In former colonies, Independence Days typically serve as occasions to celebrate victory in the struggle against the old imperial power. What John Adams wished for American Independence—”It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more”—holds true for other independent states as well; parades, dances, flag-waving, and pyrotechnic displays mark Independence Days from Accra to Delhi to Mexico City.
Not so in East Africa. For many countries in that region, there’s not much to celebrate.
For instance, Somalia observed its Independence Day last Friday in a low-budget affair commemorating the joining of British and Italian Somaliland into a united and sovereign state (admittedly, a state that remained neither united nor sovereign for very long). Kenya’s East African reports:
The Somali flag, with its distinctive five-point white star on a blue background, was raised at midnight to mark the occasion. […]
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, Deputy Prime Minister Mohamed Omar Arte and a galaxy of ministers, legislators and government officials were among the huge crowd that defied the evening chill to commemorate the independence day.
The night celebrations were replicated across the country.
One has to wonder just how far away from Mogadishu one could find Somalis celebrating the day. Did Al Shabab militants and the Somaliland separatists mark the occasion as well?
Somalia wasn’t the only East African country to celebrate its Independence Day this July 1. Burundi and Rwanda did as well.
— The EastAfrican (@The_EastAfrican) July 1, 2016
Burundi and Rwanda share the same Independence Day—July 1, 1962—when the two countries secured their independence from Belgium. But while no one yearns for the return of Belgian colonialism, it’s not exactly controversial to point out that the post-colonial period hasn’t lived up to expectations. Poverty, genocide, and civil war have haunted the two countries in the decades since they gained their independence.
Burundi’s two most recent Independence Day celebrations were especially muted. With the government clamping down on dissent, targeting Tutsi civilians, and forcing refugees in the hundreds of thousands to flee, Burundians don’t have much to celebrate, and most stay off the streets for fear of violent unrest.
Rwanda also doesn’t do much to commemorate its independence from Belgium. Instead, the major national holiday there is Liberation Day, which marks the end of the Rwandan Genocide. On July 4, 1994, mass killings of Tutsis and Hutu moderates ceased as Paul Kagame’s rebel forces drove out the old regime and consolidated control over the country; these former rebels have governed the country ever since. A column entitled “Liberation Is Our Ultimate Independence” (note: the source is a state-run newspaper) explains the distinction between Independence Day and Liberation Day, Rwanda’s biggest national holiday:
Independence Day means the day when Rwanda was freed from colonialism. This is the day in which Rwandan people were given power to govern themselves as an independent and sovereign people. […]
However, the new leaders of Rwanda after this independence did little to emphasise on what to unite their people. It is not news that they preached and practiced divisive politics that would last for decades. […]
Three decades after independence came a day of ultimate attainment of our real independence, on July 4, 1994, despite an incredible tragedy of genocide. Our smiles were finally born out of this day.
As this column shows us, Rwanda is trying to stitch together the seemingly disparate threads of colonialism, civil war, and genocide into a single fabric of national identity. Strong economic growth and generally competent governance have also contributed to a rising sense of Rwandan patriotism that might, in time, come to trump or even replace narrower sectarian allegiances along ethnic or religious lines. But in the region, Rwandans’ growing allegiance to their national identity and recognition of the divisiveness of ethnic identities seems to be the exception, not the rule.
President Kagame: True liberation means dignity, it means no one should ever decide for us who we should be #Kwibohora22
— Presidency | Rwanda (@UrugwiroVillage) July 4, 2016
There is no stronger contrast to Rwanda’s new nationalism than the hyper-ethnic factionalism on display in the region’s basket case, South Sudan. July 9 is South Sudan’s Independence Day, marking the glorious day in 2011 when American diplomats, cheered on by NGOs, midwifed a new nation and presented it to an adoring world. It didn’t take long, however, for the newborn country to become the world’s problem child.
Instead of South Sudan’s oil wealth being funneled to a small elite in Khartoum, some of it is now going to a small elite in Juba (the rest still goes to Khartoum, which controls the pipeline out of the South). South Sudan’s ethnic militias, without the independence struggle to unite them, fight each other episodically these days, stopping only after signing the occasional peace agreement. When the Dinka and Nuer, South Sudan’s two largest ethnic groups, aren’t fighting each other, their militias clash with those of other groups; just last week, Dinka militias drove 70,000 of the Fartit ethnic group from their homes. For now, a tenuous peace between the Dinka and Nuer is holding in Juba, but depressed oil crises have yielded a fiscal crisis. That’s why it’s not entirely surprising that South Sudan has canceled this year’s Independence Day festivities. Quartz reports:
The nation faces a budget shortfall of between 40 and 60%, according to various estimates. Economists warn of hyperinflation; the South Sudanese pound has lost over 80% of its value against the dollar.
“We decided not to celebrate the July 9 Independence Day, because we don’t want to spend that much,” Michael Makuei, the minister of information, told reporters on Tuesday, according to al-Jazeera. “We need to spend the little that we have on other issues.”
One could be forgiven for thinking that another reason they’re canceling the celebrations is because so few in South Sudan identify themselves as South Sudanese first (rather than Dinka, Nuer, or Fartit). Even then, what few die-hard nationalists there may be would find little to celebrate in their country’s bloody five-year history.
The fact that so many East Africans struggle to celebrate their countries’ Independence Days ought to clue us in that, in this region, non-national identities—ethnicity, clan, tribe, religion—matter much, much more.
Contrary to the globalist conventional wisdom that nationalism is the root of all evil, stronger nationalist sentiments could actually improve the security situation in East Africa. When it comes to engineering harmony between and among groups, talking up a common identity (that is, a national one) is a lot more effective than forcing respect for difference. Until East African countries are able to provide internal security, secure borders, and deliver competent government (as Rwanda has more or less been able to do), it’s likely that future Independence Days will be just as quietly celebrated as the ones being marked by the Burundians, Somalis, and South Sudanese this July.