On Thursday September 18 Scotland will take a historic step, holding a referendum on whether to become fully independent from England or remain under the British crown. Throughout the day, Scots will take to the polls to answer one simple question, “should Scotland be an independent country?”
While this referendum will be watched from all corners of the globe with immense interest, such independence movements, casting off the shackles of foreign rule, holds particular resonance across the African continent.
During much of the colonial era, England controlled parts of Africa from the Sahara to the Cape and from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.
This is not the only reason that Africans are watching the Scottish referendum. A number of both de jure and de facto autonomous regions that desire independence are watching, comparing their chances at statehood and universal recognition to the Scottish movement.
While there are many smaller movements across the continent, two of the most prominent and representative are found in Somaliland and Zanzibar.
Somaliland, a region slightly larger than England in Northwestern Somalia, upon its unilateral declaration of independence in 2001 held a referendum that would garner 97 percent in favor of independence.
This referendum was hailed by international observers, with the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California sending an observer delegation that would conclude that the vote “was conducted openly, fairly, honestly, and largely in accordance with internationally recognized election procedures.”
This is not uncommon in such African referenda. South Sudan, the continent’s newest country, was formed in January of 2011 after 99.57 percent of voters expressed a preference for independence. Similar numbers were found when Eritrea held a referendum to separate from Ethiopia in 1993. In sharp contrast, the Scottish referendum may come to the last vote.
Those in favor of Somaliland independence have pointed to the relative calm and good governance in the region despite the immense troubles of the national government.
According to Awoowe Hamza, writing at the Huffington Post, the major difference between the Somaliland desire for independence and the Scottish one is the “why?” “Scotland’s call for independence in the last few years is an ideological one, born out of political and economic gains that independence will bring.
Somaliland’s call for independence since 1991 was born out of necessity, as a last option” to horrific rule and violence at the hands of the Somali government.
If Somaliland has, for two decades, been an oasis of calm in an otherwise chaotic Somalia, what has stood in the way of independence?
The answer to that question is tremendous inertia towards the status quo. According to Hamza, the two major actors that would have to be on board for Somaliland independence are the United Nations and the African Union and both have been reticent.
The UN fears destabilizing relations and the fragile peace that exists in the Horn of Africa while the AU fears that granting Somaliland independence after a unilateral declaration would further embolden other breakaway regions across the continent.
Zanzibar, a picturesque archipelago with white sand beaches and narrow streets, is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania. The islands formed a union with Tanganyika, forming Tanzania, in 1964.
Much as the Scots unified with England only to have their governance become a providence of a far-off parliament, according to Africa is a Country, “Zanzibari nationalists lament the gradual increase by the union government of the so-called ‘Union Matters’ from the initial 11 to the current 22 issues, which further erodes the little sovereignty they had.”
There are also calls in Zanzibar to join international organizations, which have been strongly opposed by the Tanzanian government.
For the past 50 years there have been calls for greater autonomy and on-and-off calls for full independence.
For now the Zanzibari independence movement remains relatively dormant and calls for greater autonomy dominate. The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) has “resisted calls for a special referendum on the structure of the union.”
Even in such a referendum, there it would be difficult to determine who could vote. While Tanzania as a whole has nearly 50 million people, Zanzibar has only 1.3 million. If the entire country could vote Zanzibaris may have their voices drowned out. There is, however, an ongoing process to reform the constitution that could breed some change.
Many independence movements will be watching the Scottish referendum with great interest. As Nathan Chiume writes at Africa is a Country, “each side will be able to use the arguments and outcome to advance or vindicate their position.”
This includes both pro-independence and pro-unity forces in Somalia, Tanzania and others across the continent.
A smooth transition to independence that quickly ingratiates a newly independent Scotland into the international system may embolden movements thousands of miles away while a particularly bumpy road towards independence for the comparatively wealthy and well-positioned Scotland may lead to tremendous consternation.
The UK’s “Better Together” movement is essentially an argument for the status quo and if a change appears difficult the status quo will only look better.
The impediments to independence are diverse. Some, like Somaliland, while forming all the workings of a state and holding referenda, have simply been unable to secure the necessary international recognition for statehood.
Others, such as Zanzibar (and notably Western Sahara) have been unable to adequately design a referendum due to an inability to answer the all important question of “who will be eligible to vote?”
Only time will tell what the Scottish voters decide and how that will effect these movements and others across Africa. One thing is certain, much of Africa is watching.
Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and freelance consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.
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