Top 10 Successful Secessions
Catalonia. Brexit. Kurdistan. Tibet. Scotland. Luhansk and Donetsk. Quebec. These places have significant minorities that want to leave the country they are currently in and set up their own. They want to secede.
The reasons for secession are varied, as are the methods of seceding. There are arguments for and against secession, and you can find secessionist sentiments in all of the major and minor political ideologies out there.
Here are 10 of the most successful secessions of the past 250 years or so:
1. The 13 American colonies leaving the United Kingdom: Was the American Revolution an act of secession or an act of patriots defeating a foreign imperial power? Contemporary thinkers and policymakers at the time (1775-1783) very much viewed the American Revolution as an act of secession rather than a country fighting its way out of foreign bondage. Everybody from Adam Smith to Edmund Burke to King George III to the rebels in British North America believed that the war between the two sides was a civil war between two different factions of the same polity: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
2. The former Soviet republics leaving the Russian Federation: By 1990, the largest experiment with socialism to date was rapidly failing for all the world to see. In 1991, a last-gasp military coup was attempted, to no avail, and 14 independent polities moved quickly to leave what was left of the Soviet Union before Russia could settle into the USSR’s old place as a world power unafraid to use to blunt violence to enforce mores and laws. The ramifications of this vast, multi-actor secession stretching from Central Europe to the Pacific Ocean are still being felt.
3. Algeria leaving France: Much like war between the UK and 13 of its North American colonies, the French viewed their war with Algeria (1954-1962) as one being fought between French factions. Before Algeria succeeded in seceding from France, it was viewed as a region like any other in the republic, say Brittany or Côte d'Azur, at least by the vast majority of French people in France and Algeria. The French government – although proclaiming liberty, equality and brotherhood – instituted and maintained an old system of segregation between French citizens and Muslim locals, a pattern that Algerian secession officially abolished but, informally, continues to plague French efforts to be a more global player.
4. East Timor leaving Indonesia: The secession of East Timor from Indonesia, made official in 2002, lasted decades (beginning in 1975) and is responsible for the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Timor was a tiny Portuguese colony surrounded by the massive Dutch East Indies colony. When the Dutch left town, the local Timorese politicians thought it would be a good idea to declare East Timor’s independence. Portugal shrugged, but the country that replaced the Dutch East Indies – Indonesia – had other plans for East Timor and invaded it. East Timor is in bad shape today, but because of this there has been a marked increase in cooperation between Australia and Indonesia – two regional powers that have rarely seen eye-to-eye.
5. Eritrea leaving Ethiopia: All of the wars that Africa has seen since decolonization have at least some inkling of secession-minded action to them. Ethiopia, which in 1974 was governed by an old monarchy, descended into a civil war between monarchists and Marxists. Eritrea, which had once federated with Ethiopia voluntarily before being annexed years later, declared its independence during the chaos. The Marxists in Ethiopia won, and Addis Ababa appealed to the Soviet Union for help defeating Eritrean separatists. In 1991, once the Soviet Union collapsed, Eritrea – led somewhat ironically by Marxists – proclaimed independence and soundly defeated Ethiopia’s suddenly underfunded military. Today, it is a one-party state in a region (the Horn of Africa) wracked by conflict.
6. Bangladesh leaving Pakistan: We all know why India and Pakistan were split up, but why did Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) secede from Pakistan? While the people of Pakistan and Bangladesh share a common religion (Islam), the cultural, political, linguistic, and economic differences between the two countries are cavernous. London left most of the political power in the hands of Pakistan’s elite, which led to resentment in Bangladesh as well as very real economic disparities. In 1971, Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan and the two sides fought a brief but vicious nine-month war before Pakistan was forced to recognize the Bangladeshi secession as legitimate.
7. Uruguay leaving Brazil: In 1815, the South American continent was a mess. Buenos Aires was trying to assert itself as a regional power, and Portugal was trying to maintain power over its New World possessions. In 1825, the region of Cisplatina in the Brazilian south declared its independence from the Brazil (which had just a few years earlier declared its independence from Portugal) and sought protection by aligning itself with a country that was not yet called Argentina: United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata. A stalemate ensued, but the hostilities resulting from the inability of one side to land a knockout blow began to affect trade in the region. France and the UK then sat down with the factions involved and created the Republic of Uruguay as a buffer state between the two budding rivals.
8. Greece and Serbia leaving the Ottoman Empire: Like the North American and Algerian secessions, the violent exit of Greece and Serbia from the Ottoman Empire (in the early 1800s) was viewed as a civil war rather than as a patriotic struggle to overthrow a foreign oppressor. Greece and Serbia had been part of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years before seceding from Istanbul. Because history is written by the victors, these secessions are painted in a different light by most people today, but make no mistake: the independence of Greece and Serbia from the Ottoman Empire was not supported by everybody, and the narrative of the patriot expelling the foreign oppressor was shared by few people at the time, including a (albeit slight) majority of the region’s Greek- and Serbian-speaking Christians.
9. South Sudan leaving Sudan: These two are in the same neighborhood as Ethiopia and Eritrea, though their story is a bit different. Unlike Ethiopia, which managed to maintain its independence during Europe’s colonial venture in Africa, Sudan was just a large chunk of territory created specifically to keep other European powers out of British-ruled Africa. When the Brits left town, this vast territory became one of the world’s largest countries (by area) overnight. Things got ugly quickly, and South Sudan ended up fighting a 22-year war with Khartoum before officially seceding in 2011. The new country descended rapidly into civil war, leaving open the options for further secessions on the one hand, or an opportunity for yet another regional strongman to step into the void caused by war on the other.
10. Panama leaving Colombia: The year was 1903 and the United States of America wanted to build its canal through what is now Panama. At the time, though, Panama was a part of Colombia, which itself was just coming out of a four-year civil war. The Panamanian factions that supported secession did so because they really wanted the canal to be completed and the Colombian government had been dragging its feet for far too long. So, they invited the U.S. government to help “maintain the neutrality of the railroad in Panama,” and this led eventually to the 1903 secession of Panama from Colombia. The Panama Canal was completed in 1914.
Secession happens. The press here in the States does a better job of covering it than it used to. There is a still a bias to this coverage, but the principle of secession is finally being better understood. (Coming soon: 10 Unsuccessful Secessions You Should Know More About.)
That’s worth celebrating, because it signals to me that we’re able to learn from history, even if it takes us a while to get the hang of it.