At the last count, there are about 30 secessionist movements in Africa, propelled by different ideologies and persuasions. Though they all differ in modus operandi, they are united in their quest to create independent states.  Poor or often shabby handling of these growing demands pitches the state against international human right organizations, due to the alarming rate of abuses.

In this exclusive interview with two renowned professors of Law and International Relations, from the School of Oriental & African Studies, SOAS, African Leadership Magazine UK, sought answers to this knotty issue and how states can act more responsibly in the face of provocations by secessionist agitators. 

Professor Stephen Hopgood, a Professor of International Relations and Co-Director of the Centre for the International Politics of Conflict, Rights and Justice (CCRJ) and  the Associate Dean for Research in the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences, alongside,  Professor Mashood Baderin, a Professor of Laws and Chair of the SOAS Centre of African Studies, provides a template for managing the trend. They also spoke on a wide range of issues. Excerpts:


Africa in the last couple of Months has witnessed an upsurge in secessionist agitations. Nigeria and Cameroon are no doubt the most prominent. As an outside observer, what are the reason behind these agitations, and how can it be managed?

I would say a couple of things and also Moshood gives his thoughts on the issue.  First, it is a general issue and a systematic questioning of the boundaries of states. Look at Spain, Britain, and Scotland, the cases are almost the same. It is peculiar to post-imperial states. To most of these states, those boundaries and lines never made sense from the beginning because the boundaries were arbitrarily drawn. These agitations arise as states tend to defend their boundaries. If you look at Xi Jinping, he made it very, that, he will never allow Taiwan and Hong Kong to be separated from China. He talked about blood being thicker than water. That is what states will do in most cases.

Now, in are a more specific term and responding to your question, what you have in these African countries are, the minority group expressing frustration and saying, look, we got a raw deal compared to other majority ethnic groups. For example, the Catalans think they are wealthier than the other parts of Spain. In the north of Italy, the case is not different. It’s a big deal in Biafra, because, historically, there was a post-colonial civil war. In my opinion, if you use violence to suppress that kind of demand for more freedom, autonomy, and independence, it would be counterproductive. In the long run, there would be more organized resistance. So, you have got to find a way, through some constitutional process to meet the demands and needs of people in that area. If it’s about inequality and discrimination, there has got to be real intent to persuade people to want to stop, otherwise, they have nothing to lose to the government, the national government is greatly affected and everybody loses. We saw it with Boko Haram and the federal government of Nigeria, the army gets involved in all kinds of atrocities. Try to be in peace, if its possible, and for me, I don’t see any reason why people cant live independently. Let there be a constitutional referendum so that people can vote and decide. If they want to separate, let them separate. But, states do not like giving up territories. And, we have no mechanism in our world to effectively advance a peaceful separation. Eritrea, South Sudan, and Kosovo are few examples. Civil wars are catastrophic.

Mashood: a lot has to do with the narratives. Sometimes secessionists believe they would be better off going their separate way. In South Sudan for instance, all the good roads lead to the northern part of the country, as well as other developments. This creates more problems. People have to be properly informed that secession does not lead to a better state. In Catalan, the secessionists believe that they are richer. In Scotland, when oil was discovered, it led to the problem that engulfed the country. Botswana was able to navigate, because, the leadership led the populace to believe that the resources were for everyone, this is the role of responsible leadership. Internationally, although one could say if states want to separate, let them separate, the act of secession does not grant states recognition to the seceded states. Look at Catalan, other nations came out to say they recognize only Spain. There is a right of self-determination I.e the internal self-determination and the external self-determination. The external self-determination does not come easily, the only way for the external self-determination to come is for the substantive state to make sure that they fulfil the set of requirements. If human rights are respected and there is equity in revenue allocation, it makes secession difficult to justify.

The thing I want to add to what Moshood has said is that it is a leadership problem which your Magazine must pay attention to. Look at Syria, the country is being destroyed because of a demand for accountable leadership. The Biafran civil war which claimed about 2 million lives, that is the resultant effect of poor leadership at the time. Look at the Spanish civil war; the Siri Lankan civil war, they all ended up with massive crimes against humanity.

