Coercive Nigerian Unity versus Regional Self-determination: Problems of Statehood as Nationhood 


Bola A. Akinterinwa 

Since the 30-year old war in Europe ended in the signing of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the State has remained the basic stakeholder and unit of analysis in international relations, regardless of the increasing quest for plurilateral and multilateral approaches in the conduct and management of contemporary international diplomacy. In Nigeria, increasing problems of bad governance, violation of human rights, coupled with unnecessary governmental silence over policies of irrationality, institutional corruption and conscious nepotistic ethnic jingoism, have become the hallmark of political governance under President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB). 

Many Nigerians are aggrieved and are therefore agitating for regional autonomy based on the international principle of self-determination, which is universally acknowledged as a fundamental human right and a basis for decolonisation and justification to separate from an existing sovereign State, even though the United Nations does not encourage the dismantlement of any of its Member States. 

In the specific case of Nigeria, PMB apparently relies on the provisions of the 1999 Constitution as amended to posit that national unity is not negotiable and that Nigeria is not dissoluble. The non-negotiability and indissolubility of Nigeria as a sovereign-state is directly in conflict with the proponents of a Nigerian nation which Nigeria is not. The Yoruba southwest do not want to be treated as a second citizen, especially in light of the controversial Fulanisation and Islamisation agenda which the PMB administration has been openly accused of. PMB government is visibly a major sponsor of nepotism in Nigeria, 

The principle of Federal Character has, at best, become meaningless under PMB. So has become the fight against institutional and individual corruption. In fact, corruption, injustice, unfairness, political marginalisation, etc, have become the main rationales for agitation for separation. Yoruba Southwest wants an Oduduwa Republic. The Igbo Southeast wants a Biafra Republic. While the Yoruba are talking about peaceful negotiations, with emphasis on a possible UN plebiscite, the Igbo Southeast are not against the use of force. The situational reality of this problem is to the extent that the 2023 general elections are believed to be under critical threats. Elections can hold if Nigeria is still united and indissoluble.

It is against this background that the lecture given by Dr. Akinjide Osuntokun, Professor of History, former Ambassador of Nigeria and Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) on Monday, 21st November, 2022 is quite interesting and thought-provoking.

Nationalism and Nation-building

“Nationalism and Nation-building was the title of Professor Osuntokun’s lecture. The lecture was organised within the framework of the Ohanaeze’s Ndigbo quest for fairness and justice in the governance of Nigeria. In this regard, the lecture was hosted by Professor George A. Obiozor, former Director General of the NIIA and former Ambassador of Nigeria to Israel and the United States, in his capacity as the President General of the Ohanaeze Ndigbo worldwide.

Several notable Igbo leaders, seasoned scholars and former ambassadors of Nigeria were at the lecture. The lecture was particularly interesting, not simply because of the timeliness, but because of the organisational mania. The lecture was not simply talking and asking questions, it was a lecture-seminar in which the host adopted the style of keynote speaking by articulating the problematic and also setting the direction of the discussion that followed Professor Osuntokun’s lecture.

The lecture was structured into four main parts: opening session, lecture delivery, problematic and solution finding, and cocktail cum photograph session. His Excellency, General Atom Kpera, served as the Chairman of the occasion while Dr. Okey Anueyiagu served as Master of Ceremonies. The opening session featured protocolar recognitions and Professor Obiozor’s opening statement, which generated much interest.

Professor Obiozor had it that the foundation of Nigeria as one nation or as a united nation has never been laid since the time of independence in 1960. He therefore considered as logically untenable the arguments of non-negotiability of Nigerian unity being variously and erroneously bandied around. PMB is a leader in the spread of the argument of non-negotiability of Nigerian unity and indissolubility of Nigeria. This illogical argument cannot but also raise several questions: what makes unity non-negotiable? Is it because it is provided for in the 1999 Constitution? If this is a rationale for the argument, is the Constitution itself not subject to review, amendment, modification and even total replacement? Is unity itself not a resultant from negotiation? If unity, ab initio, is not negotiated but imposed, why should there not be an agreement to redefine the way forward? Why is it not a subject of renegotiation, more so that the 1999 Nigerian constitution is not people-originated?

Without scintilla of doubt, Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution as amended is, at best, very fraudulent by virtue of its opening statement that ‘We, the People of Nigeria…’ The Constitution was militarily-induced, militarily conceived, militarily imposed and, more often than not, implemented by manu militari. No wonder, this situational reality appears to have prompted Professor Obiozor to posit that ‘Nigerian unity is definitely negotiable and must be re-negotiated for it to stand or survive the test of time.’ In his eyes, ‘the reality over the years remains that, in spite of the best efforts of all our leaders past or present, Nigerian unity is not guaranteed, it is simply, at best, an aspiration and not yet an achievement,’ The consideration of non-negotiability of Nigerian unity is ‘simply a historical fallacy, Professor Obiozor submitted.

