Today Scotland decided against independence through a historic referendum to remain in the 307-year-old union with the United Kingdom. Opponents of independence won 55 percent of the vote while those who want self-rule for Scotland won 45 percent with all 3.6 million votes counted in a record 85 percent turnout.
The referendum was a landmark democratic process not only because of the gravity of the consequence of a yes vote- which would have split the UK, but also for several other significant reasons among which was the near-perfect display of the right and responsibility to vote, and the peaceful acceptance of the people’s wish.
On one side the Alex Salmond-led YES to Independence, on the other the Alistair Darling-led and England-supported NO for the Union, and in-between them the nearly 5 million eligible voting Scots galvanised and wholly interested in taking the destiny of their nation in their hands. The Scottish referendum resonated beyond the British Isles attracting attention from all corners of the world and mirroring in faraway lands the questions, demands, aspirations of “to separate or to remain united?”.
Listening to Nigeria’s Diverse Voices
One of those many lands is Nigeria. The most populated African country with over 200 ethnic groups and more than 250 languages, Nigeria has within it very pronounced ethno-religious differences that have remained a boiling pot for socio-political tensions since the creation of the country by British colonial masters. These simmering tensions have spewed into violent confrontations at several times in the course of the country’s history most notably the Nigerian Civil War caused by the Ojukwu-led Eastern move to secede from Nigeria.
The civil war may have ended with a victory for the continued unity of Nigeria, but the ethnic suspicions have remained and continues to stifle genuine nation building and subvert honest patriotic cooperation across tribal lines. Campaigners for independence among the many nationalities that make up Nigeria have also never gone away, most popular among them the Movement for The Actualization of The Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) still calling for the secession of the Igbo-dominated South-East and the Oodua Peoples Congress in the Yoruba dominated South-West.
Although the campaign for secession in Nigeria is relatively feeble, it does not translate into a political unity across the dominant ethnic lines. Rather the opposite, Political parties in Nigeria still remain heavily built on regions and ethnicities, those who have attempted to bridge the divide have only witnessed struggling results. Government officials and public office holders are most often judged or supported not on their merits but on the basis of where they hail from or how they worship. Resource sharing is also another huge dividing point with regions often at loggerheads with each other over who gets what, all sides supporting the basis that most suits it –from majority control of resources advocated by the generators to distribution dependent on the level of developmental needs by the less resource-filled regions.
Religious differences also leave the country divided even by issues as mundane as the age of marriage for girls. Connected with religious leanings is the difference in the acceptance of the moral and cultural direction of the Nigeria, split between those who see it as a secular country based mainly in the Christian-dominated south and those who support more religious ordinance for the country based in the Muslim dominated Sharia practising north.
Populated with all these tensions, suspicions, sentiments and differing ideologies that mix to hamper social, economic, cultural and political development, taking the Scottish way may be the best choice for Nigeria in its search for a clear path going forward.
Will a Referendum spur a deeper reflection on the Nigerian project?
Albeit independence was the simple question on the ballot, the answers Scotland sought at the polls were of complex issues ranging from cultural identity and desire for a clearer national direction to the demand for political reform as well as greater economic prosperity. Even with the NO vote wining at the end of the day, Scotland definitely seems on the path to finding those answers.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, obviously delighted with the vote against Scottish independence, admits that the issues that brought up the question in the first place now has to be addressed. He has now vowed to forge a new constitutional settlement that would grant Scotland the promised powers but also give greater control to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“Just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare, so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland should be able to vote on these issues,” Cameron words showed that the Scottish vote meant far more than just the question of independence rather of reform for the whole of the UK.
The Leader of the campaign for independence and of the Scottish parliament Alex Salmond has also responded to the NO vote.
“Scotland has by a majority decided not, at this stage, to become an independent country. I accept that verdict of the people and I call on all of Scotland to follow suit in accepting the democratic verdict of the people of Scotland”. Salmond typifies the peaceful acceptance of the will of the people, the very character that democracy breeds.
The Scottish path could also suit Nigeria very well. With the milieu of problems and challenges facing the country, perhaps an honest question on the workability of the amalgamation, on which Nigerians had no say, could well give the country a clearer perspective of its destiny. Such referendum in Nigeria could also spur a genuine reflection and discourse on the pros and cons of remaining united as happened in Scotland. If unity triumphs as it did in Scotland, then it would be on terms acknowledged and accepted by majority of Nigerians.
This would end skirmishes, diffuse suspicions and bring about greater stability for the faster realization of the multitude of potentials abounding in Nigeria. Like Cameron said after the vote “There can be no disputes, no re-runs, we have heard the settled will of the Scottish people.” Nigeria’s leaders could do more knowing and accepting the genuine will of its people. Economic growth and development as well as business investments all react to stability especially with one that provides clarity on the political and societal future.
Getting Everyone Involved in The Nigerian Project
The Scottish example is made more remarkable by the fact that the referendum transcended the political space to get to the ordinary man. It went beyond being a discussion monopolised by politicians to finding its way in the streets and homes of common men. Galvanised by a sense of responsibility Scots as young as 16, understanding the responsibility and importance of their vote, came out en masse to decide their destiny, the result was an 85 percent turnout- one of the highest percentages of democratic participation in the history of modern day democracy.
Nigeria needs this bit of direct democracy; the country held a national conference this year with delegates from the several segments of the society. The representatives have already been criticised in some quarters as not representative of the real demands of the masses. In the case of such direct democracy, everybody’s say counts, something not currently being achieved in Nigeria’s democracy.
Elections in Nigeria struggle to interest even a fraction of the eligible voters with political apathy rife due to the perception of politicians as not genuinely representing the people. As the Scottish example has shown, perhaps a question on the path of the country open to all Nigerians will galvanise national and political awareness and inspire national participation in the direction of the country.
The exemplary peaceful acceptance of the will of the Scottish people must also be something Nigeria has to try to imbibe even in her regular elections where results sometimes throw up skirmishes. To get to that peaceful acceptance however, Nigeria needs fairer and transparent elections. [VA]