Nigeria is gradually regaining her place in the international community, but the country still struggles back home to keep the country together and inspire robust economic growth and development. As the Chairman of the Centre for African Studies, what do you think is responsible for Nigeria’s abysmal performance in the area of the economy and immigration?

Well, I am not an expert on Nigeria, neither am I an expert on Africa,  but Moshood is, and I am sure he would present a very good point on this issue. What I  have is a perspective of an outsider. Nigeria is a difficult country to govern,  because of its federal system. It has a significant internal diversity, regional governments, and very powerful state governments, it’ll always be difficult to get everybody to follow the same route, because, most federal systems are hard to manage. It is easier in a homogenous society and you have a stronger central government. What I picked up from the few days here is, the need pursue a tax structure that encourages the few rich people in the country to invest in energy, education, and infrastructure, rather than taking their monies abroad. Especially in primary education and good roads. A part of the anti-corruption drive should be to check for people who undermine the investments in the country.

If you are looking for a workable model, it is Rwanda, one of the best spaces to do business. Mke no mistake, Nigeria would never be as governable as Rwanda. Rwanda is smaller, it has a stronger central government. But, encouraging wealthy Nigerians to invest their money here would be very important. In my own word, we are entering a post-western phase where there is a decline in the dominance of the US and Europe. The question is, who is going to lead internationally? Because, everything is set up for a large regional powerhouse like Nigeria to be the standard in terms of economic development, education, healthcare, inter-state relations, peaceful conflict mediation – like what Nigeria is doing through the ECOWAS. Everything is there, but you’ve got to keep your own house in order, otherwise, nobody will listen to you. When you achieve that, then you can be more persuasive internationally. You can then say, look at what we have done, thereby encouraging others to follow suit. And, that again is a leadership question. If you look at the GDPs of Nigeria and South Korea, you’ll probably not see a difference in the GDP in the 50’s and 60’s. it’s a responsible and accountable government that will get people to pay their taxes. They must be made to invest in their country, take pride and believe in their country.


Mashood. As Stephens said, it’s more about leadership and policy formulation and implementation. International institutions have also contributed in certain ways to what the country is facing today. For example, Nigeria receives a lot of government capitals in the form of loans and aid money without any economic activity. You don’t take such monies and pay salaries, it should be for infrastructural developments. When there are bad policies and there is no money to spend, IMF, for instance, tells you okay wait we would lend you money. But, such loans come with a lot of strings and regulations. Due to lack of proper information systems, the populace rather than blame the government for bad policies, they blame IMF. This is why there has to be an effacing of uninformed participation in government. It is also a matter of informed participation. Citizens also have to face the fact that there is no free lunch anywhere and the populace has to be informed about this. Let there be transparency. The politicians know that they must spend during elections and it makes the issue more complicated, because, when they come to power, it brings about the same vicious circle.

The issue of tax as you mentioned, I think one angle that has to be emphasized is the area of information. An informed person knows that paying your taxes gives you the power to hold the government accountable if things go wrong. In the election, you can take them out of government, if they do not meet your aspiration. If the citizens know that paying taxes gives the citizens power, they would act differently. Although, we do not expect this to happen overnight.

Can I add to what Moshood has said? The leadership problem is not just at the federal level, it is in all public institutions. Regardless of how much criticism we make, people have to respect institutions. Often when the federal leaders don’t show integrity, it flows down to the other levels.


The ongoing war against insurgency and Secessionist agitators in Nigeria have pitched the Nigerian Military against International Human Rights organizations and this has affected the procurement of military hardware in the ongoing war against terrorism. There have been reports of human right violations in the northeast as well as the southeast most recently. In your opinion, how can these security agents fight without crossing the line?

The Universal Human Right advocates that you cannot just murder people without going through some form of due process. In fact, some of the things that separate the security agencies from insurgents, include adherence to the rule of law; adherence to the agreements of the Geneva convention, among other rules of engagement. One argument has been that if you do not respect these principles, it would be very difficult for post-conflict areas to get over the conflict. Violence becomes endemic. So, they must try to hold to the moral ideal, that, the citizens in the areas where the insurgents live are traditionally different.

