Independence votes can be inspiring, but what happens when a nation tries to stand on its own feet is another matter. The most recent nations to vote on independence have a checkered record, offering cautionary lessons for gung-ho separatists.
The world’s youngest nation won independence after decades of war, a negotiated peace with the Sudanese government in Khartoum, and finally a vote in 2011. The country is rich in petroleum, timber, and minerals. It’s also, unfortunately, rich in conflict; civil war broke out last December. Independence didn’t change South Sudan’s neighborhood: Its young government still has to deal with interference from Khartoum, as well as the preexisting conflicts between different groups within its borders.
The tiny territory in the Indonesian archipelago suffered multiple massacres under Jakarta’s rule. It became an international cause célèbre, and its population voted decisively for independence in 1999. Indonesia tried to retain control by force, but gave up under international pressure. Since 2002, East Timor has been independent, but remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Early hopes that it would be able to exploit offshore gas have yet to materialize, and the government that emerged after three years of United Nations administration is still struggling to build infrastructure, feed the rural population, and run peaceful elections.
For 30 years, Eritreans fought a war against Ethiopian control; their 1991 victory forced Ethiopia to agree to an independence vote. By 1998 the neighbors were at it again, fighting a two-year border war in which tens of thousands were killed over a patch of uninhabited desert. The two states are inescapably interdependent; Ethiopia has by far the larger economy, but depends on Eritrea for access to the sea. But still they only grudgingly tolerate one another.
The ornery and proud Canadian province hosts a lively, perennial separatist movement. The Quebecois speak French and consider themselves a distinct culture in Canada. Twice, however, they have been allowed an independence vote—and both times, they’ve chosen to stay (in 1980 and 1995). Pro-independence Quebecois are still agitating for another vote, but Quebec is also reaping some benefits from being a squeaky wheel: it enjoys some perks of autonomy—setting its own cultural policy and promoting the French language over English—while being a net beneficiary of Canadian government spending.