For Kurds, Palestinians, Catalans, Biafrans: The stage is set, By Confidence MacHarry

Posted by News Express | 14 October 2017 | 3,487 times

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•Confidence MacHarry

The end of the Second World War saw the number of countries that achieved statehood and entry into the comity of nations overly double, especially with independence movements following the withdrawal of Western colonial powers from Asia and Africa. Much of the blame or credit goes to the Atlantic Charter, signed in the thick of World War II, a charter devised by the United States, who railroaded her WW II allies – France and Britain – to sign.

But since the turn of the 21st century, the creation of new states have taken a departure from the previous century’s pattern of long, seasoned armed struggle, engulfing not just the state where the breakaway is being sought, but almost the entire sub-continent. The most intriguing example of the sort as the Balkan Crises that spanned from 1994 to 1999, a textbook example of ethnic cleansing (in UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres’ term) carried out by strongman Slobodan Milosevic against the Croats, the Bosnians, Kosovo, and other minority groups subject to Serbian domination, after collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The carnage was so gruesome that it had to take a NATO intervention to stabilise the Balkans; a move which in itself was a little too late given the number of deaths, refugees and spoilage sanctioned by Milosevic and his protégés: Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. The 21st century has relatively been peaceful in the rise of these movements, but the most pressing attention for statehood, which characterised much of the second half of the 20th century: The Palestinian struggle for independence has become a nagging issue which have come to live in the subconscious of belligerents and spectators alike; not forgetting the plight of the Kurds stuck in stateless limbo between Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

Independence and secessionist movements have rather dominated international news headline for much of 2017, against the backdrop of the nuclear standoff and crisis in the Korean demilitarised zone, especially between North Korea and the United States, with the former launching new tests almost on a monthly basis. In spite of this, however, the world is moving closer and closer to a diplomatic crisis, as the resurgence of secessionist agitations in the Middle East: Turkey, Iraq and Syria (for Kurdistan), and the stark reality of the Catalan independence from Spain.

There are around 40 million Kurds scattered across Turkey, Iraq and Syria. This is without doubt the largest ethnic group without a state in the Middle East and North Africa. The states in which they’ve lived have always opposed their independence. In Iraq, they have governed themselves since 1991 when the United States and its allies established a no-fly zone in the northern region - a bid to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein – formalising their status as a federal region in the Iraqi state in 2003. The Iraqi Kurds have their own postal stamps, a different currency, and their own parliament, and have been living fairly independent of the Baghdad government for long. The political and economic success story of Iraqi Kurdistan can hardly be over-emphasised. Widely regarded as the powerhouse of the Iraqi economy, they have leveraged on their control of Iraq’s oil reserves, developed their regional economy, and even sold signed oil deals with foreign companies last year, when the government of Baghdad failed to pay them their share of oil exports.

The argument against Kurdish independence has always been centred on the volatility of the Middle East. The region’s major powers and, to an external extent, the United States have always opined that an independent Kurdistan will serve as a hot-bed for terror movements, which could further destabilise the region. The Kurdish Peshmerga Forces have been instrumental in the fight against the Islamic State, and the United States have used them as a bulwark, a bastion in the Northern defence of Iraq, in a bid to keep the country from falling to ISIS. This kind of alliance has incurred the wrath of Turkey who spare no moment in shelling them wherever they find them within Turkish borders and the North of Syria. The main opposition against the independence of this region has always come from Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pulls no punches when he blames terror attacks on Istanbul on the Kurdistan Workers Party (The PKK).

The major concern which unites Iran, Iraq and Turkey against Kurdish independence is reflected in fears and concerns that it would endanger the gains made against the Islamic State, and would serve as a cannon fodder for potential conflicts in and around the region. In a meeting held on the 22nd of September, 2017, the foreign ministers of the three countries “emphasised that the planned referendum will not be beneficial for the Kurds and the Kurdish Regional Government, and agreed in this regard to consider taking counter-measures in coordination.” As a matter of fact, Erdogan has threatened to impose sanctions against Iraqi Kurdistan, if the referendum – though non-binding – is carried out as planned on September 24.

It is pertinent to note that it is not so hard to understand that the leaders of the states in the areas with substantial Kurdish population are afraid of ceding territories to a new state, and the most palpable of these fears is rooted in Syria, where the federal structure is already being threatened, due to America’s stance on the future of Bashar al-Assad and Syria, with or without him.

