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The recent upsurge in the activities of groups agitating for the Republic of Biafra has continued to raise concerns among some Nigerians. But separatist agitations are not limited to the demands for Biafra by three competing groups – the Movement for the Actualization of the Republic of Biafra (MASSOB), the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) and the Biafra Zionist Movement.
Other groups that have threatened secession in recent times include Arewa People’s Congress for Arewa Republic, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta and Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force for Niger Delta Republic, Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People for Ogoni country, Oodua Peoples’ Congress for Oduduwa Republic and Boko Haram for the Islamic Caliphate.
My aim in this piece is to interrogate these secessionist threats beyond the simplistic dismissal of these agitators as either misguided or “looking for money” – as former President Obasanjo was reported to have said of those agitating for Biafra. Several observations could be made here:
One, the desire for some nationalities that make up a diverse country to be independent is natural. For instance despite being part of the United Kingdom for over 300 years Scottish separatism has remained a feature of the politics in the United Kingdom. In Canada, the agitation for the independence of Quebec has remained salient since premier of Quebec Honoré Mercier mooted the idea in the 1890s. In the United States, there are still groups that hoist the confederate flag of independence even though the American civil war ended as long ago as April 9 1865.
In several other European countries – from Albania, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Bosnia and Herzegovina to the peaceful and prosperous countries of the Scandinavia, separatist groups abound. In Africa, from Algeria, Angola, Cameroun, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia to Uganda, South Africa and Zimbabwe secessionist groups flourish. In Ethiopia from where Eritrea gained its independence on May 24, 1991, there are separatist agitations in at least seven parts of the country.
Two, the natural tendency for some groups in a diverse country to clamour for self-determination is, in the case of Nigeria, exacerbated by a number of factors: first, in newly democratizing states, there is often a tendency for pent-up feelings that were not allowed expression during periods of dictatorships to be released under the freedom of speech guarantee of liberal democracy. And since virtually every part of the country has an institutionalized memory of hurt and feelings of injustice, which it wants addressed, such freedoms of expression would naturally often include secessionist threats.
This is why it is often said that democracy in fragile states could in the short term aggravate the structures of conflict. But democracy in the long run also presents the best opportunity for peaceful resolution of such conflicts. Second, Nigeria’s inability or unwillingness to deal with what they often call the ‘national question’, has led to the erroneous belief that only groups that can hold the state to ransom by an overwhelming claim to certain entitlements will have their grievances addressed.
For instance, some believe that the Yoruba-led NADECO’s challenge to both the Babangida regime (following the annulment of the election won by MKO Abiola) and the Abacha regime that succeeded him, played a role in the ‘decision’ to concede the presidency at the onset of the Fourth Republic in 1999 to the Yoruba. Similarly, it is also thought that the protracted violent agitations of the militants in the Niger Delta played a role in the choice of Dr Goodluck Jonathan, from the Niger Delta, as the running mate to the late Yaradua in the 2007 presidential election.
The ‘juicy’ amnesty programme put in place to quell the militancy in the region may also have had the unintended consequence of incentivizing insurgencies and violent agitations. In the same vein, the Boko Haram challenge in the northeast was at least initially seen by some politicians in the south as part of the laying of overwhelming claim to the North’s ‘entitlement’ to the presidency in 2015.
Three, secessionist or insurgency movements often tap into local grievances. While some use secessionist threats as a bargaining tool to call attention to a group’s alienation from the Nigerian state, some use it for personal aggrandizement while a few really meant secession. Common to all secessionist movements however is the tendency to assume wrongly that cultural or ethnic homogeneity of the proposed new nation will guarantee its success. As the case of Somalia demonstrates, this is far from the truth.
Again no one can foresee the sort of internal contradictions that will flare up in the proposed new country. For instance South Sudan which got its independence from Sudan only in 2011 is today at war with armed groups in nine of its ten states, with tens of thousands displaced.
Four, it will be wrong to assume that leaders of separatist groups truly speak for the people they claim to represent. In Scotland for instance when the separatist Scottish National Party lost the referendum for Scottish independence on September 18 2014, Alex Salmond, a long-time canvasser for Scottish independence, realized he was not speaking for the generality of Scots and stepped down as both Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the SNP. The inability of Nnamdi Kanu of Radio Biafra to meet his bail conditions is also instructive.
Five, a crucial question here is how do we manage separatist agitations? The solution to the problem of separatist agitations is never to criminalize such groups or clamp their leaders into detention – if they go about their demands peacefully.
In several mature democracies, separatist groups and purveyors of hate speech such as the KKK in the USA and the British National Party in the United Kingdom are not banned for fear that doing so will drive them underground and glamourize the ideas they espouse. The preference is to draw the ideas they espouse into the market for political ideas and out-compete them.
Six, referendum is another time tested instrument for blunting separatist tendencies in the more mature democracies. In Scotland for instance, the victory of the ‘Better Together’ campaigners is likely to blunt the demand for Scottish independence for a long time to come. Again the victory of the ‘No’ campaigners in the 1995 referendum for Quebec independence from Canada has weakened agitations for Quebec’s secession.
Following from this, there may be a need for the country to consider a constitutional provision allowing for the conduct of referendum among nationalities that want to secede from the union say once every 30 years. I believe that declaring that discussion about the unity of Nigeria is a ‘no go area’ to successive constitutional or national conferences is counterproductive as it only helps to romanticise the hush-hush agitations for independence.
Also the knee-jerk civil war triumphalism and hyped righteous indignation by some commentators whenever the word Biafra is mentioned is unhelpful as it tends to particularize what is essentially a national problem to an Igbo problem.
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