A second postulation by Professor Obiozor is that ‘nationalism, including ethnic nationalism, is not about to disappear in the world generally, and certainly not in Nigeria.’ In this regard, Professor Obiozor cannot be more correct in light of the tradition of self-determination in international practice. Countries where unity is being forcefully maintained are not known to have peace no matter for how long. The case of the Cartalans in Spain, who have been agitating for a separate identity and separation from Spain for more than 300 years is particularly noteworthy. The Cartalan experience clearly shows that self-determination is not and cannot be destructible and can also be generational in character. When people are opposed to national unity by force, and they are being unnecessarily repressed, the people are only and always presented with one option, which is taking up arms in the spirit of legitimate self-defence and thus lending credence to the French proverbial saying  that ‘ordre et contre-ordre égalent désordre,’ that is ‘order and counter-order amount to disorder.’

Additionally, Professor Obiozor also submitted that the political crises and violence that have come to characterise Nigeria’s national history largely result from ‘the disparity between claims to nationhood and the political realities in Nigeria. Consequently, if Nigeria is to move beyond being a true sovereign state to evolving a sociological and truly united nation-state, the situational reality in the country must be faced and objectively addressed by paving the way for a system of shared power, stopping coercive integration and tyranny of the majority and enabling good leadership.

If building a true nation out of the current Nigeria has been quite difficult, the foundations of Nigeria right from 1914 clearly lend much credence. This is where lies the essence of the lecture session and the beauty of the revelations by the guest lecturer, a diplomatic historian, Professor Akinjide Osuntokun. His lecture essentially focused on the genesis of Nigerian Nationalism which largely explains the political lull and quest for agitations for separation. For instance, if the pre-independence constitution did not provide for regional or ethnic hegemony, why is it an issue in the post-independence era? Why is it difficult to operate a true federal system in Nigeria? In fact, what really is the true nature of the foundations of modern Nigeria?

Professor Osuntokun explained nationalism in Nigeria from the perspectives of its origins, role of the press, and particularly from the attitudinal disposition of the political stakeholders. Definition wise, he noted that ‘there is no consensus of opinion as to what constitutes a nation in Africa’ but for purposes of his lecture, opted for the definition given by Thomas Hodgkin. In the words of Professor Osuntokun, nationalism is the ‘consciousness on the part of individuals or groups, or membership of a nation, or a desire to forward the strength, liberty or prosperity of a nation.’ In this regard, he traced the genesis of African nationalism ‘to the time of the clash between European imperialism’ and, at the level of Nigeria, he said nationalism ‘was based on constitutional precedence and on the fact that colonies in the British Empire normally progressed from Crown colony system through representative system to full dominion status.’

Apart from the fact that ‘most African countries are artificial, multi-tribal or multi-national creations of European policy makers… African nationalism was a cultural and socio-political rather than an economic movement.’ More important, the media professionals were very anti-colonialists. Professor Osuntokun rightly recalled the case of the editor of the Times of Nigeria, James Bright Davies who was jailed for six months in 1916 allegedly for seditious libel. Mr Davies reportedly said the policies of the then Governor General were induced by ‘rancorous negrophobism and that such policies could only flourish under British Crown Colony system of government or under a constituted or authorised autocracy.’  

In essence, Professors Osuntokun and Obiozor were agreed on the same points of conclusion, First, Professor Osuntokun rightly and relevantly recalled Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s 1947 observation made in his book, Path to Nigerian Freedom, that Nigeria was nothing more than a ‘geographical expression and there were no Nigerians as there were French and Germans.’ This is what Professor Obiozor also implied when he noted that no one has been able ‘to create an atmosphere of credibility to ensure Nigeria’s claim to a political future as one nation.’ Put explicatively, if there has been no foundation-laying to make Nigeria become a sociological nation, then Nigeria cannot but continue to remain a geographical expression.

And perhaps most importantly, Professor Osuntokun also recalled the recommendations made in 1984 by a committee set up by President Babangida. Professor Osuntokun was a member of the committee, which was required to move Nigeria beyond remaining a geographical expression. The committee recommended a collective presidency under a six-zonal system (North West, North Central, North East, South West, South East, and South-South) in which, if a president comes from any of the zones, the remaining five zones will produce five Vice Presidents, each of them heading the ministries of Finance, Defence, Interior, Foreign Affairs and Education.’ Most unfortunately, the very good suggestion has only been myopically thrown to the garbage of history, hence Nigeria’s recidivist political instability and insecurity.

Lecture Discussants and Issues

Three notable discussants were listed to discuss the lecture: Chief NNIA Nwodo, Ambassador Hakeem Baba-Ahmed and Dr. Bitrus Pogu. Chief Nwodo, for reasons of force majeure, could not be physically present but Ambassador Humphrey Orjiaku, a diplomatic careerist who once served as Director of the Office of the Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs, was conscripted to stand in for Chief Nwodo who was the immediate predecessor of Professor Obiozor as President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo.

The chairman of the lecture, General Atom Nkpera, observed that he was not listed to discuss or talk. He narrated how he was directed by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo to stand in for him and to contact Ambassador Emuchay in this regard. He said he was at the lecture more to listen and be all ears but eventually revealed that his own political party is Nigeria and that he was representing Chief Obasanjo in that capacity. The Nigeria of his dream is that our tribe and tongue may differ but will not matter in the promotion of peaceful co-existence. In his view, one can buy citizenship but not nationalism.

Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed commended the lecture in his capacity as teacher of History and Public Policy. On the issue of non-negotiability of Nigerian unity he not agreed only with Professor Obiozor that Nigerian unity is quite negotiable but also noted that non-negotiability is never the opinion of the Northern Elders Forum. He rightly noted that the argument of Non-negotiability only ignores the factor of the human and that probably only the military can afford the luxury of arguing so. In his words, “it is fallacy of the worst order to talk about non-negotiability.”

He observed that every region or people has its own grievances and can at any time have the feeling not to belong to the Nigerian community. This is why there cannot but be need to always evolve the culture of negotiation. He therefore agreed with the idea of shared power, which already exists but whose location is what always generates much controversy.

On Professor Osuntokun’s lecture, he observed that no one can be happy with the current developments in the country unless the person is living in the villa or is not living in this planet. In terms of solution, he believes in first seeking solution to the National Question and in this regard, he suggested a sustainable North-South Dialogue to national unity rather than engagement in elite division. He advocated that Nigerians should vote for the best rather than for religion or ethnic sentiments.

Ambassador Orjiako drew some lessons from Professor Osuntokun’s lecture: that history does not repeat itself, especially in light of the fact that, since the 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates, the British colonialists have not been truly interested in uniting Nigeria; rise of primordial considerations over issues of realism in Nigeria, such as merit and efficiency; leadership without the human person is meaningless. Earlier leaders of Nigeria focused on capacity, nationalism, and education; and emergence of a new language: national project implying no more an Igbo or Yoruba project. In other words, what is required is to address the national project from a Rwandan mania which preaches that importance is not about size but what you have capacity to do.

Dr. Bitrus Pogu drew attention to the role of the media regarding nationalism in the pre-independence era and noted that the media moguls of today are more interested in power grab. He underscored his belief in a new Nigeria in which fairness will reign. He not only argued that power should shift to the south and that the 2023 general election should not be turned into an ethnic or religion issue but into delivery capacity and integrity of purpose. He advised Nigerians to desist from manufactured reality.

At the level of plenary discussion, the intervention of Chief Ayo Adebanjo, the Afenifere Yoruba leader, was significant. He disagreed with Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed submissions, believing that the submissions were laden with jots of insincerity. He noted that Professor Osuntokun delivered a good lecture but queried why he consciously or inadvertently did not cover the reasons for the failure of the MacPherson constitution in 1950, before going for the London Lancaster meetings.

He argued that there was nothing wrong in being united, but such unity must not be under a unitarist rule or unitary form of government. Chief Adebanjo recalled Dr. Azikiwe’s statement on return from the London Lancaster meeting that federalism was a desideration, a statement of national transformation.

However, Nigeria’s constitution of today has put an end to the autonomy of the regions, which is very contrary to the pre-independence agreements. Regional autonomy, development at one’s own space were the pillars of political governance in the past. Regional competition largely explained the economic development attained by then, and local taxes were major sources of revenue but all these features now belong to history.

Chief Adebanjo made it quite clear that he did not believe in the 2023 elections. What he strongly believes in is adoption of sincerity and honesty of purpose in the management of Nigerian affairs. He added that Afenifere’s position on the presidential candidacy of Peter Obi is largely based on ideological principle of justice and fairness for all. He submitted that it is difficult to stay together in peace in the absence of equity and fairness. The only success of PMB which is incontestable is his determination to ensure that the North gets what it had not succeeded in getting so far, Chief Adebanjo concluded.

Many were the interventions and questions made that time did not allow for. The consensus of opinion was that more lectures should be organised particularly within the framework of a North-South Dialogue and that all efforts should be made to make fairness, justice, equity as pillars of governance in Nigeria. In concluding, Dr. Okey Anueyiagu, the MC said Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe created nationalism out of Nigeria’s diversity and on this observation, he invited everyone to participate in the group photograph and cocktail sessions. But all in all, is it possible to build a Nigerian nation in light of the controversial policies of the current Nigeria of Fulanisation and Islamisation agenda? Time will tell.

In the civilianisation process of limiting, if not completely removing the coercive attitudinal disposition of PMB as a military general, it is important to understand that, in a contest between coercive Nigerian unity and regional self-determination there is no way self-determination will not always overcome the use of coercion. PMB wrongly believes in the use of force but completely ignores international history. This is why it has been difficult to transit from statehood to nationhood. There is the need to learn lessons from international history. In other words, the use of terror to impose an error of promotion of regional imbalance in the governance of Nigeria is a major dynamic of the Ohanaeze Ndigbo-sponsored lecture. The South Eastern Region is the only region amongst the southern States that has not been given the opportunity to present a Nigerian President. Impression is given as if it is a privilege for an Ndigbo to be the President of Nigeria. True, it is their right and not a privilege to be given opportunity. True, Nigeria acceded to national sovereignty on 1st October, 1960, meaning that Nigeria has had 62 years of sovereign existence to date and 47 out of the 62 years were under northern leaders. Of the 15 years of southern rule, the southwest and South-south States have had their turn. Why not a collective presidency if there is no political magouilles?

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