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Epistle to the Catalonians

By Mailafia Obadiah

DURING July/August, I spent part of my summer in the beautiful city of Barcelona, the capital of Spain’s Catalan region. I gave a talk at an international conference on the New Silk Road in which China hopes to invest over a $1 trillion to create a new co-prosperity sphere stretching through Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Mediterranean.

One of the keynote speakers was Carles Puigdemont, leader of the Catalan regional government. He spoke in subdued tones about the October referendum that he was convinced would lead to independence for his beloved Catalunya. Not a few of us were dumbfounded.

All my life I have been fascinated by Spanish history and civilisation. As a schoolboy I read Don Quixote de la Mancha, master of wit and irony.  Some of my readers might know that the Arab-Muslim Moors ruled Spain for several centuries, during 711 AD – 1492.  The Umayyad Caliphs brought glory to such cities as Alhambra, Granada, Cordoba and al-Andalus.  Global Jihadists today continue to lament the loss of Spain.

Twentieth-century Spain underwent cataclysmic traumas — civil war and fascist dictatorship under General Franco. Today, the country is a prosperous constitutional monarchy, with a population of 46.5 million, a GDP of US$1.8 trillion and a per capita income of US$26,643.

I have been fascinated by Spanish artists and thinkers from Pablo Picasso to José Ortega y Gasset, Miguel de Unamuno and Salvador da Madariaga. Federico Garcia Lorca is among my favourite poets, alongside Pablo Neruda and Christopher Okigbo. No one has inspired my moral-political sensibilities more than the medieval Jesuit lawyers of Salamanca – Francisco Suarez and Bartalomé de las Casas – who warned the Conquistadores not to treat the conquered peoples of Latin America as beasts but as human beings deserving of honour and dignity.

Twenty-first century Spain faces enormous challenges. As most people would know, the Euroland crisis has affected the Southern European countries the most, especially, Spain, Portugal and Greece. The subprime crisis that began in Wall Street in 2008 had a devastating impact on Spain. The economy was plunged into recession, with unemployment soaring to a high of 36 percent. The national debt rose to 72.1% of GDP. The European Commission had to cough out a ª100 billion bailout to save the economy from collapse.

Add to this the recent political saga arising from the Catalan bid for secession. For more than a year, there had been a quarrel between Madrid and Barcelona about the constitutionality of the referendum for independence, given that the Supreme Court had withheld its assent.  The Catalan leaders, as it were, took the law into their own hands, and, some would say, their destiny too.

With a population of 7.5 million and a GDP of US$336 billion, Catalonia is one of the most prosperous regions in Europe. It accounts for 19 percent of the country’s GDP, with a per capita income of US$36,000, significantly higher than the national average. Unemployment is also significantly lower, at 13.2 percent.

Catalonia is home to many of the world’s Fortune 500 companies; a leader in the export of automobiles, agribusiness, pharmaceuticals and industrial machinery. It is a major logistics hub in Europe; a leader in biotechnology, neuroscience and nuclear research. It attracts a staggering 18 million tourists annually. FC Barcelona is one of the best football clubs in the world. And IESE is one of the leading business schools in the world.

My Catalan friends never cease to remind me that during the seventeenth century, they were an independent republic, but were subjugated through Castilian royalist subterfuge and complot. During the Franco era their language and culture were savagely suppressed.  All of which is true.

In 1992 Barcelona hosted the Olympic Games. It brought not only renown to the city; it marked the beginning of a new prosperity, as businesses and investors came in droves. In 2006 a new Statute of Autonomy was conceded by the central government, amidst grumbling by significant sections of Spanish society.

In November 2015 Catalan lawmakers voted 72 to 63 to begin a process leading to independence from Spain in 2017. The Supreme Court rejected that decision. The Catalan regional government remained defiant. In late September a Civil Guard from Madrid raided regional government offices and detained officials involved in the referendum. The referendum still took place on Sunday 1st October, with those voting for independence reported to be an overwhelming 91.96% of the voters.

There is no end in sight to this crisis. Catalan leaders insist on international mediation, but Madrid would not hear of it. The wise and wily Angela Merkel of Germany has made it clear that she would not interfere in the domestic affairs of an EU member country. Some observers are of the view that the Catalonian crisis may well do harm to European integration than Brexit ever could.

When I spoke to Catalan leaders and ordinary citizens during my visit last summer, their general refrain was that they generate all the wealth and Madrid creams off all the revenues. They would rather keep their revenues within Catalunya.  But the fears of the central government in Madrid are not without foundation. A Catalan secession would hive off some 30% of GDP, compounding the national debt, unemployment and other macroeconmic fundamentals.

I made haste to explain to them that they should allow reason and moderation to prevail. I reminded them that we in Nigeria once had a crisis of secession which plunged our country into civil war. And even today, the ghost of Biafra refuses to die.

As a student of world civilisations, I am more keenly aware than most that, ultimately, no nation is sacrosanct. Stable democracies since ancient Greece are founded on a profound sense of spiritual community. They can be undermined by folly, hubris or cupidity. If regions must secede, it would be necessary to follow due constitutional process. I also told my Catalan friends not to forget that it was the Madrid government that, in the first place, encouraged investors to go into Catalonia to take advantage of its coastal location.  The prosperity of the region is largely because it has an expansive hinterland that it services.

I hear the same kind of noises at home about Lagos paying too much VAT to Abuja and having a GDP higher than Ghana. I always remind my omo eko friends that Lagos is Lagos only because it has a vast interior that it services. Remove the rest of Nigeria and the mega-city will be an overpopulated marshland of no significance whatsoever.

The Catalan people have a proud history and identity that they have a right to protect. I believe that secession will diminish not enhance, their standing in the world. They should continue to work for equity and fairness within a more democratic Spain; maintaining their singularity within a more prosperous and more democratic Europe.


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