Beyond Catalonia: Secession movements in Cameroon, Nigeria, Yemen and Kurdistan

By Adem K Abebe, 31 October 2017
Photo credit: Lady_K/Flickr
Photo credit: Lady_K/Flickr

We live in an age of autonomy. Low levels of satisfaction with the existing constitutional framework and a sense of margination of distinct and territorially concentrated groups of people have triggered secession movements in a number of countries around the world. With the unlikelihood of independence in all cases, solutions to the problems will almost certainly focus on the reconsideration of current constitutional arrangements - writes Adem K Abebe. 

Newspapers, not to mention constitutional law blogs, in recent weeks have been full of news and analysis of the claims for independence in Catalonia (for example, see here, here and here).  However, beyond the headlines, demands for autonomy, and even secession, have cropped up in a number of different countries around the world. In the latest news, on 22 October 2017, two prosperous northern Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto voted to seek more autonomy, particularly increased control over finances. The advisory vote gives the respective regional authorities the mandate to negotiate with the central government for more powers within the existing constitutional framework, but not to seek secession. The referendum outcomes and the negotiations they could trigger may indicate the end of ‘austerity-inspired centrism’, highlighted in the failed 2016 Italian constitutional reforms, and the acceleration of the decentralization agenda in Italian politics.

The Catalan independence story has justifiably attracted media coverage and expert commentary from across the world. But it is not the only one in this ‘age of autonomy’. Independence demands have resurfaced with varying intensity in Cameroon, Iraq, Nigeria and Yemen. While the Kurdistan situation has received some media and expert attention, the other three have largely remained under the radar. This piece aims to provide brief updates on four movements where secession has featured as a possibility, namely, the Anglophone regions in Cameroon, Kurdistan in Iraq, Biafra in Nigeria and Southern Yemen in Yemen.   

Demands for self-determination in Anglophone Cameroon

English-speaking Cameroonians, constituting about 20% of the population, have mobilized in great numbers to seek higher levels of autonomy. The territorial boundaries of today’s Cameroon brought together two distinct regions, the ‘Francophone’ Republic of Cameroon and ‘Anglophone’ ‘Southern’ Cameroon, with different colonial legacies. A combination of a sense of dominance of French-speaking Cameroonians, lack of political freedom and pluralism, bad governance, and failure to implement constitutionally recognized minimal decentralization arrangements, such as those providing for regional councils led by elected leaders, have reignited protests and demands for a return to the federal system of government established at the time of unification, and even secession.

The protests started in late 2016 with teacher, lawyer and student strikes, whose immediate trigger was the failure of the government to respond to complaints regarding the appointment of French speaking magistrates, with questionable English speaking skills and experience with the common law system, to serve in the Anglophone regions. The response of the government has been a mix of security crackdown, the arrest of prominent representatives of the movement, internet blackout as well as some concessional measures, such as the establishment of a Commission on Bilingualism and Multiculturalism. Nevertheless, the protests have continued with a number of reported fatalities. With the government largely considering the protests as subversive, constitutional and related reforms to address the problems are unlikely to come anytime soon. While secession is unlikely, the status quo, characterized by extreme centralization of power, may also prove to be unsustainable.

Initially under a single German colonial administration, Cameroon was divided in 1916 between French, which covered the largest territory, and British Cameroon, two enclaves (Northern and Southern (Anglophone) Cameroon) close to the Nigerian border, as spoils of their victory during the First World War. When the waves of decolonization hit Cameroonian shores in the 1960s, there were UN-led discussions on the fate of the two small Anglophone Cameroon territories. Despite local preferences, the British considered the two enclaves unviable as an independent state. Accordingly, in a plebiscite for the two regions, the possibility of independent statehood was not included. Instead, voters were asked to decide whether they wished to ‘achieve independence’ by joining the Nigerian Federation, or the Republic of Cameroon. Northern (Anglophone) Cameroon voted to join Nigeria, while Southern (Anglophone) Cameroon voted to join the Republic of Cameroon (the reference to ‘Southern’ Cameroon has stuck despite in reality being situated more to the (north and south) west of Cameroon).

