47 years ago on the 6th of July 1967, the 1st infantry division of the Nigerian army initiated the Nigeria-Biafra war when the secessionist Biafran state was attacked in the Nsukka and Garkem sectors. The war was occasioned by the failure of the then head of state General Yakubu Gowon to act when an estimated 50,000 Eastern civilians were savagely murdered in successive Northern pogroms. The failure by Yakubu Gowon to uphold his most important constitutional responsibility as head of state to protect the life and property of innocent civilians created the self defence necessity that led to the declaration of Biafra and consequently the Nigeria-Biafra war.
Gowon had tagged the war a “war of unity” even though he was himself responsible for the ensuing disunity when he had earlier failed to protect innocent Eastern civilians subject to genocide in the North. Ironically the British government ignored the genocide on Eastern civilians and chose to support Nigeria’s war of continued aggression/genocide against Biafra. The callous decision of the British government was as always dictated only by a calculation of her imperial interests. A calculation that disregarded the crime of genocide in the Northern pogroms, the principles of democracy, the right to self determination enshrined in the United Nations charter and the monumental suffering that was sure to be inflicted on both sides of the conflict. As far as Britain and her imperialist institutions are concerned Africans lives are expendable once it serves their interests. And so Britain in 1967 threw her weight in support of war as a means of enforcing unity against the dictates of international law and the fundamental rights to freedom and democratic expression.
But how can putting a gun to someone’s head as was done in the Nigeria-Biafra war be a legitimate or moral means of enforcing or upholding unity? How different is such a doctrine/method from slavery, colonialism or apartheid? 47 years later the answer is here with us: War can never be a legitimate means of upholding unity. Yakubu Gowon’s so declared war of unity has not brought unity to Nigeria. 47 years later Nigeria is progressively more disunited, more disharmonious, more conflict ridden than it has ever been. Indeed Nigeria is once again fighting a civil war with Boko Haram and other insurgencies driven by widening ethno-religious divisions. Paradoxically Britain in spite of her military arsenal didn’t go to war to stop the Scottish from seceding; instead they allowed a referendum as they had previously done in Gibraltar and the Falklands.
In truth, the idea of self determination is a very old one and rightly so; freedom is afterall a fundamental entitlement of man. Man in his original state was born free and exercised his freedom without any limits. The excesses of those freedoms necessitated the evolution of the modern state which sought to create a constructive, beneficial and harmonious collective that nonetheless preserved the fundamental freedoms of man. The evolution of the modern state came with its own problems as the laws of nature which aptly dictates that birds of a feather should of necessity flock together was violated in many instances where the states included people of irreconcilable ethnic, religious and cultural differences which in many cases engendered acrimony, immobility and even conflicts.
A solution to the issue of self determination was first provided in the 1648 “treaty of Westphalia” where the idea of national self determination was adopted as a sovereign right of peoples. Following a long trajectory of identity related conflicts, in particular the turbulence of the 20th century; the United Nations included the right to self determination in article 1 of its charter in 1945. The idea of self determination has thus long been an accepted reality; what has been difficult is the politics employed by individual nations and other interested parties in either acknowledging or denying the fundamental right to self determination as recognised by human reason and international law.
What the Scottish referendum serves to vindicate is the fundamental freedom of man, the peace of treaty of Westphalia, the United Nations charter and ultimately democracy. The act of war for the purposes of holding a nation together is tantamount to holding a gun to someone’s head and forcing them to be part of a nation. It is no different from the great evils of the slave trade, apartheid or colonialism and can never be a legitimate means of holding a nation together. It is ironic that the British who were ever too willing to support genocidal regimes in waging senseless and illegitimate wars against groups seeking self determination in Africa and elsewhere always opted for democratic referendums when it came to their own home turf. It is nonetheless a lesson particularly for African nations that are so quick to descend into unnecessary wars for issues that are better settled through democratic means, thereby acquiring the notoriety of being the continent with the highest number of conflicts and consequently the highest levels of poverty and disease.
In an earlier article I had predicted that the Scots would vote to remain in the United Kingdom because there are many mutual benefits which include shared prosperity, justice and equality, democracy and the rule of law. There is also no policy of marginalisation/exclusion, “there are no born to rule oppressors” who believe the country belongs to them, there are no ethnic and religious killings and ultimately by the mere act of being allowed to vote and make their own choice, there is unlimited respect for the natural freedoms that each unit should enjoy. My prediction has been vindicated by the Scottish no vote as no sane group will vote to leave a union that accords them their freedoms, together with prosperity and other mutual benefits. A historical trend has long suggested that yes votes for self determination are usually obtainable in nations where there is injustice, marginalisation, domination, ethno-religious conflicts and other forms of social injustice. This informs the massive yes vote in South Sudan, Eritrea, East Timor, Kosovo and others.
It is obvious that Northern leaders cannot make a successful argument to keep Nigeria united through a referendum or plescibite as Britain did because of the massive injustices they sowed in the system through several decades of misrule and extant excesses. This informs their repeated rejection of a sovereign national conference and their option of maintaining the status quo through force or war as a means of enforcing unity. But how long can such affront on human civilisation and freedoms last in the 21st century? The resort to war or force is an illegitimate act that will ultimately fail to uphold unity. Civil wars by its very nature can have no winners for many reasons. In the first place the existing divisions and bitterness increases with war and lingers, the issues that led to the war most often remain unresolved, the contradictions and hate continues to widen, exclusion becomes a policy driven both by a fear of revenge and an inclination to punish the vanquished, new conflicts begin to emerge, each conflict begets another and the state is locked in a perpetual circle of conflicts that culminates in state failure and ultimately disintegration. This has been the experience of Nigeria, much of Africa and other nations where war has been illegitimately used to enforce unity.
The right to self determination like other fundamental freedoms are non-negotiable natural rights. Nations that genuinely desire to maintain unity should invest in justice and equality, shared prosperity, inclusion and other aspects of nation building and social justice. This is the greatest lesson of the Scottish referendum and no vote. Nigeria and other nations particularly in Africa should do well to start investing in nation building and social justice if they want to keep their nations united as they will find soon enough that war as a means of enforcing unity cannot stand the test of time!
Lawrence Chinedu Nwobu