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Agitations for Self-Government in Nigeria

Updated: Apr 4, 2022

An opinion/concept note by The Oyemaja Institute of Law.

If you grew up in Nigeria, particularly in the city of Lagos, you probably have a lot to say about the diversity that exists in Nigeria. From languages to foods, dressing, ceremonies, ideologies, religious beliefs and so on. I mean, what is a morning without Iya Ajoke's unbeatable akara, hot puff puff or pomo alata? Not to mention the fact that it is so much easier to eat healthy thanks to Hassan's "pipty naira" watermelon and pineapple. Oh, and then there is Emeka the cloth seller (your surest plug for all things owambe). .

Welcome to the hood

“That is Nigeria for you, a melting pot of tongues and tribes with over 250 ethnic groups and over 500 different languages. How did we get here? There is a story behind it.”

It all started on the 1st of January 1914. The day the North was amalgamated with the South to form what is now known as Nigeria. The South was at this time made up of numerous Yoruba states, the Igbo kingdom, Niger Delta and other villages. The amalgamation was carried out by Lord Lugard on behalf of the then British Colonial government. It was mainly to enable easy administration and for economic reasons.

A little history here, a little history there.

Looking through history, it can be said that the amalgamation brought with it tremendous benefits; from the Independence of 1960, to migration, movement of goods and sharing of resources. A whole lot of not so positive things have happened since then too. From events like the Kano riot of 1953 to the civil war that lasted from 1967 to 1970 and the tribal based and orchestrated coups.

In recent times, there has been agitations for self government (secession) by the various ethnic groups. At the moment, two ethnic groups are calling for self government. The Igbos are calling for Biafra while the Yorubas are calling for the Oduduwa Republic. Many people believe that in spite of everything that has happened; Nigeria is still so much better as an entity. Some have said that the most practical solution to all the problems that the amalgamation has brought is secession. This would mean that various ethnic groups will exercise their right to self determination.

Going a little deeper

The right to self determination is an internationally recognized and a frequently discussed right”

The right to self determination was referenced in 1945 in the Charter of the United Nations. The 1966 International Covenants went further to define the right of self determination. It provides 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."

The main purpose of this provision was to facilitate independence from the colonial government.

Does self determination apply only to instances of colonialism? In the Quebec's case, the Canadian Supreme Court identified the types of self determination. It was said that there are two types of self determination; internal and external self determination. Internal self determination refers to the right of territories or countries to govern themselves and not be under any colonial government.

This form of self determination is internationally recognized because a colonial government is rarely an ideal government. An ideal government as provided for in the Declaration on Principles of International Law would be "a government representing the whole people belonging to a territory without distinction as to race, creed or colour." On the other hand, external self determination is most relevant in Nigeria's situation. It involves a marginalized group breaking out and forming their own independent state. This usually occurs as a form of remedy against human right abuse and marginalization. The court, in this case, opined that external self determination arises only in extreme cases of secession. This was quite an interesting development.

Earlier Times

In earlier times, particularly in the 1920s, the right of self determination did not include the right of a group to separate themselves from the state. For example, about 100 years ago, in the Aaland Island case, Finland had previously declared their independence from the Soviet Union. Aaland then tried to separate themselves from Finland to join Sweden. This did not go down well with Finland. The matter got to the League of Nations. In expressing their opinion, the commission of the League of Nations did not recognise the right to Self determination as it relates to eternal self determination.

Even now, international law is neutral on the issue of secession. While international law does not expressly prohibit secession except when it involves a terror organisation. It is clear that international law stands for peace. In the words of the United Nations (UN) (an international organisation primarily concerned with matters of peace and security of Nations and peoples);

‘If every ethnic, religious or linguistic group claimed statehood, there would be no limit to fragmentation, and peace, security and well-being for all would become even more difficult to achieve.'

Nobody's business

History has also shown that International bodies are usually not willing to get involved in matters of secession except when such a State has been labelled as a failed state. Secession is therefore, most times a political issue rather than a legal one. Success is usually a function of whether or not a group that wishes to secede go through with their agenda.

The Nigerian secessionist movement, particularly the Biafran movement, is rising really fast. It is clear that the group has been enjoying support both within and outside the country. The Nigerian government, in an attempt to stop this movement has labelled the Indigenous People of Biafra as a terrorist organization. The group has been blamed for various attacks targeted at the various bodies responsible for the enforcement of law and order particularly in the Southern part of Nigeria.

Nnamdi Kanu

Recently, Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Biafran secessionist movement was arrested and charged with terrorism charges as well as inciting violence through the media and the Internet. In response to this, the Nigerian secessionist groups have come together under an umbrella body known as the Nigerian Indigenous Nationalities Alliance for Self-Determination (NINAS). Ahead of the United Nations General Assembly, 2021, this ground has announced its intention to put the Nigerian secessionist movement on the United Nation's radar. In addition to a one week long one million man march in the United States for the liberation of the Nigerian people, the group has revealed its plan to storm the United Nations General Assembly set to hold on the 14th of September, 2021.

The demands of the NINAS are that the issue of secession in Nigeria be put to vote (a referendum) and the abolition of Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended. It is unclear how long Nigeria will continue as one indivisible entity as many have predicted that sooner or later, the secessionist agenda will eventually come to fruition. By petitioning International organizations such as the United Nations and the African Union the Nigerian secessionist groups seek to create a precedent for whether or not the right to self determination extends to secession of a part of a country to form a whole. As of this moment, there is no provision expressly supporting or prohibiting such movement.

Good read? We've got this for you in PDF. Here, you're welcome:

Oyemaja Law Opinion Concept Note 002
Download PDF • 652KB



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