Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia: What to Know Before Their Referendums

Two different independence referendums are scheduled to occur within the next two weeks. The first will take place in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25, and the second will take place in Catalonia on October 1. Both of these referendums are the latest developments in long independence movements, and both have potentially wide-reaching consequences. In order to understand these consequences, it is important to understand how Kurdistan and Catalonia have come the place they are now.

Iraqi Kurdistan

The location of Kurdistan in Iraq

Iraqi Kurdistan comprises three provinces in northern Iraq with a population of roughly 6 million inhabitants. It is populated mostly by the Kurdish people, an ethnic group with an estimated 35 million members. Before the First World War, most Kurdish areas were under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Now, however, the Kurdish people are divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

The area inhabited by the Kurds

Kurdistan is one of the most prosperous regions in Iraq. It has large oil reserves, which contributes a steady flow of revenue. Its military wing, the Peshmerga, has been successful in fighting ISIS in Iraq. The region began to enjoy a degree of autonomy after the United States enforced a no-fly zone over Northern Iraq during the Gulf War. Since then, Iraqi Kurdistan has become the most democratic and economically developed part of the country.

As a result of Kurdistan’s relative prosperity, not to mention the statelessness of the Kurdish people, it is not surprising that the notion of independence has proven popular. A poll shows 52.9% support for “yes” as opposed to 25.6% for “no” and 17.9% for “undecided.” Despite its support among the Kurdish population, the referendum is staunchly opposed by the Iraqi government and many international actors. Iraq’s Supreme Court and Prime Minister have already demanded that the referendum be suspended, and Israel is the only country to have officially endorsed Kurdish independence.

The reason that so many foreign actors oppose the referendum is due to its possible negative ramifications. The lack of support from Baghdad makes the result of the vote unenforceable, meaning it is unlikely that a “yes” vote will actually result in independence. Nevertheless, a “yes” vote would be an important bargaining chip for the Kurdish independence movement. As a result, the governments of Turkey, Iran, and Syria fear that a successful referendum would strengthen calls for independence among their Kurdish populations, consequently compromising their territorial integrity. Numerous western governments, including the United States, oppose the referendum because they fear it may undermine unity in the Middle East, thus threatening the security situation.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum largely reflects the awkward position in which the Kurdish people has long found themselves since they were divided between four states. While a single, unified Kurdish state would theoretically be viable, the current status quo makes self-determination almost impossible. Similarly, while the relative prosperity of Iraqi Kurdistan means it could potentially be a successful state, the division of the Kurdish people makes such a prospect difficult. Moving towards Kurdish independence and unity undermines the unity of the current Middle Eastern state system. Thus the world would like to promote unity in the Middle East, but doing so has so far required maintaining the division of Kurdistan.


The location of Catalonia in Spain

Catalonia is a region in Northeastern Spain with a population of 7.5 million. Centered on the the prosperous city of Barcelona, it has the largest economy of any Spanish region. It contributes over 20% of Spain’s economic output despite containing only 16% of its population. It also contributes more in tax money than it gets back, which is one of the arguments in favor of independence. Furthermore, the region has a distinctive language and culture, which has contributed to rising nationalist sentiment and has propelled Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), a separatist coalition, to power in the regional government. On September 6, the regional government passed a law that a “yes” result of the referendum will be binding and will result in a declaration of independence, so the stakes of the referendum are high.

Catalonia held a non-binding referendum in 2014, and in it the voters overwhelmingly supported independence. This may be misleading, however, as it had low turnout and was boycotted by members of the opposition. Polls indicate that, although the majority of the population supports holding a referendum, it is roughly evenly split between support for and opposition to independence. This means that a “yes” vote is possible but far from guaranteed.

As a result of the possibility of losing its most industrialized region, the Spanish government feels threatened. Just as Baghdad strongly opposes the Kurdish referendum, Madrid has attempted to halt the Catalan referendum. The constitutional court ruled that the independence vote is illegal, and on September 20 Spanish police raided government offices and detained 13 senior Catalan officials. The Catalan government has nevertheless pressed on with its preparations for the vote, prompting a crisis.

At the moment, it is not certain whether or not the referendum will even be able to take place amid such vehement opposition by the Spanish government. Furthermore, even if Catalonia votes “yes” to independence, the Spanish government would likely contest the legitimacy of the vote and take steps to prevent Catalan secession. Catalonia, therefore, is in an awkward position just like Iraqi Kurdistan. It seems to be on a road toward even greater confrontation.


Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia have both scheduled independence referendums within the next two weeks, but whether or not they will actually occur is not certain. Furthermore, that they will result in independence is not only uncertain, but unlikely. Unlike the Scottish independence referendum, these two regions do not have the support of their respective central governments. That means that, while independence has been called for in response to numerous legitimate problems facing the people of Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia, it cannot come without causing problems of its own.

