Flowing from the views I expressed here last week about how anonymous Nigerians have become due to the poor data system to document citizens, another fundamental question remains what it means to be a Nigerian citizen. This question becomes germane because of the undue focus on the word ‘indigene’ in Nigeria.
While the Constitution guarantees certain rights of citizens including the freedom from discrimination on account of circumstance of birth, sex and place of origin, etc, the same document makes room for the granting of advantages on the basis of being an ‘indigene’ of a particular place, even when it does not define what that means.
For instance, the Constitution makes reference to ‘indigenes’ in the proviso to Section 147(2) on the appointment of ministers of government of the federation. Similar provisions are made with regards to the appointment of commissioners of governments at the state level. Yet, nowhere in the Constitution is there a definition of the word ‘indigene’.
This has led to various cases of infraction of citizens rights by all tiers of government, not only in areas of political positions and advantages, but even for access to public services. For instance, in virtually every public tertiary school run by state governments, there are differential fees paid by indigenes and non-indigenes, the later paying more. This is predicated on the misguided view that a ‘non-indigene’ is alien and an outsider.
Other instances of undue discrimination on account of indigene status include forceful eviction of citizens from their places of residence and relocation to other states, presumably their ‘states of origin’. A case in point was last year when Lagos State government classified some citizens as non-indigenes and destitute and forcefully relocated them to Anambra State, their presumed state of origin.
Not only Lagos is guilty of this abuse, but virtually every state as was seen between Imo and Abia states over the forceful transfer of service of some ‘non-indigenes’ from one state to another. The most embarrassing case however was in June 2011 when the Federal Capital Territory Authority (FCTA) did the same by relocating Nigerian citizens from the capital territory, the very cosmetic capital city to their ‘states of origin’.
The FCTA based their discriminatory action on an attempt to address the “current security challenges” and “to rid the city of the street begging and hawking which contravenes Section 36 of the AEPB Act of 1997”. Someone needed to tell the FCTA staff that their Act is subject to the overriding powers of the Constitution. One official said, “the beggars, who are widely unknown and who do not have any identity, often flood traffic jam in the city carrying bags with unknown items. They even peep into peoples’ cars while begging for alms”.
The action of FCTA was elitist and directed at punishing ‘unknown’, ‘unidentified’ and ‘anonymous’ citizens who form part of the poor and excluded in the society. Apparently, the FCTA forgot that the responsibility for giving identification to citizens and thus capturing them in the development efforts rests primarily with the government. And it is still baffling why the FCTA did not then consider rehabilitating the destitute, rather than forcefully relocating them in clear violation of section 41 of the Constitution which guarantees every Nigerian the right to live anywhere in the country.
Clearly therefore, Nigerian governments through their actions and policies create different levels of citizenship with different rights based on means of livelihood, even as the State fails in its duty to provide for the needs of very citizen. That is why one condemns the attempt by some states to proceed to register ‘non-indigenes’, thus creating an inferior level of citizens. For this reason, one commends the Council of States for speaking up against such discriminatory practice.
This is why many, like me, have canvassed the replacement of the word, ‘indigene’ with ‘resident’ in the Constitution. This is because the continued reliance on indigene as status for accessing political positions, privileges and opportunities has led to scores of conflicts across the country. We have seen instances where communities and individuals who have lived continuously in a particular location for upward of 50 years are still regarded as ‘non-indigenes’ or ‘settlers’, even when they contribute much to the development of such areas and stand to suffer equally with other longer-existing persons and communities, for example in the event of disasters in the areas.
The Constitution should either only refer to ‘residence’ or define ‘indigene’ to include persons who have maintained long residence of a particular number of years, say 5 years in a particular location. The section of the Constitution that guarantees against discrimination should be expanded to include indigene status as basis of discrimination.
After all, when it comes to representation of states in sports, nobody asks questions about the actual place of origin of the athletes, as long as they win medals for the state they compete for.