Barotse activists speak to Wall Street Journal

MONGU, Zambia—When residents sang and danced in this town’s dusty streets in August to celebrate the self-declared birth of their new nation, Zambia’s police pounced.

On Tuesday, 59 people arrested in the sweep appeared at a court in Mongu, located on the marshy banks of the Zambezi River, charged with treason. Many were picked up in the past few weeks for their alleged involvement in a ceremony to select a new regional administrator who would organize elections for a newly independent government. It was the latest sign of separatism taking hold in Africa—both peacefully and violently.

Some of the jailed activists now call themselves citizens of Barotseland, a kingdom that before Zambia’s independence in 1964 was a British protectorate. When the trial formally begins in October, the accused plan to argue that treason charges shouldn’t apply if they are Barotse nationals, activists say. Those convicted of treason in Zambia face the death penalty.

“The government is panicking,” said Samuel Kalimura, general secretary of the Barotseland National Freedom Alliance, an umbrella organization of groups that advocate greater autonomy or outright separation. “It’s just a way to scare us from talking about independence.”

Across Africa, such talk is getting louder. A number of breakaway groups have surfaced in the wake of a democratic tide that has lifted popular expectations of the continent’s leaders—but stirred unrest over flawed elections, corruption and inequality. Some groups have taken up arms, creating fresh turmoil on the continent.

Kenya is confronting on its coastline an independence movement local officials say is allied with militants in Somalia—a charge the main separatist group denies. In Mali, ethnic Tuareg rebels joined al Qaeda militants who created an Islamist fief, until French and African forces recaptured that territory this year. In the Democratic Republic of Congo’s restive Katanga province, militiamen in March occupied the provincial capital Lubumbashi, and raised the old flag of the state of Katanga, which in the early 1960s enjoyed de facto independence.

“When groups feel oppressed and feel the system isn’t working for them, that’s extremely dangerous,” said Larry Diamond, a professor at Stanford University and author of “The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World.” “If a state doesn’t get a handle on the situation, things can become violent very quickly.”

Today, calls for independence are gaining traction among those shunted aside amid fast urban-led growth. More than a third of African countries have 6% or more annual growth in gross domestic product, the International Monetary Fund said. But some of the largest economies—and democracies—have seen wider income disparity in recent years, including Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria, the latest figures from the African Development Bank show.

Technology has fuelled such sentiment, too. News of breakaway regions including Somaliland—which declared independence in 1991 during an outbreak of civil war in Somalia—has spread across Africa thanks to the Internet and mobile phones. In 2011, Africans learned how foreign powers intervened to end a civil war and midwife a new nation, South Sudan. Some see in South Sudan an encouraging precedent for resolving conflict and fulfilling aspirations of statehood.

“They shouldn’t wait to bring bandages and ambulances,” Zambia’s former prime minister, Malimba Masheke, who is sympathetic to groups agitating for greater autonomy in Western Province, said in a March interview. “Bring diplomacy—it’s much cheaper.”

The prosperity that has started to spread from Zambia’s cities, on the back of a copper export boom, stops at the Western Province border. Roads become a moonscape of potholes. Villages are devoid of industry. Few young men have steady work, and most blame Zambia’s politicians for their plight.

“They come here and say vote for us—and when they’re done eating they go,” says Mwandawamufu Muwela, a 23-year-old student mechanic in Mongu.

Many here want to see the government enact a 1964 agreement between British and Zambian authorities that granted semiautonomous status to Barotseland. President Michael Sata is the latest Zambian leader to balk.

August’s police clampdown came after one independence group appointed a new administrator to organize independent elections, said Mr. Kalimura of the Barotseland National Freedom Alliance. Activists also raised a Barotse national flag, prompting an emotional outpouring among residents who danced and sang and embraced a new government.

The president’s spokesman, George Chellah, said separatist tensions will ease once the region’s economic challenges are addressed. The government recently broke ground on an “ultramodern” soccer stadium in Mongu to create jobs, he said. There are plans for a new hospital and water project in the province. Mr. Sata is also committed to a power-decentralization plan, Mr. Chellah said.

Kenya has taken steps to invest more decision-making at local levels, in part to alleviate separatist tensions on its coast. In 2010, it adopted a new constitution that would shift more powers to locally elected leaders. Kenya’s recently elected president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has agreed to meet with members of the main separatist group, the Mombasa Republican Council, a spokesman said.

Before Kenya’s independence in 1963, a thin coastal strip was administered as a British protectorate. Today, Kenya’s coast is a showcase for jagged development—luxury beachfront hotels are down the road from flimsy straw huts.

MRC Chairman Ali Mwatebe is currently out on bail awaiting trial from an October clash with police outside his goat farm. His left front tooth is missing where he said police smashed his face with a rifle butt. Local police said he was resisting arrest.

Kenyan officials said the group has formed a paramilitary wing and forged links with Somali militants. Mr. Mwatebe scoffs at the allegations, saying the government is trying to discredit his organization. The retired soldier and his followers said they haven’t ruled out violence as a path to independence, though.

“People are saying if we’re going to be attacked, we have to fight back. If we die, let’s die together,” said Mr. Mwatebe, who showed visitors what he said were holes from police bullets that tore into his house. The police have admitted firing at the home. “We can’t have peace without justice.”

In Zambia, Barotseland activists said reports they are putting together a militia are untrue. But as the government shuts down their efforts to establish a new administration, some say they are keeping options open.

“We have reached a point of no return,” said Kanyambi Mukondo, an activist who spent several months in jail following a previous police sweep. “We will try by all means to liberate ourselves.”

Courtesy of Wall Street Journal (USA)

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