By Ochereome Nnanna
SIMPLY put, referendum is giving the people the choice to vote “yes” or “no” to constitutional change or the right to self-determination. It gathered currency after the Second World War, when the imperative of independence (rather than colonial subjugation) and the respect for the human rights of people were adopted by the victorious World Powers (the United States of America, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union and China).
In 1966 the United Nations enacted the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which, by February 2017, had been endorsed by 169 countries, Nigeria included. It mandates signatory member-nations to respect the civil and political rights of its people of which the right to self-determination is a part. Based on this, referendums are regularly held all over the world – developed, developing and backward nations inclusive. Referendums on varied forms of political questions have been held in more than 60 countries. Let us take just four samples.
Former Portuguese colony, East Timor, was an annexed part of Indonesia. Like Singapore which was ignominiously ejected from Malaysia in 1965, East Timor was regarded by Indonesia as a worthless drainpipe on its resources. In August 1999, President Bacharuddin Habibie, asked the United Nations to conduct a referendum to determine where the Timorese people wanted to remain in Indonesia. The Timorese voted by a landslide (344,580 out of 438,968) to leave Malaysia.
Sudan, which has a complexity and history that are similar to those of Nigeria, in January 2011, organised a referendum to decide if the people of South Sudan really wanted the independence which, for decades, they had fought for. When the result came in, 98.83% of the South Sudanese voted for independence, and thus a new country was born.
Also in the United Kingdom (our progenitor country) just three years ago, the Scottish people, who had clamoured for independence for ages were given the opportunity to decide if majority of them wanted out. When the votes tumbled in on 18th September 2014, 55.3% rejected independence, which means Scotland, for now, remains part and parcel of Great Britain.
It is not as if referendum is alien to Nigeria. In 1961, shortly after independence, the people of the British Cameroons (which was seized from Nazi Germany and articulated into the British Nigerian colony after the First War on June 28th 1919) was given the opportunity to choose if they would remain as parts of independent Nigeria. While Northern British Cameroon voted to join Nigeria, the Southern part chose to leave.
I took this sample from Asia, Europe and Africa to show that referendum is as normal and harmless as any other civic, democratic exercise. There were minor skirmishes in Timor and Sudan after their independence but these had nothing to do with the clear choices of the people.
The intendment of referendums is to give a people the right to chose to pursue their destiny within or outside a country without the recourse to armed violence. Even the Biafra agitators, their oft-uncouth rhetoric apart, have submitted to this non-violent instrument of referendum. Why do Nigerians choose to tag the Biafra agitators as the “noisy minority” when a simple referendum will decide their weakness or strength? It is obvious that, should such a referendum reaffirm the faith of majority of those being polled in Nigeria, it would close the chapter on Biafra, at least for the foreseeable future.
Why is it that whenever you mention “self-determination” or “referendum” some Nigerians interpret it as “a declaration of war”? If you look at most of those equating the call for referendum to “war”, it is usually those who believe in their hearts that Nigeria is their personal or regional estate. What they are actually saying is: if you really want this your Biafra, come and fight; you will not get it through referendum. That is a very cowardly talk. How can you, with all the instruments of state coercion at your disposal, challenge a group of unarmed, peaceful agitators for a referendum to an all-out war? Is that how it is done in other countries?
People who are asking for a referendum are doing so based on a series of dehumanising experiences they have suffered. If you are not willing to address their human rights concerns in order to fully integrate them in the national scheme of things, the only sensible and peaceful thing to do is to grant them a referendum. Malaysia and Indonesia did not want to continue accommodating Singapore and Timor respectively. While Singapore was expelled from Malaysia, Timor was politely given a chance to decide if they wanted to continue to be part of a country that did not really want them, and they chose to go.
The idea of a referendum is the best test of whether Nigerians really want to remain in one country or go their separate ways in peace. It is politically correct to say we want to remain together (without scientific proof) and treasonable to say I want to go. Why not actually put the question? That will surely provide the answer in a way that leaves no one in doubt. But of course, this will not happen.
I still believe that if you give Nigerians a good deal they will choose to stay together. The Nigerian dream remains valid because no other country in the world was given everything without even a single natural obstacle to struggle with. We Nigerians are the only obstacles to the greatness of Nigeria, which is why Nigeria faces the greatest obstacle in the whole world. People come together to overcome natural obstacles and become great, but when the people themselves are the obstacles, their case is virtually irredeemable.
Nigerians must sit down NOW and re-lay the foundation of its nationhood through restructuring. Otherwise, it should allow people who are tired to go in peace and pursue their destinies. Intimidation will take us nowhere.