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The unpleasant problem of secession – Biafra, Ambazonia, and Tigray-Ben Akih

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The unpleasant problem of secession – Biafra, Ambazonia, and Tigray

The greatest challenge facing African and other states around the world in this century will be secession. These internal conflicts are the worst a nation can face. African states will be fragilized and will deviate from overly optimisThe unpleasant problem of secession – Biafra, Ambazonia, and Tigraytic economic predictions. Even China will come to a dead end in its authoritarian crackdown of Hong Kong, Uyghur, Tibetan and other separatists. Multiparty constitutional democracies, not those with mushroom parties but states with 2-6 political parties, are better placed to combat regional secession tendencies. Criss-crossing political manoeuvres in a multiparty constitutional democracy necessarily create room for constructive dialogue and useful alliances, taking away the resources usually devoted to separatist projects. A look at the Biafra, Ambazonia and Tigray autonomist projects can show some nuances that do not bode well for Cameroon and Ethiopia. Nigeria has a chance to prevent any separatist agitations from gaining grounds.

1. Biafra: July 1967-Jan 1970

This rather short separatist war is an anomaly and speaks to certain “favorable” conditions not found elsewhere. On the federal side, we had General Yakubu (Jacob) Gowon who came to power through a coup that disrupted the Gen. Ironsi’s centralizing scheme. The protestant Gowon, the son of a methodist evangelist from the predominantly muslim north, enjoyed the support of the northerners and was seen to be honest and pragmatic. Other abuses during the war aside, he sternly warned federal troops against war crimes and crimes against humanity, emphasizing the Nigerianness of the Biafra people they were going to fight. Channels for dialogue were open and the protestant Biafran, Dr. Azikiwe, father of Nigerian unity, took a stand for unity. He is credited for prohibiting secession in the Nigerian constitution, barring the North and later Biafra, from claiming constitutional right to secession. On the Biafran side, for better or for worse, the secession campaign was centralized under the catholic leader, Gen. Ojukwu. One could speak of the seceding entity as the Catholic Republic of Biafra, benefitting from Catholic France, Vatican, and other Catholic states and colonies as well as Israel, who could not pass up a war against a majority muslim north. The damning thing Gen. Gowon did was restricting food supply to the seceding area, leading to many deaths. It was claimed that this was to counter the propaganda mounted by the Catholic church worldwide and Jewish people to secure recognition of the Catholic republic of Biafra. Because of the centralized nature of the command, when Gen. Ojukwu fled Nigeria, it was clear that secession had failed.

Mr. Effiong, taking over as president of the seceding entity, saw the opening for dialogue with the pragmatic Gowon. This led to the formal declaration on Jan. 15, 1970:
“I, Major-General Phillip Efiong, Officer Administering the Government of the Republic of Biafra, now wish to make the following declaration: That we affirm that we are loyal Nigerian citizens and accept the authority of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria. That we accept the existing administrative and political structure of the Federation of Nigeria. That any future constitutional arrangement will be worked out by representatives of the people of Nigeria. That the Republic of Biafra hereby ceases to exist.”

A combination of the centralized command of the secessionist project, limited war crimes, and an inclusive, humane spirit of Gowon, this solemn declaration led to the formal end of the secessionist project. The free circulation of federal forces in once exclusive Biafra territory confirmed the end of secession. As acknowledged by Gen. Gowon, subsequent governments failed to fully implement inclusive measures that would have sustainably kept separatist rekindling below ignition thresholds. While the catholics may be retreating after blunders, new separatists such as Mr. Nnamdi Kanu is seeking the support of Israel. Nigeria must improve its constitutional democracy through diversification of the leadership of political parties and away from the feudalism of some northern strong men. Nigeria must equally keep a close eye on alliances with foreign nations by separatist agitators.

2. Ambazonia: 2016 – present and future

The conditions that favored a short Biafran war are absent in Ambazonian separation.

2.1. The separatist project is not centralized; even the leaders in prison have no power. Violent leaders such as Mr. Ayaba still have their position contested by other groups. Nobody can utter the kind of speech given by Mr. Philip Effiong and secure cease fire.

2.2. The only silver lining in the Cameroonian secession is that the cause is well known. It is the illegal suppression of the federal structure enshrined in our reunification contract with East Cameroon in 1961. The solution therefore is a return to federalism. But it is argued that much harm has been done and many summary executions carried out during this war.

