LONDON (ViaNews) – November 2017. The Biafran separatist movement in Nigeria is blacklisted a “storm in a teacup” with just a “few noisy people involved”, by the Nigerian information minister, Lai Mohammed. Separatism, after all, is not limited to the European continent.

Kurdish protest in Freiburg, Germany. The poster reads 'Freedom for Öcalan, peace in Kurdistan'. It refers to Abdullah Öcalan, who is a Kurdish nationalist leader and one of the founders of the PKK. Photo by: Joshua Stein.
Kurdish protest in Freiburg, Germany. The poster reads ‘Freedom for Öcalan, peace in Kurdistan’. It refers to Abdullah Öcalan, who is a Kurdish nationalist leader and one of the founders of the PKK. Photo by: Joshua Stein.

Biafra, Rakhine, and Kurdistan: 3 separatist centers outside of Europe. The ethnic, linguistic, and economic difference all play a role in defining these various movements, movements declaring their people separate from the country, or countries, where they reside.

Because that’s a primary difference between non-European separatisms, broadly speaking, and European based movements. More often than not, the population of the group in question is not resident in one country. The Rohingya, for instance, are settled most of all in Myanmar, with 1.1 million living there before the latest violence. But there are also 500,000 resident in Saudi Arabia, and 350,000 living in Pakistan. Similarly, the concept of Kurdistan would involve peoples living in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Armenia. The Catalan movement, for instance, may have one less obstacle to its success, it’s people, after all, are mainly in one area, and one country today.

What comes with this is a linguistic difference. Rather than a single language defining all of the movements discussed, dialects are more or less incompatible across the region where the groups are spread. Take the Kurdish example. In Iraq, where Kurds make up 20 percent of the population and thus represent the highest concentration of Kurds in the region, an individual speaking the Surani Kurdish dialect would find understanding a Badinani-speaking-Kurd difficult. All hypothetical questions, but nonetheless important: what dialect would be spoken if Kurdistan were created? Is it actually important, or would a decentralised system accommodating all the dialects be possible instead? The Kurdish language, however multisided, is one of the core definitive characteristics of the people which distinguishes them, in their eyes, from other groups in that area. Political disenfranchisement has, similarly, caused a continued demand for a Kurdish state.

So, too, is the situation with the Biafra movement. The Igbo, a largely Christian group resident in the south, exposed themselves more significantly to British proselytization and missionary education centuries ago, than the Northern Yoruba and Hausa entities did in the north. The strong Islamic influence amongst those northern groups made them fearful that attempts at Christian education were a threat to Islam. The result: the Igbo made up the vast majority of the colonial and post-colonial civil service in the country in comparison to their Northern counterparts. The result: tension across the decades, claims of fraternizing with the colonial power and some jealousy regarding the economic standing of some Igbo.

The case of the Rohingya is pointedly different. An Islamic group in the majority Buddhist nation of Myanmar, they feel they belong in the country: many have family connections going back generations. It is the Myanmari government which is accused of pressurizing their expatriation, through untold levels of violence and hatred. The Rohingyas, then, are perhaps not a separatist movement, but are facing a ‘forced separatism’.

Like the European separatisms, these are all defined by shared and divided histories. Different though, is the fact of colonialism’s involvement in all three of the movements discussed. Meaning a lot less of the developments were in a position of strength, rather, they were relying on colonial promises of self-determination. Kurdish support for the Allied forces in the First World War brought their, as well as many other, Middle Eastern-based separatisms to the fore. The post-war Treaty of Sévres, the treaty imposed on the disbanded remnants of the Ottoman Empire, promised a Kurdish state.

New autonomy for the Kurds in Turkey was declared as a part of the 1920 treaty, with the assertion that, ‘if within one year [of the treaty] […] the Kurdish peoples shall address themselves in such a manner as to show that a majority of the population of these areas desires independence from Turkey” full independence would be afforded to them. Hopes for this independent state were, however, ended when the treaty was ignored, instead culminating in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Kemal Atatürk and the supporters of a larger Turkish nation made no mention of a Kurdish state in their revised treaty.

British colonialism, similarly, brought those that are now known as the Rohingya to Myanmar. Bengali Muslims, aware of the economic growth of the Burmese colony, were attracted there purposely by the British colonial power. Thus an influx of Islamic workers began in the 19th century, to represent those who have recently been forced out of their homes and attacked with substantial violence.

Rohingya children playing at a UNICEF child-friendly area, financed by UK aid, inside Batukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh. Photo credit: Anna Dubuis /DFID
Rohingya children playing at a UNICEF child-friendly area, financed by UK aid, inside Batukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh. Photo credit: Anna Dubuis /DFID

In British colonial Africa, missionary education sharply polarized the experiences of the various ethnicities in today’s Nigeria. Whilst the mainly Northern-based Yoruba and Hausa were Islamic and feared British missionary action aimed at wiping out Islam there, the southern residing Igbo took to the missionary education schools. The result? It was mainly the Igbo who were educated to a standard the colonial power accepted, and thus it was mainly the Igbo who populated the civil service in the state. The Igbo leader today, Nnamdi Kanu, sometimes wears a tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl, a symbol of his people’s Christian devotion.

The result today has been a lack of political representation for the Igbo, who were seen as cooperating with the colonial power. There has not been a Nigerian president with Igbo origin for over 30 years, and political isolation is a key issue in the Igbo bid for more autonomy.

At a meeting of pro-Biafra Igbo at the National Gallery in London in May 2017, one sign read that the “progenitors of Biafrans have been scientifically proven and was traced back to Biblical Jacob, as we are highly aware that Jacob was the father of the 12 tribes of Israel”. This belief in Christian ancestry remains one of the cornerstones of Biafran claims for sovereignty.

