The National Question and Self-determination in Nigeria


As we reported in the last edition of Socialist Worker, the revival of separatist politics has again brought heated discussions on the national question and the right of nationalities to self-determination to the fore.

Liberals and many on the socialist left alike have risen to support the calls for secession with the argument that the separatist movements making these calls merely want to enjoy the democratic right to self-determination from Hausa-Fulani oppression.  As revolutionary democrats, we are called upon to support them.

Within the revolutionary movement, broadly speaking, there are also many comrades today who point at the supposedly revolutionary potentials of these separatist movements. They point at the tens of thousands of people who march under the banner of groups such as the Yoruba One Nation and the Indigenous People of Biafra.

We must, however, point out that there are poor people and rich people in the different nationalities. The rich unite in the national government and the boardrooms of big business without consideration of their ethnic differences. And they exploit the poor equally.

But pro-separatist revolutionaries argue that poor people in the south and middle belt bear the heavy death toll of Fulani herders’ clashes with local farmer communities. They also echo the Sultan of Sokoto’s statement that 70% to 80% of apprehended kidnappers are Fulani.

It thus seems logical to them for the RevolutionNow movement to harness its strength with those of the separatists. “The separatists and we have a common enemy,” they argue. We will have new and more homogenous republics once we kick out the Buhari regime (and Fulani hegemony). Even if these immediately fall under the rule of bosses from the nationalities constituting these new republics, the struggle for revolutionary transformation, we are told, will be easier in these new countries.

We must, however, not for one minute, lose sight of the fact that: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” As activists, we need to take a deeper theoretical and political look at the concept and reality of nations, the national question, and the question of self-determination within the context of today’s Nigeria.

Nigeria, nations, and the national question

The Yoruba One Nation sums up the assertion by most of the self-determination groups that they represent distinct nations with histories predating the artificial formation of Nigeria as a colony. Thus, they claim the ethnic groups have been nations for many several centuries.

But this argument runs against historical facts. The peoples now described as Yoruba, for example, did not see themselves as one nation before colonization. They were Egba, Ekiti, Ijebu, Ijesa, and so and on so forth. The Yoruba were the Oyo, who extended imperial might over many of the other peoples.

The situation was even more fluid in today’s South-East. Igbo communities’ social and political organization was republican, and people identified themselves thus as Arochukwu, Ika, Iganke, Igbo-Ukwu, Bende, Ekwe, etc.

The nature of the territory in the delta of the Niger River promoted the flourishing of nationalities and ethnic groups as city-states. Several nations have evolved from these, including the Ijaw, Ibibio, Itsekiri, Urhobo, and Ikwerre. In what is now the middle-belt of Nigeria, diverse communities settled along the Benue and Niger Rivers and the plateau. These, like in the Niger Delta, are minorities in today’s Nigeria.

In the North-East, the Kanuri forged the Kanem-Bornu Empire, which integrated and dominated several minority nationalities in the region over a millennium. In the North-West, the Fulani Jihad of Othman dan Fodio initiated a nation-building project, by conquest, no less than other earlier kingdoms in the other regions.

The nationalities that constitute the multinational body of Nigeria evolved into what could be called nations with the colonization of Nigeria. During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the ruling elites in the different kingdoms and communities organized slave raids.

These were often of people from other communities, including those of the same ethnic groups. There was no idyllic unbroken cord of national solidarity as we are now being made to believe.

The emergence and generalization of nations as a relatively new reality of peoples is not restricted to Nigeria’s history. Colonization was the foothold of capitalist development in Nigeria. Nations as we know them today, and the nation-state, were artificially forged by the capitalists, only with the development of modern industrial society, over the past few hundreds of years.

In most cases, they brought different contiguous pre-capitalist nationalities together under a state. Most of these nation-states are multinational, even where they end up speaking the same language. For example, Britain includes the English, Scottish, and Welsh.

