Self-determination in International Relations: The Case of the Quit Order of Northern Youths versus the Ndigbo in Nigeria


By Bola A. Akinterinwa

Self-determination is a compound word, a combination of ‘self’ and ‘determination.’ The two words are quite interesting in terms of their ordinary and applied meanings. Ordinarily speaking, self can be used as an adjective and as a noun. As an adjective, it is generally used to form new words. It means ‘same’ or ‘identical.’ It also means ‘pure,’ unmixed. As a noun, but generally used in the plural form (selves), it means ‘an individual known or considered as the subject of his own consciousness; anything considered as having a distinct personality.’ It also refers to ‘personal interest or advantage.’ Most importantly, ‘self’ is ‘anything, class, or attribute that, abstractly considered, maintains a distinct and characteristic individuality or identity’ (vide the New International Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language).

‘Determination,’ a noun, is synonymous with a firm resolution or decision. It is an authoritative opinion or conclusion in the context of a judicial decision. In the medical sciences, it is about ‘putting an end to.’ In other fields, it also means different things. In essence, it is not only an act of resolution, the act of taking the decision, but also about the firmness in taking the resolution. Consequently, self-determination is essentially about an individual taking a firm resolution or decision. In the context of international relations and law, the meaning is political and legal, though its origin was fraught with controversies.

Self-determination as a theory in international relations can be looked at from many perspectives. Psychologically, Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci of the University of Rochester, have shown in their work, entitled “Self-determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-being,” that research guided by self-determination theory has three innate psychological needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness. These three needs are required ‘for facilitating optimal functioning of the natural properties for growth and integration, as well as for constructive social development and personal well-being.’ With this definition, the conception of self-determination has a character of individuality, either as an individual person or corporate person, for development purposes.

From the perspective of international relations and law, self-determination was considered by US President, Woodrow Wilson, as ‘an imperative principle of action,’ and therefore wanted it incorporated in the Covenant of the League of Nations at the end of World War I for purposes of universality. The US wish was to no avail until the making of the United Nations during the Second World War. At the San Francisco consultations, the former Soviet Union proposed the inclusion of ‘based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’ as an amendment in the text of Article 1(2) and Article 55 of the UN Charter.

In both articles, emphasis is placed on the belief that peaceful and friendly relations among nations are largely predicated on self-determination. Consequently, self-determination was conceived as a political principle and not as a legal norm. However, with the negotiations and adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Civil Rights (ICESCR), self-determination became a right, and no longer simply a political principle.

First, the 1960 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 1514 provides that ‘all peoples have the right to self-determination, by virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.’ Relying on Joshua Castellino, Cop and EymirlioÄŸlu of the University of Nottingham and BaÄŸaziçi University, have explained that ‘Resolution 1514 links self-determination to “better standards of life and larger freedom” and therefore this norm “was already accepted to a certain extent as being one that promoted better standards of life and freedom’ (vide their article, “The Right of Self-determination in International Law towards the 40th Anniversary of the Adoption of ICCPR and ICESCR,” Perceptions, Winter 2005, p.118).

Additionally, on 15th December, 1960, the UNGA adopted Resolution 1541 in condemnation of the Portuguese refusal to give report on its colonies. The resolution not only defined what constitutes a ‘full measure of self-government,’ but also how ‘it must result in a decision where the people concerned vote in free and fair elections to decide whether to: a) Constitute themselves as a sovereign independent state; b) Associate freely with an independent State; or C) Integrate with an Independent State already in existence.’

Secondly, the ICCPR and the ICESCR were adopted in 1966 and they both provided for ‘right of self-determination’ in their Common Article 1. The two covenants are important from different perspectives: self-determination ceased to be simply a political principle. It is now a legal right. The covenants reviewed the restriction of self-determination to oppressed and colonial peoples to include ‘all peoples.’

Perhaps more importantly, the UNGA, in 1970, adopted Resolution 2625 in which it is stated that ‘by virtue of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, all people have the right freely to determine… their political status,’ and also requires all UN Member States to respect the right of self-determination in accordance with the UN Charter.