Protests in Togo: 50 Years in the Making

On Tuesday, the Israel-Africa summit, scheduled to be held in Togo in late October, was postponed indefinitely. Last week, the Togolese government shut down the internet. Clearly, things are amiss in this small, West African country. The cause of these upheavals is the country’s most significant political protests since 2005. Hundreds of thousands of Togolese citizens are taking to the streets to demand constitutional reform and protest the rule of Faure Gnassingbé, who rose to power after his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, died. Eyadéma took control of Togo in 1967, meaning his family has controlled the country for 50 years. Unfortunately, five decades of experience has not taught the Gnassingbé dynasty how to improve the lives of its citizens. As a result, Togo’s people are demanding change.

Togo is a small country sandwiched between Ghana and Benin. It is fairly densely populated, with just under 8 million citizens living in an area about the size of Croatia and slightly smaller than West Virginia. Togo was colonized by Germany during the “Scramble for Africa,” but, after Germany lost its colonies following its defeat in WWI, it was divided between Britain and France. What is now called Togo is what was once the French portion. After WWII, European empires began to collapse, granting independence to their colonies. Togo was no exception, becoming independent from France in 1960.

The location of Togo in West Africa

For its first three years as an independent state, Togo was led by Sylvanus Olympio. In 1963, however, Olympio was assassinated and overthrown in post-colonial Africa’s first of many military coups d’état. Gnassingbé Eyadéma was instrumental in that coup d’état, and it is widely believed that he is the one who fired the bullet that killed Olympio. Eyadéma would not become president until 1967, however, after another coup d’état. His rule, which lasted from 1967 until his death in 2005, was characterized by authoritarian tendencies and economic stagnation.

Gnassingbé Eyadéma

Although Eyadéma was not unusually cruel, he ruled his country as a dictator. He established a one-party state and harassed members of the opposition. Disappearances and political assassinations were not uncommon. Eyadéma belonged to the Kabye people, a minority ethnic group making up only 12% of the population. During Eyadéma’s rule, however, 70% of the armed forces were Kabye. Over time, Eyadéma’s supremacy gradually weakened. In 1979, he transitioned away from military dictatorship towards civilian rule. The 1990s were characterized by a power struggle between Eyadéma and the opposition, and the struggle at times turned violent. In 1992, domestic and international pressure forced Eyadéma to accept a new constitution, which included presidential term limits. As a result, although Eyadéma managed to hold on to power, his power was no longer absolute.

Faure Gnassingbé

By 2002, however, Eyadéma had succeeded in removing term limits, allowing him to win an additional term in 2003. That term was his last. In 2005, Eyadéma passed away at the age of 69, and the military installed his son, Faure Gnassingbé, as president. This was a violation of the constitution and was called a coup by international observers. It sparked massive, nationwide protests and a violent crackdown by the military. As a result, Gnassingbé agreed to step down and stand in elections, which he won. He has run the country since then, and it is his rule that is currently being protested.

Similarly to his father, Gnassingbé has thwarted democratic norms. In 2015, the regional economic bloc ECOWAS proposed imposing term limits in all of its member states. Togo and The Gambia were the only two out of 15 countries that opposed the measure, and it consequently failed to pass. Now that The Gambia has a new president, Togo is the only country in ECOWAS opposed to term limits. Gnassingbé has also failed to develop his country’s economy. Most of the population depends on subsistence agriculture, and 42% of the GDP is derived from agriculture. Structurally, the economy remains poorly developed. As a result, it has low standards of living: its Human Development Index (HDI) is ranked 166th in the world and shows little growth.

Lomé, the capital of Togo

This is the context in which protests have again erupted. The Togolese protesters want term limits. They want constitutional and electoral reform. They have a government with 50 years of experience clinging to power but very little experience improving standards of living. The government shows no sign of changing, which means standards of living show no sign of changing. That is why so many people are protesting. If Faure Gnassingbé’s rule had brought significant improvement to the lives of Togo’s citizens, the citizens would have little to protest about. But his rule has had little positive effect, which means its continuation would similarly bring little progress.

Thus the protesters are teaching Gnassingbé a lesson that leaders around the world have learned time and time again: that the best way to maintain power is to positively impact standards of living. China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States have all learned this lesson, and they have consequently been able to maintain authoritarian political systems. 50 years should have been more than enough time for the Gnassingbé dynasty to learn this lesson. So far, however, it has not.