The two-state solution refers to a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which calls for “two states for two groups of people.” The two-state solution envisages an independent State of Palestine alongside Israel, west of the Jordan River. The boundary between the state of Israel and the quasi nation-state of Palestine is still subject to dispute and negotiation, with Palestinian and Arab leadership insisting on the “1967 borders”, which is unacceptable to the Israelis. The territory of the former Mandate Palestine, which shall not form part of the Palestinian State, shall be part of Israeli territory. Everybody talks about opposition of the two-state solution and rests the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Israeli government, but there are quite a few political analysts who genuinely dissect the issue with a view to unmasking the problem. As a matter of fact, both parties – Israel and Palestine – have enough grounds for rejecting the deal. For the Israeli government (note: Government, not people), establishing a parallel state on its borders portends greater danger in the current scheme of things than it hopes to solve, in the sense that a Palestinian state would be a threat to Israel’s security. If Palestine attains statehood, she becomes empowered to acquire weapons and join formal alliances with countries like Iran and maybe Syria. These fears are not unfounded. In fact, withdrawing from the Gaza Strip alone in 2005 opened the province to a hostile Hamas take-over and the latter, which Israel regards as a terrorist organisation, will swallow the recognised Mahmood Abbas led-government of Fatah as leaders of the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians derive their opposition from the aforementioned. It is even more glaring when one considers the feeling of displacement and entitlement the Palestinians attach to their demands. Furthermore, what two-state solution really means to them, often untold, is a new Jew-free Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, Occupied Palestine (a state presently called Israel) with automatic citizenship for 5 million Palestinian Arabs (non-negotiable demand called “Right of Return”). Once it attains a full Arab majority, this second state will merge with the Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The light on the horizon may have been flashed in the recent reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, as both parallel authorities have decided to put aside differences to work for a common Palestinian cause. Tel Aviv’s response to this, going by conventional logic, should be both welcoming and apprehensive. But the new unity forged between them (as brokered by the Egyptian government), what it will achieve and how long it would last even after the attainment of their objectives, is anyone’s guess. But, Palestine is surely never going to leave the news, not in the foreseeable future.

Of all the above listed and analysed so far, the Catalan agitation for independence is perhaps the most sensational, because it is much more a reality than a dream. What many of us fail to note is that Catalonia has never been an independent entity or state. Before being absorbed into the Spanish monarchy in 1469, it has always been an integral part of the Aragonese independent principality, headed by Ferdinand, and his marriage to Isabelle of Castile erased – to a great extent – Catalan identity, being one of Spain’s richest regions.

The autonomy granted to Catalonia has even fuelled more separatist agitation than fostering national unity. This, in itself, is a shot in the foot of the Madrid government, after the death of Gen Francisco Franco. In a strict sense, the calls for Catalan independence is not natural, because the current party which controls the legislature did so much to whip separatist sentiments, with a view to arousing national feeling. The region has been an integral part of Spain for centuries, and the nationalistic calls based on Franco’s maltreatment and different identities do not really pass a basic test of scrutiny. Furthermore, Carles Puigdemont (president of the region) fails to acknowledge the linguistic similarity between the rest of Spain and Catalonia. This failure informed their decision to enforce Catalan as the official language of the region. It is even more important to stress that an independent Catalonia would have more fiscal revenues, but it would also have a higher debt burden, than Spain.

This is not to say that the independence movements are unfounded. For some, such as this writer, independence is the most sensible solution to the problem of fitting Catalonia into the Spanish state. Autonomy is a failure – more evident now than ever – and a return to centralism is neither valid nor viable. The Spanish state broke the transition agreement when it judged against the statute, and now there’s no turning back to the type of autonomy they had in the 80’s and 90’s. The alternatives are either independence, or a shaky form of autonomy that would have even less freedom than the principality had 10 years ago. 

If the independence referendum scheduled to hold on October 1st and, perhaps, voted by the majority as expected is anything to go by, it gives the regional government greater mandate to pursue independence. But that in itself is a long shot, because there’s hardly any state who would want to be in the bad books of Spain in recognising a sovereign Catalonia. The United States has a lot of interest, (especially in maintenance of its alliance with Spain in NATO and the Spanish factor in the European Union) at stake, and would rather want to preserve her neutrality by passing this off as a strictly Spanish internal affair. For the European Union, it has the same position with the United States, and will choose rather to observe from Brussels than take direct measures until the Spanish government blinks.

