These States Failed at Seceding
On February 20, 1863, the Cherokee Nation, officially a part of the Confederate States of America, unilaterally abolished slavery. The American Civil War would not be settled for another two years, but the Cherokee were essentially done fighting. The secession of the slaveholding states was all but over from the Cherokee point of view, and it was unsuccessful. Late last year I gave you a list of the 10 Most Successful Secessions with the promise of more on the topic, and this interesting tidbit of history gives me the chance to segue into an essay on 10 Unsuccessful Secessions that need more thought. Behold:
10. Kurdistan. Located in the Near East, Kurdistan is a region that includes the countries of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Armenia, though there are no actual, official borders for Kurdistan. Separatist activities have been active mostly in Turkey and Iraq, and Kurdish militias have been active in Syria since the uprising began against the Assad dictatorship in 2011. The longest secession has been the one in Turkey, where armed insurgents have been waging war against Ankara for decades. Kurds appealed for an independent state when the Ottoman Empire fell, but their aspirations went unrewarded by diplomats. During the transformation of the Ottoman Empire into numerous nation-states, Kurds participated in a number of short-lived rebellions, but it wasn’t until 1978 that Kurdistan declared independence from Turkey. Since the invasion of Iraq by the American military, Baghdad’s Kurdish region has mostly pushed for more autonomy, but there was a symbolic vote for independence from Iraq that caught many observers off guard. For more on Kurdistan, check out our sister site, RealClearWorld.
9. Quebec. The French-speaking province of English-speaking Canada, Quebec is a holdover of French North America (called “New France”) and was ceded to the British monarchy in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris as part of the settlement to the end of the Seven Years’ War. Later that same year, London issued a Royal Proclamation that, among other things, created the Province of Quebec out of the ashes of New France. In the following centuries since the 1763 proclamation, Quebec has had its fair share of disagreements with both London and, later, Ottawa. The shift from violent resistance to democratic decision making happened in the late 1970s. (This is interesting to contrast with Kurdistan, as the late 1970s marked a shift for Kurds from sporadic rebellion to violent resistance.) With the onset of putting Quebec’s secession to a vote, the tactics of secession have changed drastically, with notions of a “special status” for French-speaking Quebecers now being pursued, in addition to Quebec’s sovereignty being put up for a straightforward vote. For more on Quebec, check out economic historian (and Quebecer) Vincent Geloso.
8. Darfur. Darfur is a region in eastern Sudan that has, unlike South Sudan, been unsuccessful in its secession. The attempt to leave began violently in 2003 when two separate groups joined together in order to leave Arab-governed Sudan. The origin of the war is contested, with water access, Arab racism toward blacks, colonial boundaries, and conflicts between semi-nomadic herders and sedentary agriculturalists all making a good case. This secession has been particularly nasty, with chemical weapons, militias, and ethnic cleansing all making appearances in the decades-long war. Estimates on the number of deaths vary widely, from 10,000 people to hundreds of thousands. RealClearWorld again has some of the best coverage on this very unsuccessful secession.
7. Biafra. Biafra was a state in southeastern Nigeria that tried to secede from Nigeria in 1967 and fought a war against the post-coup military government until 1970, when the resistance completely and utterly collapsed. Biafra is home to a large number of Igbo people, so much so that the Igbo consider Biafra to be the spiritual, political, economic, and cultural home of Igbos worldwide. Biafra is useful for highlighting the geopolitical context of the time period. The mid-1960s was when many colonies in Africa declared their independence from the European countries that had created them. An agreement between these new countries was in the works to make sure that separatist declarations were ignored or even punished collectively by other African states. In 1967, this agreement had yet to be fully enshrined, and several countries - including France, Israel, the Vatican, Rhodesia, South Africa, Ivory Coast, and Haiti - recognized, in some form or another, the independence of Biafra. Catholic countries (most of which were formerly governed by France) recognized Biafra because of the large Catholic presence there and the fact that Nigeria’s military government was dominated by Muslims. Rhodesia and South Africa recognized Biafra because of Nigeria’s hostility towards minority rule in Africa. Israel recognized Biafra because of its ongoing feuds with Muslim-ruled states in the Middle East. Notably, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the Soviet Union, all failed to recognize Biafra’s declaration of independence. Oh, and Biafra has lots and lots of oil.