The capitalists in each of them used the states they controlled to mobilize the wealth by exploiting labor and national resources in the nation’s name. The aim was not to benefit the poor masses but to defend and increase the spoils of the few rich who controlled the state. These states were also used to defend the interests of each nation-state’s capitalists in competition with capitalists of other nation-states.

The national question captures the entire body of contradictions between different peoples within and across national borders. These emerge because of real or perceived undermining of some nations’ freedom, integrity, and dignity by others, who are bound together under a state. At the heart of this important question is thus the resistance, the struggle of nations that perceive themselves as being subjugated against their continued or perceived domination by another.

Thus, whilst the focus is always on the internal aspects of the national question, it has both external and internal aspects. For example, the colonized peoples of Nigeria stood up as a body against their domination within the British colonial state of Nigeria.

What the subjugated nation demands is its right to determine its fate, devoid of the control of the dominating nation. It fights for its right to self-determination. This does not mean that there are no contradictions within such dominated or colonized nations.

For example, as a multinational entity in Nigeria, British colonialism had helped shape differences between the north and the south. Educational institutions, including modern Islamic schools, were banned from the core north. Emirs, their children, and leading courtiers in the emirates were vested with great powers as native authorities.

These policies, which were part of the colonialists’ divide and rule strategy, were meant to block the growth of radical forces in that part of the country and maintain an internally divided Nigeria. But the oppressed nationalities in this chessboard of power, from the colonial era till today, were not the Yoruba or the Igbo. They were and remain the minorities in the Middle Belt and the Niger Delta.

When these oppressed nationalities expressed their fears at the Henry Willink commission on the eve of independence, the Northern, Western, and Eastern power elites set aside their differences, they stood united in pursuit of continued domination of the minorities, particularly in the Niger Delta where oil had been struck in commercial quantities.

The right to self-determination; principle and political complexities

Many on the socialist left have put forward the formulation of support for the right to self-determination in an unqualified manner. However, as socialists, we support the right of oppressed nations and nationalities to self-determination. In the case of Nigeria, this would mean the right of the minority nationalities to self-determination.

Generalized support for the right of self-determination to all nationalities, including dominant nationalities, would amount to a continued right of one or more dominant nationalities over the oppressed nationalities.

We saw how this played itself out during the Civil War. The minority nationalities of the Niger Delta remained in chains during the short-lived Republic of Biafra. Meanwhile, IPOB, for example, still maintains the map of the old Biafra, which includes these nationalities, for the country it seeks to re-establish.

Similarly, all the maps drawn by O’odua separatist agitators include the old Mid-Western region, which comprises several minority nationalities like the Edo-speaking peoples, and the diverse peoples of Delta state. Some of these maps even go as far as including the Ijaws. This led to sharp rebuttals of Ayo Adebanjo by Ijaw traditional chiefs and other elites in 2017.

However, it is not enough to grasp that support for the right of self-determination must be clear about its reference point being oppressed nationalities. It is equally important to understand what the right to self-determination means and why as socialists, we support this right in principle.

The right to self-determination is bourgeois-democratic. It cannot be restricted to simply a right to cultural self-determination. It is a political right, and thus one that loses all meaning if it does not include the right to secession. The fashionable formulation on the left of adding “including up to secession” or similar words is redundant.

This bourgeois-democratic right is supported in principle by socialists to enable the flourishing of social and economic development of oppressed nationalities. Oppressor nations hinder the development of oppressed nations. This is graphically demonstrated in the relationship between colonizing and colonized nations.

The truth is concrete, and we must apply principles, including that of the right of oppressed nationalities, to conduct a concrete analysis of concrete reality. As we have pointed out, the oppressed nations in the country are the minority nationalities.

These are mainly in the Niger Delta and the Middle Belt. And they comprise over three hundred nationalities. The populations of the larger ones range from Ijaws, Tivs, and Ibibio with 15 million, 14 million, and 10 million people respectively, to the Ogoni, Efik, and Tarok, with 832,000, 615,00, and 528,000.

