Referendum for the independence of Biafra

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IT appears that the clouds are gathering strongly for the eventual rain with MASSOB’s declaration of its readiness to commence pre-referendum sensitization for the actualization of an independent state of Biafra. MASSOB believes that a referendum is a peaceful approach to realizing its goal—at least the approach latches onto a constitutional latitude provided by the 2007 UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. This declaration is apparently the only legal leeway for the recognition of a secessionist state by the international community.

It is, however, debatable whether this route, albeit seemingly ‘peaceful’, is indeed truly so. The possibilities of war and other skirmishes with Nigeria still remain high unless MASSOB and other groups championing this cause do the needful. That said, there is no doubt that the self-determination agenda enjoys massive goodwill and sympathy among Ndigbo, particularly among those living inside Igboland and many in the Diaspora as well.

But, the questions really are whether the Biafran separationists alone can determine the terms of the secession and by extension the referendum for independence. Is Nigeria ready to enter into a comprehensive peace pact with Ndigbo regarding the proposed Biafran referendum? What is the possibility that the referendum will not trigger more conflicts rather than stave them off?

One major challenge to the separationists is to quickly clarify and harmonize the shades of understanding as well as approaches hitherto adopted by various groups in the whole self-determination project. There doesn’t seem to be an agreement on exact demands of Ndigbo man and the form of struggle to adopt towards actualizing those demands. To many Igbos, what they see are efforts by disparate groups geared towards restoring the place of the Igbo man as co-equal in all respects to his counterparts from other ethnic groups in Nigeria. An extended version of this demand appears to be an independent Biafra.

The greater the differences in the underlying objectives and approaches adopted by these varying groups in pursuit of this cause, the greater the internal confusion. This confusion appears suppressed but needs to be discussed in order to have a clarified, commonly understood and harmonized cause.

It seems – from my several interviews – that young Igbo artisans and traders, junior civil servants and generally grassroots people who live in the South Eastern parts of Nigeria will support any means adopted to ensure the actualization of an independent Biafra. This may include re-enacting the previous civil war. On the contrary, many older persons appear not keen on a violent approach to the realization of the cause. The horrors of the past civil war are still fresh in their minds. Thus, as much as most people in this group seemingly support the self-determination cause, they are opposed to any action that may eventually drag the Igbo nation into another war.

Those who are successful and are in the Diaspora do seem to have a totally different opinion about the approach to the Biafran/Igbo agenda. Igbo Diasporans are those living outside the Igbo nation. This group of persons who live in Nigeria appear to be apprehensive of the short/medium or even long-term destabilizing consequences on their economic life in the event of a Biafran independence. Many of them in this group are much more interested in the restructuring of Nigeria to give equal opportunities to the various ethnic groups.

Accordingly, to them, Biafran secession from Nigeria is only necessary if the Nigerian government in power refuses to restructure the country into six federating units. This group is largely comprised of old Igbo leaders who do not, however, diametrically oppose the ideas of MASSOB and IPOB.

As much as their ultimate pursuit and the approach to it differs in many respects from that of MASSOB and IPOB, they may not categorically say so. At least not now. There are many reasons for this. First, giving a veiled support to IPOB and MASSOB’s self-determination will help orchestrate the pressure needed to possibly get the government to submit to the proposal to restructure the country into federating units. Restructuring the country still protects and gives them access to their wealth in other federating units. An independent Biafra threatens all that. Second, such support albeit lip service is necessary if any so-called Igbo leader does not want to court the wrath of the average young Igbo man who is in high spirits about the possibility of realizing the Biafran dream through any means possible.

It is, however, difficult to determine the group where the governors of South Eastern states belong. They do not seem to either expressly defend the restructuring agenda or the outright secessionist plan. As a matter of fact, even radical decisions that can save the Igbo man but may be considered not to go down well with other ethnic groups are jettisoned or taken only after due consultations with, and approval by, the leaders of those other ethnic groups. Managing the Fulani herdsmen menace in Igboland is a good example. While Governor Fayose of Ekiti State did not need to consult with the Presidency to deal with the menace, the Enugu State governor, on the other hand, in spite of the killing of tens of the citizens of the state, had to consult and await clearance from the Presidency, to act.

In any case, now that the sensitization programme for the referendum is announced to be at the entrance door amidst these obvious confusions, clarification and or harmonization of the approaches being advocated by differing groups is very important and strategic for its success.

Take, for instance, the position of OhanezeNdigbo. Reading in between their statements, it does seem that they are saying: let us push Nigerian government to restructure into federating units using all peaceful means available to us and if that does not work, we may use any other means that will eventually lead to secession. There are obvious advantages and disadvantages in this approach. The key advantage is the strategic sequencing which makes it easy to read what the next steps are. But the disadvantage is that one cannot say with certainty when the government in power will yield to the pressure to politically restructure Nigeria.

That uncertainty around when the restructuring may happen makes OhanezeNdigbo’s strategy somewhat unattractive to groups populated more by younger persons–including IPOB and MASSOB–who believe that the Igbo man has waited for too long a time and can no longer trust or continue to wait for the Nigerian government to restructure. To some of them, the breach by Nigeria of agreements during the IkembaOdimegwuOjukwu’s era that would have prevented the civil war and led to confederacy makes the Nigerian government no longer trustworthy. This mismatch in strategy and timing of potential actions is not good for the actualization of the cause.

Back to the referendum. It is important that as much as those pushing for the Biafran cause can leverage the UN window to launch the referendum, it is evident that Nigeria will not fold its hands and watch. The body language of the presidency is opposed to any referendum. Now, while those sympathetic to the Biafran cause do not need the Nigerian government to conduct a referendum, there are levels of involvement and agreements that must be signed between the seceding nation and the extant country before the referendum can successfully hold and considered binding on both parties. The UN and other international agencies’ supervision and monitoring of the proposed referendum will not necessarily make it binding on Nigeria. High stakes lobby to get the

Nigerian government on a table for pre-referendum negotiations is one way to go if that would not be undermined by Igbo leaders whose own goal is to see a restructured Nigeria rather than an independent Nigeria. This negotiation if it works should also consider the terms of secession after a successful referendum. My thinking is that a lot more work needs to be done to get these ends properly knotted.

Who is organizing this referendum? Is it MASSOB alone or in conjunction with IPOB and other groups campaigning for the independence of Biafra? To what extent are organizations such as the OhanezeNdigbo or its likes involved in the proposed referendum? The need for answers to these questions is to ensure that the agreement needed even among various Igbo groups to activate this proposal is procured at the right level. Differences in tactics to the cause will undoubtedly affect the level of acceptance of each group’s agenda by other groups regardless of the fact that the cause is same.

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