29 August 2017

Nigeria: Unity, Constitutionality and 'Freedom of Disassociation'

As the Federal Government makes moves to re-arrest Nnamdi Kanu who has clearly defied his bail conditions, it remains a mystery why Nigerian successive leaders have avoided trying to articulate a sound logical argument in support of national unity. Instead of engaging the issue constructively and convincing citizens by amplifying the benefits and advantages of unity, and detailing the disadvantages and problems associated with breaking up, they merely parrot the time worn mantra that "unity isn't negotiable". Not only is this statement both logically and constitutionally incorrect, but it also gives the impression that the concept of "One Nigeria" can't stand up to proper scrutiny.

These days the main threat to our unity comes from unelected ethnic leaders who capitalise on prevalent mass suffering, real socio-economic injustices and perceived discrimination to convince their kinfolk that breaking away from Nigeria is the best means of improving their prospects. They argue that every citizens' constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of association, infers that they also have the right to decide not to associate. They call it "freedom of disassociation"! Government's disappointingly wishy-washy reaction to the worsening situation is mere repetition of the "non-negotiable unity" mantra. This doesn't address the relevant issues, and is also a tacit acknowledgement that unity was imposed and never negotiated in the first place.

Surprisingly national unity isn't even a constitutional provision. The indissolubility of the Nigerian State is merely part of the preamble to the 1999 Constitution which claims that; "We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria having firmly and solemnly resolved to live in unity and harmony as one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign nation under God... " This of course is pure fiction! There never was a time when "we the people" solemnly resolved anything about this military imposed document which quite dishonourably lies about itself! To compound the problem, both the sovereignty and indissolubility referred to are false. National sovereignty isn't cast in iron because every country yields part of it to international laws. National indissolubility doesn't hold water because the Bakassi Peninsula which was formerly a part of Cross River State is no more a Nigerian territory.

The truth is that non-negotiable unity isn't tenable in our democracy. Nigeria is a signatory to the African Charter of Human and People's Rights (ACHPR). Article 20 of the Charter states clearly that "All peoples shall have the unquestionable and inalienable right to self-determination. They shall freely determine their political status and shall pursue their economic and social development according to the policy they have freely chosen". No Nigerian government can wish these rights away. As Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka correctly surmised "Nigeria is negotiable, what is not negotiable is the right of the people to decide their future". Unfortunately, National Assembly Legislators who possess the power to restructure and make constitutional changes which would douse tensions, have declared that "it is a majority consensus that all of us desire unity... " Statements like this are baseless. Where did their consensus come from? How large is their purported majority? One of the core ingredients of democracy is plurality of reasoning and accommodation of dissenting voices.

National unity must involve active consultation with and participation of the people. In this regard, the National Assembly has singularly failed to enhance our democracy by developing a process for consulting citizens and gauging public opinion. Once they are elected they distance themselves from the people and their aspirations. Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution provides amongst other things that every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular they may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of their interests. It's an indictment of our political class, our democracy and our institutions that so many Nigerians now feel their interests are best represented by ethnic associations.

The most effective way for government to counter this proliferation of unsophisticated, unreserved, uncivil and vile natured ethic champions who incite enmity and hatred, is to appeal to citizens through superior argument and means. In addition to propagating the advantages of unity, it shouldn't be too difficult to either conduct a referendum or devise some other means of proving that separatist agitators are mere rabble-rousers who don't have the genuine backing of the majority of their people. However, even this will still not negate the urgent need for fundamental reforms in how we govern ourselves and how our economy is run. Government must be honest and accept that proper scrutiny of the failures of our unified nation will underscore the need for restructuring and reformation so that we can re-organise ourselves to do things in a better way.

Any government truly desiring to ease separatist agitations, needs to be emotionally intelligent, sensitive and respectful towards all Nigerian citizens. They should not meet ethnic aspirations with stubborn resistance, and must view separatists as a challenge to their competence not their authority. Even though a good Nigeria is definitely better than a good Arewa, Oduduwa or Biafra, a bad Nigeria may not necessarily be better than any of them. The adage "united we stand divided we fall" is very apt in our circumstances, but Nigerian unity should be as a matter of choice and agreement, not simply because of a fraudulent imposed Constitution.


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