The Foumban Conference of 1961 established a constitutional framework for the integration of the Republic of Cameroon and Southern Cameroon into a new Federal Republic of Cameroon. The Constitution contained basic protections for the Anglophone region. Accordingly, proposals for constitutional change required a majority in the unicameral legislature, as well as majorities among representatives originating from the two entities. Despite this protection, policies favoring unitary nationhood predominated and a countrywide referendum in 1971 abolished the federal arrangement and established the United Republic of Cameroon, and divided the region into two provinces. The name of the state was changed again under current president Paul Biya in 1984 into the ‘Republic of Cameroon’, reinstating the pre-integration name of Francophone Cameroon. The adoption of a new constitution in 1996 led to the removal of most of the traces of the federal constitution, other than the passing reference to the protection of ‘minorities’ in the preamble, and the recognition of English and French as official languages of equal status and bilingualism as an official state policy. The fundamental issues underwriting this history of centralizing government power have fed feelings of marginalization and constitute the core of the ongoing protests.

Iraqi Kurdistan: Aspiring independence

The Kurds, the largest ‘nation’ without their own independent state, live scattered around several neighboring countries, including Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Nevertheless, independence aspirations are quite alive in Kurdish imaginations. The organization on 25 September 2017 of the advisory independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan is the most serious manifestation of this ambition. 

The story of how the Kurds ended up in several different territories is complex and has roots in the regional and international politics following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Organized Kurdish movements have asserted their identity and sought different levels of autonomy within existing borders in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey with varying degrees of success. Iraqi Kurds, occupying the northern part of the country, have particularly enjoyed the highest levels of territorial autonomy since 1992. In fact, the Kurdistan Region is the only autonomous federal region in the country specifically recognized in the 2005 Constitution of Iraq. Particularly following the virtual collapse of Iraq’s central governance after the ISIS overrun large areas of Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish regions have largely been operating outside Iraq’s control.

Following years of uneasy relations with the Iraq government strained by disputes over constitutional division of revenue and powers and on the exact lines of Kurdish regional boundaries, particularly in the oil-rich Kirkuk areas, the Kurdistan Regional Government organized a non-binding independence referendum in September 2017. The referendum is supported by the two prominent political and armed forces in Iraqi Kurdistan: the Kurdish Democratic Party, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which control separate areas in Kurdistan. While the Kurdistan Regional Government has on occasions used the threat of secession as leverage to win concessions regarding the devolution of power and sharing of revenue, the plan for a secession referendum was only first announced in 2014, and was postponed mainly due to the need to focus on the fight against ISIS. While the yearning for independence among Kurds is high, the timing of the declaration has been seen as part of an intra-Kurdish political struggle.

The result of the referendum was expected: more than 92% of the voters, with a reported 78% turn out, supported independence. The Iraqi government has rejected the legitimacy and legality of the independent referendum and even threatened to use force, if necessary. Indeed, Iraqi forces subsequently took control of Kirkuk, without resistance from Kurdish armed forces. Neighboring countries with significant Kurdish populations, particularly Turkey and Iran, have also rejected the referendum and engaged in a show of force. Nor have the Kurds found support among prominent international actors. The US attempted to convince Kurdish authorities to postpone the referendum without success, and did not recognize the outcome.

While achieving independence is unlikely, the positive mandate the Kurdish authorities received in the referendum could be used to win concessions in any negotiations for constitutional reform. Indeed, the Kurdistan regional government has offered to ‘suspend’ the outcome of the referendum and engage in dialogue with the central government based on Iraq’s constitution. Kurdish leaders have earlier floated the idea of a confederal arrangement. Nevertheless, the situation may have backfired and affirmed suspicions among Iraqi politicians about the possible consequence of granting higher levels of devolved powers to the regions. A move to a new form of federalism may be the only way forward, but it is unlikely to be agreed upon and implemented in the short term. President Masoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has indicated that he would step down in a few days, and the fighting with ISIS is far from over. This fuels uncertainties in the regional politics and is likely to delay any move towards constitutional dialogue and adjustments. 

The pro-Biafra movement in Nigeria

Elements in the self-declared Biafra region, including the major oil producing areas and mainly claiming to represent the Igbo of Southeast Nigeria, have once again asserted demands for reconsideration of the continuity of the Nigerian state in a national referendum and the possibility of secession. The Nigerian government has responded by declaring the territorial integrity of the nation non-negotiable, designating the main proponent entity a terrorist organization, arresting its leaders and conducting operations with the armed forces.

Movements for the independence of Biafra have remained alive, though latent, since the civil war involving the Nigerian government and the then self-declared independent state of Biafra (1967-1970), one of deadliest conflicts in history. The war was the result of instability following coups and counter coups, ethnic-based conflicts and displacement, and rivalry over the control of oil resources. One of the factors that made the secession movement possible was the size and strength of the units in the then four-state Nigerian federation. The war immediately followed the decision of the military government to divide the four regions into twelve, including the formation of three states out of the Eastern Region, which then declared an independent state of Biafra.

