by Chris Ngwodo & Naomi Lucas
Much has already been said regarding Oba Rilwan Akiolu’s recent ill-conceived statement on the voting preferences of Igbos in Lagos and they need not detain us here. Unfortunately, an incident that should have inspired a sober conversation about our union degenerated into a spate of sectarian name-calling and tribal baiting. This essay addresses the broader context of the monarch’s remarks.
When not refracted through the prisms of partisan politics, Oba Akiolu’s comments are best considered in reference to two connected problematic themes of Nigeria’s political economy. The first is the status of minorities – ethnic, religious or political – in a young pluralistic democracy and, second, the peculiar apartheid in our political economy which sustains an institutionalised dichotomy between so-called “indigenes” and “non-indigenes” or “sons of the soil” and “settlers”.
The controversial indigene-settler dichotomy is implied by the 1979 constitution’s definition of a Nigerian citizen as a “person born in Nigeria before the date of independence, either of whose parents or any of whose grandparents belongs or belonged to a community indigenous to Nigeria.”
The troubling element was the phrase, “community indigenous to.” In a startlingly prescient appraisal of these provisions, the radical historian Bala Usman asked, “What exactly constitutes a community indigenous to a state?” Has a community got to come from nowhere else for it to be indigenous to a place? If emigration is allowed, for how many generations has a family got to stay in a place in order to become indigenous? … If it is a matter of length of occupation: how many years have a people got to stay in a place before they become indigenes of the place? One thousand years, five hundred years, one century, just a generation or just one dry season?”
Usman warned that this constitutional definition of citizenship would “make ethnicity – indeed a deepened form of ethnicity akin to racism – a permanently explosive political issue but it completely makes bogus the provision of full residence rights, free mobility, and completely undermines the development of national citizenship, a basic requirement for national cohesion.” Ironically, the dichotomy between indigenes and settlers implied by Chapter III of the Constitution collided with the fundamental rights provided in Chapter IV, notably that of freedom from discrimination. The current 1999 Constitution is basically a revised edition of the 1979 document and carries the same ambiguity regarding the definition of Nigerian citizenship.
It is under these terms that ethnic communities claim aboriginal primacy as “landlords” over members of other ethnicities who are treated as “tenants” or as second-class citizens. The exclusionary identity politics that privileges those who belong over and above those who do not in the rat race for oil rents is at the core of sectarian conflicts across Nigeria. Non-indigenes are customarily excluded from public sector jobs and discriminatory schedules of school fees means that they pay more than “indigenes” do to get their children access to public education.
The framers of the 1979 constitution, armed with a worldview shaped by the internecine anarchy of the 1960s, articulated a static definition of identity inextricably rooted in geography and genetics. Thus, as Nigerians we are defined first and foremost by our ancestry and our “states of origin” regardless of the physical and emotional distances between ourselves and such locales. Identity is linked to bonds of blood and soil ensuring that however much we migrate and mingle, we are still largely in psychological, geographical and genetic captivity. Our freedom to define ourselves and our homesteads according to our pursuit of happiness is sharply circumscribed.
The indigene-settler crisis and its attendant conflicts result from the inability of political elites to keep pace with the social, economic and demographic realities of contemporary Nigeria. Every official document which demands that we fill out our “state of origin” intensifies the feeling of subverted intimacy and of being alienated strangers unable to consummate our mutuality. Like all members of our generation, the writers of this piece have encountered this obstacle to citizenship.
Naomi’s case serves as a classic example; while hunting for a decent place to live, she experienced firsthand the prejudice that comes from those who insist on perpetuating the “us” and “them” dichotomy. While one landlord unashamedly told her he could not rent her an apartment because she was not Yoruba, another told her that she could have the apartment as long she was not Igbo. While she found this difficult to understand, an old neighbour didn’t. “There was no Nigeria during our time; you must understand”. He said to her. “We had regions and our identity and pride were in our regional heritage. Then we were told we were no longer who we were, who we have always known. They called the new union ‘Nigeria’. While some of us have adapted to this confusing broth of distinct, sometimes contradictory cultures, the rest of us are still having a hard time”.
There is an increasing number of young Nigerians who are products of inter-tribal marriages, whose parents eventually settled in states miles away from where they were born; they have also grown up and moved either for school and/or work. Every four years, Nigerians vote for their desired representatives at the local, state and federal levels. This category of Nigerians, while claiming indigeneship of a particular state, have no right to vote for their desired representatives or influence the outcome of elections in their home states. Of what use then is indigeneship if not so that citizens can actively contribute to the development of their communities? And if Nigerians actively contribute in communities outside of their states of origin, is that not enough grounds for them to enjoy their full civic rights?
