Could the world be on the verge of a new period of reordering itself, similar to the one experienced nearly 20 years ago?
In the 1990s, the fall of the Soviet empire and the brutal implosion of Yugoslavia led to a spectacular increase in the number of independent states. To follow the Olympic Games or the World Cup, the world had to learn to recognize new flags and new national anthems.
Now a new wave of identity fragmentation, spanning Africa and perhaps Europe, may be approaching. Next month, a referendum on independence is scheduled to be held in South Sudan. If it does actually take place, there is little doubt that it will lead to the creation of a new state within the African continent, a first since the breakup of Ethiopia in 1993. Somalia, Ivory Coast and even Nigeria may also give birth to new states.
For decades, Africa’s boundaries have been denounced as the artificial and arbitrary work of ignorant and cynical colonial officers, which has contributed to a long train of tribal rivalries, if not ethnic cleansings. However, no one, especially not the pan-African organizations, wishes to redefine borders. The more fragile and unstable the balance, the more imperative it is to maintain the status quo.
So, is a new Pandora’s box about to be opened in Africa, freeing demons that should be contained? Or is it the artificial status quo itself that has caused organized violence to explode with fateful regularity?
The brutal behavior of the Sudanese regime based in Khartoum has made the country’s evolution toward partition both inevitable and legitimate. The main question now is whether partition will be held up as a model and a precedent elsewhere in Africa.
In Ivory Coast, for example, Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo takes inspiration from autocratic Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, clinging to power after his clear defeat in the last presidential elections. As a result, the country’s division on a partly ethnic and religious basis along north-south lines is no longer unthinkable; on the contrary, it is increasingly likely.
This trend toward identity fragmentation is not only an African phenomenon. Much closer to where I write, in Europe, it affects Belgium, a country that seems resigned to live with absolute political paralysis as the price of its survival.
However, entropy in Belgium has sent tremors into Spain, in Catalonia, where last month’s elections to the regional parliament turned out the left-wing alliance that had dominated for seven years in favor of a pro-sovereignty coalition.
The economic crisis affects all parts of Spain. However, like supporters of the Northern League in Italy, a significant number of Catalans are starting to oppose their supposedly serious, hard-working character and relative success to the “laziness of the Spaniards.” Why should they work for “them”? And, of course, a growing number of Germans speak about the rest of Europe the way Catalans speak about other Spaniards.
Of course, Europe is not Africa, where violence and despair are the engines of fragmentation. In Europe today, if there is violence, it is only economic in nature. However, as the economic crisis persists — and perhaps even worsens — we may witness further explosions of populism and nationalism that could translate into a new wave of fragmentation.