Why a Domestic Debate in Nigeria Matters Internationally

In the space of only two days, two events have occurred in Nigeria which highlight an issue that is both a symptom of its past and fundamental to its future. On Thursday, political leaders belonging to the Yoruba ethnic group held a summit in which they endorsed “restructuring,” a term that refers to an initiative to decentralize power away from the federal government. On Friday, Nigeria’s army announced that it would launch an operation called “Python Dance II” in the country’s southeast. Both of these events are concerned with tensions between Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups—tensions that will begin to matter internationally as Nigeria leverages its massive population to achieve regional dominance.

Nigeria, located in West Africa, is by far Africa’s largest country in terms of population. With 192 million inhabitants, it is much larger than Ethiopia, which comes in second with 104 million. Furthermore, Nigeria is expected to surpass the United States as the world’s third most populous country by 2050. This massive population, coupled with its position as sub-saharan Africa’s largest oil producer, makes Nigeria the continent’s largest economy. Thus the country is already very influential, and it has the potential to become a regional hegemon. To reach that potential, however, it will have to reckon with a wide range of social issues.

The location of Nigeria in Africa

The Yoruba summit and the launch of operation Python Dance II attempt to address one of these social issues: how to govern 192 million people divided into 389 ethnic groups, three of which dominate different parts of the country. Restructuring is one strategy. It seeks to empower Nigeria’s states or regions to the point that they are responsible for the majority of decision-making. Although Nigeria is currently a federal state by name, the central government remains the locus of power in practice. Restructuring would change that, stripping the federal government of most of its powers beyond foreign policy, defense, and macroeconomic objectives.

If restructuring is seen as representing one possible path for Nigeria’s future, operation Python Dance II can be seen as representing the opposite. The operation—led by the army, an institution of the central government—is meant to repress “criminals and agitators” and promote rule of law in the southeastern part of Nigeria, which attempted to secede from the federation in the late 1960s. Thus the operation can be seen as an attempt to preserve Nigeria’s unity by forcefully imposing the authority of an institution of the federal government. Restructuring, on the other hand, attempts to preserve the country’s unity by accommodating the demands of its various groups. 

Although the rationales behind both calls for restructuring and centralized military operations are focused on the path of Nigeria’s future, the fundamental debate behind the degree of centralization is largely a relic of its past. During the pre-colonial period, Nigeria was the site of numerous centralized kingdoms, but none of these covered the entirety of the country. The Oyo Empire was a powerful, highly urbanized state in the southwestern part of modern Nigeria, and it was dominated by the Yoruba people. The Sokoto caliphate dominated the northern part of the country, and it was populated mostly by the Muslim Hausa people. The southeastern part of the country, centered on the delta of the Niger river, was governed by the Igbo-dominated Nri Kingdom.

Linguistic groups in Nigeria

Thus the three dominant ethnic groups of Nigeria have a long history of political independence, largely due to the viable states they were able to form as a result of their high population densities. When Nigeria became independent from the United Kingdom in 1960, its political system reflected its multipolar makeup: it was governed by a federation that decentralized power to the different regions. From the outset, however, divisions between the country’s three primary regions caused conflict. The north and southwest entered into a coalition government in 1965, isolating the Igbo southeast. As a result, a group of Igbo military leaders overthrew the government in 1966.

Later that year, a group of northern military leaders led counter-coup, which resulted in a government dominated by the north. Igbos living in the north were massacred and persecuted. In 1967, Igbo leaders declared independence from Nigeria, establishing the Republic of Biafra. This led to the Nigerian civil war, which resulted in famine and humanitarian catastrophe. Ultimately, the secessionists were defeated. After the war, Nigeria was ruled by a series of military dictatorships that preferred a centralized political system to the federation that had existed before the war. Although the country has been ruled by a civilian government since 1999, the centralized political system has remained.

The location of the breakaway Republic of Biafra in Nigeria

This context is crucial in understanding the current debate within Nigeria. When Nigerian politicians talk of restructuring, they mean a return to the pre-1966 system—a true federation. When the military is deployed to control “agitators” in the southeast, it undoubtedly conjures images of the suppression of Biafra. In fact, partly because most of the country’s oil wealth comes from the southeast, Igbo nationalism is still very much alive. Furthermore, traditional leaders of pre-colonial states still wield symbolic powers, and religious tension between the Muslim north and Christian south is evident. Thus the divisions that plagued Nigeria after its independence remain influential today, informing modern political discussions. 

Although such divisions and the political question of how to administer them may seem irrelevant outside of domestic Nigerian politics, domestic Nigerian politics will undoubtedly become more and more important in international affairs. Lagos is Africa’s largest city and a business hub. Nigerian businesses have a massive potential domestic market and are aggressively expanding overseas. The Nigerian military is the most powerful in West Africa. As Africa continues to grow economically and in population, it will rise in influence on the world stage. And Nigeria, with the largest population and economy of all, will lead this rise. How the country manages to maintain unity among its massive populace will therefore have implications far beyond its borders.

