…while the unity of Nigeria is something that is in itself desirable and ought to be preserved if possible, Biafran agitations and other pockets of protests and all forms of regional uprising in Nigeria must be taken seriously because it points to a new order in which the common good of Nigerians, which is the primary duty of political power, can be protected and secured.
The predominant narrative about Nigeria in the context of the Biafran freedom struggle has been one of legality. The central claim of this line of argumentation is that Biafran agitation is wrong because Nigeria is one, and Nigeria is one because it is the law. Here the law is simply unassailable. The laws which seek to define the nature of political relationships are many and have both local and international dimensions.
At the local level, the Nigerian Constitution, for instance, makes clear that Nigeria is one indivisible entity and that none of its subgroups or parts may freely wish to secede and assume a sovereignty of its own. In this regard it is the sworn duty of the president and head of government to preserve this stated unity, if necessary even by recourse to the use of force. About this, the Nigerian civil war is a good reference point.
Although the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples article twelve and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights article twenty make it clear that indigenous peoples do have a right to political self-determination, popular interpretations and their applications to the Biafran struggle indicate, in fact, that the laws as they stand do not favour the freedom to secession or self-determination by any group.
On the basis of this legal framing of freedom and its limits, therefore, any agitation for self-determination, as is the case of Biafra, is illegal by the terms of these laws. These legal instruments have as their primary aim the maintenance of unity and togetherness of the different peoples that make up a political circumscription, but it does not account for, at all, what might be the source of agitations and how it might be peacefully resolved. In this light, therefore, the unity of Nigeria is clearly a priority over the common good of its peoples.
The unity of Nigeria is a worthy aspiration that can be defended and there are many reasons behind the claim that it is better for Nigeria to remain indivisible. But this unity ought not to be defended only by the force of law but by the force of morality. To defend it by the force of law, as the instruments cited above show, is to defend it by compulsion, whereas it ought to be defended by the free and uncoerced consent of the people involved.
Moral agitations have proven throughout history to have a superior normative standing. What we today refer as the French Revolution, which has become the historical watershed of what is called modernity, is in fact the displacement of a legal order by a moral one.
But what I wish to demonstrate here is that the presence of agitations and protests, since they are reactions of a moral nature, are pointers to the fact that the legal instruments could in themselves be unjust. Agitations and demonstrations are signs that the people concerned have withdrawn their moral consent and demand that the terms of the relationship be re-examined.
Although it is not always possible for people to get all they want at all times, agitations have a moral weight that cannot be ignored or disregarded. Since no people are likely to consent to agreements that are against their interest, whether forced on them or made on their behalf by their representatives, the ultimate source of justice is through the route of dialogue, debate and agreement.
Moral agitations have proven throughout history to have a superior normative standing. What we today refer as the French Revolution, which has become the historical watershed of what is called modernity, is in fact the displacement of a legal order by a moral one. By risking their lives and putting everything at stake the people of that period challenged the feudal system and brought it down. It also happened in America and gave birth to a society in which every citizen can lay claim to moral equality, participation and inclusion.
In America, Martin Luther King led a struggle in which a white supremacist order was displaced, which led to the recognition of the fundamental rights of black people and inaugurated their liberation as a people. It is the same with the overthrowing of patriarchal hegemony in which only men were accorded the right to vote and own property. It was the law and on its terms women were excluded. But after the feminist battles of the early twenties, universal suffrage became a reality for women and today they can boast of equal moral standing with men.
In Egypt, Mohammed Morsi was elected for a term to serve as president after what could be termed a moral uprising in which Hosni Mubarak was removed. But even before he could complete that term of office, he was again swept away by another revolution. Those who believed that the elections represented the will of the people, and argued therefore that he should be allowed to complete his term could not hold back the floodgate of moral disapproval. Whether we cite the example of Syria or Hungary or Ukraine, where the motivation of protesters might be different, the central point is that the people might rise to object to the current order of things in their societies.
The nearest the different ethnic groups in Nigeria have gotten to defining the terms of their mutual togetherness has been the National Conference which held in 2014. Unfortunately the present government has not shown much interest in the contents of that conference, much less in implementing its recommendations.
The point I am emphasising by all these examples is that extant laws are in themselves also subject to moral approval, and in fact are not immutable or un-amenable. Moral growth is measured by inclusiveness and the pulling down of structures of injustice and oppression and the enthronement of common good. In Nigeria we can learn from history. In a sense Biafra agitation, considering its spread and depth, can be compared to any of these examples and therefore is a clear indication of moral disapproval of the present conditions of co-existence.
All extant orders become obsolete if they cannot secure the freedom and inclusiveness of the people for whom they are made in the first instance. The moral reactions of a people are superior in validity to the arbitrary imposition of laws, whether local or international. No need to say the legal instruments in Nigeria, including the Constitution, are impositions of the military even if they are well intended. This is why for so long different pressure groups such as the National Democratic Coalition and other ethnic and cultural organisations, have called for a review of the extant laws in Nigeria and a re-examination of the conditions of our political togetherness.
The nearest the different ethnic groups in Nigeria have gotten to defining the terms of their mutual togetherness has been the National Conference which held in 2014. Unfortunately the present government has not shown much interest in the contents of that conference, much less in implementing its recommendations. But it is foreseeable that on the basis of give and take, the conference managed in spite of teething challenges to submit some agreed upon recommendations which can be the basis of a new Nigeria that is home to all.
Therefore, while the unity of Nigeria is something that is in itself desirable and ought to be preserved if possible, Biafran agitations and other pockets of protests and all forms of regional uprising in Nigeria must be taken seriously because it points to a new order in which the common good of Nigerians, which is the primary duty of political power, can be protected and secured. It can be prolonged but it cannot stopped or resolved by recourse to law alone.
Ikechukwu Odigbo is a doctoral researcher in Philosophy at the University of Essex, UK.