For the past few months, the issue of calls and protest for a Republic of Biafra from the South-Eastern part of Nigeria (some agitators add the South-South) have dominated the discourse. These protests have intensified since the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the movement, Independent Peoples of Biafra (IPOB).
There has been so much intense debate on the sense behind the protests and the call for secession of those in the Biafra movement. Like the Information Minister, Lai Mohammed said, I also believe the protests are legitimate, as long as they are done peacefully and without any disruption to law and order.
For me, I believe that our best hope as Nigerians is to remain united because among other reasons, we lack clear dividing lines in Nigeria. We are not a country of Muslim North and Christian South or all other schisms portrayed often in the media and politics. We are far more intertwined than we imagine, and therein lies the problem with respect to secession.
In this article by columnist Jideofor Adibe, he rightly pointed out that the desire to be independent is natural, particularly in diverse countries, and how many countries have secessionist movements e.g. Scotland (the Scottish National Party), Spain (Catalonia and Basque), Angola (Cabinda province), etc.
However, one thing Dr. Adibe missed is that some of these secessionist movements are seeking independence in a legitimate manner e.g. the referendum in Scotland next year on independence which the SNP which has been campaigning for independence lost, and the referendum in Catalonia. On the other hand, some secessionist movements have toed the path of violence to achieve their aims, such as the ETA which waged war for four decades seeking Basque independence from Northern Spain and Southwestern France and Cabinda separatists in Angola.
As it currently stands, every indication shows that IPOB is more likely headed down the latter path with the violent protests, disruptions of traffic and physical attacks. In the end, all this is likely to cause is a heightening of tensions, threat of reprisal attacks and government using force to restore public order.
But this situation is not only an indictment on Mr. Kanu and his band of misfits, but also on the Nigerian state. There is no legal means for groups in the country to negotiate whether they want to belong to Nigeria or not. As it stands currently, there is no provision for a referendum in the Nigerian constitution.
Not only that, we have consistently insisted that the unity and indivisibility of Nigeria is not up for debate, making it a no-go area during constitutional debates and at last year’s National Conference. This is rather myopic and assuming that everyone enjoys being part of Nigeria.
It is for this reason that despite the shenanigans of IPOB, I am inclined to agree that these agitations are built upon real grievances. There is a lot of real hurt and grievances in the South-East, South-South and many other parts of Nigeria. Even those who we feel have gotten the better deal in Nigeria are also quite dissatisfied with the way things are going or have gone. It will be rather dismissive to assume that we all have the same story and experience of being Nigerians.
An ideal situation would have been that a referendum will be held for the Biafra secessionist movements and all other similar movements to decide to remain in Nigeria. This will force the Nigerian state to convince the people in the area on why remaining within Nigeria was better than without, which will also force the Nigerian state to counter the narrative that has allowed such movements to grow – it is in this that the Nigerian state has failed massively, as it continues to ignore misgivings of the people, failing to provide a counter-narrative and only responding with force as it gets out of hand.
Moving forward, referendums need to be allowed in our constitution not just on matters of independence but on other crucial matters such as voting for constitutional amendments. We also need to stop foreclosing the issue of Nigerian unity, as it assumes that the different ethnic, religious and regional nationalities were part of the decision to form Nigeria. We all practically woke up and found ourselves in a country – while some have learnt to accept and live with it, others feel they are not getting the best of deals from it.
Finally, one of the biggest underlying issues that has given rise to such demands is the structure of our federation, something even many pro-Biafra supporters I have interacted with say. A truly federal nation will eliminate the feelings of domination and reduce the desire for power at the centre, as well as give states more freedom to chart their own future without being tethered to the centre.
It is very important to keep this in mind and start making efforts towards this to avert future similar secessionist movements and to arrive at a nation that will be truly representative of the expectations of everyone, or at least, to be one worth trying such that persons dissatisfied will strive to achieve the ideal rather than seek to leave it.