|The ominous black flag of Ansar al-Dine flew over a captured city in northern Mali in spring of 2012.|
The conflicts in Pakistan’s restive province of Balochistan (no. 9 on last year’s list), in Indonesia’s far-eastern Papua and West Papua provinces (no. 7), and in the parts of the Republic of Yemen that would like to restore the independent South Yemen (no. 4) ground on, but without coming any closer to resolutions. The campaign for northern Italy to secede as Padania (no. 8) collapsed completely, thanks to the Euro Zone crisis, which brought down Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition government, in which the separatist Northern League was an unlikely junior partner. And then, the League’s charismatic founder and leader, Umberto Bossi, resigned amid a corruption scandal. Padania may rise again, but not any time soon.
|Umberto Bossi’s northern Italian separatist movement|
was virtually obliterated by the Euro Zone crisis in 2012.
My list also failed to include Scotland and its forward movement toward independence (no. 4 on this year’s list; see below), Catalonia’s rising separatist movement (no. 6 this time around; see below), the autonomy declaration in Libya’s eastern Cyrenaica region, the declarations of independence in the Bakassi Peninsula portion of the disputed border area between Nigeria and Cameroon, or the (unexpected by anyone) establishment of the Independent State of Azawad (no. 2 this year; see below) in northern Mali. I also had no idea that a reelection of Barack Obama could inspire an upsurge of separatism in America’s red states (see no. 9 below).
Now, without further ado, are Ten Separatist Movements to Watch in 2013:
Let’s start with one most people have never heard of. At the beginning of the year, southern Somalia, which was at the time ruled by al-Shabaab, a merciless Islamist army affiliated with al-Qaeda, was being invaded by an African Union (A.U.) force led by Kenya and Ethiopia, with United States aid, to try to dislodge the group and restore rule from Mogadishu. For Kenya, this meant setting aside for the moment plans for a possible buffer state in the region in order to settle a grudge: Kenya suffers more spillover of al-Qaeda terrorism than anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa, and it has its own Muslim separatist movement around Mombasa that it fears may become radicalized with militant Islam in the way that the Zanzibar separatist movement in nearby Tanzania has been. In the late summer, the A.U. coalition more or less succeeded—liberating the southern city of Kismayu and putting al-Shabaab on the run. However, the Federal Republic of Somalia in Mogadishu, although it this year ended its “transitional” period and is supposedly now “normalized,” is, disappointingly, not much closer to extending its actual administration of territory very far beyond the outskirts of the capital. So, local southern militias, some nearly as brutal and nearly as Islamist, are taking advantage of the power vacuum in the south to try to revive a regional government called, at various times, Jubaland, Azania, or even Greenland (sic), which has for brief periods enjoyed de facto independence during Somalia’s long civil war. In the short term, many Jubalanders would like to establish a self-governing (de facto independent) autonomous state—like Galmudug and Puntland, to the north (see map above)—but Mogadishu and the A.U. are resistant to this idea. They’ve seen how Galmudug and Puntland have, for all their relative stability, become havens for sea pirates. An autonomous Jubaland, especially one run by Islamists, may not solve much. But Jubalanders are tired of war and tired of instability and, it seems, they are tired of being part of Somalia.
|Postage stamps from Jubaland’s brief quasi-independence in the 1920s as the Italian colony of Trans-Juba|
Two rival designs for the flag of Jubaland State
Texas is one of only four states that joined the United States from the position of an independent state applying for admission (the others being Vermont and, more ambiguously, Hawaii and California) and has always had a separatist streak. Lingering bitterness toward the North in this former slave state is perhaps stronger than anywhere else in the territory of the failed Confederate States of America. Today, it is among the reddest of red states—the home not only of George W. Bush but of Lyndon B. Johnson, whose “betrayal” of fellow “Dixiecrats” by pushing through civil-rights legislation in the 1960s lay the groundwork for Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy”—in which the Republican Party courted Southern white racists, which is why today’s electoral maps look the way they do. Texas is also home to extreme forms of political nuttiness, much of it swirling around issues of sovereignty. I have reported in this blog on the Texan separatists getting their panties in a bunch over (actually rather routine and benign) monitoring of national-election polling places in Texas by “ferners” from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (O.S.C.E.), and on some Texan politicians’ fears that President Barack Obama is planning on allowing the United Nations to institute direct rule in the Lone Star State. Local redneck folklore has it that Texas has the constitutionally ordained right to secede from the Union at any time—which is false, though it does have the right to devolve into as many as five separate states (which would have the effect of turning the U.S. Senate into a particularly bad episode of Hee Haw). In the hours after Obama was reelected in November 2012, Texas was the second state (after Louisiana) to be represented in online petitions on the White House’s website calling for secession from the U.S. All 50 states, plus the State of Jefferson and Molossia, had petitions in the days that followed, but of all these Texas got the most signatures—119,044—though, to be fair, some of those may have come from Northerners whose attitude toward Texan independence is “Don’t let the screen door hit you where the Good Lord split you.” To be sure, this is mostly a rhetorical, symbolic reflection of fears of federal intrustion (“First Washington frees our slaves, then they make us take down the ‘No Coloreds Allowed’ signs, now they want everyone to have access to affordable health care—what horrors are next??”). Even Governor Rick Perry, whose warm comments about Texan independence may have contributed to his failed bid for the presidential nomination, continues to chime in on the subject. But serious or not, events in 2012 have put the word “secession” on everyone’s lips in Texas. The Texas Nationalist Movement (T.N.M.) says its membership has spiked as never before and has just formed its own political action committee (PAC). Don’t expect Texas to secede any time soon; that would require an act of Congress. But don’t expect the idea to die down any time soon either, at least not as long as there is a black man in the white House, especially one who, after the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre this month, really is trying to take people’s assault weapons away.
