Self-determination denotes the legal right of people to decide their own destiny in the international order. Self-determination is a core principle of international law, arising from customary international law, but also recognized as a general principle of law, and enshrined in a number of international treaties. For instance, Chapter 1, Article 1, Part 2 of the UN Charter states that purpose of the UN Charter is:
“to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace."
Article 1 in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) provide that "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. "
There is not yet a recognised legal definition of "peoples" in international law. Present international law does not recognize ethnic and other minorities as separate peoples, with the notable exception of cases in which such groups are systematically disenfranchised by the government of the state they live in. Other definitions offered are "peoples" being self-evident (from ethnicity, language, history, etc.), or defined by "ties of mutual affection or sentiment", i.e. "loyalty", or by mutual obligations. Another lens via which the concept of “peoples” can be viewed is by seeing them as a group of individuals who unanimously choose a separate state. If the "people" are unanimous in their desire for self-determination, it strengthens their claim.
Since the early 1990s, the legitimatisation of the principle of national self-determination has led to an increase in the number of conflicts within states, as sub-groups seek greater self-determination and full secession, and as their conflicts for leadership within groups and with other groups and with the dominant state become violent. The international reaction to these new movements has been uneven and often dictated more by politics than principle.
Over the past couple of decades, nation-states and states within states have (usually with reasonable cause) had to agitate for the actualisation of sovereign status. Some of these groups have experienced a more peaceful process than others in seeing out their intentions, and there have varying degrees of success with these agitations. Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Taiwan gained (de facto) independence from China, it took a long civil war for East Timor to be free from Indonesia, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and few years ago Scotland opted to remain part of the United Kingdom. On the flip side, Palestine is still struggling to break free of Israel’s vice-grip, Spain remains unwilling to let go of Catalunya, and Chechnya has failed to attain political sovereignty.
The African continent has witnessed its fair share of self-determination struggles, and in typical fashion, they have hardly been peaceful: Southern Sudan is a nation that has had to crawl through sweat and blood (for context, a 22-year civil war which claimed over two million lives) to come into its own, while Eritrea fought from 1961 to 1991 before Ethiopia would let it be. Forty-nine years after the end of the Nigerian Civil War, there have been cries (of varying degrees) for Igbo independence, cries which have been greeted by a wide range of reactions, from lukewarm support to indifference to outright disapproval. The Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the major socio-political group of the Igbos, have been non-committal to the cause. Two groups that have been actively pursuing the dream of Eastern secession, the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State Of Biafra (MASSOB) and the Indigenous People Of Biafra (IPOB), have been post-scribed by the federal government, and have been frequently subjected to military force.
The first issue to consider is the question of whether the Igbos are justified in calling for secession. Away from patriotic sentiment that may be borne by other regions and the need to preserve national unity, the cold hard fact is that they do. From the twenty-pound post-war economic policy to the confiscation of properties, from the nearly non-existent representation in political offices to the comparatively slow pace in terms of regional development, the Igbo nation has every right to feel hard done by. The people (rightfully) feel marginalised, the country’s leaders (from 1970 to date) have been half-hearted with reconciliation efforts and have continually reneged on promises of rehabilitation, and other than inconsequential political appointments, there is hardly anything to make them feel that they are part of Nigeria.
The next hurdle to navigate in analysing the “Biafran cause” is the factor of unanimity. The validity of claims notwithstanding, it has to be clearly seen that the region is in unison when it screams for recognition as a sovereign state. At the moment, nothing suggests that such is the case. There has been no unified call for secession, the political leaders across the various Eastern states are silent on this, the Ohanaeze Ndigbo do not appear to be in support, and both IPOB and MASSOB can’t seem to agree on a right approach. The house looks like it’s divided against itself.
There have been calls for a referendum to enable the Eastern region decide if it still wants to be part of Nigeria, but there has been a tone to these demands, one which makes for heightened curiousity. IPOB leader, Nnamdi Kanu, has fixed the date of the proposed referendum at 16th February, the same day as Nigeria’s presidential elections. He has also issued a directive to Easterners to sit at home and boycott the elections, while he and other IPOB chieftains get around to conducting the referendum.
A referendum is a process that involves everyone of voting age, and is not restricted to particular regions. To this end, it is logically impossible to have only the Eastern region vote on a matter as sensitive as the potential breakaway of a region. It is a process that has to involve the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which means that any referendum conducted without the input of INEC is, at all levels, illegal. It is not only distracting, but very insensitive for Kanu to call for a boycott at this crucial time when Nigerians need to decide whether to stick with its current president or vote in a new one. Asking an entire region not to exercise franchise is inciting, it amounts to political mischief, and it hardly earns any points in terms of sympathy for the Biafran cause. There have been suggestions and theories that Kanu's recent utterances and actions are geared towards heating up the polity in favour of one of the presidential candidates, but there will be other forums to address these assertions.
More importantly, it needs to be stated that there is no provision for referendums under the 1999 Constitution, the grundnorm of Nigeria’s democracy. This is the situation, in spite of various amendments. What this means is that notwithstanding the existence of the right to self-determination, the Igbo nation is unable to make a case for secession, as there is no (legal) avenue for such. This will not change unless there is a significant constitutional amendment, so what the active population in Eastern Nigeria needs to do is elect leaders who will sponsor bills pertaining to constitutional amendment, not boycott elections. If the Igbos do not participate, their interests will not be pushed, there will be no room made for a referendum in our constitution, and ultimately, there will never be a sovereign Igbo nation-state unless the people resort to war. We know how well that worked out the last time.
The case for Igbo sovereignty is valid, but the approach is flawed in all ramifications. No thanks to the system, it’s useless asking for a referendum, so the right way to get around this is to strive to make it possible for us to have one, not sit at home.
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