How Kenya’s Supreme Court Strengthened Democracy

In a 4-2 decision on Friday, Kenya’s Supreme Court annulled the results of the country’s August 8 presidential election, requiring a new one to be held within the next 2 months. The opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, accused the country’s electoral commission of widespread vote manipulation after the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, won a second term with with 54% of the vote. Odinga had previously challenged the results of the 2013 and 2007 elections, claiming electoral fraud, but this is the first time that a court has annulled the results of an election upon the initiative of the opposition in Kenya—and in Africa as a whole.

Although Kenya has had democratic transfers of power in the past, its democracy is far from perfect. Thus a fraudulent electoral commission is well within the realm of possibility, as is a politically biased court ruling. So is the Supreme Court staffed with politicized “crooks,” as claimed by Kenyatta, or has the electoral commission “committed criminal acts,” as claimed by Odinga? The evidence indicates that the electoral commission was, in fact, at fault, and that the court ruling is a positive development for Kenya and African democracy in general by targeting the less obvious threats to democracy. 

The location of Kenya in Africa

Kenya, located in East Africa, is a densely populated country with around 49 million inhabitants. With a robust service sector, high level of industrialization relative to its neighbors, and a healthy tourism industry as a result of its natural beauty, Kenya is the economic hub of East Africa. The country was a British colony until 1963, after which it was led by Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru Kenyatta’s father. Since then, Kenya has progressed similarly to a number of African countries. It has developed functional democratic institutions, but, to quote Freedom House, these are “seriously undermined by pervasive corruption and cronyism, police brutality, and ethnic rivalries that are exploited by political leaders.”

Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and the economic heart of East Africa

In both Kenya and elsewhere, elections became a fusion of democracy and corruption. Voters get to cast their ballots, but elections are often marred by irregularities. In Rwanda, for example, the incumbent gained a ridiculous 98.79% of the vote. Last year in Gabon, vote rigging was more subtle, with only one region reporting unrealistic results. Also in Gabon, and in many countries like it, the judiciary was stacked with judges loyal to the incumbent, meaning it turned a blind eye to the irregularities. Although Kenya has a stronger democracy than Rwanda and Gabon, it and countries like it have been plagued with similar issues in the past. Most of these issues, however, are not overt autocratic institutions. Rather, they are subtle attacks on democratic institutions that tilt the playing field in favor of the incumbent.

According to Al Jazeera, “the IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] conceded that they did not use the electronic transmission system they were required to, and instead relied on text messages and photographs of manually filled forms as sources of information.” In fact, the man responsible for the electronic transmission system was murdered in July. Questions were also raised when “a number of the forms provided by the IEBC also didn’t have serial numbers or bar codes, and some were simple lined paper with numbers scrawled on them.” Thus the election was clearly marred by irregularities.

What was not clear, however, was any evidence showing that the irregularities were part of a coordinated effort to aid Kenyatta or had an effect on the outcome of the election. Thus the election was not an overt case of vote-rigging. That is why the court ruling was so important. It shows that intent and politics became irrelevant; the existence of irregularities in and of itself was seen as a justification for nullification. Regardless of whether the irregularities were malicious or had an effect on the election’s outcome, the fact remains the election was deeply flawed due to institutional weakness. That this fact alone was enough to annul the election is of immense consequence.

It is of consequence for two reasons: it is a sign of judicial independence and acknowledges that not all threats to democracy are overt. First, the fact that the Supreme Court annulled the victory of an incumbent is an important sign of the separation of powers between the executive branch and the judicial branch. This means that the judicial branch can act independently as an effective check on the power of the legislature and the executive. Yesterday, Kenyatta declared that the Supreme Court was a “problem” that he hoped to “fix.” While such rhetoric is dangerous because it threatens to erode the independence of the court, the fact that the court isn’t already “fixed” is a positive reflection on the health of Kenya’s democracy.

Furthermore, this ruling recognizes that less conspicuous tactics to erode the effectiveness of democratic institutions can be just as dangerous as a faked election. It shows that the electoral commission is expected to hold elections that are not just free and fair, but also well-run and of a high quality. The ultimate effect of this is that indirect attempts to sway the results of the election will become more difficult. When only direct threats to democracy are targeted, less obvious threats are allowed to remain. By remaining independent and tackling any and all irregularities, Kenya’s Supreme Court is targeting these less obvious threats. That is a victory for Kenyan democracy.