‘The government in the distant capital doesn’t care about us. We’d be better off ruling ourselves’. This refrain continues to echo the world over as secessionist groups press for autonomy and independence from existing states. The grievance is often historical, but in the here and now, also has much to do with the quality of governance. A better life, secessionist groups argue, comes when we rule ourselves.
The Guardian has a recent interactive graphic that redraws the map of Africa to realise the dreams of all the continent’s secessionist movements – from unmaking modern Libya back into east and west, to the various de facto bits of what was once Somalia. This sort of exercise – accompanying a piece on the Mombasa Republican Council, which calls for the separation of the Mombasa region from the rest of Kenya – often alludes to the artificial character of much of African state creation, inheriting colonial boundaries and having to cope with the multi-ethnic animosities of this new creature. Underneath and criss-crossing these straight lines, the common conception goes, lies the ‘real’ political communities on which more robust states should be built.
But perhaps artificialness is what one makes of it. For as much as some of these separatist groups hark back to a pre-colonial political entity, demarcating these is never straightforward (where did that earlier entity come from, anyway?) and building what we call the modern nation-state is a process that unfolds over time and subject to political compromises. ‘Who is part of the nation’ is little more than an idea, the result of a process of constructing a social group that may be more or less stable at different points in time, but can never be static or fixed.
And this is as true for Africa as it is for the ‘old’ Western world where the nation-state as the political unit that marks modernity came into being. A million-strong march in Barcelona to mark the 300th anniversary of the siege of Barcelona has provided a reminder of the continuing political resonance of the cause of Catalonian independence; a referendum on Scottish independence is due sometime in 2014. The same logic is at play: ‘we’re better off alone, as we once were before’. Ongoing events, in this sense, challenge just how ‘real’ either of these states are: are Spain or Great Britain any more real states than Libya or Somalia? It probably didn’t seem like it in the early days of a united Britain and united Spain, and resolving the question of unity or separation has often come through violence and civil war.