There have been growing calls for the balkanisation of Nigeria by various groups, so we want to look at what led to Yugoslavia.
The South Slavs are a subgroup of the Slavic people. They inhabit the Balkan Peninsula, southern Pannonia and the eastern Alps. In language and customs, these peoples, Bosniaks, Bulgarians, Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Serbs, & Slovenes are all related. The word “Yugoslavia”, is an amalgam of “Jug” (South) & “Sloveni” (Slav) in ALL of their languages, showing how close they are. That they are all related is significant because we are comparing to Nigeria. It proves that even similar peoples can fight each other if there is a “need” to.
The idea of a country for South Slavs was first pushed by the Illyrian Movement which started in Zagreb early 19th century. Prior to that, South Slavs had been under the rule of the Russians, Ottoman Turks, and most importantly, the Austrian Empire. However, the Illyrian Movement was more or less dead by the 1850s when the Austrian Emperor, Francis Joseph banned all dissent. Their ideas however lived on for years.
Meanwhile, in 1867, the Austrian Empire was succeeded by the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. During this time, another great empire, Ottoman Turkey, was in decline. The Turks had always laid claim to the Balkans because of the Bosniaks, who are Muslim, and the Ottomans styled themselves as protectors of all things Muslim. Yet another empire, the Russian Empire, saw itself as the protector of the Serbs, the Orthodox Christians in the Balkans, and laid its claim because of that. The Austrians styled themselves as protectors of the largely Catholic Croats.
The point of showing these influences is to show that small, countries are always at the whims of their larger neighbours. These empires largely did not much for the common man in the Balkans, and had their own interests. Russia and Turkey went to war in 1877, Russia won. 1878’s Berlin Conference gave Serbia and Montenegro a sort of independence. However, being a small, ineffectual state, Serbia and Montenegro soon fell under the influence of Austria-Hungary, and nationalist movements within Serbia fought Austria until 1914. Austria-Hungary itself lasted until 1918, then ceased to exist because they were on the losing side of World War I. After World War I, Austria-Hungary was broken up into nine countries, one of which was the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. In 1929, this new country, the State of the Croats, Serbs and Slovenes, was formally renamed to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
This preamble was done to show that unlike Nigeria, Yugoslavia was created according to the wishes of the people in the area, not according to the whims of some far off empire. However, even countries created by the people, can fall apart. Yugoslavia did.
During World War II, Yugoslavia was invaded by Germany. It was the only country that liberated itself without outside help. The Yugoslav resistance to the Germans was led by one of the most charismatic leaders ever, a chap called Josip Broz Tito. Josip Tito was a Croato-Slovene, his father was Croat, his mother was Slovenian, and he became dictator at the end of the war. Seen as a benevolent dictator, Tito ruled with success, both political and economic, and was seen by all as a unifying symbol. Tito allowed the various republics that made up Yugoslavia, some degree of autonomy. Each one ran their area as they saw fit. Josip Tito died in 1980, at the age of 87. His death was mourned by all the peoples of Yugoslavia. He was that loved.
This in itself is important. Nigeria has never had a leader that’s seen as a unifier by most of the population, and has been successful both politically and economically. We’ve also never had a ruler who will take the bull by the horns and allow regions develop at their pace. What Tito achieved in Yugoslavia is similar to what we will achieve if each part of the country has resource control, and is allowed to run its own economy.
After Tito’s death, the Yugoslav presidency became a collective one, each of the regions/provinces sending its leader to serve. Collective presidency has been suggested by some for Nigeria, a “presidential committee”. Yugoslavia showed how it can be messed up as will be explained soon.
You see, tensions had begun to appear between the different regions and peoples in the 1970s. The cause of these tensions were largely economic. As Tito’s health failed, in 1974, a new constitution was born, which attempted to limit the autonomy of the various republics. The most economically developed republics, Croatia and Slovenia rejected this new constitution because they felt it was too centrist and would limit their growth opportunities. However, the Serbs and Montenegrins kept insisting on constitutional reform. These arguments led to a rise in ethnic nationalism. In Slovenia, public opinion began to move towards independence because they felt that they were better off than the rest of the country, and did not see they should be held back by people who were not “progressive”.
