International Law and the Making of a Yoruba Nation: Likely Scenarios of FG’s Actions and Reactions


By Bola A. Akinterinwa

The making of a new Yoruba nation can be dated back to the time of the late Chief Adedeji Hubert Ogunde, Dean of African Theatre, great dramatist, philosopher and a Yoruba patriot, who called on all Yoruba-speaking people to sit down and reflect on their plight. In a musical recording, entitled, ‘Yoruba Ronu,’ Hubert Ogunde called on the Yoruba people to look backward and note their greatness. Unfortunately, the Yoruba people never took Ogunde’s call much seriously. They didn’t look back and seek understanding of his message. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, another Ijebu national like Hubert Ogunde, told the Yoruba people and other peoples of Nigeria that the time when the Yoruba people would be fed up and would seek self-liberation and put an end to their enslavement, would surely come.

And true enough, the situational reality of political governance in Nigeria of today is such that the Yoruba people have not only acknowledged that they are being killed without provocation, on their land, by Fulani herdsmen, but also that their ancestral land is being taken forcefully. Their women are kidnapped and recklessly raped. Armed with AK-47 rifles, there is nothing the herdsmen have not done and still cannot do, to humiliate the Yoruba people. It is thanks to this threat that there is now a change from Yoruba Ronu to what we can rightly describe as ‘Yoruba Rori.’

Yoruba Ronu, can have negative (psychological challenge) and positive (invitation to think or to reflect) connotations. When Chief Hubert Ogunde came up with Yoruba Ronu, the meaning was an invitation to stop self-bastardisation and loss of self-esteem. Many took it more as a negative connotation. Today, the recidivist attacks on the Yoruba nation has shifted the paradigm from Yoruba Ronu (mere philosophy) to Yoruba Rori (strategic thinking). It is now a direct call on the Yoruba to reflect and engage in legitimate self-defence.

The need for legitimate self-defence is the first and main rationale for the establishment of Operation Àmòtékùn. It is also the main rationale for the quest of the Yoruba people to join the Unprotected Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO) in the strong belief in the principle of self-determination in International Law. In this regard, the Yoruba people feel that they are marginalised, that their progress is unnecessarily and consciously being stalled in a federal system of government in which all strategic powers are concentrated in the centre to the detriment of the federating units.

In the quest for self-survival, efforts are being made to build a new Yoruba nation, within the current constitutional framework of Nigeria. The challenges are herculean: how is the Federal Government likely to react? How will the Yoruba people also react to the Federal Government’s own reaction? Will the making of a Yoruba nation engender the dismantlement of Nigeria? Is the prediction by some Americans that Nigeria would disintegrate in 2014 now coming to be proved correct? What are the basic issues at stake and what really is the position of International Law on them? And more interestingly, what are the likely scenarios and challenges for the whole people of Nigeria in the foreseeable future?

Self-determination versus State Terrorism
The making of the Yoruba Nation in the present day Nigeria has the great potential to engender a very serious unrest, no matter how peacefully organised. It will warrant more than international interferences and interventions because two issues are involved: self-determination and state terror. Both are legally tenable internationally. Self-determination is very lawful after having been adopted as part of international customary law. Use of State terror is only lawful to the extent of application of the rule of sovereignty and collective legitimate self-defence for the purposes of maintenance of national security and orderliness.

In the case of Nigeria, the making of the Yoruba nation is being done on the basis of non-use of force, which is quite commendable. This approach has the potential to become violent because the Federal Government is most likely to descend very heavily on the Yoruba people as the quest for self-determination will be interpreted as a treason or as an act of terrorism. Consideration of a peaceful self-determination effort as terrorism will strengthen the unity of Yoruba people at home and abroad. This is how Nigeria’s second civil war may begin, in which case the new war alliances will be quite different from the 1967-1970 pattern. To be sure, it is not going to be all of Nigerian alliance against the Biafrans. There will not be any Northern and South West alliance fighting on the same side. Igbo people may be divided on their support for the Yoruba agenda, but the likelihood is still a North-South war.

In all cases, to borrow from the titles of Chinua Achebe’s works, when ‘the arrow of God’ falls, ‘there is a trouble with Nigeria,’ in which ‘things fall apart,’ and there is ‘no longer at ease,’ and after which it may be a new story of ‘there was a country,’ like Nigeria. Let us explain this likely trouble and its uneasiness from the perspective of international law.

