanks in part to a mid-war currency change by the Federal government which made it hard for Biafrans to access their deposits in commercial banks. Even after the war, each Biafran was given £20 regardless of the amount of money they had had in the bank before the war, leading to a considerable loss of wealth.

War is usually touted as the cost of freedom, and as such ‘patriots’ support or participate in secession with the promise of liberty once they achieve independence. In her study, “Successful Secessionist Movements and the Uncertainty of Post-Secession Quality of Life,” Chloe Stein examined how successful secessions in Bangladesh, Timor Leste, Eritrea and South Sudan impacted the peoples’ quality of life (defined by political rights, civil liberties and GDP per capita) and found that independence doesn’t necessarily equal liberty. While secession in Timor Leste ushered in more political rights and civil liberties; in Eritrea it brought an unprecedented level of repression, earning it the title “The North Korea of Africa.” South Sudan almost fell into a civil war right after secession due to duelling factions – a very common phenomenon in secessionist movements. Following its secession from Pakistan, Bangladesh’s founding leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ignored the new nation’s constitution, along with the civil rights protections it guaranteed and instead ruled as a dictator until he was assassinated. These case studies show that while the idea of an independent statehood might be enticing, the fragility of new democracies and the corruption of power decrease the likelihood of the government delivering on its promises of self-determination post-secession.

While the passage of time, the glossing over of history, and the romanticization of the Biafran story in fictional books and movies seem to have blunted the trauma of the civil war or induced war amnesia, it is important that as we flirt with the idea of separation, we assess and accept its true cost, the probability of success and the validity of the promises it offers.