The population of a significant number of minority ethnic groups is even less than 300,000. Some like the Bahumono in Cross River state have less than 60,000 people and the Chip in Plateau state, less than 15,000.

The practicability of social and economic life flourishing in the smaller nationalities as independent nation-states are thus next to nil. But for that to undermine support for their right to self-determination as oppressed nationalities renders the application of such support as a principled position null as well.

It is, however, not just the disparate sizes of the minority nationalities that is the issue here. It is also how woven tight they are with the larger minority groups at different levels and the political consequences.

First, if we were to have the Niger Delta Republic as Isaac Adaka Boro fought for in February 1966, we would have a situation where the Ijaw automatically assumes a position of dominance with which it could oppress the smaller Niger Delta minorities. Even in the radical self-determination movements of the 1990s, the Chikoko movement, which started as a Pan-Niger Delta Resistance Movement, was supplanted in no time by the Ijaw Youth Council.

Apart from this macro-level contradiction in the Niger Delta, as our example, more localized conflicts between nationalities within different zones of this region are likely to take on added steam. In the western zone of the region, the Urhobos, with a population of 4 million people, has been at loggerheads with the Itsekiri, which, with a population of 1 million, considers the former as settlers in Warri.

An uncritical approach to applying the principle of support for the right to self-determination would be like cutting off one’s nose to spite their face. With the reality of the Nigerian situation, it would be very much like peeling an onion.

And this, as we have shown, goes deeper than the often-cited issue of intra-ethnic conflicts such as those between the Ife and Modakeke in the Yoruba Southwest or the Umuleri and Aguleri in the Igbo Southeast.

We must now ask the question; does this array of complexities then call for socialists to jettison support for the right to self-determination? Our simple response is – absolutely not!

We support the right of oppressed nationalities to self-determination. But we must tell the people the truth about the consequences of realizing that right. And supporting this democratic right, which of necessity for us includes the right to secession, most not be construed to support secession.

As Voltaire is reported to have once said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” We would likewise say that, as socialists, we disapprove of secession in the context before us, but we will fully defend the right of oppressed nationalities to self-determination.

Does this mean we stand by Nigeria’s so-called “indivisibility and indissolubility” or with those who insist that Nigeria’s unity is “not negotiable”? To this, again, we say no. That is absolute nonsense!

This nonsense is more often than not peddled by those who benefit from capitalist Nigeria’s exploitative and oppressive structure. Contrary to what we would be made to believe, these are not only the Hausa or Fulani sections of the ruling class.

When elites from other sections of the country raise questions or agitate against the reality of the propertied classes’ unity as the united nation, they negotiate better slices of the national cake for themselves.

Their calls for “restructuring” or “resource control” backed with subtle threats of secession if they don’t get these brands of butter for their bread is just another tactic in the strategy of political mobilization of ethnicity, which Bala Usman once described as a “game of masks.”

Nigeria is an unjust social-economic and political contraption. It is both divisible and dissoluble. Indeed, at the pace things are going, it might be heading for an implosion. But we want much more than the negotiation of a new Nigeria. This contraption needs to be overthrown, and a new society built on its ashes.

Separatism, class, and lessons from the past

The most important line of division in any oppressive society is between the rich few classes and that of the impoverished majority. This social line of division between classes emerges and is sustained by the daily economic relationship, which allows the class of capitalists to exploit the classes of the working people. Oppression inevitably serves to maintain the structures of exploitation.

There are two “nations” in every nation or nationality, reflecting this class line. These are the “nation” of the exploiter few, the 1%, and the “nation” of the exploited majority, the 99%. We have thus far focused on the national question and self-determination, as if each nation were a united body of all classes, for three intertwined reasons.