2.3. It is the fault of the Cameroon government that many have been pushed toward seemingly irreversible separatism. From the banner of the protesting lawyers, it was clear that they used the resolution of the second All Anglophone Conference – calling for a return to federation or outright separation.

Separation was thus used as a threat to get federation, without knowing that the constitutionally forbidden nature of secession opens up a path to summary executions while the world looks on. The world can only observe impotently because no sane leader will support what they fight to prevent at home – secession, the sleeping plague of the 21st century.

2.4. Generic recommendations for a dialogue are uttered left and right; the govt knows that none of the separatist groups can end the war. This govt is determined never to return to federalism. Those interested in a solution must work toward the resignation of this govt, followed by a constitutionally sanctioned election where the victorious candidate would have to be a federalist reformer. This is the narrow path that can avoid dragging out this war to two or three decades. It is a dirty secessionist project in that it gains supporters as the days go by and the character of East Cameroonians (politicians and citizens) begins to take a clear incompatible form. One has to be a skilfull defender of federalism and state rights to show that such incompatibility is not a hindrance in a constitutional democracy with an eternally protected federal structure.

3. Tigray autonomy project: 2020 – distant future

Ethiopia is a sad African story. It was never colonized and is founded on the historic kingdom of Axum. It preserves one of the oldest system of writing. It is respected in Biblical narratives. Together with the coptic church of Egypt, the Ethiopian church belongs to early christian tradition. But we have argued that politics is linked to ethics and ethics based grounded in religion. For religion to directly impact politics, the church polity has to be right. Everybody recognizes the virtue of a constitutional democracy; but this is best relatable to the protestant polity. Protestantism is far behind orthodox in Ethiopia and features many independent evangelical churches with rather a too libertarian streak. In matters of exercise of power, most evangelical and pentecostal pastors behave like Catholic leaders, governing their churches through high instructions, rather than an organized polity of many churches. So much for the deficient background.

Three woes have befallen Ethiopia, expressing themselves through the Tigray project:

3.1. China inspired One party system and federation. This is a toxic combination. The centralized one party was supposed to be a coalition of ethnic parties at the regional levels. It could never work. The easiest solution would have been skilfull development of two or three parties with sufficiently contrasting ideologies so that competition can breakdown regionalism.

3.2. First constitutional blunder: Secession is explicitly permitted in the constitution, though the mechanism does not seem to be well worked out. It is here that Nigerians have to always thank Dr. Azikiwe for his foresight. The theory of secession can only rationalize explicit prohibition of secession, implicit prohibition through constitutional defense of territorial integrity or secession based on a nationwide referendum with a higher than simple majority threshold. The goal of the state should be to form a more perfect union of many groups. The must also be seen to be actually working toward that perfection. It can’t be said of Cameroon, especially under the Center-south catholic hegemony and French Catholic neo-colonialism.

3.3. The third woe of Ethiopia is the violation of the constitution with respect to organization of election. Granted, the new prime minister has already created more challenges for himself. Inspired by the Chinese communist party perhaps, he sought to form one strong party, getting rid of the ethnic party systems. Drawing closer to Eritreat has irritated Tigray, which is thus sandwiched by the two friends. As if this was not toxic enough, the govt postponed constitutionally sanctioned elections twice because of COVID-19. During this COVID-19, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Ghana have organized elections. Had there been elections in August, the Tigray argument and regional election would not have come to light.

Deceptively, it seems that the federal government is winning and many regions are rallying behind their federal enemy govt to defeat Tigray. Such war-derived popularity can instead radicalized the seceding party. Like all authoritarian systems, the federal govt thinks it is winning. It is hard to win secession militarily; one wins hearts and does so not by beating the chest. Tigray autonomists are still centralized. If transparency and honesty are not used in negotiation of reforms, new factions may spring up and make it impossible for peace to return.

The narrow path forward for Ethiopia is open dialogue with all regions on short term reforms before elections and long term reforms after elections, making sure that 2-3 national parties emerge to weaken ethnic politics. One party is impossible in a federation. Ask cameroon. Once they understand this, the next thing is to remove regional powers and go toward centralized authoritarian government a la Chine. Wait until China starts sweating under secessionist pressure.

Constitutional democracy consisting of 2-6 strong nationwide parties is the antidote of the 21st century plague called secession.

English Cameroon for a united Cameroon
Dec. 20, 2020

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