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Home / Article / Why Countries Break up and the Taboo of Self-Determination in the Nigerian Polity

Why Countries Break up and the Taboo of Self-Determination in the Nigerian Polity

By Son of Omenuko

twitter @sonofomenuko

The struggle for self-determination has been a recurrent issue in Nigeria since colonial times[1]. First, from the perspective of independence from the British Colonial Government and soon after independence, from the point of view of the then Eastern Nigeria, chiefly the Igbos, who wanted a sovereign state independent of the British created Nigeria. This later quest for self-determination by the peoples of the then Eastern Nigeria led to the Nigerian Civil War which lasted from 1967 to 1970 and left over 2 million people of the Igbo ethnic group decimated. 

Before the war, the leaders of Eastern Nigeria had several negotiations aimed at preventing a war. This culminated in the famous Aburi Accord of January 1967 which made resolutions on how to ensure some sort of devolution of powers. However, leaders of Eastern Nigeria felt that the Nigerian Military Government reneged on the Aburi Accord. Consequently, citing injustices, atrocities, and discrimination, they passed a resolution on 27 May 1967 mandating the Governor, Lt. Col. Odimegwu Ojukwu, to declare Eastern Nigeria as an independent sovereign state to be called the Republic of Biafra. 

The Military government of Nigeria would not have any of that and therefore descended on Biafra, committing several atrocities against the civilian populations on the Biafra side.  

After the Biafra side surrendered to the Nigerian Military Government in January 1970 with shouts of “One Nigeria! One Nigeria!”, the agitation for the exit of the Igbos and other ethnic groups comprised in the old Eastern Nigeria died down. However, the issues that led to the birth of Biafra did not change, instead, it grew worse but then everyone had learned a bitter lesson from the bloody civil war and therefore moved on. 

The agitations resurged about three decades down the line with the formation of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) in 1999. The early 2000s saw a running battle between the Federal Government led by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and the leader of the group, Mr. Ralph Uwazuruike. In an attempt by the Federal Government to quell the movement, Mr. Uwazuruike was in and out of prison and many of his followers were killed by security operatives. 

No sooner had the activism and agitation of MASSOB died down than a perhaps more vocal and resilient group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) was birthed by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu in 2012. Again, the Federal Government of Nigeria now under the headship of Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari has demonstrated an inordinate ambition to crush IPOB and its leader. As a result, Mazi Kanu has suffered his share of incarcerations and harassment, and many IPOB members have been reportedly killed by security forces at various times since 2015.

It is important to state at this point that the agitations for self-determination among the various nations comprised in Nigeria have long moved from being an Eastern Nigeria affair. As of today, many other groups are also seeking separation from Nigeria while others are calling for a referendum to allow Nigerians to vote for either the continuation of the union or for the balkanization of Nigeria along ethnic, cultural, and historical lines. A Yoruba group in South West Nigeria for example is agitating for the formation of an Oduduwa Republic and it is speculated that there are discussions of this sort also among the elders of the Middle-Belt. 

As expected, not everyone agrees with the self-determination struggles now gaining momentum across the country or with the call for a referendum to decide on the question of Nigeria’s unity. What is worrisome is that those who oppose self-determination, secession, separatism, or whatever name so-called hardly provide substantial arguments in support of their opposition. Many of these antagonists portray self-determination as a sacrilege and believe that it should not even be discussed. In doing so, they deploy several tactics including dismissal, denigration, intimidation, and in some cases, denial of the facts upon which the self-determination proponents build their case. 

Former Nigerian Heads of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, and Major General Muhammadu Buhari, who is currently the President of Nigeria, easily wear the hat of the key antagonists. Gowon led the Nigerian Military Government to take back Biafra in a very atrocious civil war. Gowon’s position on this matter does not seem to have changed, as he insists that he served Nigeria to the best of his abilities and did what he believed was best for Nigeria. 

On his part, Buhari has never hidden his aversion and irritation to the calls for a referendum through which the peoples of Nigeria can determine their own political future. This is not very surprising – he actively fought on the Nigerian side during the civil war. Albeit, one might have expected that with age and hindsight, he should now see things differently. 

As President of Nigeria, Buhari has made comments to justify the civil war and have said that having fought the civil war to keep Nigeria as one, it was too late to discuss any potential unbundling of Nigeria. More specifically, in his 21 August 2017 speech, Buhari who was visibly irritated by the agitations of IPOB, warned that Nigeria is one indissoluble country and that its unity was non-negotiable. This dictatorial warning of Buhari was reinforced by the theme for Nigeria’s 60th Independence Anniversary – “Together We Shall Be”. Essentially, Buhari unilaterally forecloses the rights of the peoples of Nigeria to ask for an opportunity to decide on their political future and he did not mince words in communicating that no such conversation would be entertained. 