6. Azawad. Azawad declared its independence from the huge Saharan country of Mali in 2012 after many years of simmering resentment towards the central government there. Like most other countries in Africa today, Mali is home to many different ethnic groups that have come to be dominated by one group over the wishes of the others. This is a result of the maps drawn by Europeans, but also by the African nationalists who got together to agree that decentralization and secession would be bad for the post-colonial moment in Africa. Azawad is home to many different ethnic groups, but it was Tuareg nationalists that created Azawad in order to accomplish what other ethnic groups had done to them in Mali: oppress and remove. France helped Mali regain the territory it lost to Azawad in 2013, under the guise of fighting Islamist terrorism, and Paris continues to maintain a small, elite force in the area. Azawad serves as useful, present-day reminder: secession-minded countries can sometimes, perhaps even most times, have illiberal motives for wanting to gain freedom from another state. On the other hand, Azawad also highlights just how little African decolonization accomplished in the 1960s and 1970s, as the former colonies continue to appeal to their colonizers for military and economic aid. RealClearWorld has much more on Azawad.
5. Somaliland. Unlike the other African secessions on this list, Somaliland has a good chance of succeeding in its quest for secession. Why? The main reason is that the country Somaliland is trying to leave, Somalia, is a mess. By many accounts, Somaliland is safer, wealthier, freer, and more democratic than Somalia. So why doesn’t Somaliland leave? The short answer is that none of Somalia’s neighbors want it to. Ethiopia and Sudan have both had regions secede from them (Eritrea and South Sudan, respectively), and the consequences have been horrific. The longer answer is that the international community is hesitant to do so as well. The lessons of Biafra, where the international community was divided on the issue of recognizing secession, and of South Sudan, where secession was recognized and an illiberal regime immediately asserted itself, have not been forgotten by diplomats in the world’s most powerful capitals. In addition to the lessons of the past, China and Russia have separatist movements in their territories and these two countries do not want to give these movements any kind of platform at all. Check out RealClearWorld’s coverage of Somaliland, and don’t forget about this article when you read about the Horn of Africa in the news.
4. Catalonia. You already know about Catalonia and its unsuccessful bid to secede from Spain late last year. (Check out our archives if you want to get up to speed.) A comparative approach is useful here. The unsuccessful secession movements in Africa have all been violent. The unsuccessful ones in Europe and North America started out violent, but evolved into democratic movements. The key to understanding this shift is the federative structures that exist, or don’t exist, in different parts of the world. The secessionist movements in Europe and North America are not looking to go it alone any longer. These movements don’t want full sovereignty. Separatists in Europe and North America want more decision-making power in federative structures. In the case of Quebecers, it’s Canada’s unique federation; for Catalonians (and the Scottish, for that matter), it’s the European Union. Once a federative body roots itself in a region of the world, separatist tendencies cease to be violent and they shift to more peaceful forms of resistance. Kurdistan provides a microcosmic example of this evolution. In Turkey, where the Kurds continue to be ignored and oppressed, violence reigns supreme. In Iraq, where the Kurdish region has been given autonomy and self-governance, grievances are aired out in the open, in the form of non-binding referenda and in arguments put forth in a free and open press.
3. Aceh. Aceh is a region in Indonesia that once fought a vicious war from 1873-1904 against the Netherlands. Originally a wealthy trading sultanate in a strategically valuable part of southeast Asia, Aceh came under Dutch rule violently at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1824, the Dutch and the sultanate signed a military treaty that was violated by the British and the Americans in 1873. As a result, Aceh was merged with the larger Indonesian colony of the Netherlands. When Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1945, Aceh went untouched by the Dutch because of its power and because the memory of ruthless guerrilla warfare made such a strategy unpalatable to the Dutch military. Indonesia’s new leaders, though, much like the African nationalists who wanted no separatist tendencies to be entertained, soon waged war against the independent-minded Acehnese and resulted in the 1953-59 Acehnese rebellion. This ended with Indonesia giving Aceh much more autonomy than the other provinces. In the 1970s, Aceh again earned Indonesia’s ire when it tried to sign agreements with American oil companies. Violence flared up and continues to be an issue today. I highly recommend reading historian Anthony Reid’s book, An Indonesian Frontier: Acehnese and Other Histories of Sumatra for a fuller account of Aceh’s unsuccessful secession.
