If serious efforts are not made, and urgently too, to check the careless utterances of some of Nigeria’s political, ethnic and religious leaders, especially of late, then the fate that befell former Yugoslav federation will soon visit us here. In fact, if allowed to endure, the high level of insecurity, growing regional calls for secession and the nation’s ever worsening socio-economic circumstances may even become speeding conveyors of such ungodly outcome.
Just as Nigeria has six geo-political zones, so did the then Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia comprise six republics; namely Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. And, like Africa’s most populous country, the Eastern European nation was also made up of multiple ethnic groups.
Using cheap loans and other forms of external aid, the United States and its Western European allies had lured the Yugoslav communist President, Josip Broz Tito, after World War II, to pull away from the socialist bloc led by the Soviet Union. The Yugoslavs were said to have been happy with this turn of events, especially as they prospered relative to their communist neighbours.
But by the late 1970s, this Western foreign largesse had started to dwindle, mainly because of the rise in oil prices and cost of foreign debts. After Tito’s death in 1980, his successor, Lazar Kolisevski, tried to introduce painful economic reforms through removal of food and fuel subsidies and also devaluing the federation’s currency. Unprofitable state corporations and parastatals were advised to adopt survival strategies, including laying off workers and raising charges which led to so much unemployment and inflation, resulting to severe economic stress.
Political and tribal leaders, in their various republics, began to deflect responsibility for the economic downturn by rather blaming it on people of the other republics and ethnic nationalities. This served to build animosities and ethnic tension in a land whose people had just recently lived as brethren and enjoyed so much prosperity and happiness. The ruling Communist Party was said to have been greatly challenged by the resultant social unrests, including a nationwide workers rebellion during which about 168 strikes were recorded in one month alone.
Belgrade, the federal capital, was located in the Serb Republic. And Serbs were also the most populous, especially given that they formed significant percentages of inhabitants of nearly all the other republics. It was on the strength of this and perhaps while also riding on ethnic sentiments that Slobodan Milosevic, one of its sons and leader of the Communist Party in Serbia seized the opportunity to become President of Serbia.
With this position, he began to promote Serb interests everywhere in Yugoslavia. Elsewhere across the federation, nationalistic leaders were also rising to power in their various republics. They included Franjo Tudjman in Croatia, Milan Kucan in Slovenia and Alija Izetbegovic in Bosnia Herzegovina. Like Milosevic, their unguarded rhetoric frightened ethnic minorities and non-natives.
It was under this atmosphere in 1991 that Slovenia and Croatia declared independence for their respective republics from the Yugoslav federation. And so, began the so-called war of succession in Yugoslavia with Milosevic despatching federal Yugoslav soldiers to lead Serb militia forces in fighting Slovenes, Croats and Bosnians on many fronts. Ethnic cleansing and other atrocious war crimes were widely reported against the Serbs.
With Macedonia already independent without having to fire a single shot, Bosnian nationalist leader, Izetbegovic, also declared independence for his republic against an initial understanding that such move must first be discussed by the component ethnic groups. And, more so, his Muslim majority consisted only 44 per cent of the Bosnian population.
It was reported in 1994 that by the end of the hostilities which resulted from this singular declaration, close to 90 per cent of the Croat and Muslim populations in Bosnia had either been killed or forced to flee further into Bosnia. The republic lost two-thirds of its territory even as the capital, Sarajevo, was roundly besieged by Serb forces. In fact, UN troops, a number of whom were attacked and taken hostage by the Serbs, had to be deployed to protect the city and save its civilian population.
The US which had not committed any ground troops to the international intervention effort did eventually deploy some to secure Macedonia and ethnic Albanians in the Province of Kosovo.
Hostilities ended only after the leaders of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina signed an accord in the US to maintain the prevailing borders as at the date of the agreement. This was known as the Dayton Accord.
The big lesson here is that, excluding Macedonia and perhaps Montenegro, every other participant in the Yugoslav war was a loser. Apart from the wanton killings and destruction across the land, none of the republics has fully recovered from the impact of that fratricidal war. Some of their citizens had since left in search of jobs in those same neighbouring nations which they had previously mocked.
If not for the territories they took from Croatia and Bosnia, it is hard to see what Serbia and Montenegro gained from the Yugoslav war. Their leader, Milosevic, ended up in the hot seat as a guest of the International War Crimes Tribunal. Again, the two republics have since parted ways.
On their side, Bosnians who never imagined that the international community, especially Muslim countries, could only watch as the Serbs and Croats pummelled them for so long now know better than to take things for granted.
Therefore, those drumming support for war or secession in Nigeria either in the belief that they are like the Serbs who craved dominance or the Bosnian minorities who expected foreign military assistance in the Balkan war, the lessons are already evident. Let us rather discuss and negotiate our diverse positions. That way, we just might succeed in working out our eventual severance peacefully.
By: Ibelema Jumbo