What’s in a Name? North Macedonia Joins NATO as Greeks Concede

NATO gained its 30th member this week as North Macedonia, a landlocked country of 2 million people in south-eastern Europe, was admitted into the alliance. It is an important step for one of the continent’s poorest nations and a boost to prospective EU membership, the country having applied back in 2004, with petitions for formal talks rebuffed as recently as November 2019.

Members of an honor guard raise the NATO flag in front of North Macedonia’s parliament to mark the ratification of accession to the alliance in Skopje on February 11
Source: Radio Free Europe

One of the biggest stumbling blocks on the path to North Macedonia’s political and diplomatic advancement is in its name. What’s in a name? A lot in this case, just ask the Greeks.

There are multiple ways to define the region known as ‘Macedonia’, and it has many historical antecedents. It holds a special place in the Greek national consciousness in particular, being a powerful kingdom during the Classical period of Antiquity and a forerunner to the dominant Hellenistic state.

Greece’s northernmost provinces are still administered as ‘Macedonia’ and herein lies a problem that until recently seemed unsolvable. How could a country detached from the body politic of modern Greece carry the Macedonian name? Well, quite reasonably it would seem to this writer.

North Macedonia – i.e. the country that has just received NATO membership and whose capital is Skopje – was incorporated into that ancient powerful kingdom of Macedon around 356BC. Its land was subsequently a staging post as Roman forces launched south-eastwards during the Second Punic War, where Philip V famously held back the invading troops before the Romans turned the tide during the 2nd century BC, making Macedonia its first province.

Philip V of Macedon. He couldn’t hold the Roman tide back indefinitely

Slavic tribes arrived in the region around the 6th century and by the 10th century had been Christianised. North Macedonia fell under Bulgarian influence in the 12th century before it was swallowed up by the rampaging Ottoman Empire in 1371, in whose grasp it would remain until the Balkan Wars preceding World War One. At this point the country became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, what would later be Yugoslavia.

North Macedonia was one of the poorest constituent parts of Yugoslavia, its destitute rural populace not helped by the triumph of communism post-World War Two. In 1991 the territory declared independence after Croatia and Slovenia left the Yugoslav federation and it was largely freed the horrors of the wars that tore apart the Balkans over the next decade.

In order to join the global pantheon of nations, however, Skopje was forced to adopt the rather clumsy title of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Greece would not allow its accession into any organisations of which it was a member (and this is pretty much any body of significance for Skopje) using the simple sobriquet ‘Macedonia’.

Greek Macedonians rally against their northern, Slavic neighbours’ use of the term

What seemed like a rather petty Greek quibble was only resolved in February 2019 when ‘North Macedonia’ was officially sanctioned as the new name of the nation. That Greek ‘Macedonia’ comprises that country’s ‘northern’ provinces seemingly doesn’t add any confusion.

Nevertheless, this tiny successor to an historically rich and once all-conquering name can now firmly set its sights on the future. NATO membership provides strong assurances against invasion, a big bonus in the troubled Balkan region. EU membership is now a possibility, especially if the North Macedonians can solidify their democratic credentials and take advantage of Lonely Planet’s naming the country its #1 destination to visit this year by ushering in a tourist boom (Covid-19 notwithstanding) that further diversifies the sources of national income.

For a country dealt a bad geographical hand and trampled upon for centuries by great powers and aggressive neighbours, hopefully the coming decades will relaunch the Macedonian name into the heart of European politics, allowing its patient population to prosper.

Boko Haram Ramps up Violence in the Sahel: Chad braced for more misery

News that some 92 Chadian soldiers have been killed by Boko Haram in the east of the landlocked Central African country has gone under the radar. Not necessarily because of the global media’s preoccupation with Covid-19, but because this part of the world is generally seen as unimportant.

Chad’s army has fought a thankless campaign against Boko Haram

It follows in the wake of a Boko Haram attack on a Nigerian military convoy earlier in the week that left some 50 soldiers dead. So, despite intensive efforts, periods of success, and bold government pronouncements in the past couple of years, Boko Haram remains alive and dangerous.

Like many countries in the Sahel region, the Chadian population is fairly equally split between Muslims and Christians, with a few percentage points more of the former. Islam reached the land centuries before Christianity, moving from the Middle East after the time of the Prophet Muhammad into North Africa and then down on the caravan trails into the Sahara where it was adopted by some of the numerous ethnic tribes inhabiting the region.

From the 8th century until the French invasion, much of present-day Chad was ruled by the Kanem and Bornu Empires. Their fearless warriors converted to Islam around the 11th century

The French conquered Chad in the early 20th century and Christianity gradually spread during the colonial period, although it was not accompanied by any real modernisation. Muslims now predominate in the north and east of the country, with Christians more prevalent in the south and pockets of the west, where the recent Boko Haram massacre occurred.

Boko Haram is not particularly picky about its targets. Not just Christians but large sections of the Muslim population are counted as enemies, their fundamentalist Salafi faith running counter not just to Shia Muslims but many more ‘moderate’ Sunnis. With the polarising divide between Christians and Muslims, not to mention splits within these respective religions, in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Mali, the jihadists”holy war’ will not cease.

Boko Haram thrives along the border zone of the Christian and Muslim-majority countries of Africa

It was religious tensions that sparked the Chadian Civil War in 1965, just five years after the country had secured independence from France. Francois Tombalbaye, a southern Protestant, was severely mistrusted by the Muslims residing in the north of the country, who saw his policies as religiously-motivated.

Chadian troops with anti-tank weapons during the first civil war

It took until 1975 before Tombalbaye was eventually deposed and since then the country has effectively only had two rulers: Hissène Habré (1982-1990) and Idriss Déby (1990-present). Neither ruler has been particularly concerned with Chadian impoverishment or human rights, and their dictatorships have failed to stifle religious conflict, with Chad returning to civil war in 2005.

Déby has, however, been keen to eradicate Boko Haram from Chad’s borders, concerned of the impetus the terrorist group could receive from disenchanted Chadian Muslims.

There is no doubt that international concern over Covid-19 will be exploited by groups such as Boko Haram, who will seek to take advantage of the disruption – and general inattention towards the region – to further their warped goals. Meanwhile, any momentum gained by Boko Haram, or religious strife that their attacks promote, will cause the type of widespread panic and displacement that will ensure that Covid-19 spreads through the region quickly on its arrival.

We are awaiting the full affects of the pandemic to grip Africa and, when it comes, the destitute populace of Chad seemingly stands little chance.