Without doubt, many issues have been raised by virtue of adoption of self-determination as a political principle and as a legal right. Many scholars now consider self-determination as a peremptory norm of international law, that is, ius cogens, which is not allowed to be derogated. The rationale for the consideration is that, Resolution 2625, entitled, ‘Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the UN,’ was passed ‘with a wide consensus, with no vote against it.’

There is also the issue of territorial integrity versus self-determination. The 1970 Resolution 2625, which provided for the right of self-determination also provided for caution against the dismemberment of a State. As provided for, nothing in the Declaration ‘shall be construed as authorising or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent states conducting themselves in the compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples as described above and thus possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction as to race, creed or colour.’

In this regard, some scholars have argued that the ‘self’ in question must be determined within the accepted colonial framework, while another school of thought has it that it should be within the existing sovereign states. The Canadian Supreme Court has ruled that the exercise of the right of self-determination should be exercised ‘within the framework of existing sovereign states’ and also noted the need for the maintenance of the territorial integrity of those states.

Put differently, as the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) distinguished between external self-determination and internal self-determination in which there is ‘the right of every citizen to take part in the conduct of public affairs at any level,’ inability to take part in the conduct of national affairs can justify complaints and calls for self-determination.

Thirdly, there is the issue of secession from an already existing State. Some scholars have posited that self-determination can include the right of secession from a state. Some others have argued that there is uncertainty on the issue of secession as it is neither permitted nor prohibited under international law. However, even though UN Member States do not want unilateral secession, the truth remains that there have been many cases of unilateral secession in international relations: Kosovo, East Timor, Chechnya, etc. Besides, Cop and EymirlioÄŸlu have pointed to two exceptional conditions that can also prompt claims for secession: the materialisation of secession within post-colonial context and the realisation of secession against undemocratic, authoritarian regimes violating human rights.

And perhaps more interestingly, Alan Buchanan has also argued that the right to secede should be regarded as a ‘remedy of last resort for serious injustices.’ Additional two cases that can justify claims of secession, Ved. P. Nanda, has contended, are ‘persistent and serious violations of individual human rights’ and ‘past unrepressed unjust seizure of territory.’

Grosso modo, the conception of self-determination is still ambiguous, especially in terms of who has a right to self-determination as provided for in many international human rights documents. Is it a group, a people, a nation? What is the content of the right to self-determination or what does it really confer as a right? Is it autonomy or statehood? Whatever is the case, Patricia Carley of the US Institute of Peace, in her report on “Self-Determination: Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity and the Right to Secession,” has noted that ‘it is impractical to assume that legal principles alone will resolve what are essentially territorial and political disputes.’

In other words, what is important to note is that the concept of self-determination has become a rule of general application, that the UN does not encourage arbitrary secession but does not also condone the abuse of human rights and dictatorship, and that self-determination is an ambiguous concept. Consequently, self-determination is permissible as a peremptory norm of international law, and therefore should not be derogated. Incumbent governments hardly accept self-determination even though their countries have signed international agreements requiring its protection.

For instance, there are some countries, like Turkey, whose constitutions do not allow for secession. However, acts of secession have occurred for various reasons of force majeure. The Turkish Cypriots is a good illustration of this point. Even in Nigeria, the story is not different. Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution, as amended, provides for non-divisibility of the country, and yet, a portion of the territory was ceded to Cameroon. What is Nigerian territory is not supposed to have been tampered with without plebiscite, unless the ceded territory was never Nigerian ab initio. More disturbingly, all the leaders of Nigeria, Presidents and Heads of State, always swear, on oath, at the time of taking over power, to defend the political sovereignty and territorial integrity of Nigeria. There is nothing to suggest, however, any respect for the oaths taken in light of the cession of the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon under the pretexts of very controversial ICJ Ruling and Green Tree Accord.

This may not be the end. Further dismemberment of Nigeria appears again in sight with the quit order given by Arewa youths to all the members of Ndigbo residing in all the constitutive States of the North. The quit order not only raises the issue of internal self-determination, but also has the great potential of completely destabilising the whole country, if not permanently disintegrating it in such a way that there may not be any Nigeria at all.