2. Balochistan. Located mostly in Pakistan (with borders bleeding into Afghanistan and Iran), Balochs have waged a secession campaign against Islamabad since 1948, when Pakistan became an independent country, and Tehran since 2005. Interestingly, perhaps because of its refusal to recognize separatist claims of any kind in the rest of Africa and Asia, China has helped to fuel discontent in the region by investing tens of billions of dollars into Balochistan’s infrastructure. Because of the ongoing guerrilla campaign, and because of Pakistan’s preference for some ethnic groups over others, Balochistan has long been neglected by Islamabad despite its untapped natural wealth and human capital. Balochistan’s geopolitical situation mirrored that of Kurdistan’s up until the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when Kurds (in Iraq) could suddenly participate in democratic governance and federative politics. Unfortunately for Balochis, their plight will largely echo those of the Kurds in Turkey unless a liberal hegemon shows up to completely destabilize the region by transforming one of the countries governing Balochistan into a federal republic. RealClearWorld, again, has some great stuff on Balochistan.
1. Chechnya. Located in the Caucasus mountains of Russia, Chechnya tried to secede from Russia in 1991 along with several other, mostly successful secessions. Moscow took exception to Chechnya’s secession, though, for reasons of national security. In the eyes of Russian security experts, losing the Caucasus republic would be devastating to security in the region due to increased Islamist sentiments that had built up there over the latter course of the Cold War. From the perspective of Russian national security experts, losing Chechnya was more dangerous than losing states that held nuclear weapons. Russian strategists also sought revenge for the Grozny debacle, where superior Russian military forces were ousted from Chechnya and Boris Yeltsin was forced to sign a peace agreement with Chechen nationalists. While Russia was forced to recognize Chechen independence, the rest of the world failed to do so, and Russia re-invaded Chechnya a decade later, installing a puppet and continuing to wage war on a much-weakened guerrilla insurgency. RealClearDefense, one of our sister sites, has a treasure trove of information on Chechnya.
Let’s start with the obvious one: the Confederate States of America. You already know about this unsuccessful secession. Besides, it doesn’t carry all that much weight anymore, at least when it comes to using history to understand the present (it’s a great weapon to be used in domestic political fights, but that’s a far cry from being used a tool for understanding the world today). Slavery was mostly abolished in the Western world thanks to the Union’s victory over the Confederacy. Today’s secessionist movements have more weight when it comes to analyzing, say, experiments with democratic self-governance, or for throwing off the yoke of despotism, or for rewriting history from the point of view of the local instead of the imperial planner. The Confederacy is still an important topic that needs to be taught in American history courses, and Dixie is a wonderful tool for understanding what types of federative systems work and don’t work, but it’s still not a Top Ten unsuccessful secession. Not when there’s so much else going on.
How about Latin America? There are plenty of secessionist movements there, but none of them are as powerful as the ones listed above. Most secessionist movements are built around wealthy regions, such as Brazil’s southern states or Bolivia’s eastern states, or around weak Indian insurgencies in Peru or Chile or Bolivia. This is actually a shame because Latin America could use more secessionist movements, especially since there are so many federative structures already in place there that could help dampen violence.
Tibet? Tibet has had no formal secession attempt. Tibet was conquered by China, but there are a lot of variables involved in this conquest. For starters, Tibet signed numerous treaties with Chinese polities that guaranteed military protection from non-Chinese actors in exchange for tribute. This was a pattern that continued for centuries with brief interruptions depending on local political situations. As the Qing Empire collapsed, locals in Tibet declared an end to suzerainty (not to be confused with sovereignty). Once World War II ended, China showed up in Tibet again and demanded tribute, which the Buddhist theocracy refused to do. China invaded, the Buddhist theocrats fled, and some rebellions took place before China began “importing” Han Chinese into Tibet. The issue of Tibet can best be understood as follows: Religious claims to a territory traditionally carry much less weight than ethnic or nationalist claims to a territory. While ethnic Tibetans certainly exist, the struggle against China is more about Tibetan Buddhism’s political power than it is about Tibetan ethnic identity. And that’s a game-changer.