Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor/CEO, Financial Nigeria International Limited

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Biafra Republic is not a referendum away 06 Jul 2021

Some latter-day protagonists of Biafra as a breakaway republic from Nigeria think their agitation is a referendum away from its realisation. But there is no provision in the Nigerian 1999 Constitution to put the territorial integrity of the country and national unity to vote. However, this is not the only obstacle to the actualisation of Biafra Republic by those who fancy it.
Were there to be a consensus framework today, in which the Igbos of Nigeria’s Southeast are to decide if they would like the region to remain in the country, it is very likely that a majority of them would say “Yes.” The main reason for this is that the Igbos are very widely dispersed in Nigeria.

The largest part of Igbo investment in Nigeria is outside Igboland. The precedent of the expropriation of the assets of the Igbos outside Igboland during the civil war indicates their property rights are unlikely to be preserved in a Nigeria without the current Southeast region – or in any independent state that may emerge from a balkanised Nigeria – next time still. This is especially the likely case, given the antipathy that is driving the secessionist agenda, and given the prejudice that remains against the Igbos 51 years after the country had ended a disastrous three-year civil war that was fought to keep the want-away Biafra Republic in the fold.

It is a testament to the lack of political will by the Nigerian state to resolve many of the national questions that a referendum on Biafra is not in prospect. Otherwise, it is a good time to put the agitation to a popularity test. The violence that is being fomented in the Southeast now, which in part is linked to the militia activities of the Nnamdi Kanu-led Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), is a major reason to reject the separatist agenda. Moreover, IPOB remains a fringe organisation that is not only opposed to Nigeria, but also to the political elite of the Southeast. Its claim to relevance can only be by causing trouble; it has not demonstrated any potential for Biafran statecraft.

There is the mistaken notion that the referendum is provided for in a federal constitution so that any constituent part of the federation can leave, peacefully, when it so decides. Quite on the contrary, the provision is a confidence building mechanism to ensure the federating units remain in the union. It suggests that the country is not a prison, with its constituent parts and people remanded in it for eternity. No one wants to be in such an apparently forced arrangement.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia is a warning to Nigeria and other federations; it is not a model for splintering a country. Close by, after South Sudan was excised from Sudan in 2011, neither of the new nations is much better off for it.

In 2016, the then-British Prime Minister David Cameron sanctioned the Brexit referendum, confident that the majority of the Brits would choose to remain in the European Union. This turned out to be a monumental miscalculation. The apathy of the youth and the fear of the older Brits produced what was an unlikely outcome of the Brexit vote. After a protracted divorce process from the EU, the negative impact of Brexit on the UK’s economy is currently masked by the COVID-19 pandemic. Post-Covid, the UK would start to take stock of the decision it carelessly took.

With regard to Scotland, however, the UK has been adept on the dynamic of timing in approving a referendum. The 2014 Scottish referendum unambiguously asked: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” 55.3 per cent of the voters said “No” and 44.7 per cent said “Yes.” The preference of the majority for Scotland to remain in the UK was predictable, although the votes showed significant polarisation, which would ensure that that question had not been finally answered.

After the Brexit vote, in which Scotland voted for the UK to “remain” in the EU and given the negative economic repercussions of leaving the single market of 28 countries, Scotland has been clamouring for another referendum to decide if the country should remain in the UK. An opportunity for a vote that would likely produce an opposite outcome compared to 2014 would hardly be given, except by a similar Brexit misjudgement.

The hue and cry for Biafra by a vocal minority is best reduced by the rest of us to a cry for equity and justice in the Nigerian federation. It doesn’t matter if IPOB is punching above its weight. Indeed, many other groups, whose clouts are strongest in the media, are also expressing their disenchantment with Nigeria, under the current administration that is openly clannish and especially prejudicial to the Igbo – perhaps for its electoral choices in 2015 and 2019.

As many constituents of the country are deeply disaffected by the status quo, they seemed to want semi-autonomous political spaces to breadth. Over-centralisation of power in Abuja has weakened national security and the economy. The arrangement, which was never sustainable, has proved unsustainable. It should matter that the people, across the country’s ethnic divides, now think Nigerian should be constitutionally restructured.

Also, the 2023 presidential election now looks to be the most important, since 1999. Efforts should be made to deliver the best outcome of the election in the interest of national unity and progress.