(Related article from this blog: “Hispanics and African-Americans ‘Remember the Alamo’ Differently—or at Least Some of Them Do.”)
8. Alawite State
|Lattakia and Tartous provinces, along Syria’s coast, formed the Alawite State in colonial times,|
and may one day do so again.
Very little has changed in the brutal rule by the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) of Tibet in terms of actual policies, to say nothing of improvements, but the visibility of this movement has been raised considerably in 2012. The Summer Olympics in London were the occasion for many political protests, including those in favor of the Tibetan struggle for self-determination. More dramatically, self-immolations by Tibetans, many of them Buddhist monks, in desperate protest over the political situation, have spiked in late 2012, bringing to (as of this writing) 95 such incidents since the wave of self-immolations began in 2009. Beijing is stepping up its response to that situation, with a barrage of propaganda blaming the 14th Dalai Lama for the protesters’ deaths. Something is happening in the closed world of Chinese-ruled Tibet, and in the even more secret world of dissidents, whose ardor for independence has not dimmed the slightest in over six decades of domination. This may be the year everything blows up—with, as is always the case in the Chinese sphere of influence, unpredictable results.6. Catalonia
This year saw Catalonia, a small region in northeastern Spain catapulted into international stardom for its sudden surge of separatist feeling, the triumph of separatists in regional parliamentary elections, and, just within the past couple weeks, the formation of a ruling separatist coalition and an agreement to hold a referendum on independence in 2014, the same year as Scotland’s (see below). This development can be seen as one of the more profound political repercussions of the Euro Zone crisis. Catalonia is Spain’s wealthiest region and thus has long chafed at the fact that it essentially subsidizes poorer areas. Add to this that it is also Spain’s most indebted region at the moment, and you have Catalans feeling that it is the profligacy of those poorer regions that has landed them in this pickle. Catalonia enjoyed de facto independence during the Spanish Civil War and has long considered itself not really Spain, with closer cultural and linguistic affinities to France than other Spanish regions have. Hence their feeling that they are somehow a “northern European” success story that should not have to suffer for a financial crisis caused by the irresponsibility of “southern Europe” (the same dynamic, in the same rhetorical terms, that is at work among Italy’s northern separatists and Belgium’s Flemish ones). Since Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, Catalonia has become more and more independent, with their own devolved parliament, their own educational and language policies, etc. (The much smaller number of Catalans just over the border in France have, like other French linguistic and ethnic minorities, almost no political recognition or rights.) But Catalonia is still wedded to Madrid when it comes to the collection of taxes and how the revenue is spent. Expect most of Spanish politics in 2013 to revolve around the tussle over whether Catalonia is even allowed to hold a referendum (Madrid says no), what happens if they do anyway (Catalonia has requested NATO protection should Madrid send in the tanks), and whether an independent Catalonia could remain automatically, or even at all, within the European Union (E.U.)—a question faced also by Scotland (see below) and which is at the moment up in the air. (Separatist tendencies in Galicia and, especially, the Basque Country are also set to be debated this year.)
|King Libosi Imwiko II|
|The flag of Barotseland|
In the British Isles, much of 2013 will be consumed by a debate over whether residents of Scotland should vote, in their plebiscite the following year, to secede from the United Kingdom. Much of the wrangling over the form of secession has been settled: an independent Scotland would be a non-nuclear state but within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it would keep the British pound but would be more open to joining the Euro Zone than the U.K. is, and it would probably keep Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and become a completely sovereign Crown dominion, like Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. Still to be settled (as with Catalonia; see above) is whether Scotland can stay in the E.U. after it splits from the U.K.—i.e., whether it would have to reapply for admission and whether the U.K. would block it. Legal scholars and political scientists are divided on this question; it has never come up before (but see my article from this blog looking at precedents in other international arenas). This coming year, we will see the government in London pulling out the heavy guns, bringing Tony Blair on board the “Better Together” campaign to try to convince Scots with threats, cajolery, and hyperbole that secession will be a disaster (will a drooling Margaret Thatcher be wheeled out amid royal pomp to handbag a bagpiper?), while Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party (S.N.P.) and their “Scotland Yes” campaign will try to ride a rising wave of nationalist feeling. Right now, according to polls, there are not quite enough “yes” votes, but a year is an eternity in politics.