First, some Marxists dismiss the national question as nothing but a capitalist distraction. They think it is enough to say that there are only poor people and rich people everywhere, and that is the end of the matter.

Second, time and again, history has shown the futility of such delusional dismissal. Revolutionaries who replace robust analyses and informed class-based agitation on the national question with seemingly revolutionary cliches and slogans do so at the peril of the real revolutionary struggle of the working-class.

Third, the concept of self-determination emerged historically from the general oppression of both the class of exploiters and exploited of the oppressed nation. Take, for example, the case of the colonial era once again.

There were already very wealthy, native bourgeois men and families of millionaires at the time. These included the Babington Macaulays, the Candido Da Rochas, the Louis Ojukwus, and the Alhassan Dantatas.

Rich and bourgeois as they were, they were considered inferior to even some of the most junior British colonial “expatriates.” And they were at best subsidiary within the exercise of state power, a power which loomed over them, in some respects at least, as much as it did on the poor “natives.”

The political principle of self-determination thus informed the national liberation struggle. Within the context of the neocolonial Nigerian nation-state, no self-determination struggle can in truth and deed be considered a national liberation movement.

Capitalists from all the nationalities are involved in running the county as executives (including as “super permanent secretaries), legislators, and businesspeople, at national, state, and local government council levels.

Similarly, the poor of all nationalities are equally impoverished. In fact, poverty is much greater in the so-called oppressor North. They have also borne the immense blows of insecurity. The challenge is for us to forge the unity and struggles of the poor masses across all regions of the country and beyond.

There are no maps of the future. But we have the compass of theory and history. We must draw lessons from the dynamics of earlier waves of separatism by understanding their class contents and where they led.

Who bore the brunt of the Civil War? It was the poor masses. As rank-and-file soldiers, they were killed on the battlefields. When the federal government used starvation as a dastardly weapon, those who died from hunger in Biafra were the children of the poor masses. The high and mighty and their families were hale and hearty.

It is to the shame of the Nigerian left that most socialists lined up behind the Federal Government or Biafra. The principled stand, which Wole Soyinka, who is not a socialist, took would have been to fight for the unity of working-class people across the lines of war.

If that were not bad enough, the next major wave of separatist politics was spurred by groups and persons on the socialist left. This was in the wake of the June 12 election’s annulment in the 1990s. Self-acclaimed socialists formed the O’odua Youth Movement and helped strengthen the O’odua Peoples Congress in the South-West. In the Niger Delta, as we pointed out earlier, the Chikoko Movement was formed – by socialists.

There were several stated and unstated reasons for this. For some, the self-determination route was seen as a shortcut. It would be easier to defeat the bourgeoisie in nations organized on an ethnic basis, they argued. For others, it was nothing but crass opportunism from the very beginning.

But irrespective of the reasons, all those movements only helped to steer working-class people into service for the capitalists and petty capitalists who rode on the tails of the movement to become capitalists or “feudal lords.”

The 1990s wave of self-determination was a tragedy. The current wave is a farce. At the head of the movements in this wave are political thugs, 419ners, and such. Longstanding activists cheering such movements must have learned nothing and forgotten everything.

We must not get carried away by the large crowds these movements appear to have mobilized. It is not all that glitters that is gold. The Fascists and Nazis mobilized much larger crowds in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. But these were reactionary right-wing movements.

The national question in Nigeria cannot be resolved within the framework of capitalism. The “self-determination” which separatist agitators are fighting for is for the autonomy of each nationality’s capitalists to have autonomy as the sole exploiter of the working masses in each of these nationalities.

Within the global nature of capitalism, this illusory aim will only further the division of working-class people. We must learn from our past and the experiences of countries like Sudan, where the wild goose of secession was chased into its roost.

Revolutionaries must be unrelenting in showing the dangers of these movements, which pass themselves off as waging a radical struggle for self-determination. Our primary task is to forge the unity of workers and youths across the country for the revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism.

by Baba AYE