Indigene versus Citizen – the National Question in Nigeria
By Femi Olugbile
Following intense, much-publicised debate at the National Assembly, 68 proposed Amendments to the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria were put to the vote recently.
The 1999 Constitution is a much-derided document with obvious flaws both in its genesis and in its content. For one thing, it is not a ‘We the People’ document, having been hastily put together by a military administration eager to hand over the reins of power to a civilian regime. In content, it is a ‘Unitary’, and not a ‘Federal’ document, providing a template for a near-total concentration of power and resources in a central government, and making the ‘federating units’- such as they are, virtual appendages to ‘Federal’ authority. It is seen as the codification and culmination of decades of unitary government and thinking in the context of military rule, and its attitudinal antecedents are traced to ‘Decree 34’ of enacted by the regime of General Aguiyi Ironsi.
But there is a catch-22 bind to all the animated discussion. In the normal run of things, a subsisting Constitution may only be amended, not changed wholesale. The operative phrase in that statement of fact, of course, is ‘in the normal run of things.’
In the vote taken in a five-hour long session of the Assembly on the 1st of March, 2022, a number of the proposals were passed by the Assembly, scaling the first hurdle on the road to becoming extant law. A number were rejected.
The rejected proposal that forms the subject of this column today is the amendment that would have made any citizen eligible to be regarded as an ‘indigene’ of any part of Nigeria on residing in the locality for a period of five years. It is an innocuous-sounding proposition. However, in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country, it is not a matter for pious, polite pontification but one that requires the exercise of robust dialogue carried out across the land. In Nigeria, it is at the heart of ‘The National Question’.
The origin of the phrase ‘The National Question’ has been attributed to Professor Obaro Ikime, a distinguished professor of History who is famous for his vast intellectual output and his run-ins with the Babangida government. In 1986, he gave a famous lecture titled ‘Towards understanding the National Question’. The National Question since then has been the rubric for a heated, often polarizing debate between the different nationalities focused on controlling the political power and resources of the nation. But, as introduced by Ikime and elaborated since then by various authorities, it is a composite of several issues that affect the nature, essence and ultimately the viability of the Nigerian nation. It relates to national integration, citizen’s rights, citizen’s obligations – an aspect that is not often mentioned in discourse, justice and equity for the different citizens and people of the country. There are other considerations that fall under the umbrella. To what extent are Nigerians able to express their cultural uniqueness and aspirations without hinderance from the structure of power in the country? Unlike the United States of America, where there are no ‘tribes’, the original ‘indigenes’ having been depleted into virtual nothingness through sequential genocide, Nigeria is a country of over two hundred ethnic nationalities. That is a reality that cannot be wished away and should not be papered over by some superficial veneer of ‘patriotism’. That unique multiehnicity is itself a great source of strength, but only if it is acknowledged, accommodated and pragmatically factored into the national contract.
The Citizenship versus Indigene-ship question is at the heart of the ‘residency’ question, which has not been addressed properly and formally in all the country’s troubled history. Before the first coup in 1966, the regions were semi-autonomous entities who set their own agenda. Indigenes were reasonably secure in their ego boundaries, and ‘outsiders’ were realistic in their expectations. It was not a finished project, and there were many areas of friction, even internally. In all the years of military rule, the government dodged the ‘nationality’ issue. Babangida danced around it, while Abacha made patriotic pronouncements about the oneness of all Nigerians, as long as he held the reins of power, pacifying the oil fields and keeping the keys to the Central Bank. It was a cynical and unsustainable patriotism.
At the heart of the question of when, if ever, a citizen becomes an indigene is the question of ownership of the land, which is tearing Nigeria apart currently – the rampaging, kidnapping ‘herdsmen’ in Plateau and Benue, the terrorists who are destroying Kaduna and threatening Abuja, the assaults and insults that led to the emergence of a Sunday Igboho. It is a matter that requires robust and extensive debate leading to agreement all over the country. In addressing it, people need to look at the chequered history of ‘multinational’ countries and why they have seldom survived long.
Nigeria can be different, but only if it is open and deliberate in its approach, and not taking any of its people for granted. If a citizen becomes an indigene of a place where he has settled, lived, and paid taxes for a defined number of years, what happens to his ‘village’, where he calls ‘home’, and where he sends money and goes for every Christmas? Should citizens wishing to become indigenes acculturate and reverence their host community, or should they live and work in a ‘Sabon geri’ or ‘Ladipo’ style exclusive enclave? Should they ever aspire to become a separate local government or the equivalent of a ‘Little Pakistan’ in Birmingham? Are hostile ‘herdsmen’ living apart in the forest eligible to become indigenes of the land they terrorise?
It is not a settled matter, in 2022, even though Obaro Ikime raised the alarm several years ago, and several authorities have expounded on it since.
It was most unsettling, therefore, to think NASS might have cavalierly pronounced some absurdity on the matter into law prematurely. Happily they did not. But the National Question, which is really the nationalities question, needs to be discussed, and settled, by the many diverse peoples of Nigeria. A ‘Final Solution’ cannot be imposed