In light of recent happenings across the Nigerian polity, it is expedient to provide an informed opinion on the necessity of referendum as a tool for political engagement in Nigeria. Though there have been ceaseless undercurrents of agitation on the creation of the state of Biafra over the years, there has been in the past few months a resurgence of the campaign, particularly since the incarceration (and subsequent release) of Nnamdi Kanu, a leading member of the Biafran Separatist organization, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
Likewise, careless statements made by individuals (elites) and organisations on both sides of the divide on the secession agenda have only served as sparks to re-ignite already heated tensions. The recent call by the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum for the Igbos to leave the northern part of Nigeria and return to the East coupled with actions credited to it and harsh response of the offended (The Igbos) shows the level at which the issue has degenerated to.
In our estimation, the recent tensions in the polity require a more innovative response than that which is currently available to the Nigerian citizenry legally and politically. Moreover, the process of constitutional amendment is so arduous that it often times defeats the purpose of expediency in reaction to pressing issues that require urgent attention. This is however, not to imply in any way that weighty matters of national importance should be resolved with microwave solutions.
It should be noted that most developed countries of the world employ referendum as a veritable tool for civil engagement in shaping laws and public policy. A referendum need not be legally binding, but can serve as an advisory instrument to measure the people’s opinion and it is known to be the most acceptable way of measuring people’s opinion on national matters.
The 2016 UK Brexit Referendum, the Turkish Referendum of 2017 on constitutional reforms, as well as the frequent Swiss Referendum held concerning issues ranging from tax matters to questions of immigration, are an illustration of the importance placed on the use of referendum by civilised nations or nations who see their citizenry as major stakeholders with full and equal rights to make known their decision on national matters.
Analysis of statutory provisions
The Preamble of the Nigerian Constitution states that;
“We the People of Nigeria,
Having firmly and solemnly resolved to live in unity and harmony as one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign nation under God, dedicated to the promotion of inter-African solidarity, world peace, international co-operation and understanding,
And to provide for a Constitution for the purpose of promoting the good government and welfare of all persons in our country, on the principles of freedom, equality and justice, and for the purpose of consolidating the unity of our people
Do hereby make, enact and give to ourselves the following Constitution:”
The implication of the preamble is that there is a consensus of the people of Nigeria to create for themselves a government, that is, to be a self-governing people.
Furthermore, Section 14 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria states-
“(1) The Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be a State based on the principles of democracy and social justice.
(2) It is hereby, accordingly, declared that:
(a) Sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government through this Constitution derives all its powers and authority;
(b) The security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government: and
(c) The participation by the people in their government shall be ensured in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.”
Nigeria is a democratic nation; and sovereignty belongs to the people, and as such all Nigeria citizens of full age should be allowed the opportunity to make direct decisions where necessary on issues of national importance.
Section 17 of the Constitution stipulates that;
(1) The State social order is founded on ideals of Freedom, Equality and Justice.
(2) In furtherance of the social order-
(a) every citizen shall have equality of rights, obligations and opportunities before the law;”
The Electoral Act 2010, Section 2, powers of INEC, states that
“INEC can conduct referendum on any subject pursuant to the provisions of the 1999 Constitution, any other law or an Act of the National Assembly.”
It seems that the “framers” of the Electoral Act have caught up with the times and engaged a more progressive attitude to the issue of referendum. The contradiction is obvious, as the Act presupposes the existence of a provision in the constitution that is, in fact, non-existent. The same progressive attitude should be applied to the ground norm, that is, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria
Moving closer to the heart of the matter, the right to self-determination is a cardinal and fundamental principle in modern international law. It is jus cogens, that is to say it is a peremptory norm, to be mandatorily followed by member states of the international community.
Article 15 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that, “everyone has a right to a nationality.” As such, it is not out of place or unheard of for a particular people to desire nationhood at a given point in time for whatever reasons they believe are cogent.
A referendum, as a vote in which everyone of voting age can take part in answering sensitive national questions, thereby guiding policy makers on the direction popular with the people, is a veritable instrument for the promulgation of democracy,- a cardinal principle on which the Nigerian nation is founded on. Engaging the citizen in the political process of decision making gives him a sense of belonging and is a validation of his constitutionally guaranteed right to social justice.
Given the fact that a referendum as a tool could be either legally binding or simply advisory, there should be no fracas as to its implementation. It could simply serve as a means to measure the people’s opinion on a particular issue, which is also essential to good governance, and is crucial to the maintenance of a healthy relationship between the government and the governed. As such provision should be made for the usage of referendum in the political process.
In the words of Benjamin Disraeli; Former UK Prime-minister “Change is inevitable in a progressive society. Change is constant.”
The realisation of Biafra is a desire of at least a segment of the Nigerian population. The recent agitations for the same are not mere conjecture. It would be unwise to leave the issue unattended to without a veritable solution to the causative factors.
It should be noted that the use of referendum is not entirely foreign to the Nigerian political system. A referendum was used to decide whether to create a Mid-Western Region from the Old Western Region. A yes vote led to the creation of the Mid-Western Region on August 9th 1963. The fear among the Nigerian populace in conducting a referendum is understandable, considering it is a measure that has rarely been previously invoked, and there is great uncertainty as to the next course of action in the event of an overwhelming vote to secede.
This should however not be an impediment to the evolution of a political process that is very much due for review. Courage and innovation must be embraced in the country’s political system if Nigeria is to thrive, whether in its current form or in an altered arrangement.
The National Assembly must as a matter of urgency provide for the instrument of referendum either as an Act or as an amendment in the Nigerian Constitution.
Olajengbesi Esq, Abuja-based legal practitioner, is also Executive Secretary of United Global Resolve for Peace (UGRFP)