Although, the idea of being together is generally a noble one, what is lacking in the Nigerian context is the agreement on the terms of that togetherness. At no point in our history did we agree to be one country, and this is a fundamental issue to our crisis of nationhood. For someone who insists that Nigeria must be one, you would expect that his actions and statements would depict the oneness, unity, and togetherness which he so vigorously espouses, but the exact opposite is the case. Whether it was by his first international media engagement as President in Washington DC in July 2015 where he boldly divided Nigeria into 97% and 5%, or by his nepotism in Federal Government appointments, or by the way he responds to the insecurity foisted on the country by his Fulani kin, he has made it abundantly clear that Nigeria is not one and all Nigerians are not equal in the Nigerian society. 

Another important antagonist of self-determination is Mr. Dele Farotimi, self-styled “patriot of an unborn nation”. He, like Buhari, is very much averse to the dissolution of Nigeria or calling a plebiscite to allow Nigerians to decide their fate as far as nationality goes. His only point of difference with Buhari in this respect is that while Buhari is opposed to both self-determination and restructuring, Farotimi believes that Nigerians should be focused only on restructuring. In his article titled “The Self-defeating Idiocy of Nigerian Secessionist Movements”, Farotimi described proponents of self-determination as idiots, “foolish”, “intellectually indolent”, “asinine”, etc. The gist of his argument in this article is that self-determination is impossible, antithetic, and a distraction to the only possible resolution to the Nigerian problem in his view – restructuring. 

Most of the other opponents of self-determination have only sentiments as the basis of their opposition. For example, the usual admonition that proponents of self-determination should beware as “they may not know what they have until they lose it”. Others have said that the dissolution of Nigeria is against the will of God and His prophetic mandate for Nigeria. 

In summary, the major arguments against self-determination in Nigeria are the following: 

  1. Self-determination would mean smaller countries and Nigeria would lose its position as the giant of Africa.
  2. Pursuing self-determination would lead to a potentially more brutal civil war
  3. New countries would not necessarily resolve the issues cited as the basis for seeking self-determination.
  4. Self-determination is against the will of God and His prophetic mandate for Nigeria.
  5. If one group is allowed to exit, there will be no end to new groups wanting to form new countries.
  6. An endless list of sentiments that are unsupported by scientific, historical, or political thought. 

In my view, none of the major planks of argument against self-determination is solid enough to deny the peoples of Nigeria their inalienable right to determine their identity, nationhood, etc. For starters, the strength, effectiveness, prosperity, and influence of a country are not necessarily determined by its size. Many of the most powerful, influential, economically prosperous, and efficiently run countries in the world are not the largest in landmass or population. Countries such as Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Sweden, Israel, Canada, Australia, Norway, to mention a few, are constantly rated as some of the most powerful and most efficiently run countries in the world yet none of them is known for its big population. Norway and Singapore for example individually have populations of a little above 5million (the least in the group) each of which is smaller than the population of Lagos, and Canada has a population of 37 million (the largest in the group). I wonder why anyone would prioritize the size of a country over its viability or how efficiently it is run. We need to ask ourselves what Nigeria has achieved with its big size in its 60 years of independence. There is a popular saying among women that size does not matter. 

Furthermore, secession or dissolution of a country need not be violent. Although some secessions have been marked by bloody civil wars, history also has instances of peaceful secessions. Norway-Sweden and Czechoslovakia (Czech and Slovakia) are very good examples. Rather than focus on instances of bloodshed, perhaps, we can carefully look at instances where dissolutions were peaceful and see what lessons could be learned from those. 

The argument that one exit would lead to an endless cycle of breakups has very little support in history. The Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway split over a century ago in 1905 and to date, there has not been any new breakup. 

Those who claim that the dissolution of Nigeria would lead to the abrogation of God’s will and prophetic ordinance over Nigeria have very little or no scriptural knowledge. The kingdom of Israel was split in two – Israel and Judah and yet, it did not affect the prophecies that had gone forth regarding this country. Why should the case of Nigeria be different? 

Are there examples of breakups that we can learn lessons from? Of course! History is replete with instances of dissolutions, break ups, separations or howsoever, the creation of new countries from existing ones. I will now mention in brief some of the examples and highlight why they broke up.


