Two recent independence referendums – one held in the Iraqi Kurdistan region on September 25 and the other in Spain’s Catalonia on October 1 – resulted in overwhelming victories for “yes” voters calling for secession.
Catalonia’s president, Carlos Puigdemont, says he is determined to follow through on declaring independence, but has proposed suspending the process for the time being to have a dialogue with the Spanish government.
As Spain and Iraq brace for the coming legal battles over their respective referendums, other independence, or “separatist” movements, continue to unfold around the world.
In fact, dozens of regions are currently calling for greater autonomy or complete independence in Europe alone. Here are some of the world’s biggest (and longest) active independence movements:
In 2014, Scots took to the polls to vote in a referendum for independence that would allow Scotland to break away from the United Kingdom.
Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, had proposed a new referendum to be held in 2018 or 2019, but later delayed her plans to introduce legislation calling for a referendum instead.
After the independence referendum in Catalonia on October 1, Sturgeon said the “international community cannot ignore the strength of feeling that was expressed” among the people.
Biafra State in Nigeria
The Biafran secessionist movement in southeastern Nigeria began after leaders in the nation’s south declared Biafra an independent state in the late 1960s.
In 1967, a civil war ensued between pro-independence fighters and the Nigerian government, which refused to recognize an independent Biafra. Separatist leaders withdrew their calls for secession and surrendered three years later.
The movement is not consolidated under one entity, instead driven by the region’s ethnic majority group, the Igbo.
Support for the movement has continued to threaten the central government’s sovereignty in Nigeria’s southeast over the years. Recently, calls for independence have increased.
On October 1, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari spoke out against separatist groups, calling them “highly irresponsible.” “We cannot and we will not allow such advocacy,” he added.
Independence backers allege that the Nigerian army raided the homes of separatist leaders of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), killing around 20 members, Reuters reported.
Nnamdi Kanu, the IPOB leader, has been missing since the alleged raid, threatening “to ignite separatist unrest capable of destabilizing southeastern Nigeria,” according to Reuters.
After Belgium gained independence from the Netherlands in 1830, tensions grew between the nation’s Dutch-speaking and French-speaking populations. Today’s Flemish independence movement advocates for greater autonomy for Flanders, a Dutch-speaking region in the north.
Differences in language and culture define Belgium’s divisions, but “economic inequality in recent years has widened the divide,” according to Eurasia Group president and geopolitical analyst Ian Bremmer.
Bremmer notes that the per capita GDP of Wallonia, a mainly French-speaking region in southern Belgium, is “only 88% of the EU average” while “Flanders’ GDP per capita is 120% above.”
The region hasn’t held an independence referendum yet.
‘Anglophones’ in Cameroon
Cameroon’s complicated colonial history is at the root of an independence movement among the country’s English-speaking population.
On October 1, Cameroon celebrated its 56th year of reunification, an anniversary marking the year that the English-speaking southern part of the country formerly under British control joined the French-speaking north formerly under French control. (While English and French remain the official languages, Cameroonians also speak 24 major African languages.)
The reunification celebration, however, turned ugly after state security officials opened fire on Anglophone demonstrators who had been protesting alleged repression of English-speaking Cameroonians by the Francophone-led government. At least 17 protestors were killed, according to Amnesty International.
Quartz reported that leaders of the Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Governing Council, a separatist group, had called for the demonstrations in hopes of declaring an independent country. The “Anglophones” have yet to hold an independence referendum to secede from Cameroon.
Secessionist sentiment in the Canadian province of Quebec is rooted in its turbulent past, during which France and Britain fought over much of the territory. As a result, the majority French-speaking population has often been at odds with its Anglophone counterparts.
The movement for independence gained steam following the “Quiet Revolution” in the 1960s. Quebec later held two referendums on national sovereignty, one in 1980 and the other in 1995, but voters opted to remain part of Canada both times.
Various advocacy groups and political parties are still calling for independence. Members of Québec Solidaire, a democratic socialist political party, are currently touring colleges and universities across the province to push the cause for independence. The Parti Québécois, led by Jean-Francois Lisée, is one of the biggest advocates for Quebec’s independence.
For decades, Morocco has held a firm grip on Western Sahara, a territory with over 500,000 people situated along its Atlantic coast in North Africa. The Polisario Front, however, is a political and military organization that has been calling for Western Saharan independence since Spain withdrew from the territory in the 1970s.
Following a 16-year war between the Moroccan government and Sahrawi independence fighters, the United Nations established a cease-fire and called on Morocco to allow Western Sahara to hold a referendum on independence. That referendum never happened.
It is illegal to advocate for independence in Western Sahara today, which is why much of the movement is in exile in neighboring Algeria.
Pro-independence activists in Western Sahara are often harassed and even beaten by police, according to Human Rights Watch. The United Nations is set to hold a briefing on the situation in the disputed territory later this month.
- Thomson Reuters
Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq. The Kurds have been a dominant ethnic group in the Middle East for centuries, although they were divided among Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The repression of Kurds by Iraq’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein, and Turkey, has driven Kurdish nationalism over the years.
Calls for independence grew louder after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the Kurds received significant powers of self-governance. The push for complete statehood continues today amid political turmoil and fighting between US-led coalition forces and ISIS.
Last month, Kurdistan’s government held a referendum in which more than 90% of voters chose independence. Iraq’s central government in Baghdad, however, has flatly rejected the results and refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the vote.
The president of Iraq’s Kurdish regional government, Masoud Barzani, stands by the referendum.
“Is it a crime to ask people in Kurdistan to express in a democratic way what they want to have for the future?” he said in the run-up to the vote.
The international community, including the Trump administration, largely opposes Kurdish independence. Despite the overwhelming mandate delivered by voters in the referendum, whether the Kurds will be granted independence remains to be seen.