Professor Tam David-West and Non-Negotiability of Nigeria’s Sovereignty: The Missing Points


Vie Internationale
with Bola A. Akinterinwa
Telephone : 0807-688-2846 e-mail:

Professor Wole Soyinka’s argument, that the sovereignty of Nigeria is negotiable, was reportedly described in the press by Professor Tam David-West as ‘absolute rubbish’ and ‘absolute nonsense.’ One of the cover stories of Daily Sun of July 9, 2016 was titled ‘David West Bombs Wole Soyinka.’ Oluseye Ojo, writing from Ibadan, reported that the virologist and egghead, Professor David-West, expressed surprise that ‘somebody as eminent as Wole Soyinka’ could say that the sovereignty of Nigeria is negotiable and therefore described his argument as ‘absolute nonsense’ and noting further that ‘no sovereignty is negotiable. When something is sovereign, you cannot negotiate. He is talking nonsense. Nigeria’s sovereignty is not negotiable and that of any other country is not negotiable.’

Perhaps more interestingly, Professor David-West also reportedly said that ‘conceptually, there is no way you can negotiate sovereignty. But if it comes to socio-political consideration, what you are going to negotiate is not sovereignty, but modus vivendi. How you can live together can be negotiable, but it is impossible to negotiate the sovereign state of Nigeria.’ In this regard, as Professor David-West has argued his point at the level of conceptualization, it is useful to distinguish between conception and conceptualization by simply asking what do we mean by sovereignty? What is a sovereign state? What does the sovereignty of Nigeria mean and imply? What is modus vivendi? What really is sovereignty that it cannot be negotiated? Why is Nigeria, as a sovereign state, not negotiable?

What the Nobel Laureate reportedly said was that the argument of non-negotiability of Nigeria’s sovereignty is antithetical to development and functional unity. As The Punch of June 29, 2016, has it on page 7, Professor Soyinka declared as follows: ‘I am on the side of those who say we must do everything to avoid disintegration. That language I understand.’ He said further that he did not ‘understand (ex-President) Olusegun Obasanjo’s language’ and also does not ‘understand President Muhammadu Buhari’s language and (that of) all their predecessors, saying the sovereignty of this nation is non-negotiable.’ In the thinking of Professor Soyinka, it is ‘bloody well negotiable and we had better negotiate it. We better negotiate it, not even at meetings, not at conferences, but every day in our conduct towards one another.’

More interestingly, Professor Soyinka also added that ‘when people are saying “let’s restructure,” they have better things to do. It’s not an idle cry. It is a perennial demand… We cannot continue to allow a centralisation policy which makes the constituent units of this nation resentful.’ Rejection of state or community policing, killings by Fulani herdsmen, Government’s intention to establish graving reserves for the herdsmen, rather than ranches, in addition to the questions of fiscal federalism, return to regionalism, devolution of power, etc were some of the issues raised by Professor Soyinka for discussion and negotiation.

It is clear from the positions of the two great Nigerian professors that none of them can be considered a minus habens, that is, someone with little capacity, especially intellectually speaking. They are both eggheads on their own right. However, for avoidance of doubt, the intention of negotiability of Nigeria’s sovereignty, as reportedly said by Professor Soyinka, is not for the purposes of dismantlement. It is development-driven.

Consequently, the meaning of ‘negotiable’ has an applied, cognitive or connotative meaning. The sovereignty of Nigeria, in terms of right to exist as a nation-state is not the question but its dynamics, the issues involved in nation-building, all of which fall under ‘policy conception’ efforts. This is what Professor David-West has described as modus vivendi. If anyone is against the hypothesis that the sovereignty of Nigeria is negotiable, as submitted by Professor Soyinka, it means the non-negotiability of the over-centralisation of policy in Abuja and the need to continue to sustain federalism as it is operated in the country today should be sustained.

Understanding Sovereignty as a Concept
As regards modus Vivendi, it should not be confused with modus operandi and modus faciendi all of which are Latin expressions. Modus faciendi is the manner of acting and reacting in terms of human behaviour, while modus operandi is about the operational modalities of policy making and execution. Modus Vivendi is about how to live, particularly in terms of an arrangement in which two persons in dispute seek mutual assistance pending a final settlement. Professor David-West is quite right on the negotiability of modus vivendi and modus faciendi in the sense of their foregoing meanings and also in the sense that they only refer to one of the aspects and means of sovereignty.

