GRADUALLY, STEADILY AND IMPERCEPTIBLY, various countries of Africa are entering a new phase. They are losing the various forces of cohesion that made them stand as countries for a while. They are beginning a new trend that has placed them at various levels in the same deplorable experience. While some countries are currently disintegrating, many more are showing symptoms of potential disintegration. Quite worrisome is the fact that not much is being done to stem the tide which owes its rise to people’s discontent, particularly against leadership. And that discontent is widening in scope, strength and relevance. Ominous clouds of uncertainty therefore hang over Africa under the circumstances of complacency, fatalism and presumptuousness.
It is noteworthy that some countries inside Africa have got to the threshold of disintegration but still held together by threadbare links that may not stand any stress test. The type of disintegration that African countries are about to experience is one that will be permanent, irreversible and widespread. It will weaken the continent in no small way as each resultant country will be too feeble economically, weak militarily and internally incapable of standing in spite of seeming homogeneity of each state. If history is a good guide, then the story of how much the Russian federation became weaker than the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) from which it emanated after the collapse of the latter should provide a good insight here.
The anecdotal evidences of other bigger countries may also be readily helpful in driving home the point about size and strength, which some politicians recently coined as “Stronger Together.” In the US, the District of Columbia is a federal district, not a state. Hitherto, the US is known to have 50 states. But many lists include DC and Puerto Rico, making for 52 “states and other jurisdictions.” To strengthen the authority and create big and powerful government, it had been surmised in a build-up to the 2020 elections that the left-leaning Democrats had contemplated creating senatorial seats for the DC, thus making it a truly additional state. The European Union (EU) has become a canopy for the member countries such that the weak draws strength from the collective members. The EU is not done yet with expansion ambition as it keeps its doors open to new entrants. Only last week, at the meeting of the EU-Western Balkans in Brdo pri Kranju in Slovenia, a declaration was made in which the Western Balkans partners have aligned themselves. That alignment could ultimately result in full EU membership. Rightly or wrongly, China is struggling hard to annex Hong Kong and Taiwan in an attempt to create a bigger China. Although this move may be fraught with many unforeseen risks and dangers, the CCP, at least, seems motivated by the thought of a bigger, greater and stronger China.
The opposite seems more likely in the future Africa where agitations for self determination of some regions in some countries are becoming more strident, more persistent and more often. In many cases, these would have been considered unnecessary and uncalled for. But the realities of governance have shown that there could be some real underpinning justification for the agitations and struggles, albeit circumstantial and sentimental. Although Eritrea was annexed to Ethiopia after World War II, it regained the status of a country in 1991 when the communist Ethiopian government was toppled by Eritrean forces and the Tigray People Liberation Force (TPLF). South Sudan became a separate country in 2011 after prolonged agitations under the greater Sudan where it endured many years of misgovernance under the central government in Khartoum. In many other cases of agitations for self determination, oppression, marginalisation and limited impacts of central government at the countryside are now serving as more justifications for such calls. The success stories of many such prior agitations seem to provide an encouragement for new agitations. Now, the southwest Cameroon wants to go its own separate way. The southeast and southwest Nigeria are also demanding for self determination. All of these set precedent for others who feel ignored or marginalised in their respective nations. In the event of a breakup, what constitutes Nigeria now may be splintered into a minimum of four new countries.
The fraud of one part of a country persistently dominating other parts, with the intention of perpetually retaining power, or falsely assuming the right to rule can easily break a country. The Tigray people of Ethiopia have dominated Ethiopia’s polity for far too long. Now, a challenger has come and the other parts of the country seem to be supporting him against the Tigray people. Undoubtedly, this is one side of the arguments as Ahmed cannot also be right to ignore the humanitarian crises there in Tigray region since 2020. These crises have been acknowledged by the secretary general of the UN, Antonio Guterres, last week as it can set a whole country ablaze. The restriction of access for humanitarian actors to the troubled region on the instructions of Abiy Ahmed is troubling. But now, a new southwest state is being contemplated. The approach of Abiy Ahmed, who has just been pronounced winner of an election as prime minister, may only serve to complicate things as his central government has not been able to control the affairs of Tigray region almost a year after the federal government’s military action against Tigray. His choice of military rather than political solution is both suspicious and instructive. The recent election of Ahmed, which was held without Tigray people is questionable and may drive a wedge further between Tigray region and the rest of Ethiopia. Ahmed may have planned to remain in power but was careful to avoid a backlash if he had used the prolonged Tigray crisis as an excuse for postponing election. If he had insisted on including the warring Tigray, the results would also probably have been with a backlash if he was pronounced the winner. With the endgame of remaining in power at the very heart of his motive, it was comfortable to paint Tigray people bad, hold elections without them, call their own autonomous election illegal, then be pronounced a winner. Resolving the Tigray issue quickly before the general election would have produced a completely different result — one which would have thrown Ahmed out as Tigray people would have swayed the election by voting massively against him, and that would have made a difference.
Some politicians are clever by half. For immediate or long term political advantage, some create new administrative regions. In reality, however, new administrative unit or sub-national lower rung echelon or layer of power doesn’t automatically resolve social, economic or developmental problems. Rather, it raises the cost of governance and sometimes brings less returns to the same people. Partisan politics even worsens situation. Elections and electoral issues prop up many divisive ideologies and sentiments, which further drive wedges between an otherwise homogenous people. It might be asked why South Sudan had to be plunged into serious war shortly after Independence from Sudan? Modern states as presently configured may not work too well for many parts of Africa in the long run. With time, African countries may have over 60 countries. But the African Union should be concerned about this prospect, which can be forestalled if the right things are done. To be specific, agitations arise from feelings of deprivation. These are foundations and building blocks of failed states. The immediate challenge is to address governance issues at the centre and see if most or all separatist agitations won’t stop. Bringing it all down to basics, the only universally understood language is that of personal economy, which automatically and practically translates into personal income, purchasing power parity, cost of living, availability and affordability of social services such as healthcare, electricity, transportation, accommodation and communication as well as personal security.
