What can Kenya’s budding secessionist movement learn from elsewhere?

Thursday November 30 2017

Civilians displaced by fighting in Muhajiriya, at the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur campsite in Zamzam, North Darfur in this 2009 photo. The African Union always sides with the countries threatened with secession. For example, the AU sent a 7,000-strong force to Darfur in Sudan. PHOTO | REUTERS


To secede or not to secede? For Peter Kaluma, Member of Parliament for Homa Bay Town in Kenya, secession is the way to go as captured in a Bill he has sponsored.

Several other MPs belonging to the National Super Alliance (Nasa) — a coalition of opposition parties — share this view.

Legitimate or otherwise, it is not an easy path to take as various examples on the continent show.

In some quarters, the renewed push for secession in Kenya is considered an existential threat. The call started with the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) in 1999 and was later picked up by economist Dr David Ndii before Hassan Joho and Amos Kingi, the Mombasa and Kilifi governors, respectively, joined in.

However, the push for secession is not new in Kenya. Shortly after Independence, there was a clamour for the northeastern part of the country (then referred to as the Northern Frontier District) to be made part of what was popularly known as Greater Somalia.

In the pre-colonial era, this region comprised of what is now the Ogaden area of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somaliland, northern Somalia (or Puntland) and northern Kenya.


But when Britain and Italy colonised this region, they split it to make it governable. Northern Kenya was handed over to Nairobi shortly before Independence. However, this did not please the Republic of Somalia, which gained self rule in 1961.

Shifta war

Secession movements in Africa generally result from feelings of exclusion. For example, the Somali leaders in Kenya were angry that their interests were neglected by colonial authorities, and they were not confident that these would be guaranteed by authorities in independent Kenya.

This led to what is now known as the Shifta war during which a vicious guerrilla campaign against the police and army went on for more than four years.

In Sudan, the call for secession, which resulted in a long-drawn out conflict, was over several issues, including Khartoum’s long-standing neglect of the South; the concentration of jobs, wealth, and public services in what was known as the Arab Triangle and the government’s attempts to impose Arab culture and Islam on the South.

Khartoum was also accused of exploiting the South’s resources, particularly its oil, to fill government coffers. But the Sudanese government was reluctant to let go.

The leadership was also not willing to part with the Nile waters and the Sudd marshlands, the region’s luxuriant soil, and its huge open range with the greatest concentration of cattle in sub-Saharan Africa.

States threatened by breakaway movements often resort to a military solution, leading to full-blown conflict. For example, shortly after its secession from Nigeria, the breakaway Republic of Biafra was attacked by government forces.

The root causes of the secession movement were seen to have emanated from the killing of Igbo Christians by the Muslim Hausas. This led to the flight of tens of thousands of Igbos to the east of the country. The community was not confident that the then military government in Nigeria would cater for their interests.

The case of Biafra

Led by Lt-Col Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Igbos established the Republic of Biafra, comprising several states, on May 30, 1967. Initially, Nigeria attempted a diplomatic effort to reunite the country. But this failed and war broke out in July 1967.

This led to a catastrophe in which Biafra was unable to import food, leading to the deaths of an estimated one million people. Biafra could not sustain the conflict, especially after the Nigerian forces captured the provincial capital of Owerri, one of the last Biafran strongholds, on January 11, 1970. This forced Ojukwu to flee to Cote d'Ivoire. Biafra surrendered four days later.

Kenyans calling for secession can draw lessons — and comfort — from earlier secession movements in Ethiopia, Darfur and South Sudan.

Supporters of the movement were inspired by domestic political failures, high levels of perceived corruption, lack of genuine accountability, and meagre prospects for democratic change.

In these cases, government opponents resorted to armed struggle. Respective governments responded with repressive measures, such as increasing censorship, imposing emergency laws or trying to eliminate the rebel groups by force.

For example, after the Dergue assumed power in Ethiopia in 1975, the country fought wars on various fronts. One such front was an ugly war with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which sought self-determination of the Oromo people and the attendant advancement of their political, economic, social and cultural interests.

Oromos have always argued that their rights and interests were suppressed by the Ethiopian government.

As if to complement their aggressive reaction to secessionists, states are wont to use diplomatic pressure to defeat their cause. For example, Ethiopia creatively used its support for the US-led War on Terror and a peace agreement with Eritrea (which was accused of supporting separatist movement in Addis Ababa) signed on December 12, 2000, to make Oromo people’s cause ineffective.

The treaty improved relations between the two countries and enabled the Ethiopian government to direct more resources into fighting domestic insurgencies. At the same time, when Ethiopia took to the frontline in the War on Terror, the West sided with Addis Ababa in the latter’s argument that the OLF was a terrorist group and that it deserved to be treated like other terrorist groups.

International diplomacy

When separatist movements become violent, they complicate the insecurity scenario. Indeed, the push for separation by the OLF is seen to have worsened insecurity in Kenya. This was after the group sought safe havens in parts of Somalia and northern Kenya.