The Quit Order and the Ndigbo

There may not be any Nigeria at all because the geo-political dynamics of the unity of purpose that informed the understanding and cooperation between the South West and the North during the 1967-1970 war of national unity are no more there as at today. The Igbo, unable to understand Chief Obafemi Awolowo, when he said the Yoruba would go if the Igbo people leave Nigeria. In the interpretation of the Ibo leaders, the moment the Igbo people declare their autonomy, the Yoruba would simply do the same. This appears to be a wrong interpretation of what Chief Awolowo meant.

As explained by Chief Awolowo in an interview after the war, if the Igbo people had succeeded in going away, there was no way the Yorubas would not follow. As at today, the Oodua People’s Congress is one of the chief advocates of an Oduduwa Republic, hence a proponent of self-determination. If there were to be a new civil war, the likelihood of Yoruba accepting to carry the battle to the door steps of the Ibos is remote. On the contrary, advantage will simply be taken of the new quit order issued by the Northern youths group demanding the Ibos to leave the North not later than October 1, 2017.

The quit order has its objective and subjective aspects and therefore calls for special reflections. On Tuesday, 6th June 2017, the Coalition of Northern Youths (CNY: comprising the Arewa Citizens Action for Change, Arewa Youths Consultative Forum, Arewa Youths Development Foundation, Arewa Students Forum, Northern Emancipation Network, Northern Youths Vanguard, Northern Youths Stakeholders Forum, the North East Assembly) gave a 3-month quit order, entitled the Kaduna Declaration, to the Indigenous Igbo people living in northern states to leave their land. The quit order was in reaction to the May 30, 2017 sit-at-home order given by the MASSOB.

As read by Mallam Abdulazeez at the Arewa House, Kaduna, the Arewa youths ‘are hereby placing the Nigerian authorities and the entire nation on notice, that, as from October 1, 2017, we shall commence the implementation of visible actions to prove to the whole world that we are no longer part of any federal union that should do with the Igbos. From that day, the effective peaceful safe mop up of all the remnants of the stubborn Igbos that neglect to quit this notice shall commence to finally eject them from every part of the north. And finally, all authorities, individuals, or groups are hereby advised against attempting to undermine this declaration by insisting on this union with the Igbos who have thus far proved to be an unnecessary baggage carried too far and for too long’ (Daily Sun, June 7,2017, p. 6) The Northerners living in the South-East were advised to return home before the October 1, deadline.

Following the quit order, the Ndigbo has also given a 6-month ultimatum, threatening to stop all polls in the South East, Kogi and Benue states, unless there is a referendum. As put by the IPOB, ‘MASSOB, Indigenous People of Biafra and other genuine pro-Biafran groups will mobilise the people against 2019 general elections in all Biafran territories to boycott the elections if the Federal Government refuses to conduct a referendum for the exit of Biafra from Nigeria. Additionally, the IPOB made it clear that ‘no Biafran will come out to vote.’ If someone decides to stay in-door, you won’t force him out to go and vote. We are tired of Nigeria. There is no amount of restructuring that will change our vision to actualise Biafra… No Biafra, nothing else’ (The Sun, June 05, 2017, p.10). The foregoing is an expression of determination of self, what self should be and how the self, which is the people of would-be Biafra, wants to define their future.

One clear point from the foregoing is the mutual hatred at the level of the North and South Eastern Nigerians. It has got to this extent because Nigerian leaders always talk in military terms, underscoring the non-negotiability of national unity as if there is Nigerianess in the minds of every Nigerian. In other words, is the quit order to the Igbos living in the North a good panacea to the quest for self-determination and biafranisation? Different possible solutions have been advanced, including implementation of the 2014 National Conference Report, return to regionalisation, restructuring of the federation, return to parliamentarianism as a system of government, and referendum.