Sovereignty itself is an attribute of the State without which it cannot enter into international relations on the basis of equality and respect. Sovereignty enables a State to define its status in international politics. However, the acceptance of negotiability of modus vivendi is necessarily an acceptance of divisibility of sovereignty, contrary to Professor David-West’s submission. Additionally, if we consider sovereignty as a continuum, at the bottom of it will be conception of sovereignty. At the crescendo will be the concept of sovereignty. In the middle will be the various dynamics (modus faciendi and modus vivendi) of the concept of sovereignty.

On the conception and concept of sovereignty, its origin is traceable to the 16th Century when it was first adopted into the political science lexicon. The literature on it is rich and unending. The concept is also fluid, giving room for many ways of categorising sovereignty. For instance, Grace Rosinski of the Northeastern University has provided a typology of four types on the methodological basis of historical evolution: Classic Sovereignty, Liberal International Sovereignty, Post-liberal Sovereignty and Cosmopolitan Sovereignty (vide her work, Evolving Beyond: The International Community and the Applicability of Sovereignty in the 21st Century).

The genesis of classic sovereignty dates back to the pre-Westphalia Peace Treaty of 1648 which ended the thirty-year old war in Europe. By then, classic sovereignty referred to a state with a decisive and absolute authority which was concentrated in the hands of a sovereign. Its deponents argued that in the world system, there was no authority greater than the sovereign state, hence the notion of sovereign authority. More importantly, since sovereignty, whatever its categorization, has two main areas of operation, internal and external, classic sovereignty accepts that there are internal and external sovereign rights. Hence, the post-1648 Westphalia Peace Treaty witnessed the reign of classic sovereignty until emergence of liberal international sovereignty scholars.

Unlike the proponents of classic sovereignty who used it to justify all government actions, the advocates of liberal international sovereignty posit that only governments that adhere to the international liberal code should be considered as having legitimacy. Any state violating the international code is presumed to have lost its legal sovereignty. Essentially thus, liberal international sovereignty scholars hold states accountable to promotion of human rights.

Regarding Post-liberal Sovereignty, its scholars reject the conception of both the classic and liberal sovereignty, insisting on the need to re-strengthen sovereignty along the lines of liberal ideology, human rights protection and promotion of democracy. They also advocate the weakening of government in deference to market forces.

Most importantly, post-liberal sovereignty advocates want the re-consideration of sovereignty as ‘a capacity’ and no longer as ‘an absolute right.’ With sovereignty re-defined as that of capacity or ‘capable responsibility’ as Rosinski put it, international mechanisms should be put in place to control the solvency of a state without violating any autonomy as it does not exist anymore. In this regard, the role of the international judicial sovereignty would be strengthened and protected as a separate entity from sovereign autonomy.

Finally, Cosmopolitan Sovereignty rejects the internal structures of states and seeks the establishment of a singular global community to which all human beings should belong and all will live under a singular standard of law. This means that there will be no longer any claims to international borders. This is an expression of globalization in another form.

What is important to note here is that sovereignty has remained a very topical issue being discussed and negotiated at all societal levels in international relations. That of Nigeria cannot be an exception. A few international illustrations will suffice to show some of the missing points in Professor David-West arguments.

David-West’s Missing Points
First, the non-negotiability of sovereignty, as posited by Professor David-West, has been overtaken by several global developments. His arguments miss many relevant points and are at best untenable. They do not reflect the situational reality in contemporary international relations as the notion, conception, and concept of sovereignty have evolved over the years.

Secondly, the implication of his argument, that the sovereignty of Nigeria is not negotiable, implies that Nigeria is a sovereign state that has the necessary attributes to engage in international relations; that it will be illogical to suggest that Nigeria does not have international personality and responsibility; that sovereignty is abstract and cannot be an issue for debate; that Nigeria has been united or unionized eternally and cannot be disunited again whatever the situation; that the people in whom sovereignty resides will eternally remain the same, think the same and will not change in their attitudinal disposition; and most significantly, that the environmental conditionings of political governance in Nigeria will remain eternally constant. These are some of the deductive interpretations that underlie the thrust of Professor David-West’s argument, with which we do not agree, because a state and all it stands for cannot but remain and shaped by the whims and caprices of the people that enable its existence.