Three main issues are involved at the level of international law: sovereignty of the Nigerian State, the exercise of the right of any Nigerian people to self-determination, and the use of state terror to counter lawful exercise of the principle of self-determination. As regards the issue of sovereignty, the evolution of the concept is noteworthy. Etymologically, the notion of sovereignty meant absolute power under monarchical regimes. There was no one considered to be above the king. The kings were believed to be direct agents of God and to whom they are only responsible. In other words, sovereignty was essentially that of the monarchs, who could do and undo.

But following the end of the 30-year old war in Europe, which culminated in the signing of the Westphalia Treaty in 1648, the notion of a modern state also came into being. Not only was a modern State defined in terms of union of a people, territory and government, the notion of sovereignty was also reviewed. Sovereignty was defined to belong to the people and no more to the monarchs. The new era of sovereign nation began. The main thrust was that sovereignty can only be derived from the people, meaning that when people are elected by the people, the elected people cannot be more than representatives, and therefore, can only have delegated sovereignty. This is one of the main foundations of state sovereignty

Again, the notion of sovereignty has been limited following new arguments by many international publicists that people’s sovereignty cannot exist in a vacuum and not be regulated. If every nation-state is considered sovereign, what happens in the event of conflict of interests? It is at this level that International Law is considered required to mediate and regulate the exercise of sovereignty for purposes of orderliness. The import of the foregoing is that, even though Nigeria does not belong the Monist school of thought, but to the Dualist school, International Law takes the issue of sovereignty as relative. Government has sovereignty which cannot be detrimental to the people’s interest and survival. In the same vein, where the sovereignty of one nation stops, that of another State begins, hence the rule of sovereign equality. This is why sovereignty under International Law is considered relative.

Concerning self-determination, the Yoruba people are re-uniting themselves worldwide on the basis of Yoruba Rori: the Yoruba World Congress (YWC) has set aside a Yoruba Day to be celebrated from 23rd through 30th September, 2020. As announced by the YWC Council, the one week-long global events begin on Wednesday, 23rd September 2020, an important date in Yoruba history to which the YWC organisers want to begin to draw public attention for reasons of posterity, and especially that little or no emphasis is now given to the study of history in Nigerian schools. September 23rd as commencement date is purposely chosen to mark the end of the Kiriji War and to declare the YWC Manifesto for a Yoruba Nation. The Yoruba Day Celebration will be hosted by YWC Chapters in Nigeria, South Africa, USA, England, Brazil and Cuba.’ This cannot but be a good manifestation of a non-forceful self-determination agenda. The celebrations include Yoruba Global Library Project in the USA, Yoruba Elders and Leaders Lunch, Yoruba Youths Summit, Yoruba Community Development and Empowerment in South Africa, as well as Safety and Security in Yoruba land which is to be hosted by Àmòtékùn Ni Gbogbo Wa, meaning ‘we are all Amotekun (leopards)’.

Without any jot of doubt, there is nothing done so far by the Yoruba that is in conflict with International Law. Self-determination, originally began with how to determine statehood in the colonial era. People who were dependent on their colonial masters were given right, internationally, to determine their future. It was then generally argued and believed that every people has the right to self-determination within their countries. Self-determination was not conceived to imply secession from a dependent territory, but a secession from foreign, colonial rule. It was on this basis that the colonial masters were compelled to consider granting independence under force and international pressure to their dependencies. The pressure brought to bear by the United States on the colonialists is quite interesting (vide Roger Louis’ book, Imperialism at Bay: the United States and the decolonisation of the British Empire, 1941-1945, OUP, 1977).

In the post-colonial era, self-determination is given greater emphasis, because it is no longer about de-colonisation but the right to determine how to live within an existing independent and sovereign State, such as Nigeria, where there is conflict of laws guiding political governance. In the Northern parts of Nigeria, it is Sharia law but not so in the South. If the rule of Sharia is admitted in the North as a principle of federalism, then self-determination by another people or region must also be tenable as a rule of federalism.

