Skip to main content

Why The Biafra Question Should Be Put To A Referendum By Malcolm Fabiyi

January 10, 2016

I have always been a firm believer that Nigeria should remain one united, indissoluble nation. It is an ideal that stems from a deep awareness of the unique possibilities that Nigeria offers, and an appreciation for the promise that it holds. There is no question that a strong and compelling case can be made for Nigerian unity, and there are many who would agree that there are sound historical, economic, and geo-political reasons why a united Nigeria makes sense both in an emotional and rational sense. 


The reality however is that from the very beginnings our union is one that has been plagued by doubts and clouded in uncertainty and distrust. In spite of those challenges, Nigeria has soldiered on. Through struggles, and even a brutal civil war, the Nigerian people have managed to take the union of convenience that Lugard consummated in 1914 and turn it into a partnership that is truly and uniquely theirs. 

Few people gave Nigeria any serious chance of survival. The death knell on Nigeria’s existence and corporate unity has been sounded very many times. Yet somehow, someway, a century later, Nigeria is still here, and Nigerians have managed to show the world that a nation split down the middle between Christians and Muslims can be united. 250 ethnic nationalities, each with its own unique and proud history, have found a way to call this land home.  

Yet, despite these victories, the path to Nigerian unity has come at a great price. Nigerian unity is a complicated matter. It is a marriage, and because of the multi-religious and multiethnic dimension to its reality, it is a polygamous one. If monogamous marriages are complicated, then polygamous ones are even more so. History and our unique culture teaches us that even such unions, imperfect as they might be can survive and even thrive. 

I have come to realize now, that to love Nigeria, is to be open to discussing the reality that it is not a perfect union – and that what we must all strive for is to make it such. To love Nigeria is to recognize that questions about marginalization that are raised by any ethnic groups are not necessarily coming from a place of malice or discontent. We must consider and accept the possibility that these yearnings are borne from a deep seated desire by these ethnic nationalities to chart a path for progress for themselves.  

None of us was there to negotiate the terms of this polygamous national union in 1914.  The reality is that questions about the terms of our union are now new, and they are certainly not without merit. There is a reason why there have been ten (10) different constitutions (1914, 1922, 1946, 1951, 1954, 1960, 1963, 1979, 1993 and 1999), in the life of a nation that is only a century old. Each one of these constitutions came about as a direct result of the never ending enterprise of seeking to enhance the Nigerian union – a step further in the quest for a more perfect union. There has also been at least one far ranging commission that looked into the question of minority marginalization (Willink Minorities Commission 1957) and a number of constitutional conferences whose recommendations were not adopted (e.g., the Abacha conference of 1994, and the Jonathan constitutional conference of 2014). 

In all the national dialogues about Nigerian unity held till date, any questioning of the foundational principle of national unity has essentially been a no-go area. It might be time to make an exception to this doctrinal principle that Nigerian unity is sacrosanct and cannot be challenged. I believe the Biafran secession debate is an area that is deserving of this exception. 

There are two reasons why a referendum on the Biafran secession case makes sense. 
Nigeria must understand how deep the sentiments for separation truly run: Supporters of Nigerian unity (and here we must concern ourselves only with those that are Igbo), contend that IPOB, MASSOB and other entities that are vociferously agitating for secession from Nigeria do not represent the silent Igbo majority.  However, no one has ever taken a poll of the Igbo nation to understand how deep the sentiment for separation from Nigeria truly runs. It is in the interest of the Igbo nation and all Nigerians to put this matter to rest once and for all. Are the majority of the Igbo people like other ethnic groups, believers in a united Nigeria, with an enduring interest in forging a more enduring union by seeking more equity in the structure of the Nigerian state, and in its relationship with its composite parts? Or is the idea of a united Nigeria with the Igbo as an integral part of that union a figment of the imagination of Nigerian patriots?

