self-determination in Nigeria

By Douglas Anele

Relevant literature in jurisprudence and international law contains different but interrelated definitions of self-determination and legal criteria for deciding which groups may legitimately claim the right to demand for it.

This problematic aspect in the quest for political autarky by a people or collection of peoples united by strong cultural, linguistic and historical connections is often either ignored or not taken seriously by leaders of movements for self-determination across the world. Again, because of the fact that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist the Machiavellian principle of “might is right” or “the end justifies the means” is a serviceable ideological toolkit for both advocates of self-determination and defenders of the political status quo.

In this connection, most times if the quest is realised the agitators become heroes whereas if it fails upholders of the existing system will be celebrated as patriots. Now, assuming that the agitation for self-determination in a particular situation involves violence as is usually the case in undemocratic, oppressive or autocratic countries, the victorious side tends to treat the losers very harshly.

But in a mature democracy a referendum for self-determination can be held peacefully both without external intervention and no serious recriminations or reprisals against the losing party. A typical example was the Scottish referendum of Thursday, 18 September 2014 when the people voted by a slim majority to remain part of Great Britain.

Keep in mind that demand for self-determination is fundamentally political and moral, although legal and economic considerations also play a role in the process. Of course, a group facing existential threat to its continued existence or survival has the moral right – even moral obligation – to work towards achieving complete political freedom.

Turning attention to the Animal Farm called Nigeria, threats of secession and attempts to secede did not start on May 26, 1967 when the 335-member Consultative Assembly of Chiefs and Elders of the former eastern region gave Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu a unanimous mandate to pull the region out of the horribly dysfunctional colonial amalgam “at an early practicable date.”

As a matter of fact, before independence leaders of northern Nigeria repeatedly used threat of secession as an instrument for political brinkmanship and bargaining with their southern counterparts and British colonial administration. For instance, in 1953 when Anthony Enahoro of the Action Group (AG) moved a motion in the federal parliament for independence three years later (1956) northern legislators threatened to pull the north out of Nigeria if the motion passed, and diluted it with the more modest proposal of attaining independence “when practicable.”

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The trend continued after independence as megalomaniacs from the region were still interested in secession. During the May 1966 pogroms against Ndigbo domiciled in the north, the hysterical cries of araba (secession) reverberated throughout the north. Indeed, some ringleaders of the revanchist coup of July 29, 1966 which shifted the political power equation to northern Nigeria participated to actualise their desire to form an independent country for the region.

Unfortunately British and American diplomats convinced Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed and others to drop the plan. That is not all: less than two months after Gowon emerged as the de facto Supreme Commander to replace Maj. Gen. J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, the north still harboured the idea of pulling out of Nigeria.

To confirm this, the original memorandum submitted by northern delegates to the Nigerian Ad Hoc Constitutional Conference put together by Gowon which opened on September 12, 1966 contained the provision that “Any member state of the Union should reserve the right to secede completely and unilaterally from the Union, and to make arrangements for cooperation with the other members of the Union in such a manner as they may severally or individually deem fit.”

Those conversant with Nigeria’s convoluted political history know that the obsession by northern leaders with One Nigeria and threat of armed conflict especially against southerners demanding for self-determination by leading members of the northern military-civilian establishment especially since after the Biafran war is a strategy by Fulani caliphate colonialists to dominate the rest of Nigeria politically.

It follows that the earlier blackmail of secession is taqiyah, the Koran-approved method of gaining political advantage over the enemy through deceit or subterfuge. It was not motivated by the desire to end deliberate injustice and unfairness towards the region because right from 1914 the north was favoured by the British and had benefited economically from the amalgamation.

Besides, the lopsided manner Britain configured Nigeria geographically resulted in an unbalanced country with the bulk of the Nigerian space belonging to the north. Similarly the politically expedient but dubious indirect rule system applied by Lord Lugard and his cohorts further accentuated the imbalance, which eventually led to the grotesque concept of a monolithic political north which does not reflect the reality of different indigenous peoples that constitute northern region.

As I hinted earlier, secession threats by the north was an effective weaponised bargaining tool as a prelude to establishing its dominance throughout the country. Had the great Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe not been blinded politically by his tantalising ideology of One Nigeria under a wider Pan Africanist framework which prevented him from seeing the hegemonist agenda of Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa, Inuwa Wada and others, he might have leveraged on northern secession threats and worked for the peaceful dismemberment of Nigeria even before October 1, 1960, or at the very least joined forces with Chief Obafemi Awolowo and other leading southern politicians to insert a secession clause in the independence constitution.

In general, the failure by pioneer politicians from the south to recognise the near impossibility of creating a viable democratic country founded on egalitarian principles with the north dominated by muslims with hardcore Islamic worldview is one of the main remote causes of the southern predicament in Nigeria today.

The first real attempt to actualise secessionwas by the pioneer minority activist of Ijaw extraction called Isaac Adaka Boro. Boro abandoned his university education to lead a protest against the injustice to his people. For him, the situation in which exploitation of the oil and natural gas in the Niger Delta benefits mostly the federal government and eastern region while the oil-bearing communities were neglected is totally unacceptable.

In response he created an armed militia group, the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, comprising mostly of people from his native Ijaw. They declared a Niger Delta Republic on February 23, 1966 and fought the federal forces for twelve days. Outgunned and outnumbered, Boro and his ragtag army were defeated. He and his comrades were jailed for treason until about two months to the commencement of the Biafran war when Gowon pardoned them.

Boro promptly enlisted in in the Nigerian army (probably to fulfil the condition for his release)and was commissioned as a major. He fought against Biafra and was killed in 1968 under questionable circumstances while on active duty at Ogu (close to Okrika) in Rivers State.

Without a doubt by far the most serious attempt at self-determination that shook Nigeria to its very foundations and very nearly destroyed the country for good was led by Lt. Col. Ojukwu, military governor of the defunct eastern region. The decision by leaders and elders of the eastern region to declare the region an independent sovereign country was due to the incompetent handling of important political and economic crises by the Tafawa Balewa-led federal government. Malignant corruption and nepotism created a convenient excuse for the military coup of January 15, 1966, which was followed by the bloodier coup six months later. 


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