More interestingly, the origin of the rule of self-determination is traceable to the US Declaration of Independence of the United States of America of 4 July 1776 according to which governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed and that ‘whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.’ This suggests that sovereignty and self-determination constitute both sides of the same coin and are both derived from the consent of the people.
Speaking secundum norman legis, that is, according to the rule of law, self-determination is nothing more than the right of any given nation, a sociological nation, that is any culturally homogenous people, to constitute themselves into an independent State. Public International Law guarantees it both in the colonial era and thereafter. For instance, Article 1(1) of the 1966 International Covenant Economic and Socio-cultural Rights and Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is very clear on this point: ‘all peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.’ Consequently, self-determination is now a principle of International Law and has gone beyond being a political concept.

As at today, there is no disputing the fact that the conception of the principle of self-determination covers all populations in any given sovereign State, in any dependent territories and all peoples still under foreign military occupation. And more importantly, whether or not the rationale for seeking self-determination is as a result of injustice or marginalisation, every people has the right to self-determination, including the right to secession. This is the resultant effect of both the remedial right school of thought which argues that every given population has a general right to secede, subject to having suffered injustices and for which secession remains the only remedy. On the contrary, self-determination is also a resultant from the primary right school, which believes that every group of people in a State has a general right to secede, even in the absence of injustice. What is therefore noteworthy in both cases is that the making of the Yoruba Nation is legal, even though its application in legal practice can be violent. This brings us to the issue of terrorism.

Until the terrorist attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001 the general belief was that only sovereign States had the monopoly of technological know-how, use of terror within the State, and use force in international relations. As revealed by the 9/11 saga, the manifestations of terrorism have moved from the tradition use of letter and parcel bombs, kidnappings, hijacking and skyjacking, to suicidal route diversion. This development has compelled the US to change its security strategy from defensive to preventive, by taking the war to the doorsteps of the terrorists.

In this case, all Member States of the international community are exhorted to join efforts together to fight the common enemy, terrorists. But who is a terrorist? When Nigeria carried the anti-apartheid war to the doorsteps of the white supremacists and segregationists in South Africa, the United States under Donald Reagan, considered the national liberation movements being supported by Nigeria as terrorists and suggested ‘constructive engagement’ as the best way forward. Nigeria contested this suggestion.

The making of the Yoruba nation may not be different as the Federal Government of Nigeria has the potential to see the Yoruba nation builders as terrorists and not as people contesting injustice and unfairness, and particularly as people being compelled to seek politico-cultural survival and technologico-scientific development for which they were well known in Africa in the 1960s. There is nothing to suggest that the PMB administration cannot and will not hide under the cover of terrorism to combat the Yoruba people, especially in light of the experiential factors in the political governance of Africa, and particularly in light of PMB’s unnecessary silence over allegations of his having a Fulanisation agenda and inability to effectively contain the aggression of the Fulani herdsmen.

Scenarios of State and Counter-State Terror
The making of a Yoruba nation is most likely to be responded to in a violent manner, as the President has the mandate to ensure territorial integrity. It was for this reason that the 1967-1970 war was fought. One major reason for the first war was the same complaint of marginalisation, injustice and unfairness. This is also part of the reasons compelling the Yoruba to now want to apply their own proverbial saying that if it is difficult to move forward, it should be easier to return to where one is coming from. Put differently, if you do not know where you are going to, you must know where you are coming from.

The Yoruba people have been calling for restructuring in order to make national political governance more effective, but to no avail. There are serious complaints of nepotism against PMB, but he simply turned deaf ears to them. The people of Nigeria have openly been calling for the replacement of his Service Chiefs, PMB could not see any reason in listening to the people. And yet, every day, reports of killings, kidnappings, banditry, and even acts of fresh corruption, etc, abound in the media. It is against this background that PMB is not likely to see any good rationale behind any peaceful making of a Yoruba Nation and that he is much likely to be belligerent in his reaction to it as other presidents do in Africa.

For example, the English-speaking Cameroonians wanted to be separated from Francophone Cameroon to form an independent State of Ambazonia. President Paul Biya does not see them as freedom fighters but as terrorists and has mercilessly been taking life out of many of them. Cameroonian gendarmes and military target people and kill them under the guise of maintenance of national unity and security.

