Separatist movements in Africa are watching the referendum in South Sudan and its likely outcome – secession from Khartoum — with interest.
Numerous organisations are actively fighting for national “freedom” on the continent. Contested areas include Biafra in the southeast of Nigeria, Casamance in the south of Senegal, Cabinda to the north of Angola and Mthwakazi in Zimbabwe’s Ndebele-speaking provinces.
Their claim to statehood has been bolstered by events in Sudan, where southerners are expected to vote this week for their own state.
Coleman Asomba Emejuru, of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob), confidently declared: “Biafra will be next.”
Emejuru, Massob’s Johannesburg-based regional coordinator, has been closely monitoring the Sudanese poll. “There’s no better chance [for us] than now,” he said. “These events will give strength to struggle movements elsewhere.”
Biafrans fought a war to secede from Nigeria from 1967-1970 in which more than a million died.
The African Union – and its predecessor, the Organisation for African Unity — have been reluctant to recognise new states. For example, the AU refuses to recognise Somaliland, which broke away from war-torn Somalia.
The only “modern” state the AU has recognised is Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year fight.
The Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda, which has been fighting for independence from Angola, came to world attention last year when it attacked and killed members of Togo’s football team at the Africa Cup of Nations tournament, which Angola hosted.
Senegal’s Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance has long been viewed as an ineffectual force, but surprised the Senegalese military last month when it killed seven soldiers in a shootout.
In Zimbabwe the Mthwakazi Liberation Front (MLF) is a newly formed vehicle for those seeking the autonomy of ethnically distinct Matebeleland.
Launched last December in Bulawayo, the MLF’s objective is the creation of an independent Ndebele state. The party was formed by young, exiled Zimbabweans, but its goals have been embraced by older politicians, some of whom formerly represented Zanu-PF.
Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu’s Do Zimbabweans Exist? reports that in 2007 Welshman Mabhena, a former governor of Matebeleland North and a former Zanu-PF high-up, wrote to the British ambassador in Harare insisting that Matabeleland has a historic claim to autonomous statehood, based on treaties signed with Britain’s Queen Victoria.
Mabhena argues that Mashonaland was occupied by Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company in 1890 and that Matebeleland, then led by King Mzilikazi, was independent until its defeat in the Anglo-Ndebele war of 1893.
Other veteran Matebeleland politicians, Paul Siwela and Agrippa Madlela , have endorsed the new party and given their support to the “liberation” of the Mthwakazi people.
Although dismissed by the Movement for Democratic Change’s Morgan Tsvangirai as a “fly-by-night party created to confuse the people of Matabeleland”, the MLF’s agenda could appeal to disillusioned Matebeleland voters.
In an interview this week MLF party spokesperson David Magagula said: “Our aim is for the liberation and creation of a Mthwakazi nation that is independent from Zimbabwe. We are after a total breakaway from the current national structures and not just a devolution of power.”
Magagula said the MLF’s secession agenda had drawn “fresh impetus” from events in Sudan, which “would see us in the new year embark on the task of lobbying regional and continental bodies such as the Southern Africa Development Community and the AU to consolidate strength”.
“We want to do exactly what they are doing in South Sudan. It shows us that it’s possible here,” he said.
Zimbabwean media reports suggest that President Robert Mugabe and Tsvangirai recently discussed the problems of Matabeleland with the MLF’s leaders at a meeting brokered by Phelekezela Mphoko, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to South Africa.
Initially set up by exiled Zimbabweans in South Africa in June 2006 as a pressure group, MLF launched as a political party in Makokoba, Bulawayo’s oldest township.
The party is led by “General Nandinandi”, an assumed name adopted for “security reasons”. Zanu-PF is certain to stonewall separatist demands.
Zanu-PF’s spokesperson, Rugare Gumbo, described the MLF’s agenda as “misguided”, saying that secession would not be allowed in Zimbabwe. “Its agenda has nothing to do with uniting the people. It is aimed at humiliating and confusing the people of Matabeleland,” said Gumbo.