On Feb 22nd, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized the independence of two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. The regions include “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic.” Citing genocide, neo-Nazism, and corruption, President Putin asserted that the two regions belonged to ‘Russia land,’ and the entire Ukraine also belonged to the old empire of Russia until 1917. He subsequently ordered 150,000 Russian troops to the separatist-backed regions for what he called a “peace operation.”
In reaction to President Putin’s speech, many international observers and historians rejected the revisionist account, describing Ukraine’s historical independence as that of a national identity rather than the rhetoric decommunization. The European Union, United Kingdom, and United States, and other western allies have agreed to punish Russia with several economic sanctions. In fact, the UK has already sanctioned at least five Russian banks. Germany has also halted its partnership on the Baltic pipeline project. Despite the sanctions, Russian military invaded Ukraine by targeting military infrastructure and silos around 4:50 a.m. on Feb 24th, 2022.
While the future of Russia’s relations with its western allies remains in the dark, this article briefly analyses the possible consequences of Russia’s action in Africa’s troubled regions.
Africa’s Complex Colonial History and National Identity Crisis
Since 1960, African countries have recorded several civil wars which could be partly attributed to national identity crisis and complex political history. Post-independence African nation-states were carved out of colonial political geography rather than based on their unique national identity. The consequence has been civil war and armed conflicts in post-independence Africa.
For example, the Nigerian Civil War was inspired by the rise of separatism among Biafrans, mainly from eastern Nigeria in 1960s. The war was fought for 3.5 years, and it claimed more than a million lives. It was classified as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis between 1967 and 1970. Both Russia and the UK played a major role during the civil war. One could argue that one of the reasons why Biafran agitation failed was the fear of the unknown about the future relations of Biafra with Russia and western allies. There have been claims that Biafran separatists had the support of Russia during the civil war, but no evidence to back up these claims. Nevertheless, the UK supported ‘one Nigeria solution’ to retain the political geography of its former colony.
The Rise of Separatism in Africa
In recent years, many African countries have witnessed the rise of separatism, some of which have begun to challenge the existing political borders created during colonial era. The demand for a new sovereign nation based on a unique national identity and historical relations continue to rise rapidly on the continent. Since 2016, the Biafra agitation for independence from Nigeria has been rekindled, with massive supports from people living in southeast Nigeria. Other ethnic nationalities, such as Yoruba nation and Niger Delta, have also joined the agitation for a separate sovereign state from Nigeria. The separatist Movement of Democratic Force of Casamence (MFDC) continues violent confrontation with Senegalese Forces.
In addition, a separatist group called Ambazonia in the Anglophone northwest and southwest Cameroon continue to demand for a separate sovereign state from the French territory in Cameroon. Northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon were part of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate before they were joined to French Cameroon. Due to perceived injustice through language differences, the separatist group has resulted to carry arms to press their demands for independence.
Russia’s Interventions in Africa’s Troubled Region
In Central Africa region, Russia has played a significant role in the ongoing conflict in Central Africa Republic (CAR) through its military supports and has extended the same to Mali in West Africa. Although Russia’s relation with Bangui could be argued from the failure of the UN to tackle perennial conflicts in the country, U.S. imposed sanctions on companies advancing Russia’s interest in CAR. Mali, just like other nations facing the wave of separatism – Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon – has been fighting jihadists and violent extremists since 2011.
In recent months, the relations between Mali coup leaders, France, and other West allies have become sour. Russia’s recent military support to Mali has become a threat and a great concern to France and its allies who have agreed to withdraw their troops in Mali. One could see Malian youths raising Russian flags while chanting, “French should leave Mali alone.” So the future of the war against terrorism in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin is still hanging, and strong diplomacy and non-lethal approach is needed to arrest the looming danger in the troubled region.
Is Russia’s Action a Booster to the Separatists’ Demands in Africa?
With the formal recognition of the two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine for a proxy war, it is likely that separatist groups, who have been armed to the teeth, will gain more confidence in their demands for a new sovereign state in many African countries. On one hand, African nations fighting terrorism will have to brace to confront the more confident separatists and armed groups who might be inspired by the Kremlin approach to Ukraine crisis. On the other hand, these countries have to embrace good governance through inclusive policies that accommodate different interests and actors.
With the Western allies arguing that the Ukraine issue is that of a national identity, should a national identity become a yardstick for granting a region an independence? Could there be a better way to tackle the rise of separatism in a region with troubled history such as Africa? What should the West allies do differently to avoid double standard on the rise of separatism?
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