The situation in South-Eastern Nigeria has all the tell-tale signs of  degeneration into an open conflagration, just like the Kurdish independence project, all the more messier with the latest designation of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) – the frontline organisation for secession of the Igbo in that region – as a terrorist group by the Nigerian government. The Biafran independence project has in itself weaknesses through seeming acts of civil unrests in demonstrations, sometimes leading to a clash with security officials, even all the more incongruent with the recent establishment of the Biafran Secret Service. Furthermore, both parties – the Federal Government of Nigeria and the IPOB – never learn. Before the group was outlawed, the Nigerian Army launched a military operation code named Python Dance II, with the ostensible reason of dealing with the region’s perennial issues with kidnappings, but widely seen as counter-secessionist strategy. The peculiarity of the Biafran struggle is its history, dating back to the civil war of 1967-1970 and the feelings of marginalisation and victimisation the Igbo felt and still feel. But the Abuja Federal Government of Muhammadu Buhari has bungled the chance of bringing lasting solution to the issue by the President’s divisive rhetoric and his 97/5 per cent theory. The worst possible way to deal with peaceful separatist movements is to unleash the military on them. It has always proved to be a disaster because, humans, as well as leaders of thoughts and ideologies, can be killed with guns, but their ideologies hardly die, more often than not, resurging with an even greater force. The arrest, detention and trial of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the IPOB movement opened a can of worms, which the Nigerian government sought to contain, and foolishly found itself in one error too many. And far from admitting its mistakes for not dialoguing with the separatists, the reiteration of the non-negotiability of Nigeria’s unity by the Federal Government further echoes the growing realisation that many states today are forced unions, either by ancient kingdoms or colonial masters. And it is all too glaring that governments would rather deal with internal sovereign threats with repressive measures rather than holding plebiscites or national fora, to discuss these issues.

The common denominator linking all four cases pervades one central theme: repression and suffocation. All states fear losing territories, and for Iraq and Kurdistan, the issue is more than just territorial integrity, it is about the economics of oil, with the ever-present but never admitted fear that a sovereign Kurdistan will possess a fifth of all Iraqi oil reserves, and even at a negotiating table, Erbil would have more bargaining power than Baghdad. Turkey’s denouncement of Kurdish referendum and subsequent independence is slightly hinged on territorial loss (in the foreseeable future for the Turks), not so distinct from the other fear of terrorism in the region that may rise to unprecedented regional conflict that a Kurdish state may portend. This pattern of territorial concessions and gains is further expounded in the perennial Palestinian conflict as both Israel and Palestine are more preoccupied with gaining territories, just as the latter is concerned about national security. The Spanish government’s declaration of the proposed Catalan referendum as illegal and detention (and release) of their leaders reeks of territorial insecurity, as well as economic disadvantage, given the recent Euro-zone crisis and the recent nation-wide recession. And by clamping down on the leaders, the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has shown that much more than necessary, the state is willing to undermine its post-Franco democracy, especially in the de facto creation of a state of emergency in the region. For the Biafran separatists in Eastern Nigeria, the tone is all too familiar with the military ideology of successive Nigerian state; all the more bolstered by the 1999 federal constitution of Nigeria which, though democratic in appearance, is military in tone and nature. President Buhari’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly on the 19th of September 2017 canvassing support for the two-state solution as a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and calls for a high powered UN delegation to defuse the North Korean nuclear crisis presents him to the world as a hypocrite, a repressive autocrat as against the statesman ruse he presented to the world. While telling the world how to resolve international crises peacefully, military operations code-named with ridiculously ludicrous names are spread across the southern geo-political zones of his country, and a failed counter-insurgency operation in the North-East.

The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has done little to achieve its aims, ten years after its adoption in 2007, with only South Sudan’s independence in 2011 as its success. While political leaders and statesmen suppress peaceful agitations for independence with their national militaries, they wittingly and unwittingly push these movements underground, and when they take up arms in struggle, it not just only swallows the government, it drains the country its financial capacities and drowns the economy in conflagrations that could easily have been avoided.

For Iraqi Kurdistan, Palestine, Catalonia and Biafra, the stage is set. And as men almost never learn from history – as a result their delusions and ill-advised solutions – the cycles become, as is all too recurrent, setting the stage for more anarchy and international crises far more than necessary.

Confidence MacHarry, an international affairs analyst and a socio-political issues commentator, is a student of International Studies and Diplomacy, Department of History and International Studies, University of Benin, Benin City.

On Twitter @Raw Diplomat;

Source: News Express

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