Agitations that fuel regional conflicts and secessionist bids arise from inequitable distribution of national wealth, infrastructure and political appointments over long periods that they become noticeable patterns, such that the so-called ‘juicy appointments’ tend to be disproportionately shared by one region or adherents of religion over others as done in favour of the northern Nigeria. The discontent is almost always the same as the disgruntled people tend to resort to armed struggles.
Inasmuch as many of such services hitherto held as government monopoly are now provided by private sector commercial service providers, it is important to emphasise that the state’s overarching influence and function and regulatory oversight role remain of paramount importance in the sense that they are saddled with the task of ensuring that everyone enjoys these services equitably to a reasonable degree. Failure to ensure this fair and equitable access is a major cause of discontent, strife and violence which now assume greater prominence in an increasingly urbanised and pluralistic world, including Africa. It is therefore inexcusable for leaders in multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious countries to resort to exploiting these diversities in self-serving and paranoid ways. Such is a great and dangerous mistake that the hegemonic power players in the northern Nigeria have been, and are still, making by their continued insistence on holding on to power at their own terms at the expense of other regions. The regional influence has been sustained with utter disregard to institutional stability, using various tactics where suitable, such as coup d’etat, toppling of a democratically elected government to prevent power shift, denying other regions the opportunity of power shift through plausible but flawed demographic logics. In the case of Nigeria, the population of the north is used as political wildcard, not as an economic development tool. This becomes evident as poverty level in the north remains embarrassingly high and mind boggling. In Nigeria, the population of the north defies geographical logic.
It is time to openly question the northern Nigeria’s claims to higher population. As long as population figures continue to be manipulated for political advantage, there will continue to be distrust among the federating units. The lie of northern population advantage is betrayed by the global geographical truism and logic that, everywhere in the world, forest areas are usually more populated than grassland or desert regions. The forest areas of the East Coast in the US, from New Hampshire in the north to Alabama, just before Florida in the south, or further into the hinterlands from Michigan all the way down to Mississippi, and all of the Midwest, are far more populous than the semi-desert Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada or Idaho in the West. The main exception in the West Coast is California, that got populous since the era of gold rush and has remained so for long. Xinjian province in the semi-desert Western China is sparsely populated compared with the East coast area of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chengdu where majority of the China’s 1.3 billion people are living. In India, except also for historical factors of some colonial significance that gave Mumbai and New Delhi population advantage, many of the southern and eastern cities such as Bangalore (now Bengaluru), Chennai (formerly Madras), Hyderabad or Kolkata (Calcutta) in the forest areas are more highly populated. In southern and central Africa, the more forested Democratic Republic of Congo of about the same landmass size as South Africa is having a population of 89.6 million, which roughly doubles that of 45 million in South Africa that is mostly semi-desert, especially in the Cape Town area that is drought prone. So, the northern Nigeria’s population advantage is clearly a ruse and a political wildcard. Perhaps this could explain why the population census figure during Obasanjo’s government was jettisoned and the country continued to estimate population figures for national planning.
Although, the government at the centre may use the instrument of power to sway the ultimate decision of the courts over the arguments on whether the central or sub-national government should collect value added tax, it has nonetheless opened new avenues of thinking that could further fuel agitations for self determination. Failure of central government to respect he constitutional provisions on this thorny issue could provide a basis for further justification for self determination or calls for regional economies.
Muhammadu Buhari, as a newly elected president, was explicit during his visit to the US Institute of Peace in July 2015, while responding to questions about the development of eastern Nigeria and the Niger Delta region. He said that a region that gave him only five per cent of the votes should not expect to be given a greater attention in the distribution of national wealth, an answer that was a clear departure from the question he was asked. Yet, the same region produces over 90 per cent of Nigeria’s annual revenues. What a distorted logic! Just as success in the regionalists’ struggles in one country would encourage others elsewhere, many countries risk becoming balkanised, resulting in more states than the present 54. South Sudan, now a separate country, was the economic powerhouse of the greater Sudan before the janjaweed incursion and the oppression of the Darfur people. Although a new form of ethnic crisis arose between Salva Kiir Mayardit and his vice president, which later escalated into a full blown war lasting for years, South Sudan nonetheless got its Independence from the oppressive rule of Omar al-Bashir. Here is a point to note that forming new, smaller and seemingly more homogenous states — based on religions and ethnicities — doesn’t permanently solve the problems of discontent as the causes may take other forms, such as personality issue, greed, suspicion or mere intolerance.
African Union needs to critically look at these problems and emphasise stable, virile and functional states that deliver the public goods, addressing the sundry existential needs of all, helping to alleviate poverty, promoting healthy living, good education, social security and reliable infrastructure for all. The idea of using guesswork to govern will do more damage to African countries than good. Use of vital statistics needs to become a cornerstone of governance. Transparency will build trust, ensure cult followership, compliance with rules and laws as well as strengthen patriotism. No magic is needed or expected from any national leader in transforming Africa. The simple rules of leading by example will do. And these will save Africa from needless and avoidable disintegration.