The ECOWAS Court of Justice has dismissed an application brought by four Applicants seeking self-determination for the Yoruba people of Nigeria for lack of capacity to sue for themselves and on behalf of the Yoruba Nation.

Delivering the judgment on Monday 13 March 2023, Hon. Justice Dupe Atoki said that, to decide the outcome of the case, the Court had, first, to determine whether the Applicants had the capacity to sue as individuals and on behalf of the Yoruba Nation.

As individuals, the Court said that the Applicants had to prove their ability to act as bearers of the right to self-determination ascribed to the Yoruba people and relied on the definition of the African Commission of the concept of a people as a group of persons “bound together by their historical, traditional, racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious, ideological, geographical, economic identities and affinities…”.

The Court therefore found that the four applicants did not qualify to be the bearers or holders of such rights and declared that they did not have the capacity to sue the Respondent State for themselves.

On the other hand, the Court held that the Applicants had to exhibit their capacity to represent the Yoruba people, for whom the action was instituted, noting that in cases of right to self-determination, “a representative action is the appropriate and indeed the most practicable option in seeking relief for violation of this right.”

However, for a representative action initiated by an individual to succeed, the Court said the presentation of an authority to act from the alleged victim(s) is required, adding that it found no  such evidence of authority given by the Yoruba Nation and subsequently declared the application inadmissible.

In suit No ECW/CCJ/APP/08/22, the four Applicants, Risqat Badmus, Ademola Faleti, Yemisi Fadahunsi-Ogunlana and Adigun Makanjuola, all members of the Coalition of Yoruba Interest Group sued the Federal Republic of Nigeria, seeking a declaration by the Court to activate their rights to self-determination as provided for under Article 20 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and Articles 3, 4, 7 and 18 of the United Nations Declaration on the rights of the indigenous People.

The Applicants, who also belong to the Nigerian Indigenous Nationalities Alliance for Self-Determination (NINAS) said they raised a petition titled Constitutional Force Majeure Proclamation and gave the Respondent a 90-days ultimatum to respond.

In their petition, the Applicants argued that Nigeria was constituted in 1914 by the British Government without taking into account the social, cultural, religious and ethnic configuration of the country. They added that since its independence in 1960 which was supposed to be based on true federalism, Nigeria has not been able to forge a common interest that will ensure the development of all the federating units. They alleged that the Northern States set the precedence for their action in 2000 when they adopted the Sharia Law, de facto ceding from Nigeria. 

They argued that the Constitutional Force Majeure Proclamation, published in newspapers, was an opportunity for the Respondent to set the country on the path of better governance and that by choosing not to reply to their petition, the Respondent acknowledged the inadequacy of the 1999 Constitution and its inability to administer power over its territory, therefore opening the door for self-determination for the Yorubas.

The Applicants are asking the Court to determine if the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 was still operable following the deadline they gave the Federal Government in the Constitutional Force Majeure proclamation. They are also asking the Court to determine if the new legislation, laws, directives, and decrees were still operational within the Applicants’ territories since the expiration of the proclamation. Finally, the Applicants are seeking the Court’s opinion on the possibility of self-determination for the territories in Yorubaland.

The Applicants suggested an alternative in which the Court would order the Respondent to organize a referendum giving the opportunity to the Applicants’ land to exit the Respondent’s territory.

In its reply, the Federal Republic of Nigeria said the Applicants sought to threaten the sovereignty and autonomy of the country and were invoking “the jurisdiction of this Honourable Court to determine the validity of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999”.

The Respondent argued that the country is a Federation observing the rule of law and that the Applicants did not have the authority to determine the efficacy of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The Respondent contended that the case has nothing to do with human rights violation, but an attempt to upturn the country’s Constitution which is not within the jurisdiction of the Court.

Moreover, the Responded said that the publication in a newspaper of the Constitutional Force Majeure Proclamation did not amount to a bill of the National Assembly which has the sole power to amend any perceived lacuna in the Constitution.

Furthermore, the Respondent insisted that Nigeria gained independence as a unified and indivisible State in 1960 which the ECOWAS Court of Justice has no power to dissolve.

It, therefore, urged the Court to dismiss the suit, concluding that it was mainly based on individual opinions, speculations and insinuations.

The panel also includes Justices Edward Amoako Asante (presiding) and Gberi-Bè Ouattara.