Kosovo on their part, insisted either the new constitution or independence. They were the least developed part of the country. By the time of Tito’s death, Kosovo’s GDP was 27% of the national average, and the protests there for changes were intense. In today’s Nigeria EVERY ONE of our north-eastern states has a lower than national average GDP. This comparison is significant.
By the mid-80s, the 1974 constitution had been pushed through with all sorts of compromises. Everyone was unhappy with it. The Serbs for example, were unhappy that autonomy was still a part of the constitution because they wanted more control over Kosovo.
As protests grew, members of the elite began to redirect the protests from economic failures to protests against “the others”. The Slovenian academia on their part, told crowds that the Serbs wanted to economically exploit Slovenia, and suppress Slovenian culture. In 1986, the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts published a memorandum which inflamed tensions against the Albanians. Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, used the opportunity created by all this chaos to consolidate his own position by demonising the Albanians in Serbia. In Bosnia and Croatia, regional governments at first refused to go the ethnic route, then lost elections almost simultaneously. The result of this, was that the various regional governments survived, but the unity of Yugoslavia was severely compromised.
By 1990, the Croats, led by Stipe Suvar and Ivica Racan walked out of the collective presidency and the communist assembly. This Croatian walk out effectively dissolved the central government, and nationalist parties won elections in their homelands. Back in Croatia, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) won the election and promised to “defend Croatia from Milosevic and the Serbs”. Now, as of 1990, each region had a significant number of people from other regions resident for generations, who knew no other home. For example, the very large Serbian minority in Croatia, did not find the HDV’s declaration about Serbs funny at all. So at the end of 1990, the Serbs in Croatia began to demand their own homeland within Croatia. They called it Krajina. Milosevic gave support to the Croatian-Serbs, both material and financial, and in another part of the country, people panicked. Slovenia, voted to secede from Yugoslavia on December 23, 1990, and declared independence on June 25, 1991. Croatia also declared independence on the same day.
The very next day, the Yugoslav Army, dominated by Serbs at the time, moved towards Slovenia from Croatia to end the secession. The first shot was fired on June 27, but the Slovenians were ready. They controlled their border, so had access to weapons coming in from the outside world, most notably Hungary and Italy. The EU stepped in and asked Slovenia and Croatia to put their independence on hold for three months so the Army could withdraw. Milosevic refused the EU’s plan and claimed that the EU had no right to dissolve Yugoslavia. But, the horse had already bolted.
While all the jaw-jaw was happening, clashes were breaking out between various ethnic groups within the republics. All out war started in February 1992. The Yugoslav Wars were a conglomerate of ethnic conflicts – Slovenia, Croatian War of Independence, Bosnian War and Kosovo War. There is no point in describing the war in detail, so is this where I begin to preach and make a few more comparisons with our Nigeria?
There are a lot of differences between Nigeria and Yugoslavia, but there are a lot of similarities. We can learn from them.
First, each region had selfish leaders who, in furtherance of their own ends, painted other regions black. And people listened.
Next, when the economy is healthy, people forget their differences. This happened under Tito between 1945 and 1965. As Tito aged, the economy declined. People began to look for reasons why things were going bad, and well, blamed the next man. Even in Western countries, as “open” as they are, when the economy tanks, people remember Johnny Foreigner. This matters.
Next. The regions which were doing well under Yugoslavia, are still the ones, as countries, doing well now. Croatia and Slovenia. Those that weren’t doing so well, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro have per capita GDPs comparable with African countries. This tells me that as long as people’s mindsets don’t change, breaking up Nigeria will change nothing in the new countries.
Most importantly to me, is that none of these six countries, is really capable of pulling any influence internationally. Each one of the six is under the influence of one bigger nation, or regional blocs. They have no true self determination. International influence is something that comes with what you have to offer, all natural superpowers have size, ALL.
History tells us that the current era of world peace will not last too long. This means these small countries will disappear. They will once again, as is happening in Ukraine, be the subject to great power whims and caprices. The only small country that has largely survived unscathed by its larger neighbours for much of recent history is Switzerland. The reason for Switzerland’s survival is simple: they have everyone’s money. No one is going to come open an account in Biafra.
For those who want us to balkanise, try being a small, ineffectual African country. Try being Togo and see if you like it. That, is the big lesson that a country like Nigeria should draw. United we stand. With size, there is strength. All the time. Divided, well, we become Djibouti.
Cheta Nwanze is a journalist and media owner. He tweets from @Chxta.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.