War or referendum: The British example

Barring any last-minute miracle, Britain is out of the European Union. A referendum sanctioned by an over-confident Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, produced a shock result that signalled the exit of Britain from the EU in what has now come to be tagged Brexit (or British exit).The margin was close: 51.9 for exit and 49.1 for stay – and that is what makes it even more painful for the gallant losers. The demography of the poll shows that the oldies voted for exit while the youth wanted to remain in Europe. Cosmopolitan London as well as Scotland also voted EU. Scotland has thus begun to rue its own decision in a recent referendum to remain in the United Kingdom instead of becoming an independent nation of its own. It may now want to revisit the issue in view of new developments. Some radicals are also pushing London to “secede”, so to say, and go with EU. Cameron, on his part, is quitting as PM because, according to him, he cannot navigate a course or midwife a cause he does not believe in. That is integrity and the path of honour, although there are many who are accusing him of putting fire to the house and bolting!

As they say, winners never quit and quitters never win. Encouraged and buoyed by the outcome of the Scotland referendum, Cameron had thought to win the EU argument as well – but he terribly misfired. Although some incurable optimists are still reaching out for last-grasp straws to undo what has been done apart; the next line of action is to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU in such a way that will cause less pain and dislocation to those exiting and those remaining in the Union.

In the interim, many of the analyses, conjectures, and predictions remain majorly in the realm of speculations. There is palpable fear in the air, but no one can say for sure whether Brexit will, ultimately, be for good or for evil. No one has travelled this road before; so we never can be too sure what lies in wait. Will Britain regret this decision? Pro-EU folks think so. But the Brexit people are more concerned with what Britain had lost already and which they wanted recouped by all means. Hence, they are derided as people nostalgic about a past which may not have been as romantic as it has been painted and which, in the global village that the world has become today, may be absolutely non-recoverable. But Europe as it is has not been without its failures, pains, and frustrations. And if you are not certain where you are heading, you can at least return to where you are coming from! We will soon find out which of the two divergent views is right!

Britain has never been enthusiastic about Europe. It was a reluctant joiner and late entrant; and it gave all manner of conditions and extracted all possible concessions before fearfully – and tearfully – stepping on board. And it has never stopped looking back over its shoulders ever since! It has had many demons to contend with: It feared for its solid economy; that it would be made to subsidise Europe’s poor; it feared for its illustrious history; that it would be swarmed and might lose her cultural identity; its history teaches it to be wary of France and Germany, but Europe compels that rivalry and circumspection give way to integration and cooperation; and as attractive as Europe as a possible third force in a bi-polar world may be to some, it does not recommend itself as much as Pax Britannia, even though its resurrection is as remote as the recovery of the lost city of Atlantis.

Would Cameron have called for referendum if he had a whiff of doubt he would win it? Perhaps not! Nevertheless, Britain would still have had to confront that demon at some point. The opposition to Europe is so widespread that it hampered Britain’s effective participation in the continental organisation as well as weighed down the EU itself. Resolving the doubt was a task that must be done and the earlier, the better. Necessities, when postponed, ultimately increase the cost that we eventually get to pay. Now, everyone can heave a sigh of relief and face up to realities.

Referendums are an important weapon in a democracy. It is the sovereign power of the people to decide the shape and flow of events. Often, representative government with all its imperfections does not adequately represent the people. The whims and caprices of the ruling elite often masquerade; nay, nakedly displace the wishes of the people. According to the Marxian thesis, the ruling ideas in any given society are the ideas of the ruling class. Bourgeois theorists of power also posit that in all human societies, irrespective of the system of government in place, the elite rule. Even where revolutions take place and the existing social and political order is dislocated, it soon settles and a new set of “masters” replaces the decadent and the drudgery continues. In no society do the people rule in the real sense of the word. Thus, democracy, with all its trappings and attractions, is, at best, make-believe, and, at the worst, a ruse. We are thousands of years removed from the Greek city-states where democracy, properly so-called, flourished.

Referendums are, however, to be preferred to wars. Britain has tasted both and may have come to the inevitable conclusion that bowing to the wishes of the people is far better than trying to hold down an unwilling people and forcing bitter pills down their throats. Its gruelling war against the Irish Republican Army remains fresh in everyone’s memory. When the clamour for Scotland break-away was becoming a din, a referendum was the preferred option, rather than another gruelling IRA experience; and as fate would have it, Scotland voted to remain in the UK. That settled it – at least before Brexit!

Nigeria has a lot to learn from Britain. We, too, had fought a gruelling 30-month Civil War to frustrate Biafra secessionist bid and keep the country one. By various accounts, between one and two million lives were lost to the war. Imagine if we had resorted to referendum instead of war! I know many would say it was a distant possibility that the South-East, as we know it today, would have voted to remain in Nigeria – but how about the South-South? It appeared they would not have voted to go with Biafra; for that would have amounted to exchanging one overbearing master for another and a Pharaoh for a Sennacherib.

As if he had a premonition that the victory by the federal side would eventually be pyrrhic, the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, had declared, after the Biafran surrender, “no victor; no vanquished.” Events today, where Biafra is resurging, have proved Gowon right. If care is not taken, we may fight yet another civil war over the same issue all over again and in the end, the matter may still not be decisively resolved, even if Biafra is defeated a second time. The fact that the South-South had since the end of the Civil War of 1967–1970 transmuted from a docile community to, perhaps, the most militant community in the country today has radically changed the ball game.

Niger Delta militants are miles ahead of Biafra in terms of the capacity and capability to deliver destruction. While Biafra can yet be ignored, we do so to the Niger Delta militants to our peril. Faced with the same danger; and having similar goals, both are networking, collaborating, and cooperating. That is very dangerous. It was because this kind of understanding was lacking in 1967 between the South-East and South-South that it was relatively easy to isolate Biafra and quash it. With the synergy between both, the next civil war – God forbid! – will not be that easy to fight; moreso with the groundswell of discontentment in the South-West which sided with the Federal cause in 1967. This time, it will be much harder to convince the South-West to vote Nigeria. It seems much more likely to expect that they will rather vote with their legs!

But rather than get to the edge of the cliff to find out what will be obtainable, I think it makes more sense to rule out war completely and choose, instead, referendum. What the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, said recently, to wit; that the country’s sovereignty is negotiable, is not novel in that it has been said again and again by many people. Only those who delude themselves say that the unity of this country is not negotiable. It is! And one day very soon, it will, whether on the battlefield or with the ballot box in a referendum. My preference is for the latter but those who are in vantage position to decide appear to have other ideas.

It is sad that a Muhammadu Buhari administration that Nigerians pinned great hopes upon has roundly disappointed. Buhari’s administration has unravelled within just one year in office. Today, Sai Baba’s demystification is total. He has not been a Nigeria president but a Northern/Muslim/Fulani president – in his appointments; in his speeches and statements; in his policies; in turning a blind spot to the activities of Fulani herdsmen, already catalogued as the fourth most deadly terrorist group in the world, while he breathes hostilities towards Biafra and Niger Delta militants; in the recent ethnic cleansing of the South in the Army; in the hounding of opponents under the ruse of an anti-corruption war; in the selectiveness of the “war” that shields Army Chief Tukur Buratai but parades the Amosus, Adiguns and Gbadebos of this world; among so many other infractions. At no other time in the history of this country has a leader been so contemptuous and snobbish of the necessity to carry every segment of the country along! Equity and fair play; justice and sincerity of purpose are virtues alien to the Buhari administration. And that is sure recipe for disaster.