This has been a banner year for the State of Palestine, which declared independence in 1988 when it was a government-in-exile that controlled no territory, gradually accrued diplomatic recognition from most of the world, and in the 1993 Oslo Accords was given a quasi-governmental status as the Palestinian National Authority (P.A.), controlling the Gaza Strip and scraps of the West Bank. In November 2012, the United Nations General Assembly voted in a landslide to admit Palestine as a non-member “observer state,” with only eight nations—the United States, Israel, and a rapidly shrinking rogue’s gallery of U.S. vassal states like Canada and the Marshall Islands—voting against. Until the U.S. sets aside its Security Council veto, Palestine cannot become a full member state, but now that it is recognized as a state its status is hugely enhanced. Most crucially, anything the State of Israel does to the West Bank and Gaza Strip is now an act of hostility by one state against another, which unleashes all sorts of legal and political consequences. Not that this deters Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is at the mercy of the small militant fundamentalist Orthodox Jewish political parties that hold the balance of power in Israeli politics. He has vowed to accelerate the building of illegal Jewish settlements, and he has mapped out a plan that uses settlements to break up the West Bank into ungovernable shards of territory, further locks down its Palestinian inhabitants into a vast razor-wired ghetto, and cordons off East Jerusalem, their hoped-for capital. International condemnation of the plans have been an avalanche. Meanwhile, on the Palestinian side, the West Bank and Gaza are further apart politically than ever. The West Bank is ruled by Fatah, the actual Palestinian government, which is committed to statehood and peace with Israel, while the Gaza Strip is ruled by Hamas, a radical Islamist terrorist organization, funded by Iran, which is pledged to Israel’s destruction and will likely one day again initiate rocket attacks on civilians, like the ones last month that exploded into a stalemated but deadly vest-pocket war between Gaza and Israel. No one knows what will happen next, but 2013 will be interesting.
At the beginning of 2012, the Republic of Mali—a massive, mostly politically stable nation in west Africa—was on nobody’s radar as any kind of international trouble spot. But the Tuareg ethnic group that dominates the arid, sparsely populated northern two-thirds of the country had staged rebellions before, seeking more autonomy for their vast landlocked Sahara homeland, which also spills over into Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Libya. Ah, Libya—that was the problem. In Libya’s civil war in 2011, Tuareg militias sided with Moammar al-Qaddafi and after his defeat, fearing retaliation, they fled in droves, with much of Qaddafi’s arsenal, to northern Mali. There, the local Tuaregs—a nomadic people, related to Berbers—seized the opportunity of increased numbers and arms to rise up and take control of the north. The feebleness of the central government’s response to the crisis inspired Malian troops to stage a military coup d’état in March, and the ensuing political chaos in the southern capital, Bamako, created even more of a vacuum for the Tuaregs in the north to fill. Despite some cosmetic handovers of power to civilian puppets, the disorganized military junta still controls the southern third of Mali. In the north meanwhile, the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (M.N.L.A.) declared an Independent State of Azawad in early April, but its revolution was quickly hijacked by two radical Islamist armies: the Tuareg-dominated Ansar al-Dine and the Algerian-based Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which is a branch of the al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (A.Q.I.M.). The Islamists have controlled Azawad since then, implementing a brutal form of shari’a (Islamic law): banning music, shutting down pubs, arresting unveiled women, amputating thieves’ hands, stoning adulterous couples to death, and, in a way most sickeningly, bulldozing into oblivion any ancient Sufi architectural treasures they deem heretical. The fate of the temples and libraries of Timbuktu, one of the centers of ancient civilization, is as yet not fully known, with the whole north—an area the size of France—mostly sealed off from the outside world. The world has taken notice—mostly because northern Mali now threatens to become a training ground and staging area for al-Qaeda terrorism, in the way that Sudan was in the early 1990s, Afghanistan was in the late 1990s, and southern Somalia threatened to become in more recent times (see no. 10, Jubaland, above). Observers already warn of a worrying increase in coordination and friendship between Ansar al-Dine and MUJAO and other radical Islamist groups such as Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Though it has taken a long time for the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), the African Union (A.U.), the European Union (E.U.), and the United Nations (U.N.) to agree on how and when to handle the situation, everyone predicts that some time in 2013 an international force, dominated by France but with U.S. participation as well, will invade to bring Azawad back into Mali—whether the junta in Bamako approves or not. Expect the fiercest fighting to take place in Mopti, a densely populated, ethnically diverse province in the borderlands between Azawad and Mali proper. Expect also, perhaps, that Mali will be the new Afghanistan—an open wound of interminable civil war.
|A “Kurdish Spring” spilled into the streets of Turkey’s cities in 2012.|
|Kurdish flags in Turkey honor the P.K.K. (left) and its imprisoned founder, Abdullah Öcalan (right).|
|Syrian Kurds celebrated the liberation of their territories from Assad.|
How long will their autonomy last?
|Turkmens covet Kurdistan’s slice of the Iraqi pie as well.|
[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar. (That is shorter than the previous working title.) The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), will be on shelves and available on Amazon on March 1, 2015. I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news. Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even though you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this special announcement for more information on the book.]