Thirdly, virtually all constitutions of modern states clearly admit that sovereignty belongs to the people. The Fifth French Republic Constitution of 1958, for instance, states that ‘sovereignty shall belong to the people who shall exercise it through their representatives and by means of referendum.’ This constitutional provision is a resultant of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s theory of sovereign power of which he said only the people are the bearers. He said sovereignty cannot be inherited or separated from the people.

This clearly shows that state sovereignty is in itself delegated. If sovereignty resides in the people, it is only the people that can determine whether or not to negotiate it. Any pronouncement by the delegatee, his associates or agents claiming non-negotiability of sovereignty cannot but be wrong in believing that sovereignty can be stolen. To argue that sovereignty of Nigeria is not negotiable, both in terms of the physical unity and modus Vivendi cannot but be an attempt to steal and confiscate the authority of the people by fiat and manu militari.

Fourthly, the meanings of sovereignty as given by Professor David-West do not reckon with the fact that both in conception and conceptualization, sovereignty has internal and external dimensions. Externally, sovereignty means that there should not be any form of interference or intervention by another sovereign state in the exclusive domestic affairs of the country. Thus, the function of sovereignty is to limit the power and interferences of other powers. In this regard, every sovereign exercises unlimited power to control the destiny of the country and its people. At this external level, sovereignty is a common issue that is regularly discussed and negotiated.

In fact, the most recent example is the dispute between China and Philippines over who has sovereignty over an island in the South China Sea. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has said that China’s claim to sovereignty is ‘ill founded’ (vide details of the report in The Nation of July 13, 2016, p.4). What is important to note here is that China has said she is not pretty bound by the ruling of the tribunal. Even though the type of sovereignty involved in China’s relationship with the Philippines is territorial sovereignty, the object of contention at the level of David-West and Soyinka is State sovereignty. Again since the issue of non-negotiability is about sovereignty whatever its type, there is nothing so serious about sovereignty that it cannot always be negotiated as clearly shown in this Sino-Philippines case.

Internally, sovereignty means the highest level of authority. The issue at stake is not that the Federal Government or its head, PMB, is not the legitimate sovereign, holding the sovereignty on behalf of the people. Besides, the issue at stake is also not about how to dismantle Nigeria but how to make Nigeria live better, more functionally united, and well in order to avoid a possible disintegration. Thus, anything aimed at how to make Nigeria survive cannot but be negotiable by the people that delegated part of its sovereignty. The true sovereign is the people.
Fifthly, sovereignty can refer to authority in terms of policy making and control. It is the most important attribute of statehood.

It simply means political and economic power, military authority and strength, domain of control and influence, as well as self-expression. In fact, people also talk about political, economic, state, territorial sovereignty, etc, meaning that the notion of sovereignty is all encompassing in scope. To argue that the sovereignty of Nigeria cannot therefore be negotiated only raises the argument from a restricted perspective and classical argument of universal or global sovereignty.
What makes a modern state unique, important, respected and relevant in contemporary international relations is the factor of its sovereignty.

In other words, a ‘modern state’ as a concept, is about having capacity for orderliness, self-discipline, self-governance, self-defence, self-preservation, etc. The cardinal and original objective of the conception of a ‘modern state was to put an end to the dreams and excesses of the claims of universal sovereignty, particularly by the Roman, Christian and German leaders. In fact, it was the exercise of absoluteness of power in the conception of sovereignty that led to the various monarchical protests and wars against the idea of universal sovereignty and the quests for its re-conceptualisation and limitation of its uses to national frontiers.

With this development, a modern state began to emerge not only as a social sovereign power with the capacity to act freely and independently of others, but also as a democracy with international personality and responsibility, as well as respect for the rule law. There is really no big deal in the non-negotiability of these issues.
Sixthly, sovereignty and democracy are inseparable. Democracy is a major pillar of sovereignty especially in terms of giving legitimacy to the application of sovereignty in international relations.