The Igbo nation has earned a right to a referendum: Nigeria must face up to the realities that the civil war did not buy us peace and unity. Peace can never be bought at any price. The only currency that guarantees peace is that of justice and equity. In prosecuting the Civil War, our forebears merely bought themselves time to make the case for, and develop a more perfect union. If in the 45 years since the guns fell silent, Nigeria has failed to make a convincing case for the Igbo nation to feel, know and believe that Nigeria is as much theirs as the Hausa, Ijaw, Efik, Nupe, Tiv, Igala, Yoruba, Kanuri, Fulani and others believe it to be, then it is in the interest of all patriots to know that, sooner rather than later. Much as many Nigerian patriots would prefer that the questions of separation be shelved forever, and that Nigerian unity should remain a sacrosanct matter, such willful ignorance can do the nation no good in the long run. No marriage lasts if one party remains fundamentally opposed to the union. If a family is to build for the future, and make plans for the future, all the parties to the union must believe that their partnership is an eternal one. The Nigerian family will falter and remain locked in dysfunction if this nagging and persistent question of national unity is not answered, once and for all. Only a referendum can provide a resolution to this question, and the Igbo nation has earned a right to a peaceful plebiscite.  

Why the Agitation for Biafra differs from other Marginalization struggles

There are those who would say that the Biafra matter was settled once and for all with the Nigerian civil war, and that the Igbo nation should accept that their secession bid was unsuccessful and get on with being Nigerians. However, majority of Nigerians today, who are from the post-independence or post war generation, did not witness the war, or were too young to appreciate the issues that led to it.  What most Nigerians know of that conflict is from the history books and from the stories that our fathers and uncles, our mothers and aunts have told us. 

The enduring quotation that Nigerians of this emergent generation hold onto from that internecine conflict was the declaration by General Gowon, the head of state that prosecuted the war for unity, that there was “No victor, No vanquished.”

If there was indeed “No Victor, No Vanquished” then Nigeria must be prepared to give voice to those who claim that their future lies outside the Nigerian nation. To fail to do so will be to tacitly imply that the “Vanquished” have no say in the terms of a post war settlement. This is not a path Nigeria should tow, as it will only keep us bogged down in this seemingly endless cycle of progress and retrogression. 
How would this referendum work?

Such a referendum would take place in two stages. The first stage would be a simple “Yes or No” question as to whether or not a substantive referendum should hold to determine if the south eastern Igbo states should secede from Nigeria. It should hold only in the south eastern region, and only Igbo Nigerians should be eligible to participate. If the “No” vote prevails by a simple majority, then the matter of the enduring place of the Igbo within the Nigerian nation will be resolved. Should this initial referendum process have a simple majority “Yes” vote, then it would trigger the commencement of a process to set a date and prepare for a substantive referendum on the question of full Biafran secession. 

The second stage will need some preparation - from the authorities, from the proponents of National unity and from the advocates of separation and secession. The intervening period between the two referendums will provide some opportunity for the real world implications of separation to be debated.  Questions of citizenship, immigration, visa policies and terms of access of Igbo Nigerians to the other five regions post separation will need to be clearly outlined because those would be crucial to the debates that will ensue on the merits or demerits of separation. Guarantees for property rights and economic transfers in the event of political separation will also need to be discussed and addressed as well. Nigeria’s political leaders must be prepared to accept whatever outcomes emerge from this second referendum and it must necessarily be preceded by the passage of appropriate and binding legislative laws.  

No one can make the case for Nigerian unity to the Igbo nation, better and more effectively than Igbo sons and daughters, who believe in the vision and the promise of a united Nigeria. We must trust in their ability to do this. And if peradventure, Nigeria has failed the Igbo nation so irreparably, that there will be no voices that can sway the case in the favor of Nigerian unity, then we must be ready to accept that separation might be a necessary outcome, painful as it might be. 

We have been here before. In 1961, Northern and Southern Cameroon were offered a plebiscite to determine if they wanted to remain in Nigeria or enter into union with Cameroon. Northern Cameroon with its large Fula and Kanuri populations and extensive historical, religious and socio-political ties to Northern Nigeria, opted for union with Nigeria, while the Southern Cameroons opted to join Cameroon. The example offered by the recent agitations for Scottish independence, provides a template for how such a referendum might be handled by people on both sides of the divide. 

Every nation must determine its priorities and deal with them accordingly.  There are those who would argue that the Biafran question is a secondary issue and that Nigeria has more pressing concerns with security, and with reversing the damage perpetrated by a corrupt political class that has decimated the nation’s resources in decades of misrule. I would argue that the Biafran question is an existential one, and therefore demands to be treated with a fierce urgency. The Igbo nation is a crucial and essential part of Nigeria. Nigerian progress will be accelerated if we can determine once and for all, who the parties to our forward movement as a nation are. I am confident that the Nigerian family of the future, will include names like Okoro, Nnamdi, Kanu and Ngozi.  

God bless Nigeria.
Malcolm Fabiyi