What is most unfortunate here is that the situation with Anglophone Cameroon is not in any way different from the declaration of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) as a terrorist organisation in Nigeria, rather than as a movement for self-emancipation. In fact, it should be noted that some of the leaders of the proponents of the State of Ambazonia were arrested in Nigeria by the security agents of Nigeria and were repatriated to Yaoundé for punishment. This example points to the likely attitude of the Federal Government by the time the making of Yoruba Nation goes beyond being a dream.

What is noteworthy again, according to the rule of law, is that, for as long as Yoruba nation makers do not attack ordinary people, non-combatants, or operate generally within the ambit of international humanitarian law, they cannot be internationally charged for any crimes. One good illustration of this observation was given at the November 2019 Annual Conference of the Nigerian Society of International Law, held at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) by Obinna James Edeh and Portia Ozioma Chigbu, both lecturers at the Faculty of Law, University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus.

They referred to the 2011 trial by the French Tribunal de Grande Instance of members of the Mujahidin of Iran (PMOI), a very notorious militant group of terrorists, who launched attacks against police officers, senior military officers and government agents. As pointed out at the conference, ‘the court held… that although the PMOI set up a military wing to launch military offensives, their actions could not be equated to acts of terrorism.’ In the eyes of the French court, it was a case of the ‘right to resistance to oppression as recognised in the 1789 French Declaration of Human Rights and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’

Consequently, they have argued, ‘for an armed group to be branded terrorists, the alleged act of terror must be directed at the civilian population.’ The use of force in the struggle for rights, particularly for purposes of self-determination, is legal. What is illegal is the arbitrary use of force against individual or group rights that is terrorism and that is illegal from the perspective of International Law. In this regard, can Nigeria’s terrorism law be different? Can the proponents of Yoruba Nation, with their non-violent approach be brandied as terrorists? Why not? The people of Catalonia in Spain have been engaged in the struggle of self-determination for more than three hundred years now. Their leaders are always apprehended, fraudulently tried and incarcerated.

And true again, Professor George Obiozor, former Director General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs and former Ambassador of Nigeria to Israel and the United States, has reminded us about how state terror has also led to the dismantlement of many countries. Professor Obiozor has pointed out that there is no multi-ethnic State in Europe in which one group is positioned to dominate the rest that has not broken. As he explained it, what we call ethnic groups in Nigeria are referred to as nations in Europe. In his words, ‘there is nowhere in the world where the white man accepts domination from another white man in perpetuity. It used to be so under the Roman Empire and the like. Not anymore.’

And true enough, the Soviet Union has been dismantled. Czechoslovakia of Czech and Slovakians separated on January 1, 1993. Yugoslavia broke into six countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia) in 1991. Here in Africa, Eritrea was carved out of Ethiopia. The same is true of South Sudan from Sudan. The struggle for self-determination in the foregoing cases were necessarily belligerent. There were loses of lives and property but their objectives were still attained. The question then is, if there is no military war that can defeat a political will driven by self-determination, why is the Federal Government not listening to the people from whom its shared sovereignty is drawn? Why is Nigeria’s federalism driven by dictatorship and not by the constituents of the Nigerian Nation-State?

Faced with this situation, the future of national unity cannot but be bleak. The likely scenarios of the actions of the Yoruba Nation builders, the counter-reactions of the Federal Government, as well as the likely foreign interventions that would be engendered cannot be far-fetched. The Yoruba Nation builders are likely to insist on their legal right to self-determination. PMB is likely to react illegally, not as a politician or soldier, but under the pretext of national unity, using excessive force to attack any self-determinists. By virtue of membership of the UNPO, the Yoruba will enjoy international support. Countries that wanted divided Nigeria in 1967-1970 will be ready to aid and abet the Yoruba agenda. Political intrigues cannot be ruled out. In the manner the United States simultaneously gave active support to both Augustinho Neto and Jonas Savimbi in Angola to sustain their fight, many countries and international mercenaries will do same to assist in mutual killings. Influx of terrorists will abound and violations of human rights and humanitarian law will also thrive. PMB, who rejected the 2014 National Conference Reports that offered possible solutions, the IPOB and MASSOB is not the one that will now readily accept Yoruba self-determination preserve national unity. This is the epicentre of all the likely scenarios. True, the Yoruba people have the right to self-determination, because it is a human right and because it is for all peoples and not simply for minorities. Consequently, PMB needs to engage in détente before it is too late.