C Gopinath

Is it my country or my region?

C. Gopinath | Updated on April 24, 2014 Published on April 24, 2014

Regional unity has gained traction in East Africa, but Scotland is another story

While many countries face secessionist movements among segments of their populations, we don’t often see examples of countries that combine with another to form one entity. After all, who wants to lose sovereignty over their affairs? The few attempts at such merging have been nixed due to many complex reasons.

Singapore tried it by joining Malaysia in 1963 but was sent packing two years later. Egypt, after gaining independence in 1953, joined Syria to form the United Arab Republic in 1958. But Syria quit the union three years later.

Thus, the effort of Tanganyika and Zanzibar that combined in 1964 to form Tanzania and stayed together all these years should be celebrated. A new milestone in this combination is taking place. Tanzanian newspapers today provide regular reports of the efforts of a Constituent Assembly that is charged with re-writing the constitution.

Group over individual

One key and contentious issue is the state of the union — how much autonomy will Zanzibar, the minority partner, have and how strong will the union be?

Now, while Zanzibaris can own land in the mainland, mainlanders cannot own land in Zanzibar.

While Tanzania battles its own internal sovereignty issues, it is also a part of the thriving East Africa Community that includes Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. The members are required to surrender some individual decision-making for the benefit of the group.

The EAC was first initiated in 1967 but collapsed in 1977 and revived in 2000. Most regional groupings are comfortable dealing with removal of trade barriers and few go beyond that. However, the EAC seems inspired by the EU and is already thinking of a common currency and, possibly, a political federation. Issues relating to language and culture were the final straws that caused East Pakistan to break away, but the EAC has adopted Swahili as its common language and is promoting its use across the countries. Signs in Uganda now are in both Luganda and Swahili.

The EU remains a miracle and a beacon for many such combinations even as it suffers from its own fissiparous tendencies. It was not too long ago that experts were predicting the end of the EU, following troubles with the euro, and were even calculating the cost of the exit of Greece!

While the UK remains a part of the EU, it faces its own secession worries. The people of Scotland will take part in a referendum on September 18, 2014 to answer the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ Scotland and England united in 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain and stayed happily together for a long time. But the referendum will be the culmination of a series of events since the 1970s, when a desire for greater autonomy began in Scotland. Even in the 1980s, the movement for independence was but a fringe activity. I recall seeing a tent near the government offices in Edinburgh in the mid 1980s with posters stuck all over it, demanding independence but most people walked past without a second glance.

What are the gains?

When a new Scottish Parliament came into being in 1999 the demand for independence grew more serious. If Scotland becomes independent, it would still want to be a part of the EU, although it appears that it will have to apply as a new state. Scotland may also want to retain the British pound sterling as its currency although EU membership may require it to adopt the euro.

There is also a split opinion among those supporting independence on whether they would retain the British monarchy or seek to be a republic. All this, of course, is quite besides the point since opinion polls continue to show only a minority support for independence.

What do people lose when they stay together, and what do they gain with independence? This may be a concern for newbie secessionists. But Quebecois, Catalans and Sri Lankan Tamils probably don’t care, for they already know the answers.

The writer is a professor and dean of the Jindal Global Business School, Sonipat, Delhi NCR.

Published on April 24, 2014
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