When it comes to waging a war, there is a difference between what the military does and that of the insurgents. The military has to be accountable to the government elected by the people. It is not the military commander’s decision. He should be accountable to the civilian authority. If there are rules of engagement and combat, he is supposed to keep to them. Hiding and suppressing information or journalists is like fighting the messenger. If there is no accountability, then people will argue that the war is not humane.

Mashood: Human rights apply both in peacetime and wartime. There could be an exception, but, these exceptions must be backed by the law. Amnesty International is doing nothing wrong. The right thing for the government to do is to follow the international community’s law. The Army is an organ of the government, the state doesn’t go to war. Even in other international engagements, they investigate and see the extent of the damage. Amnesty International is raising a valid point, because,  the right of the people has to be respected. There are minimum standards which the state must comply, because, the state is very powerful, it must be able to rein in its military. There must be enough direction to selectively take out extremists.

That’s exactly the role of the state, it has to determine the welfare and identity of its citizens and how the engagement of terrorists affects them.


Unlike in other parts of the world, Africa still struggles with women participation in building the polity and economy. Do you think this is as a result of the cultural practices in the continent?


It is important to note that this is not an African thing, as very few countries get a clean bill of health from this. Look at the UK, from gender pay gap to the number of female professors and representation, gender issues abound. One of the things being pioneered in most Scandinavian countries, is the quota system, as the only way to force this through. There is a tidal wave coming and it would be a slow and progressive change, but, it will be massive. In business, politics, law, Medicine etc. This is one of the key questions which will be increasingly relevant “ What does it mean to be a modern man”?  There will be more social privileges and much more freedom around this definition. Now, there has to be a more rethinking about this, so that the men don’t fight it with everything they have got. It is necessary to have more role models around this. The US is even misogynistic, this was partly why Hilary Clinton lost.


Mashood: It’s just a matter of time, the misconception will be put aside. In a lot of countries like the UK and America, the proportion of women in the boardroom is low. Even in the academia, the enlightenment is low. It is not just about equality, there must be an emphasis on certain abilities, qualification, and the competence. If these are not there, it will be difficult to correct the issue. Many of the cultural impediments are being shattered. Before, females may only go to polytechnics, but all these have changed.

The first week of November every year is set aside to mark the end of impunity against journalists. Considering the vital roles journalists play in the global world, one wonders why they are treated with disdain?


I find it very unsurprising that journalists are targetted, most powerful people, part of what they enjoy about being powerful, is that they like to create zones of unaccountability, whether they are fathers in families, powerful businessmen, politicians, military figures. However, what I fear most is the exposure of journalists to violence. Think of the recent Paradise papers, which revealed several dodgy tax practices of the rich and powerful. It embarrasses and shames people who are often stealing other people’s monies. The essence of a free society is to keep information free. It is the hallmark of a healthy society. The USA is gradually becoming a fascist society and nobody is asking, because, there is no information. So the freedom of journalist is very important.


Mashood: When you expose people, they are not happy about it. But there are regimes that protect journalists but no state wants to be named and shamed.


Stephens: Media ownership is healthy and a government should try to diversify its media coverage. State-owned media firms do not give thorough information about leadership.


Finally, can we get a snippet of the focus of your lecture?


Mashood: As you rightly mentioned, the rule of law is key. A lot of the times, law and development are seen from the formal rule of law. A lot of the time people do not look at the substantive rule of law. The rule of law has two sides to it; the formal and the substantive rule of law. Formal rule of law says we must follow what the law says. When I was in Sudan, you know Sudan has an anti-terrorism act 2010, with which the National Security Agency can clamp down on any news outlet. I got a report on this and I visited the agency’s head, and he said “ see I haven’t done anything wrong.This is where the distinction comes in. The substantive rule of law relates to legislation. It relates to having a higher objective for the law.  For example, using the law for development. African legislators should enhance the law for development i.e a developmental objective. Not long ago, civil society law created a lot of issues, i.e the NGO Bill. If there was a developmental objective to it, it will clearly be indicated and people would look at it and wholly support the clamour.