The ongoing bid for independence by Kurds in Iraq and Catalans in Spain reflects internal tensions that have been part of Africa's post-independence history. Is it time to abandon the rigid nation-state structures, when these do not work?
The Trinidadian historian CLR James once stated that to understand where the world was headed 40-50 years in the future, look at what is happening to Africa now, in the present.
The consequences of the Kurdish and Catalan independence referendums have been dominating the news. Will Iraq allow an independent Kurdish nation? Indeed, given their own contiguous Kurdish populations, will the neighbouring countries of Iran, Syria, and Turkey allow it?
What are the consequences for Spain if Catalonia, its richest region, is allowed to slip away? Would the Basque region inevitably follow, and what then, the wholesale fracturing of Spain? And what of the broader implications for the EU, given that the EU is constructed on agreements with nations, not regions?
Others are now confronting many of the questions faced by Africans 70 years ago as independence loomed. Our continental body, the OAU, decided in 1963 to accept the borders carved up by Europeans at the 1884 Berlin Conference.
This meant accepting arbitrarily constructed borders, containing different nations, with ethnic and language groups spread across several state lines. This in turn triggered secessionist agitations, eventually leading to wars in Sudan, Congo, and Nigeria in the 1960s, and ongoing struggles elsewhere. Currently, demands for secession from the "OAU Berlin agreement" are in play in Somalia, Ethiopia, Angola, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Senegal, and Western Sahara.
Could the OAU have prevented such agitations and conflicts, or were they simply inevitable? The conflicts are probably unavoidable given the issue at their core: the rigidity of the current international system.
The OAU adopted the basic norms at the heart of this system based on the 1648 Peace of Westphalia: the principle of state borders/territorial integrity; non-interference in the internal affairs of states; and sovereignty accorded to those who control a monopoly on violence within state territorial borders. All these measures enshrined a legal system intended to prevent external regime change and the perpetual conflicts they engender.
However, the Westphalian system has not always preserved the peace, as the system has always been challenged externally by empire...