Put differently, there is no State, old or modern, without a people, which is a condition sine qua non for its existence. Jacques Donnedieu de Vabres, in his book, The State, made a relevant point at this juncture: ‘la démocratie a d’ailleurs renforcé l’idée de souveraineté en lui conférant un fondement populaire, une base sentimentale et communautaire : la souveraineté de l’Etat n’est pour elle que l’expression des droits du peuple à disposer de lui-même et de sa destinée ; elle consacre la suprématie de la volonté populaire’ (L’Etat : PUF, 1967, p.8 ; Que Sais-Je No. 616).

What Donnedieu de Vabres is saying in other words is that democracy ‘reinforces the idea of sovereignty by conferring on it popular, sentimental and communal foundation. Sovereignty of the State is only an expression of the people’s destiny and right to self-determination. It explains the supremacy of the will of the people.’ Consequently, in the context of the debate on negotiability or non-negotiability of any sovereignty, the foregoing clearly shows that the people are really the repository of sovereignty and the foundation of it. It is the people that can give part of its sovereignty to the state to enable it act in its interest nationally and internationally.

As repository of sovereignty, it can always delegate or withdraw it in part or in whole, if need be. This is probably why most Nigerian leaders prefer to avoid sovereign national conference on such issues. In all the foregoing scenarios, there is no restriction that can exist to negotiability of sovereignty if we all agree that sovereignty is people-owned, people-defined, people-driven, people-directed and people-decided. The sovereignty of the state is always shaped by the whims and caprices of the mood of the people. In spite of the foregoing however, the application and practice of sovereignty have limitations in international relations.

Sovereignty and its Limitations
The conception of Sovereignty in international relations is traceable to the time of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which defined the emergence of the modern day state system. As noted earlier, the conception was aimed essentially at guiding international behavior.

This was so because, unlike nation-states which are generally well organised (government, parliament, tribunals, military forces, etc) the international system has always been very disorderly: the players are the states, international organizations and the transnational actors. In this regard, the states, in particular, do not want to accept any law or regulation or authority that will be adjudged to be superior to theirs, emphasis was always placed on the requirement of free consent of every state in inter-state relations and in the quest for global peace and security.

All the 194 Member States of the international community, which the great Canadian theoretician of the mass media, Marshall MacLuhan, first coined as ‘global village,’ are laying claim to equality with, and non-dependence on, any other state for their decision-making. Sovereignty, from this perspective, is synonymous with equality and non-dependence. It is also about freedom of action.

Sovereignty is a rule by which all Member States of the international community are regulated, and by so doing, does constitute an instrument for balancing error and terror in international politics. It is synonymous with power or authority, considered by classical theorists as supreme, unlimited, and indivisible, and perhaps more importantly, as exclusive and inalienable. In other words, there can only be one sovereign in a state; the sovereign has competent jurisdiction over all persons; and no other state or sovereign can alienate or do away with its sovereignty and still expects to be a state.

These are some of the arguments which the Tam David-West school of thought appears to be capitalizing on in positing that sovereignty is not negotiable. As good as the arguments may be, they are, at best, classical. They belong to the old school and therefore lack contemporariness. The arguments only reflect a part, and not the full meaning of sovereignty. It is within this context that the analysis of the limitations to sovereignty and empirical cases clearly illustrating the negotiability of sovereignty is quite relevant.

First, exclusiveness as a characteristic of sovereignty must be understood in context. If by exclusiveness, we accept that there can only be one sovereign at a time and it is also generally argued that sovereignty belongs to the people, then there cannot be any disputing the fact that sovereignty is basically power or authority of the people that can be delegated by the people, and no more, through legitimizing processes such as election, treaty-making.

For instance, let us consider Queen Elisabeth II or the David Cameron administration in the United Kingdom as the sovereign in the UK. The sovereign and supporters from the electorate voted to remain a member of the European Union but the true sovereign, the people, voted to withdraw their delegated authority by voting to withdraw UK’s membership of the European Union. This is an expression of negotiability of sovereignty which resides only with the people without which there can be no sovereign in the first instance.