According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, a weekly magazine that reports on military and corporate affairs, OLF found a useful base in parts of northern Kenya because of factors such as the country’s inability to completely pacify the area, communities believed to be sympathetic to the OLF’s cause, and the ease of acquiring small arms.

Although the OLF denies that it has a presence in Kenya’s north, Ethiopia has carried out numerous cross-border raids since 1998. This has resulted in immense suffering of local communities, besides straining Kenya-Ethiopia relations especially after some police officers from Kenya were abducted and interrogated in Ethiopia a few years ago.

There are also claims that Ethiopia has used rival ethnic groups to the Oromo, such as the Garre, as paramilitary units at the Kenyan border, leading to horrific ethnic clashes in the Marsabit area.

International diplomacy seems to be rabidly against secession movements.

In 1979, for example, Kenya and Ethiopia signed a 10-year treaty of co-operation to fight insecurity. Kenya’s camaraderie with Ethiopia was strengthened when then president Daniel Moi joined his Ethiopian counterpart Mengistu Haile Mariam to demand that Somalia denounce any territorial claim it had to Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti and pay reparations for damage caused during the Ogaden war.

Years later, the OLF came under considerable pressure to participate in the 2005 elections in Ethiopia but it boycotted them, claiming they were rigged. But it did express a willingness to talk with the Ethiopian government.

How does the international community react to secessionist movements?

When Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga visited the US recently, he denied support for the calls for secession. Seemingly, Mr Odinga was aware that the international community does not take kindly to such movements.

Indeed, there is evidence that states tend to support stabilisation and, by extension, the respective governments faced by internal secession-driven conflicts. For example, when Sudan was fighting the SPLM, the US and European Union maintained co-operation with the government in the War on Terror while France gave assistance to the Central African Republic and Chad against the rebels in these countries.

External interests

On its part, the African Union has not only ruled out support for secessionists across the continent, but has in the past joined hands with the United Nations to send peacekeepers to countries facing secession-driven conflict. For example, the AU sent a 7,000-strong force to Darfur in Sudan.

China has shown, in word and deed, that it has no heart for separatist movements as it blocked imposition of serious economic sanctions on Sudan at the height of the Darfur conflict. Commencing in February 2003, the war in Darfur was believed to result in the killing of more than 200,000 and the displacement of 2.5 million others.

Secession movements tend to draw in other players who are often driven, not by the need to restore order and stability, but by their own interests. This creates a murky international-relations scenario that results in the trading of blame and counter-blame.

According to the Premium Times of Nigeria, recently-declassified war-time memos compiled by the US Central Investigation Agency shed light on how external interests largely shaped the atrocious Biafra war.

The documents say that France, Gabon, Tanzania and Ivory Coast openly backed Biafra while Britain and Russia (then the USSR) aided Nigeria to thwart Biafra’s exit. France is said to have sent $30 million worth of material to Biafra, and lent the former Ivory Coast president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny $3 million to aid Biafra operations.

France’s interest was to get access to oil fields there.

“France supported Biafra because of the oil,” Jean Mauricheau-Beaupre, former French secretary general for African and Malagasy affairs, was quoted in the documents.

The country hoped to acquire British and American oil concessions in the oil-rich Niger Delta. On its part, the Organisation of African Unity, which preceded the African Union, supported the federal government of Nigeria in 1969 and regarded the civil war as an internal question that needed to be solved within its framework.

A similar scenario replayed itself in Sudan where the Darfur secession-inspired crisis attracted a diversity of interests including Iran, the US, the EU, Eritrea, China and multilateral bodies like the African Union, European Union and the Arab League.

According to an Italian news service report of December 23, 2006, Iran — which had warmed up to Khartoum —was accused of trying to promote its brand of Shia Islam in a country dominated by Sunni Muslims.

In addition, the US was accused by Eritrea of obstructing peace negotiations in Darfur while Eritrea was accused of supporting rebels in Darfur and Ethiopia.

Back to what those calling for secession in Kenyan need to consider. For one, the country is a slice of the planet’s real estate that is the object of international envy.

It is one of the very few countries on earth endowed with the entire world’s different climate systems; it is relatively vast, with over 58 million hectares, out of which slightly over five million hectares have been put under cultivation. From this land springs an elaborate network of surface and groundwater systems; mineral resources and a biological diversity unsurpassed by most other countries of the world.

In a situation where the centre can no longer hold, the jackals will be watching.

True to what American social critic and political activist Noam Chomsky terms “military humanism,” different forces are usually deployed ostensibly to restore peace and order. This ends in a prolonged conflict, enabling foreign entities to keep “harvesting” resources in the countries concerned without paying a dime.

Kenya’s best bet is to settle its problems as a unitary state. There are many historical injustices whose resolutions have been frustrated by the political elite. The monumental crisis being experienced in Kenya today has created the right conditions for a complete redress of the injustices.

Gatu wa Mbaria is a freelance journalist and co-author of The Big Conservation Lie.