True enough, reactions to the quit order have been generally condemned but the condemnation is a non-solution. First, the affected Igbo people in the North, have said that they could not afford the luxury of abandoning their more than N44 trillion worth of investments. Some others have said they have lived in the North for more than three decades, and therefore, have no other place to go to. In the words of the National President of the Ndigbo Youth Council, Mazi Okechuhkwu Isiguzoro, the Igbos ‘are not cowards.’ They ‘are not afraid of Alhaji Abdulazeez Suleiman, Yerima Shettima and their cohorts. The era of taking properties belonging to Ndigbo by force is gone. We won’t let that happen again.’

Secondly, the Kaduna State Governor, Mallam El-Rufai, ordered the arrest and prosecution of the Arewa youths who gave the quit order. However, as at the time of this writing, no arrest has been made. According to Jimoh Moshood, the Force Public Relations Officer, the IGP, Ibrahim Idris, has directed that Police must ensure law and order and that the quit order is not actualised. Thus, the directive is in lieu of arrest. Consequently, the position of the police is far from being a deterrent or a solution.

The Coalition of Niger Delta Agitators (CNDA) has also given the same 3-month ultimatum to Northerners to leave their land (Daily Sun, June 16, 2017, p.12). Consequently, as much as the IGP is much concerned about the protection of lives and properties, the issue of bringing the Arewa to prosecution is the issue. Most unfortunately, the political elite in the South, rightly or wrongly, believe that Northerners are untouchable in the political governance of Nigeria. They are believed to be given more privileges that others do not enjoy. The non-arrest of the Arewa youths three weeks after the quit order is already being referred to as an illustration of the double standard with which political governance has been characterised in Nigeria.

Press reports have it that the security agencies have advised against the arrest of the Northern youths and to ’embrace dialogue and give the two groups final warning instead of arrest, outright crackdown and revocation of Kanu’s bail’ (The Nation, Saturday, June 17, 2017, p.7). However, can dialogue and giving warnings at the level of the warring groups solve the main problem of quest for restructuring and secession? Is it not really time to consider the option of a referendum as rightly requested by the Arewa youths?

On Sunday, 18th June, 2017, Southern leaders met in Lagos, and asked the Arewa youths to withdraw their quit notice and to desist from making statements capable of jeopardising peaceful coexistence. In their joint communiqué, it was agreed that there is a growing demand ‘by our people and other Nigerians to form a stronger federation in which principles and practice of true federalism are upheld. We observe that the cry for self-determination will continue unabated and become much more stringent, unless the Federal Government sincerely addresses issues of restructuring. In this regard, the Southern leaders insisted that ‘any further discussion on this crisis should be between the entire South and the North of Nigeria… because the issues involved affect all of us’ (Daily Sun, Monday, June 19, 2017, p.11). The communiqué shows where the Yoruba will stand in the event of war.

Probably, in reaction to the general opposition to the quit order, the Arewa youths sent an open letter signed by five of their leaders to the Acting President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, urging him to facilitate the secession of the Ndigbo from Nigeria. As pleaded, ‘we feel that it is risky for the rest of the country, particularly for the North, to go on pretending that it is safe for us to exist with the Igbo, giving how deeply they are entrenched in our societies… We therefore demand that the only enduring solution to this scourge that is being visited on the nation is complete separation of the states presently agitating for Biafra from the Federal Republic of Nigeria through a peaceful political process by taking steps to facilitate the actualisation of the Biafran nation in line with the principle of self-determination as an integral part of contemporary customary international law.’

And as explicated above, the Arewa youths do accept that ‘people of any nation have the right to self-determination.’ And although the UN Charter does not ‘categorically impose direct legal obligations on Member States, it implies that Member States allow agitating or minority groups to self-govern as much as possible’ (The Punch, Tuesday, 20th June, 2017, p.7; and Daily Sun, 20 June, 2017, p.6 for more details).

This peaceful approach to the problem as requested by the Arewa youths is a welcome development. It is the ideal but does not imply any readiness on their part to withdraw the quit order. Their position still remains that the Ndigbo, who have decided on their own to go, should go. The need for a plebiscite has become a desideratum with this political lull.