For all the reasons advanced by the opponents and proponents of the Britain’s exit from the European Union, what is clear is that David Cameron, the charismatic 49-year-old UK prime minister of Nigeria’s former colonial administration will go down in history as a true democrat who believes in plurality of voices. Under his leadership, he expanded the choice and voice of British citizens in major decisions affecting them especially those foisted by history.
In 2014, he initiated the referendum that asked citizens of Scotland if they wanted to remain within the United Kingdom? This followed consistent complaints of marginalization of Scottish nation from Westminster administration. The referendum experienced vigorous debates and ultimately those who supported secession lost in the polls and today Scotland remains a part of Great Britain with additional guarantees and offers to address Scotts’ grievances with the central government.
Brexit, a policy proposal that sought to ask British citizens their preference regarding the country’s continued membership of the European Union – a politico-economic union of 28 member states that are located primarily in Europe. Since the ‘Maastricht’ Treaty’ of 1993 that ensured a single market that guaranteed free movement of goods, services, people and money, some British policy makers never really came to terms with an integrated Europe under Euro currency- the single monetary union, hence its heavy reliance on the pound.
It is under the climate of distaste for the union and embrace of British identity that eligible voters of British, Irish, and Commonwealth citizens over 18 who are resident in the U.K., along with U.K. nationals living abroad set out to end the Brexit debate. The broad electorate also included members of the House of Lords and Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar.
The merits and demerits of British exit from European Union have been widely discussed among political pundits and policy makers. The stay-in EU advocates argue that European Union without Britain is caricature of itself and will severely impact global economic security. Part of the reasons for emergence of European Union is to assist United States in carrying the burden of world’s most pressing challenges. That is why President Obama went to London to galvanize support for his counterpart – Cameron who wanted Britain to stay in EU. On the other hand, those who favored exit were driven by nativists or nationalists who are worried about the influx of immigrants from other countries against the backdrop of the ‘Schengen’ agreements that allow people to travel without having their passports checked at the borders. The panic caused by jihadists across Europe, America, and Africa also bolsters their argument for Britain to protect itself.
The opinion polls on the debate remained vastly divided for the whole period of the Brexit campaigns with occasional shifts to either sides of the debate thereby created uncertainty about the outcome. Finally, the country has decided to leave the European Union and the Prime Minister, David Cameron resigns. The outcome of the Brexit vote notwithstanding, the decision to hold the referendum in itself is a triumph for democracy, pluralism, and citizen participation.
The echoes the Brexit referendum should reverberate across the Atlantic Ocean to reach Nigeria and other African countries as well as across the deserts to reach Iraq and other Middle East countries where British colonial governments forged artificial unions among disparate and heterogeneous entities that were not supposed to be together.
For example, it will be a good idea for African governments to emulate Britain’s courage to sample the opinion of their citizens in relation to their future and self-determination. In this regard, Britain and other Western powers should nudge Nigerian government to conduct a similar referendum in the country in which Nigerian citizens could be asked for the first time if they wanted to stay in the Nigerian Union? This will be a departure from the phony constituent assembly held at different times in Nigeria’s history that had the people’s representatives turn to represent their personal interests. Similarly, citizens of Iraq – fragmented among the Sunnis, Kurds, and Shiites should be encouraged to conduct a referendum on whether they want to continue living under one country created by the British many years ago. If Britons who negotiated their membership of EU from inception have the right to debate and vote for or against their continued EU membership, Nigerian and Iraqi citizens or any other geographical and political entity for that matter should have the same right and opportunity to determine their future. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.
Not long ago, in 2014, about 97 per cent of Crimean voters overwhelmingly backed a referendum to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Similarly, South Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011 following a successful referendum to ease that region of protracted fratricidal wars. Redrawing the map or review of territories imposed by colonial administration with the goal of bringing people who share a common bond and homogeneous culture will contribute to less violence in some regions of the world.
Everyone acknowledges that mistakes were made by colonial adventurers in sharing the territories that did not belong to them. They shared it like a loot with little or no care about the future of native peoples. Nowhere are these mistakes more rampant than Africa where borders were carved out by colonial administrations without the consent of indigenous peoples. In November 1884, at the request of Portugal, the then German chancellor Otto von Bismarck called together the major western powers of the world to negotiate questions and end confusion over the control of Africa in the famous Berlin conference. At that conference not a single African participated and yet they divided Africa among themselves and in most cases separated kith and kin and put them in different countries. Today, you find the Yoruba ethnic group in Nigeria scattered in neighboring Benin Republic, and Togo; then the Ewe speaking part of Ghana also found in Cote d’Ivoire. In East Africa, Kenya, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi have similar stories of separated kith and kin.
In fact, most of the wars and violence in Africa are traceable to these artificial boundaries. The Biafra war in Nigeria that took place between 1967 and 1970 is believed to have occurred because disparate entities of present Nigeria were forced to coexist together not by their will but by the whims of political expediency. More than one hundred years after the amalgamation of the North and South of Nigeria, the country still faces the challenge of a forced union. The sectarian violence that continues to threaten Iraq is because Britain did not consider the consanguinity of the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis, instead the colonial Britain was concerned about its economic interests at the time. That self-interest persists to this day.
The reality is that chances of political and economic stability are more in states with common language and identity. United States is stable because they speak the same language and citizens are therefore able to communicate with one another without interpreters.
Brexit vote is about identity and pride of a country. It is not about correcting historical mistakes like the mistakes made in forced marriage of many African and Middle East countries. After all, Britain elected to join EU in 1975 and now divorces the same union when the marriage became unsustainable. By contrast Africa and some Middle East countries were forced to remain together against the wishes and aspirations of citizens. This is the time to right the wrongs of history.
Dr. Uchenna Ekwo is a public policy analyst