By CHARLES IKE-OKOH
THUR, JULY 13 2017-This is Mid-year. But 2017 will be forever remembered as the year Nigeria began ‘’renegotiation’’ of its relationship with its peoples. It is a year that the fragility of Nigeria as a ‘fake’’ federation was thoroughly exposed. It is also likely to be the year that the ‘’fake’’ federal government will call a Biafran referendum. It is also the Arewa Youth year for similar reasons-the difference is that Arewa did not and is not asking for a country called Arewa, and it is not asking for a referendum. Whether on the left or right, a referendum about Nigeria’s oneness is perhaps the most important decision the federal government may have to make in our lifetimes. For obvious reasons-good or bad-it will be the worst good decision made by the government for agitators across the ‘’fractured’’ country.
This talk of Biafra separation referendum or independence, of course, conflates hope with expectations. No matter, setting out the paradox, certainly, does not provide a route map for those who will adjudicate the referendum. The truth is that there is no easy way to, at once reassure the Biafrans that the result will be upheld and then offer incentives to the rest of the people whose time and money will be wasted on a fruitless exercise. By the token, a critical question that requires answer is “who is a Biafran?” I am certainly not. At any rate, those romanticising a referendum as the best solution for political and economic differences may need to learn a lesson from the Brits.. Clearly, it is not. Mark my words.
The call for independence, seccession or confederation (as the music gradually changes) through a referendum is arguable as a solution. For majority of Nigerians on all sides of the divide, the sensible thing would not be to reduce such a complex problem to the simplicity of a referendum because the result could trigger some potentially serious consequences. Those promoting the Biafra cause could argue that, since the current federal arrangement is fatally flawed, the only option for political self actualisation is Biafra exit from Nigeria. Alas, they are brazenly wrong. The premise for the call is too simplistic and needs serious rethinking. The position of the leaders of the Biafra ‘’dream’’ has been that Biafra’s best future lies within a physical Biafran territory. The thinking is that they believe it can deliver a better and radically transformed society outside of Nigeria. This is an unconvincing position, as many sensible ‘presumed’ Biafrans and other Nigerians have pointed out. The outcome could at best be modest but the pain and rigor associated with the effort will be strangulating, even in a long run. A rational evaluation of the goal and process will reveal that what the people of Biafra will get will almost certainly be less than what they seek. The envisaged secession would certainly complicate the lives of the people Biafra seeks to identify as theirs.
Referendum on seccession and the processes will certainly create incredible logistical and technical challenges. For starters, we have not been able to even get it right with any election held since 1999. Our population data are very questionable as is the issue of citizen documentation and identification. There are disturbing and unsettled issues of territorial boundaries for Biafra as large swathes of the Biafra of 1967 have dissociated themselves from the Biafra as canvassed by the current protagonists and those who have opted out would have to be considered in the referendum plan. With just these few challenges, and there are certainly many more, what makes anybody particularly, the agitators for Biafra think that a referendum can be carried out in such a manner as to be acceptable this time around?
Given the atmosphere of mistrust and bad blood that has already been created, it is doubtful that the outcome of a separation referendum will ultimately be decided by fear, and not hope. Besides, you cannot rule out any extraordinary effective adjustment crisis, the sort that plagues South Sudan and North Sudan today since their separation.
Let me refresh your mind about the two Sudans. The path to the separation was anything but peaceful. Just as with Nigeria, the government refused to accept that the campaign for independence by the South reflected the will of the people. Globally, it is adjudged a country born under extreme vulnerability. Today, South Sudan, a completely land locked country, still suffers adjustment crisis which include border conflicts involving land rights between ethnic communities which has resulted in instability and massive displacement. They suffer border conflicts with the North, they are grappling with the politics of oil because of the North’s investments in the sector, the economic trade war that has refused to go away and of course conflicting interpretations of boundary divisions between the two countries and even within the South Sudan itself.
South Sudan is still struggling to integrate into productive employment, tens of thousands of returnees who have come back to their homeland after years or decades living outside the South. In the case of Biafra, over 3 million people live outside their ancestral homes. Besides all of these, the biggest challenge for Biafra will be about building a sound system of governance, ensuring the provision and construction of basic services. This cannot be achieved over night and is bound to create massive disillusionment and accusations of betrayal.
True, Nigerians are thoroughly fed up with Nigeria today as is in terms of governance and politics but many sensible Nigerians have repeatedly noted that the intellectually coherent alternative to exiting Nigeria is pressure to revisit the constitution and re-write it in such a way that provisions deemed restraining and offensive to the concept of a Federation as contained in the extant constitution are jettisoned in favour of provisions that guarantee more rights and liberties to both individuals and the federating units in such a way that local issues of importance to various ethnic and subcultural units are dealt with at subnational levels. At the very minimum, a return to the negotiated independence constitution of 1960 as amended by the 1963 Republican constitution would provide greater reassurance to sustain Nigeria’s unity. Clearly, a secessionist referendum would in the end resolve nothing and is not a path to follow.