The demands for independence must be seen within the broader context of the largely centralized Nigerian federation and the continued sense of political marginalization of the Igbo. In particular, the central government continues to control all the principal sources of revenue, including income from natural resources (other than the nominal 13% allocated to the state where the resource is extracted). This arrangement has bred resentment particularly in the oil producing regions of Nigeria. Nevertheless, while the number of states has increased over time (from three at independence to 36 today), the division of power among the states and the regions has remained skewed in favor of the central government. In the ongoing constitutional reform process, the main proposals that were rejected in the National Assembly relate to those devolving more powers to the states, such as fiscal and police autonomy. Despite the recognized importance of devolution for peaceful coexistence at the political level, and promises to revisit the devolution question, the possibility for reforms remains uncertain.

It is in this context that the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a separatist organization, called for a referendum on the future of Biafra and led some protests, although it insists it does not condone violent means, which have triggered military crackdown against secessionists in the region. On 20 September, a federal high court declared IPOB a terrorism organization, and its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, is facing terrorism and treason charges. While secession is unlikely and the military operations may temporarily quell the movement, a sustainable solution may require dialogue and the constitutional devolution of power and financial resources to the states. In this regard, the existence of some level of political consensus and the promise to revisit the issue of devolution offers some hopes.

The Southern Question in Yemen

Following divisions between the internationally recognized government of Yemen and its southern partners, prominent leaders in South Yemen have announced plans for an independent referendum, with apparent support from the United Arab Emirates. This comes hot on the heels of continued civil war and the unsuccessful constitution reform process, which initially failed partly due to disagreements on the division of powers and resources and the federal restructuring of the state, and ongoing efforts to negotiate peace and reignite the constitutional reform process.

Today’s Yemen was a result of a unification constitution adopted in a referendum in 1990 bringing together two independent states: a larger North Yemen (Yemen Arab Republic), which was formed in 1918 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and a smaller South Yemen (People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen), a former British colony that became an independent state in 1967. However, the coalition for the unified state was not stable. Indeed, divisions led to a civil war in 1994 and an unsuccessful secession bid of South Yemen. This was followed by amendments to the constitution that eliminated elements that enshrined power sharing, such as the presidential council, which was composed of members from both sides with various joint powers including to appoint a prime minister. 

Despite the organization of subsequent elections, feelings of Southern marginalization persisted. This ultimately led to loosely coordinated protests in 2007, which morphed into the establishment of the South Yemen Movement (al-Hirak) with the aim of reinstating an independent South Yemen. With the collapse of the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the civil war, and the subsequent expansion of the Houthi, a rebel group rooted in North Yemen, a loose coalition of factions under the umbrella of the al-Hirak Movement has controlled the provinces in South Yemen. While the movement has been in an alliance of convenience with the internationally recognized President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, based in the Southern city of Aden, divisions led to the sacking of prominent al-Hirak Movement leaders, including the governor of Aden, Aidaroos al-Zubaidi.

Following his dismissal, in May 2017, Al-Zubaidi declared the establishment of a council to seek South Yemen’s secession and indicated that an independence referendum will be organized ‘soon’. In the meantime, a National Association would play the role of a transitional parliament. While the secession agenda has always been present, the current process is the most serious attempt yet. The effective control of most of the South Yemen provinces may enhance the likelihood of self-proclaimed independence. Nevertheless, with the presence of a competing Hadi (himself a southerner) government in Aden and fissures within the al-Hirak movement, secession is certainly not a done deal but some form of accommodation of southern demands will eventually need to be reckoned with in any constitution for a united Yemen.


While the contexts are different, a cursory look at the above secession movements demonstrates their link with low levels of satisfaction with the existing constitutional framework and a sense of margination of a distinct and territorially concentrated group of people who consider themselves a nation with rights to self-determination. With the unlikelihood of independence in all cases, solutions to the problems will almost certainly focus on the reconsideration of current constitutional arrangements. In particular, demands for highly decentralized arrangements seem to have currency among the proponents of secession, at least as second best alternatives. The old political thinking of centralized governance and suspicion towards the granting of enhanced autonomy to distinct groups has fomented the demands for secession and is unlikely to sustainably address the challenges. Understanding the various constitutional models to accommodate demands for autonomy will continue to be central to constitution-building practice and theory.

Adem K Abebe is the editor of ConstitutionNet. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.


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