In the early 1800s, Colombia (referred to as Gran Colombia to differentiate it from modern-day Colombia) encompassed much of northern South America and southern Central America and consisted of present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, and parts of Peru and Brazil. In 1903, Panama separated from Colombia following a series of armed struggles between the separatist movements in Panama and the Colombian regime. Upon declaring its independence from Colombia, the US military quickly moved to the border of the two countries to prevent any escalation of hostilities between the two countries or any military intervention by Colombia to take back Panama. As a result, the actual separation was without violent conflicts. 


Czechoslovakia was created at the end of the First World War with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary. The country was made up of two ethnic nationalities, the Czechs and the Slovaks and in January 1993 following years of negotiations, the ethnic nationalities in the country self-determined to go their separate ways in a very peaceful way. The splitting of Czechoslovakia which saw the emergence of two countries, Czech and Slovakia, is sometimes referred to as the Velvet Divorce in reference to its peacefulness. Many scholars believe that the country split due to ethnic/cultural differences. For these scholars, the splitting was inevitable and was only a question of time. 


Sudan was once regarded as the largest country in Africa in terms of landmass with very diverse people groups along the lines of ethnicity, culture, and religion. On 9 July 2011 after decades of civil war which began in 1983, the country split in two following a referendum that saw the creation of a new country of South Sudan. Before this, Sudan previously fought a first civil war from 1956 to 1972. The remote and immediate causes of the wars which led to the splitting of the country have been attributed to mismanagement of diversity and the attempt of the Sudanese State to impose Arabism and Islamism on the diverse indigenous cultures in the country, mainly the South. Also, just like in the case of Nigeria, the control of natural resources was an issue. The rich oil reserves in the country were in the South and exports of petroleum products represented 70% of the international trade earnings of the country.

The Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia 

The federation was created after World War II and comprised of six republics – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia (with two autonomous provinces -Vojvodina and Kosovo), and Slovenia, with borders drawn along ethnic and historical lines. Following long-standing political upheavals, economic imbalance, and cultural /ethnic /religious divisions among the federating groups, in the early 1990s, the country split along the ethnic nationalities/republics that make up the country. The Croats declared their independence from the union first, later the Slovens and the rest. 

Other important mentions are the secession of the Republic of Ireland from the UK, the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia, the separation of Norway and Sweden, the break-up of Austria-Hungary which gave birth to Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. 

Countries can be formed and can also be dissolved. No country is indissoluble! To my mind, Nigeria has even stronger reasons than the examples above to allow for self-determination through a referendum. First, Nigeria is basically a forced marriage of totally unrelated, unconnected, and parallel nations by an imperialist who also gave us a name and an identity that does not reflect the national consciousness of the peoples of Nigeria. Second, after 60 years of bitter co-existence and efforts at national integration, the incompatibility of the people groups comprised in Nigeria has become even more evident. Thirdly, there is no rational basis to believe that the next 60 years will be better than the previous 60 in terms of national integration. 

In addition, all factors that led to the dissolution of countries like Yugoslavia and Sudan exist in Nigeria. Our diversity has been mismanaged by political actors and there is more that divides us than unites us – ethnic, cultural, and religious tensions are rife and very easily used to instigate violent conflicts. There is a severe case of economic imbalance in which the unity of the country is solely based on a parasitic relationship with the petroleum resources of the Niger Delta. What is even more unjust is that at the same time, the gold and other resources of the Northern States are solely for them. There is so much social and political injustice with the North although contributing less to the phony union, takes the upper hand in virtually everything. For example, the North has more States and Local Government Areas and therefore has more representation at the National Assembly. This naturally confers on them, an undue advantage in every national debate, not by the rationality of their arguments but by sheer advantage of numbers – an advantage, they waste no time in exploiting to its full extent. At the same time, the South-East geopolitical zone has fewer States than all the other geopolitical zones and is therefore naturally disadvantaged in the scheme of things both at the National Assembly and other national fora. 

These issues and many others like them have been with us since the forceful amalgamation of the ethnic nationalities that are now comprised in Nigeria by the British Colonial Government. I think we now have an opportunity to redress this fundamental issue which is foundational to all of Nigeria’s woes. 

Contrary to the view of many antagonists of the right to self-determination, Nigeria’s unity is negotiable and should be negotiated without further delay. The ethnic nationalities comprised in Nigeria should be allowed to exercise their rights to determine whether they want to continue in Nigeria, and if so, on what terms. If not so, any nationalities that want out of the faux federation should be allowed to do so in a peaceful manner. 

  [1] This relates to the right and process by which a country determines its own statehood and forms its own government, or the right of a people of a territorial unit to determine their own political future.

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