Africa has long been a continent with political troubles. It is a widespread idea amongst political scientists that the divisions and conflicts that exist on the continent are a result of the European colonization in the 19th-20th Centuries, when state boundaries were drawn by the colonizers. Now, some sixty years after most African countries gained independence, the continent is experiencing a period of turmoil.
The term ‘balkanization’ is used in political science to describe a process of breaking up a territory into small, hostile states. It is derived from the events in the Balkans, which saw the splitting up of Yugoslavia into seven states, hostile to each other and resulting in a series of armed conflicts. Could this be applied to what is happening in Africa now?
In January 2011, a referendum was held in Sudan. The question asked was whether South Sudan, which has been the scene of a severe conflict in recent years, would like to gain independence from the rest of the country. The official results are expected in mid-February, but the commission running the referendum has stated that preliminary results show 98.6% in favor. This could eventually lead to the braking up of Sudan, a country with a population of 44 million people. Whether this event would be classified as an example of Balkanization remains to be seen, since one cannot predict whether the new states would be ‘hostile’.
Shifting the gaze to Egypt, where the largest protest in forty years is going on at the end of January, one can see democracy in its simplest form. The people of Egypt have been protesting for the resignation of the President, Hosni Mubarak. Although this does not have the aim to break up the country, it has created an aura of hostility between the people and the ruling elite. One need only think back to the period 1789-1810 to see how a similar events in Europe proceeded to create the modern French state.
Democracy, in its simplest form, means power of the people. In theory, the people hold power in the state. It seems the people of Egypt have decided to take this idea to its fullest and request that the government resign. Again, quite simply, not giving in to such a request would be a show of anti-democratic government.
A similar protest occurred in mid-January in Tunisia. After weeks of protesting, in which a man set himself on fire, Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country into exile. This led to more people coming onto the streets, asking for reforms. In this case, democracy succeeded, and the formation of a new government in imminent.
These three examples show that there is unrest in North Africa. The people want change and they are making it explicit. These events, however, did not require the military assistance of the USA (like in Iraq and Afghanistan). Whether North Africa is experiencing a revolution cannot be doubted. Yet, whether this will lead to balkanization, can be. One can only hope that, if any breaking up of territories does occur, it will not have the same consequences as it did in the former Yugoslavia. Then, military, peace-keeping action will be inevitable.