Secondly, sovereignty exists in many forms: political, economic, state, legal, etc. Sovereignty, it is argued by the non-negotiability school, is not divisible. This does not reflect current international practice. When a state decides to join governmental organizations which have a supranational character, it necessarily cedes part of its sovereignty even if the cession is also a resultant of the exercise of its sovereignty.

This is similar to Nigeria’s policy of non-alignment which does not mean that Nigeria cannot be in alignment with some foreign powers but that Nigeria will, in the enjoyment of her sovereignty, have the right and necessary authority to withhold the freedom to decide whether to align or not. If Nigeria chooses to align, she is saying in other words that she will be ceding part of her sovereignty to others. Cession of part of one’s sovereignty is done when it is in the national interest. It is also for reasons of national interest that the cession of part of sovereignty can also be reviewed. This is precisely what the Brexit has clearly reviewed and shown to the world.

Thirdly, there is the argument of the permanency of sovereignty by many scholars in the field. We do agree with the argument of permanency of sovereignty for as long as the state exists. This argument is valid only from the perspective of International Law which defines a state as one having a territory over which to exercise the right of sovereignty and self-defence; a people to govern and without which the exercise of sovereignty will be meaningless; and a government which will be effective enough to enforce internationally-contracted obligations by the state. Although several scholars have added another criterion, that of recognition, either of the state or government, the general belief is that a state exists when there is a union of territory, population and government.

In spite of the foregoing, it is important to also note that the permanency of any sovereignty is largely a resultant of the whims and caprices of the people. A state exists not simply because there is a population, which can be docile, but mainly because the said population has accepted to be part of the state. Consequently, the permanency of sovereignty should always be understood within the context of the people’s political will. The same is true of the frequently quoted foreign policy saying that there is no permanent enemy or friend but permanent interests. Agreed, but it is the extent to which the nature of an interest allows it to be permanent that will also define the permanency of an enemy or a friend.

The pursuit of an interest may be ideal but what if the environmental conditionings do not enable the pursuit of the interests? Is the permanency of an interest determined by duration or length of time or policy desire? If interests are permanent, why is there discontinuity of policy from one regime or administration to another in Nigeria?
Fourthly, sovereignty is no longer absolute as it was theorized by classical scholars. It has been seriously derogated in scope, content, and application in several ways. In constitutional democracy, the powers and duties of a state are clearly provided. The exercise of sovereignty is generally at two levels: national and international. International sovereignty provides for equality of states, regardless of demographic or territorial size.

The sovereignty of one state is necessarily limited by the sovereignty of another. So do religious and cultural values limit the exercise of sovereignty in many states. The UK is claiming sovereignty over the Falklands or Malvinas but Argentina is contesting such sovereignty. Various levels of negotiation had taken place. The UK and Spain have joint sovereignty over the Gibraltar. With Brexit, the challenge now is how to negotiate UK’s future with the Community. When we talk about condominium in international law and relations, it is also about joint sovereignty.

The essence of the foregoing is to show that beyond the theoretical postulations, many cases of sovereignties have been negotiated in international relations. In this regard, negotiation is not simply about verbal exchange of words or dialogue. Many are the other ways of negotiation. These include intimidation, deterrence, use of force and war, both cold and hot.

The use of any of these means is simply to send signals to another state to interpret the implications and to begin to respond in whichever way it is convenient to it. In fact, the finality of battles and war is negotiation on post-war rehabilitation, reconciliation and reconstruction.
Perhaps most importantly, no sovereign, of whichever kind, can reign peacefully, democratically or dictatorially without, at least, the acquiescence of the involvement of the generality of the people.

As such, the determination of negotiability or non-negotiability of sovereignty, or to be more precise, Nigeria’s unity, resides essentially with the people. Law is made for the man and not the man for the law. Thus, Nigeria is a modern nation-state because she has peoples who give her meaning and vitality. The sovereign can therefore only engage in acts of absoluteness to its own peril, especially if it does not see the beauty in negotiation.

