On the causes and consequences of secessionism

What you need to know:

  • For opposition supporters, this is emblematic of a much broader process of economic and political exclusion.
  • According to Amnesty International, this strategy has resulted in around 150 people losing their life so far.

Secessionism is on the rise in Africa. In Nigeria, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) has revived the memory of the Biafran government that attempted to break away from the rest of the country in the 1960s.

In Cameroon, the notion of a separate “Southern Cameroon” state or “Amazonia” is fast gaining traction among the English speaking people of that area.

And in Kenya, opposition leaders have begun talking about the possibility of creating a People’s Democratic Republic that would effectively divide the country in two.

These groups are not alone and join a number of pre-existing movements in countries such as Senegal (Casamance), Zambia (Barotseland) and many more besides.


So what does the experience of these different groups tell us about the causes and consequences of secessionism, and what do these developments means for Kenya?

Separatist campaigns in Africa are usually triggered by perceptions of recent injustice, but are rooted in a much longer history of political and economic marginalisation. In part because of the nature of their demands, and in part because they typically meet with a hostile state response, they typically lead to considerable political violence.

But while such movements can be temporarily repressed through coercion, this rarely solves the problem.

In all three cases, the impetus behind separatist claims is a perception of political injustice. In Cameroon, the current protests appear to have been triggered by complaints by English speaking lawyers, who were frustrated that an increasing proportion of new laws are not being translated from French.

Their powerful criticism inspired others to speak out, building momentum that found its ultimate expression in a number of large rallies.

Similarly, the revival of Biafran separatism in Nigeria has also been driven by political developments.


The new movement was inspired by British-Nigerian political activist Nnamdi Kanu, who used his London based radio station to broadcast his views and mobilise others.

But the reason that Kanu’s message resonated with many people living in the South East of the country, particularly those from the Igbo community, was because they felt that they were losing out politically.

Most notably, the All Progressives Congress (APC) government elected in 2015 is a coalition of Northern and South-Western interests in which the South East of the country lacks a strong voice.

In the Kenyan case, the perceived injustice is even more recent.

Angry at the lack of reform to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and frustrated at their exclusion from power, some opposition leaders such as Peter Anyang’ N’yong’o, the new Kisumu County Governor, have begun to talk seriously about the possibility that pro-opposition areas could break away from the country.

The appeal of such ideas resonates with some opposition supporters precisely because successive defeats in problematic elections have generated the impression that Raila Odinga and his allies will never be able to win unless they control their own state.

Although they were triggered by recent events, none of these movements is really new, and it is their intellectual heritage and history that makes them so potent.


Nigeria has experienced destabilising ethnic and regional political competition since the colonial era, and the Biafran movement is one of three major insurgencies the country now faces, along with Boko Haram and the Niger Delta militants.

Although these three groups have radically different ideologies and tactics, they share one thing in common: the perception that the state is illegitimate because it fails to represent their community.

The same is true in Cameroon, where tension between English and French speakers can also be traced back to the colonial era, and complaints about linguistic and regional inequalities have been a constant source of social and political tension.

A similar story can be told about Kenya, where Raila Odinga has tried to win the presidency on multiple occasions, but has never succeeded – a failure that is all the more keenly felt because the same thing happened to his father.

For opposition supporters, this is emblematic of a much broader process of economic and political exclusion.

While talk of marginalization may sound like an elite preoccupation, it is important to remember that this is a life and death issue: child mortality is lower, and life expectancy higher, in those parts of the country that have been closest to power.

Partly as a result, we have seen a number of different separatist groups emerge over the last sixty years, most recently the Mombasa Revolutionary Council (MRC).

Formed in 1999 but largely dormant until 2008, the MRC argued that Pwani Si Kenya (The Coast is Not Kenya). Although its activities were interrupted when it was prohibited and its leader was arrested after it was branded a terrorist organization by the government, it is said to have morphed into the Pwani Democratic Movement in 2014.

The recent statement by opposition political leaders at the Coast that they intend to separate from Kenya was very different in language, tone and strategy from those previously made by the MRC, but both tap into a widespread feeling of political alienation that has deep roots.

In this way, secessionist groups in Kenya, Cameroon and Nigeria are both new and old, drawing on histories of struggle that go back to independence and beyond.

Given the key drivers of secessionism, the obvious solution is to build more inclusive and representative political systems.

Instead, governments typically respond with coercion, which represses separatist groups in the short term but does nothing to resolve the factors that drive anti-state sentiment.

The worst violence has occurred in Nigeria, where President Muhammadu Buhari has reverted to type by brining in the military to and implementing Operation Python Dance II to crush demonstrations.


According to Amnesty International, this strategy has resulted in around 150 people losing their life so far.

The government in Cameroon has adopted a similar approach, blocking social media and some websites earlier this year, and deploying the military to deal with mass protests.

Predictably, these tactics have also spilt blood, albeit on a smaller scale, with 17 deaths recorded in the last few months.

Of course, this is not all the fault of governments. By their very nature, secessionist movements are seeking to challenge the status quo and to think the unthinkable. In many cases they have also been guilty of intransigence and a refusal to compromise, leading in political deadlock.

Thankfully, Kenya is not in this situation yet. Although a number of opposition leaders have talked about secession, Raila Odinga has said that he doesn’t favour this policy.

Instead, it is clear that senior NASA leaders care more about winning control of Kenya than breaking away.

Indeed, at present the talk of secession seems to be more a strategy designed to pressure the government into compromising on issues like electoral reform than a genuine attempt to start a new nation.


If this is an extreme act of brinkmanship it is a dangerous ploy, because once the genie of separatism is unleashed it can be very hard to put back in the bottle. However, the good news is that it creates the potential for a negotiated solution.

NASA leaders do not want a prolonged and violent confrontation with the government; what they are really hoping for is a greater degree of representation in government.

That will not be an easy thing to achieve, especially as the government will argue that having won two elections it has no reason to share power. But it is still a far more feasible goal to satisfy than self-determination so long as the ruling party is willing to come to the table.

Secessionist movements hardly ever end well. Of three most famous cases in recent years, Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom, Catalonia’s political leader fled Spain as the central government extended direct control over his region, and South Sudan won its independence but then descended into civil war.

There are a number of reasons for this track record. One is that separatist groups rarely get international backing – at least officially. Most governments are too worried about setting a precedent that might then be invoked by groups in their own country who also hope for self-rule.


Another is that separatist groups are rarely as united as they like to make out. On the one hand, many citizens prefer the security of a larger political and economic unit and as a result those who do not want to leave often outnumber those that do.

This helps to explain the rejection of Scottish independence, and the fact that a recent opinion poll found that the total support for Catalan parties that want to remain in Spain is higher than for those who want to leave.

On the other hand, smaller ethnic groups worry that secession will simply mean that they will be dominated by a different majority, bringing few benefits.

This was a significant issue for Biafra in the 1960s, when a number of minority communities that also resided in the East of the country questioned whether their interests would be defended in an Igbo dominated state.

If NASA does become a separatist movement it is likely to face similar problems. As Justin Willis and George Gona have agued, one of the main challenges that undermined the MRC is that there has rarely been agreement on exactly what “the Coast” is and exactly who “belongs” there.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham