The Guardian editorial of Tuesday, March 2, 2010 stated that the proposed House of Representative bill on indigeneship may not be necessary because the issues it seeks to address are already taken care of by the Nigerian constitution.
It therefore challenges us to institute policies and actions that will support the provisions of inalienable rights in the constitution. The crux of the argument of that editorial was that the Nigerian constitution does not recognise state citizenship so it is illegal. I beg to differ.
Contrary to the position of that editorial, the Nigerian (1999) Constitution recognises state citizenship or indigeneship when, in defining the requirements for appointment to the office of a Minister, it specifies in Section 147(3) that “the President shall appoint at least one Minister from each State, who shall be an INDIGENE (caps mine) of such State.” And it does this without defining who an indigene of a state is or how a Nigerian becomes one. But we practise it when, as written in the Guardian editorial, “a person must prove beyond reasonable doubt that he or she is an indigene of a place by, for instance, getting a letter of identification from the traditional ruler or councillor before a local government council or state could issue a certificate of indigeneship (not citizenship)”.
So, who is an indigene? The word does not exist in the dictionary but a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report of April 2005, aptly titled “They do not own this place”, defines an indigene of a place as somebody “who can trace their ethnic and genealogical roots back to the community of people who originally settled there”. If that is the definition, can all Nigerians be indigenes? Or to put it differently, do all Nigerians derive their citizenship through ethnic and genealogical roots?
The answer is no. The Nigerian constitution specifies three ways of obtaining Nigerian citizenship; by birth, registration and naturalisation. While the birth option derives from genealogy, registration and naturalisation citizenships are obtained through marriage and domiciliation. Since indigeneship is only obtained through genealogy, how is a naturalised citizen to become a Minister? Are we to have citizens who cannot be Ministers, people who are foreigners in their country? I think not. I think there is an implicit assumption that every Nigerian citizen must be an indigene of a Nigerian state else the Constitution will be basically denying some citizens the right of being a Minister.
Clearly, there are germane reasons for practising some level of discrimination at state level. In our current economic realities, every state government cannot afford to treat every visitor or passerby the same as long-term or permanent residents for whom available resources are barely sufficient. Apart from federal institutions, facilities and services which should be available to all, there must be some way to gear state resources to those for whom the state is responsible. And that is what indigeneship does. Although not called the same name, it is a practise that happens elsewhere because the 14th Amendment to the Unites States Constitution specifies “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” And in fact, in K.Tashiro v. Jordan (1927), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that “United States citizenship does not entitle citizen to privileges and immunities of citizen of state since privileges and immunities of one are not the same as the other”.
The aspect that complicates this issue is the prevailing view of indigeneship as being the same as belonging to a particular culture or ethnic group. People therefore wonder whether it is possible for courts to, for instance, order the Ogonis to accept an Ijaw man as one of their culture. I do not see any basis for these scenarios because I have never heard of any situation where people of a particular culture or ethnicity have begged or aspired to be assimilated into another. Wherever assimilation has taken place, and it does happen, it has happened naturally. The reality is that most Nigerians are loyal enough to their culture to want to export and maintain it wherever they go, rather than trade it for another. The reason this complication crops up is because traditional rulers, who are cultural figures, are often needed to initiate the certificates of indigeneship and they will usually only support issuance to people of their culture or ethnicity. If another approach is prescribed and accepted, this issue will disappear.
As stated earlier, the core issue has been the economic benefits that accrue to indigeneship and the attendant denial of those benefits to non-indigenes and the existing situation exploits this. We need to therefore address the issue of indigeneship in a manner that tackles the economic implications while maintaining our social and cultural arrangements as they currently are. And that is where Hon. Gozie’s bill comes in.
In my opinion, that bill urgently needs to define indigeneship (or state citizenship) and expand its meaning to include people who are either born in a place or are resident in a place for a reasonable number of years. There already is a residency requirement for registered or naturalised citizens, in the Nigerian constitution so using it in this bill will only be extending and closing the loop. The bill can maintain the normal process for obtaining certificates of indigeneship with a slight proviso that requires or allows “settlers”, in particular, to initiate their indigeneship process via Councillors or Local Government Chairmen. Where these government officials are not satisfied with the existing informal ways of proving indigeneship, they should demand some proof of residency and this proof needs to be specified in the bill. The bill should stipulate penalties for government officials, be it Chairmen or Councillors who are convicted of flouting its provisions.
Except where they have their own recognised traditional institution, the structure for settlers should be kept away from the traditional institution because that is one area where economic and political considerations conflict with cultural issues. And there is no danger of undermining the powers of traditional rulers because the traditional rulers do not have any power, in the first place to determine where Nigerian citizens should dwell. Such freedoms are already granted in the Nigerian Constitution.
One concern well-meaning people will have with this development is whether some will take advantage of the bill to claim indigeneship in more economically viable states or even local governments. I have no doubt that such practices currently exist so people who want to claim indigeneship under false pretences will be successful to the extent that they are able to forge birth certificates and proofs of residency which are acceptable by the traditional ruler or councillor. The additional suggestion I can make here is for the bill to make it criminal for any Nigerian to have indigeneship of two states or LGAs at the same time. In addition, if the honourables find it necessary, they may choose to insist that the proof of residency aspect (except in the case of a naturalised citizen) take effect in the future e.g. 5 years time. That time will allow government set up structures to verify such claims while giving people notice on how to prove such claims as well.
I believe the process I have laid out here, is workable and simple and I see no reason why it should not be implemented speedily. At the crux of this issue of indigeneship is the subconscious belief in our people, that to survive economically you have to “own” a place. This bill is needed to establish in Nigerian minds that all you need is to be a Nigerian. If some Nigerians will not be convinced to expand their understanding of the word “indigene” to include people who are born or reside in a place, we can leave the word to them and call it a “state citizenship” bill. We will still achieve the same aims.
This problem is not new. The HRW report I cited earlier, mentions that a Residency Bill was canvassed in the Senate in 2004. If it had been acted upon, we may not have witnessed the Jos carnage of recent years. We need to act now. We need to ensure that the sacrifices of Nigerian lives all over Plateau state will count for something. Let those sacrifices, through the Bill on indigeneship, bring peace and hope to all our “foreigner” citizens. In order to offer Hon Gozie Agbakoba every support he needs to see this bill through, I hereby call on newspaper houses with Internet portals and Nigerians in online forums, to discuss this issue and summarise views. These views can be combined with results of online votes, can be submitted to the House of Representatives before the end of this month.
Obomanu is a Business Analyst in the United Kingdom.
Arnold Obomanu <email@example.com>