On August 1, 1966, after the collapse of last-ditch attempts by Nigeria’s power brokers to prevent the impending Civil War, Lieutenant-Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, the man who would later declare Biafra a secessionist state, said only one thing would make the rebels cease fire: “that the Republic of Nigeria be split into its component parts; and all southerners in the North be repatriated to the South and that northerners resident in the South be repatriated to the North”.
Of course, Ojukwu and the rebelling easterners didn’t get their wish. On May 30, 1967, Oxford-educated Ojukwu declared Biafra an independent state in the southeast of the country. And on July 6, 1967, civil war broke out in Nigeria, claiming more than a million lives in just three years.
Fast-forward to June 2017. Irked by renewed secessionist calls from the same Igbo ethnic group, a coalition of northern groups served a notice for “all Igbo currently residing in any part of Northern Nigeria to relocate within three months and all northerners residing in the East are advised likewise”.
Although made 51 years apart, those two statements are strikingly similar. Since the first was made during a war, there is real reason to worry that the second could prompt another. Last week’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil War offered a platform for Nigerians to review the ills of war but instead, the voices of secession raged even louder.
Secessionist movement an indictment of past leadership
The resurrection of the clamour for secession five decades from the war is simply the result of serial leadership failure. When the war ended in 1970, Yakubu Gowon, then Head of State, promised to “build a nation, great in justice, fair trade, and industry”. But he and his successors didn’t.
Although there is no evidence of efforts to specifically ignore the Igbo, generations of corrupt and selfish leaders have entered and vacated office with no painstaking plan to rebuild the East from the ruins of war (same for insurgency-ravaged North-East), instead filling their pockets with public funds while ignoring a disenchanted youth population.
Now, the Igbo percentage of that population will do anything to actualise Biafra, including sacrificing their lives, as already demonstrated by more than 150 of them between August 2015 and August 2016. The series of military crackdowns on pro-Biafra agitators is another grave error by the authorities; it has spawned clusters of bellicose Igbo youth who want to avenge their brothers’ deaths. Anyone who has physically met Nnamdi Kanu’s apostles, or read their viperous online comments, will admit that quite a number of them are seething with rage that can only be thawed by the highest level of tact from the government.
The absence of that kind of tact is arguably the reason for the escalation of the Biafra agitation in the last two years. After all, Kanu, the face of the agitation, was little-known until October 2015 when the Muhammadu Buhari government arrested him, and subsequently disobeyed court orders granting him bail. That unconditional detention meant Kanu exchanged his freedom for underserving martyrdom; now, what should have been an intelligent agitation for secession has been entrusted to a man whose message is primarily driven by emotion and aggression.
Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable? No
Buhari has said it a few times, and his Vice — now Acting President — has reiterated it: Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable. This is not the way to go.
The superficial argument is that the Nigerian Constitution is unequivocal in its exclusion of secession when it states in Section 2(1): Nigeria is one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign state to be known by the name of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
But Biafra is not a fresh secessionist move; it is a 50-year-old idea. And — regardless of the grave shortcomings of the current proponent — a 50-year-old movement cannot be dispelled with a wave of the hand or by locking up the proponent or brandishing the Constitution. The Nigerian government must work out a mathematical answer.
The Biafra question deserves a referendum
In its ninth section, the same Constitution provides for dialogue on the possibility of amending Nigeria’s indissolubility. But for this amendment to happen, not less than two-thirds majority of state and federal lawmakers must support the move. So, instead of saying an outright no to Biafra, Buhari and Osinbajo should remind the agitators of what they must do: lobby the legislature. Everyone knows the success rate is negligible, if not nil, but good luck to them if they succeed.
Importantly and urgently, Nigeria needs a referendum. There is palpable public frustration with a governance structure that allocates lion share of the country’s earnings to the federal government while leaving states to scramble for crumbs. A referendum on the preferred system of internal governance is crucial, even though recent calls for fiscal federalism have come from politicians who are more interested in cornering the nation’s wealth than redistributing it for common good.
Now is the time to take the decision to the public court. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, may have popularly argued that direct democracy is the “tyranny of the majority”, but there’s no other option for a Nigerian state where the tyranny of the ruling minority is monumental.
Neither history nor currency is on the side of Biafra. Only two secessionist movements have ever succeeded in Africa: Eritrea from Ethiopia after 30 years of war, and South Sudan from Sudan in 2011 after 22 years of war — the latter still as war-torn as the pre-2011 Sudan. Herein lies the lesson for Biafra agitators: secession from Nigeria will not solve their ache unless accompanied by conscientious leadership.
Nigeria, meanwhile, must go back 50 years to draw its own lessons: wars build from agitations like this. If the south-easterners don’t want to stay, let them go. Fragmentation is a million times better than the devastation of war.
Soyombo is Editor of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR). This piece was first published by Al Jazeera.