By Patrick Mbullo
When Catalonia, in defiance of the Spanish central government and courts, held an independence referendum, many secession movements engaged in similar protracted struggles in Africa expressed optimism and shared in jubilations. To these movements, Catalans were, at last, free from oppression and the high handedness by their central government. What followed was unexpected: the government responded with excessive force, hunting down those who participated in the disputed vote. That brave step taken by Catalonia has, however, remained a significant aspect to the thinking of secession movements across the world. In Africa, this move can only be compared to the 1967 declaration of the Republic of Biafra by the Nigerian military officer, Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Even though the declaration of the Republic of Biafra led to almost three years of civil war and many people lost their lives, to the Igbo (the ethic group in Nigeria leading the secession campaign) the events left an indelible history that they still reminisce. Many still hoped that they had kept fighting for the right to self-determination.
When on January, 30 2018 Kenya’s opposition leader, Raila Odinga was sworn in as the People’s president at a massive rally that drew thousands of his supporters, the pattern of excessive police force witnessed in Catalonia and Biafra equally unfolded in Kenya. The Kenyan government responded with a media blackout and an excessive police brutality unleashed against opposition activists and supporter. Armed police went on the rampage hunting down those who took part in Odinga celebrations. Many Odinga’s supporters and opponents of the current government, including Dr. Miguna Miguna, were arrested and are held in police custody without trial.
But what was the political situation in Kenya prior ahead of Odinga’s oath swearing ceremony? And why would a larger proportion of Kenyan citizens take on the responsibility of inaugurating a “People’s President”?
It should be remembered that Kenyans went to the polls on the early August last year to elect a new president and regional leaders, the majority felt the outcome did not reflect their aspirations. Neither did it reflect a true representation of their votes. The incumbent party candidate Uhuru Kenyatta unilaterally declared himself president despite the unresolved questions that emerged over a protracted electoral dispute. The opposition claimed the elections were rigged and that the electoral officials allegedly colluded with the government to hand the presidency to Uhuru Kenyatta. The opposition had successfully challenged Kenyatta’s alleged victory in court proceedings. A surprising verdict of the Supreme Court had also invalidated the presidential elections result, and ordered a repeat of the elections within a sixty-day period. To the opposition, this was not enough: they called for an overhaul of the entire electoral system and the removal of its current officials, claiming that the repeat elections would not be different if were organized and supervised by the same electoral staff. A demand for an overhaul of the electoral body did not materialize, forcing the main opposition leader to boycott the repeated elections held in late of October 2017. Even though the repeat elections were more of a sham than the first, Uhuru Kenyatta was declared duly elected and the sworn in as the supposedly legitimate president of the country.
To continue their search for electoral justice, the leading opposition party, National Super Alliance (NASA) has since engaged in different strategies. First, it is on record that the opposition has been pushing for secession and that a bill to be presented to parliament has been drafted to that effect. Secondly, the opposition has formed a National Resistance Movement as an alternative mandate to contest power should other means fail. But what the opposition leaders need to ask themselves is whether secession is the best way to achieve their aspiration, or Raila’s oath taking. First, let us briefly examine the history of secession movements in Africa.
Secession debates across the continent have been alive since the emergence of independent states in late 1950s. Only two countries, South Sudan and Eritrea, may be said to have successfully seceded. Some movements have had protracted military engagements with the government and lost. Nonetheless, over 20 movements are still active in their quest for autonomy. Currently top five countries with political secession movements are Mali, Angola, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Senegal.
A common phenomenon with most secession movements in Africa, however, is that they are mostly identified as ethnic groups, whose members feel disfranchised by the state. The OLFP in Ethiopia, for instance, has been seen as a movement for the Oromo people, an ethnic group that forms nearly forty percent of Ethiopia’s population. In Nigeria, the call for a breakaway state of Biafra in the south-east was led by the Igbo.
Nevertheless, secession movements that have been vibrant have been able to do so because of organized military outfits or vibrant guerilla forces that are equally able to engage with government forces. In addition, others have been able to maintain external collaboration with regional and international support. For instance, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a secessionist group seeking independence for the Oromia region from the government of Ethiopia, has received unwavering support from Eritrea and the Oromos in the diaspora.
Despite their resilience, secession movements have been met by heavy response from the government. For instance, decades of Biafra uprising have been marred and quelled by heavy military intervention, especially after the deadly three-year civil war that followed.
It is not surprising therefore that, secession movements success is minimal. Lack or national support when it is viewed as favoring a particular group and strained financial and human resources make secession harder to achieve. In the event that secession is successful, the biggest challenge is establishment of infrastructure and systems required to make a functional government. Most often, the new states secede with nothing, including financial base. Establishing international trade partners is difficult to build in a dynamic world where people want to deal with the familiar, and not chart new frontiers. The end result is that the citizens of the new state end up heavily taxed, cost of living increased, and political stability become a mirage.
Back to the current situation in Kenya, it is obvious that the opposition leader, Raila Odinga has consolidated a support base across the country. He should therefore distance himself from secessionist demands. Instead, Raila should use the Jan 30 oath as a political strategy to create a dual and contending power within Kenya. This entails naming a parallel cabinet and creating functional structures that will compete with the current government. Kenya’s constitution, I think, provides him this mandate through the newly formed People’s Assemblies. The last stretch should be to push for devolution of the police force. With the counties paying allegiance to the Peoples President, an independent security apparatus, whose command is at the county level would provide Raila with the much-needed police force, without necessarily creating his own army.
Indeed, as Salim Lone, Raila’s former spokesman observes “the idea behind the swearing in and the People’s Assembly is to provide a range of ideas and initiatives through an alternative leadership to both the Presidency and the National Assembly.” Raila, Mr. Lone notes, “faces his greatest test yet, against a rough regime which has little respect for the law or human life.” His only way out is a dual and contending power within Kenya, and not secession!
About the Author
Patrick Mbullo is a PhD Student in the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University, USA