Self-determination is in the air. We began last week with a Kurdish referendum in Iraq, and we ended it with a raucous Catalan referendum in Spain; neither may amount to much, at least in the short term. But hope is a hard thing to extinguish, as “separatist” movements around the world can tell you. Here, 3 others holding out hope in 2017:
A country of 250+ ethnic groups, Nigeria declared independence from Britain in 1960, but a couple of military coups in 1966 stoked underlying ethnic tensions. In 1967, southern groups (led by the Igbo people, one of Nigeria’s three major ethnic groupings) declared the independent Republic of Biafra in Nigeria’s south. Nigeria refused to recognize the breakaway state, and a 3-year civil war ensued. All told, more than 1 million people lost their lives, many due to starvation. Biafra surrendered in 1970.
But defeating a secession movement on the battlefield is a far cry from defeating its spirit — and nearly half a century later, the dream of Biafra remains alive. These and other nationalist currents continue to make Nigerian politics choppy, as does a president whose frail health has the country continuously on edge. Southern leaders have rejected secession calls as impractical. But the movement for Biafran statehood is still considered enough of a threat that the Nigerian military declared the Biafra separatist movement a terrorist group just a few weeks ago—harkening back to a simpler time when just wanting a homeland of one’s own was enough to be labeled a terrorist.
Belgium’s largest political party—the center-right New Flemish Alliance—is actually a secessionist movement, highlighting just how fragmented Belgian politics really is. Belgium is divided into three: Flanders in the north (bordering the Netherlands, predominantly Dutch-speaking), Wallonia to the south (bordering France, predominantly French-speaking), and the Brussels-Capital Region in the relative middle. Modern day Belgium has its roots in 1830, when France supported a brewing rebellion in the Southern Netherlands. Wallonia was the favored region then; today, power has shifted to Flanders and the 60 percent of the country’s Dutch speakers.
In addition to language and culture, economic inequality in recent years has widened the divide. While Wallonia’s per capita GDP is only 88 percent of the EU average (2011 figures, purchasing power standard), Flanders’ GDP per capita is 120 percent above (2014 figures, purchasing power standard)—a sticking point for Flemish residents who see their money being sent to parts of the country that literally speak a different language. For now, the Flemish independence movement has been slow and plodding by design; when the time comes for a referendum—which would be the first on Flemish independence—that strategy may make all the difference.
Donetsk and Luhansk
It feels a lifetime ago since Vladimir Putin’s top worry was Ukraine moving too far West; it was actually 2013.
To recap: pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal to strengthen Ukraine’s integration with the EU, touching off violent protests in Ukraine. Those protests eventually ran him out of the country, and an enraged Putin invaded Crimea in response. But to really paralyze Ukraine’s movement toward the West, seizing Crimea wasn’t enough; he needed to sow discord from within the country, which is why he stoked the pro-Russian independence movements in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.
But Russia doesn’t actually want Donetsk and Luhansk to become part of Russia proper. Instead, Russia’s real power move is in trying to get Ukraine to change its constitution to give provincial leaders (like those in Donetsk and Luhansk) more power over national security and trade policy, vetoing any future outreaches to the West. Complicating matters even further, current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko can’t just cede the problematic provinces since Ukrainian nationalists argue too much land has already been ceded to Russia. The result? Long term limbo, making Putin the winner by default.