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Lessons from Brexit

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Britain’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives back at 10 Downing Street in London on July 24, 2019. – Boris Johnson took charge as Britain’s prime minister on Wednesday, on a mission to deliver Brexit by October 31 with or without a deal. (Photo by Isabel Infantes / AFP)

If you like constitutionalism and geopolitics, you are likely to have found Brexit and the issues around it wholly fascinating. It is a process that somewhat removed Nigeria and one that could yet be an opportunity if we upped our exports game. Rather than the economic possibilities however, I think there are several lessons in governance that we ought to take as a country.

Manifestos matter. In 2010, the Conservative Party (also known as the ‘Tories’ or ‘Tory Party’) did not win enough seats to secure an outright majority in parliament and had to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats (the “Libdems”).

The consensus was that one of the key reasons for the result at the polls and a threat that was growing stronger as the number of Traditional Tory voters being attracted by the UK Independence Party (“UKIP”), at the time under the leadership of Nigel Farage, with its unequivocal anti-EU policy. To ward off this threat in 2015, the Tory manifesto promised a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

The Tories won an outright majority this time and technical, as a party that was pro-EU membership, they could have sat on the referendum question. But manifestos matter in Britain and reneging on that key promise would very likely have had an impact on the next general elections.

In Nigeria, we treat manifestos a little more aspirational, rather than firm commitments the government makes as the deal for getting elected. Of course, there is the argument that manifestos cannot be 100% binding. However, when they are routinely cast aside or are only a very sketchy guide at best, the inevitable result is the cynicism our country drips with today. If a party or a public official is unable to fulfill the key planks of their manifesto, what is the basis for re-electing them?

Power rests with the People. The question that ended the preceding paragraph implicitly assumes that power rests with the people, that elections are free and fair, and that politicians and public office holders believe they are accountable to the people.

In Nigeria, the compelling evidence is to the contrary, as elections are extremely violent and bloody, and afterwards, Nigerians are not allowed to protest government policy or express dissent without the State Security Services arresting them or inviting them for questioning. And as for accountability, we have a President and several governors who will not present themselves regularly to the press to answer questions, even though they can in all likelihood handpick a friendly press panel.

The Brexit referendum was called because the government of the day understood that it served at the pleasure of the people. Since the referendum result was announced, and with every think tank and agency that should know suggesting that leaving the EU would be a net negative for the UK, the ruling class has been battling with how it respects the referendum result without breaching the public trust. Virtually every day there is some sort of government briefing or update, with the Opposition and the Press fully holding the government to account. As a Nigerian, you can be forgiven for thinking that MI5 and MI6 only exist in spy novels.

Unity is always being negotiated. One of the biggest carryovers from our very regrettable experience of military dictatorships is that an inordinate number of Nigerians with authority, civil or government, lead by diktat. Once a leader declares a matter closed, then it is closed regardless of how open everyone can see that it is. And so, at some point in the past, someone decided that the unity of Nigeria was not negotiable and they even stuck it in section 2 of the Constitution we were handed by the military.

We became a single territorial unit in 1914, so we are a fairly new union compared with United Kingdom where the Union of the Crowns happened in the early 1600s. However, there was a Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 and it has been suggested that there ought to be another once Britain leaves the EU, because Scotland voted strongly to remain in the EU at the 2015 referendum. It has also been suggested that there should be an Irish Reunification referendum if Brexit means that there needs to be a more robust administrative division between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Even Wales, which would not be able to finance self-government has its own agitators for independence.

Nigeria is far more ethnically heterogeneous than the countries that make up the UK, so there are naturally more competing interests. The best forum we have had to discuss these interests are our various constitutional conferences. If constitutional conference outcomes continue to remain unimplemented, fidelity to our supposedly non-negotiable union will continue to be tested.


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