Religion, then, is a substantial issue for many of these separatist groups. During the Second World War, the majority Buddhist population in colonial Burma supported the Nazi regime. Meanwhile, the Islamic Rohingya pledged their arms to the Allies. Violence on both sides aggravated relations between the two groups, which has waxed and waned over the decades until the conflict today.

Just as in Europe and elsewhere around the globe, identity is a key part of any separatist movement. Self-definition in opposition to the Turks, or to the Myanmaris, centers around difference in language, tradition, and history. Group self-awareness largely depends on the ability to define difference.

The response to this by some draws a sharp distinction from any European separatism. It is in Turkey where Kurdish identity is denied: instead, the people are referred to as ‘Mountain Turks’. In Myanmar, similarly, the government does not refer to the Rohingya by that name: rather, they are referred to as Bengalis. The aim? To discount their identity as fundamentally illegitimate, and, in the case of the Rohingya, to define them as refugees from today’s Bangladesh. By defining them as one with the Bangladeshi people, they argue that there is no question of the Rohingyas belonging and remaining in Myanmar. The Rohingya do not have freedom of movement, meaning they are confined to certain areas of Myanmar, unable to integrate into other areas of the country and society. Recent international calls have demanded that Myanmar recognizes the Rohingya ethnicity, which they have so far refused to do, purely for this reason of legitimate belonging in Myanmar.

The ‘Mountain Turks’, in contrast, are denied any difference in identity from the Turks. Rather than being pushed away, they are drawn in: there is a denial of difference and, thereby, a denial of their right to representative statehood independent from Turkey.

The Rohingya in Myanmar, the Igbo in Nigeria clamouring for a Biafran state, and the Kurds spread across the Middle East: post-colonial politics has continued to marginalize them from political and social society. The result, for Kurds and Igbos, has been a growth and maintenance of calls for independence.

The Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, has been accused of neglecting the Igbo economically and politically, with little economic aid going south and few senior government positions being occupied by the Igbo, which makes up around 20 percent of the Nigerian population. He meanwhile maintains that “Nigeria’s unity is settled and not negotiable.” Hard-handed treatment of the Igbo, to say the least, has surged over the past few years.

Again, this harsh treatment of the Igbo is partly in memory of the events of 1967. The Biafran war began when the Igbo leader, Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu, declared the Biafran state in south-eastern Nigeria. The resulting war was brutal, with over three million deaths and many pushed out of their homes. Both Kanu, today’s leading proponent of a Biafran state, and Buhari understandably fear a repetition of this war.

It is 2017. On the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Biafran independence, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), the group which heads the call for Biafran statehood, led commemorations of that day. Markets and schools were among institutions in the south which closed their doors for the one day, to remember the declaration and the ensuing war.

Like the raging violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Igbo have been attacked and marginalised routinely over the last century and before. In June 2017, a number of youth groups in Northern Nigeria issued together the ‘Kaduna Declaration’, a declaration of war against Igbos living in the North. Their demand: that the Igbo leave the area within three months. Calls were also made for Northerners living in the South to relocate, warning that they were considering dividing the country.

Similarly, since the creation of the PKK in Turkey, a militant Kurdish separatist group, in 1978, over 40,000 have been killed. The sole result has been a removal of citizenship from over 300,000 Kurds. Arabs have also been granted Kurdish land, in an attempt to arabise their land and restrict their demands for a state.

And referendums? Whilst Europe was focusing on the build-up to the Catalonian independence referendum in October 2017, Kurds were holding a referendum on their future the month before, in Iraq, where they make up 20 percent of the population. The irony of the lower European coverage is that a much higher percentage of Kurds able to vote cast their opinion, with over 72% turning out. While Europe fretted over the Catalonian referendum results, that particular vote was a much less obvious sign of widespread Catalonian opinion. 92% of this high proportion voted for Kurdish independence. If anyone wanted a sign that independence among Iraqi Kurds was popular, this has to be it. International politics meant that Iraq’s refusal to recognise this result was quietly ignored in international dialogue. Instead, renewed military pressure has been focused on the Kurds, by both the Iraqi government and the Turkish government, more recently. Government victories have damaged Kurdish calls for further autonomy.

So is there a future for any one of these groups? The desired Rohingya for some future is that they can return to their homes in Myanmar, the fear is that the required safety measures have not been put in place yet. UNICEF deputy executive director Justin Forsyth warned a few days ago that it wasn’t yet safe enough for the refugees to return home, as reported by Associated Press. The temporary solution of refugee camps for the escaping Rohingya is just that: temporary, tents, not permanent housing, provides residence. That isn’t sustainable. The fact is some fear and resist returning home, after the violent treatment they received. Would their integration into Bangladeshi society, though, be possible? That’s another huge question.

What of the Kurds and Igbo? As the Turks mount attack after attack on the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and the Iraqi government takes the Kurdish strongholds, including airports and oil wells, by force, the Kurdish dream of establishing an independent state is losing momentum. It’s been almost a century since Kurds were promised statehood after the First World War. That aspiration, it seems, has yet again stalled.

In Nigeria, the Igbo continue to clamour for a Biafran state. With the Boko Haram militants attacking in the north, and unrest in the south from the Igbos desiring their own state, the Nigerian state is struggling to retain control across the country. Operation Python Dance, of September 2017, however, emphasises that the government is still intent on limiting the Biafran movement. Soldiers attacked the home of the Igbo leader, Nnamdi Kanu, and individuals claim over 20 people were killed. Journalist headquarters in the area were also attacked. Like the other two situations, the current circumstances for the Igbo do not look at all favourable to them.


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