The Unwanted Desideratum: Restructuring
The issue at stake, calls for restructuring, is not in any way about how to dismantle the country but how to make her live better and avoid disintegration. The calls for restructuring are nothing more than protests against the manner of political governance of the country. The operation of the federal system of government in Nigeria creates several obstacles for national unity. Nigeria can be strongly united without adoption of federalism as a system of government. Even with it, it can still be made effective and productive, creative and workable.

The truism about Nigeria’s political system is that it encourages indolence, unpatriotic attitudes. It is consciously against honesty and dint of hard work. It encourages the making of professors that will not profess or the proliferation of army generals that will never go to any battle field, the graduation of people in schools and colleges that will not go through them, etc.

Nigeria is the only country I know where people complain against serious acts of misconduct and Government will still keep quiet and the complainants will only be threatened and frustrated, and yet, the same Government will be purporting to want to build a new Nigeria where the current unfairness and injustice and governmental protection of gross misconduct will be no more. Can someone who is always dishonest with himself be expected to be honest with another person?

Let me, obita dictum, posit that if negotiation of sovereignty in the Republic of Benin did not disintegrate the country, why should it do so elsewhere if the people do not want it? The president of the country convened a national conference which was turned into a sovereign national conference and which eventually removed the president. In other words, with the organization of the sovereign conference, it meant that there was a transfer of sovereignty back to the people and there was no break-up of the country. The conference only provided for laying of new foundations for political governance.

It should also be recalled that those who argued the non-negotiability of sovereignty in Ethiopia, Sudan, Yugoslavia, etc were simply confronted with unwanted military negotiation that eventually disintegrated the various countries. It is useful to always note that negotiation, in its applied and empirical meaning, is not only and simply about dialoguing. True, the 1967-1970 Biafran attempted secession was an expression of negotiation of sovereignty per excellence.

A negotiation can fail or succeed, but still remains a negotiation. The mere fact that PMB has said Nigeria’s unity is not questionable or negotiable or constitutes a-no-go-area does not remove of the fact that the militants have already started the process of negotiation. The point therefore is that, since, at least, two stakeholders are required for negotiation to take place, the government is yet to accept to negotiate, hence the temporary validity of the argument of non-negotiability.

However, if the Government wants to legitimately sustain its argument of non-negotiability and carry majority of Nigerians along, more strenuous efforts should be made to educate the general public through sponsored debates at various levels, particularly emphasizing the beauty in a more united Nigeria. After sufficient public enlightenment, a referendum should be organized in the event the public enlightenment programme fails in its objective. This is better an approach than Government’s intended show of strength that has the potential of alienating the people and turning them into new anti-Nigeria Boko Haram.

Consequently, if issues can be freely discussed and negotiated at the level of conception in order to arrive at the final level of concept, there cannot but be a good logic in also pushing the argument further that sovereignty as a concept or issue is negotiable. Negotiability in this regard should begin with dialogue and intellectualization of the issues involved. Truth remains constant for as long as it is yet to be faulted.

Concluding Remarks
In whichever way sovereignty is looked at internally or externally, it always has the use of force as the other side of the coin. Any forceful approach to its use cannot but be detrimental to democratic freedom. There is the need to therefore learn from the experiences of others, and particularly from two main points raised in the address of President Vladimir Putin of Russia to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on September 28, 2015. He not only asked for the meaning of ‘State Sovereignty but also gave his own answer: ‘it basically means freedom, every person and every state being free to choose their future.

More significantly, President Putin recalled that ‘after the end of the Cold War, the world was left with one centre of dominance, and those who found themselves at the top of the pyramid were tempted to think that, since they are so powerful and exceptional, they know best what needs to be done and thus they don’t need to reckon with the UN.’ In light of this, President Putin simply advised the UNGA not to ‘play with words and manipulate them. In international law, international affairs, every term has to be clearly defined, transparent and interpreted the same way by one and all. We are all different and we should respect that nations shouldn’t be forced to all conform to the same development model that somebody has declared the only appropriate one.

And true enough, President Putin’s statement reflects the challenges of sovereignty at the external level. The controversy surrounding the negotiability or non-negotiability of Nigeria’s sovereignty reflects the internal dimension. In both cases, national sovereignty is about freedom to choose one’s future. This is why the sovereignty of any nation remains always negotiable.