The indigene–settler controversy also exposes the inherent flaws in Nigeria’s brand of democracy – the potent mix of Kings, Queens, and Princes who are automatically conferred leadership at birth, and a band of state and federal public officials elected by ordinary Nigerians. Inevitable frictions arise with traditional monarchies and a modern civic republic occupying the same space. While Nigerians exercise their right to determine their representatives at all levels, these traditional institutions (though supposedly non-partisan) make a mockery of that right.
The formulation of Nigerianess which emphasises indigeneship at the expense of equal citizenship for all is now obsolete. Contemporary Nigeria is not predominantly characterised by ethnically homogenous spaces. Ours is an increasingly suburban nation with sprawling cosmopolitan spaces holding a diverse soup of tongues and creeds flavoured by the relentless migration, mingling and intermarriage of young persons seeking love and livelihood. The interpretations of identity by a new generation raised in these spaces are fluid and far more functional and liberal than those of their forebears. Members of this generation are cosmopolitan, often multicultural, multilingual, and socio-culturally hybrid. They are Nigerians first and foremost.
Our apartheid system is assailed by moral and practical contradictions that must be resolved. Most of Nigeria’s 36 states are entirely dependent on federal allocations. Why then should state services and institutions run with federal funds from Abuja be declared off-limits to Nigerian citizens? Why should Nigerian parents and business owners pay taxes to a state but have the government deny their children admission and/or employment? Why should young Nigerians render their compulsory national service in states where they can be denied employment and discriminated against as “non-indigenes”?
These questions are important because they underscore the interlocking nature of the issues at hand. It is disingenuous for a state to sustain discriminatory policies based on the indigene-settler dichotomy while at the same time insisting on its right to federally allocated petrodollars reaped from the Niger Delta. It yields a socio-economic absurdity which permits freedom of movement for capital (specifically, petrodollars), while denying freedom of movement for labour.
It is ironic that this controversy has broken out in Lagos of all places. It is the largest contributor to Nigeria’s GDP and has long been seen as a land of opportunity for all comers. The term “Lagosian” has never been synonymous with “Yoruba.” It has always referred to the sophisticated denizens of Nigeria’s most cosmopolitan space; a city enriched by waves of adventurous migrants and entrepreneurs with roots in Brazil, West Africa and Nigeria’s hinterland. Lagos was the headquarters of Nigeria’s nationalist movement which was ecumenical and multi-ethnic. Three non-Yoruba Lagosians have just been elected to the Federal House of Representatives, while a number of the non-Yoruba can be found in local councils. For these public servants, just as for millions of people, Lagos is unambiguously their home. Lagos is now leading the way in constructing a tax-based economy based on the productivity of its inhabitants rather than oil-rents.
Incidentally, this dynamic renders nativist fulminations about the “ownership” of the state redundant. Lagos is now “owned” by the tax-paying individuals and corporate citizens who are now underwriting its evolution into Africa’s largest megacity. Those who are investing their lives and livelihoods in the progress of Lagos are, regardless of their ancestry or heritage, its true custodians. This new order will reflect the unremarked truth that the vibrancy of our towns and cities is created not by “indigenes” but by the diversity and dynamism of Nigerians, both native-born and migrant, who have converged in those spaces. Diversity itself is a valuable economic resource.
It is not specific ethnic groups that are under threat in Nigeria but the very idea of Nigerian citizenship and its primary principle – the right of Nigerians to move about freely without hindrance in order to live full creative lives – that is assailed by official and unwritten policies of discrimination. Vast millions of Nigerians live in places other than their “states of origin” and truly think of those places as home. These Nigerians constitute a “lost” or “forgotten” tribe of authentic Nigerians whose fortunes are often overlooked in public debate. However, by defying alienating fears and stereotypes to live in towns and cities other than those of their kin, these Nigerians have invested a great deal of faith in their country and its inherent possibilities. They are the Nigerians who make Nigeria work and for this, they deserve protection and affirmation.
Full citizenship and equal rights for Nigerians everywhere in the federation must be guaranteed. The “state of origin” clause should be abolished as a formal or informal requirement and replaced with residency. All that should matter is where a Nigerian citizen resides, works and pays taxes because that is where s/he is rooted. A new legislative and constitutional framework will be required to accommodate the reality of contemporary Nigeria. Legislation is certainly needed against hate speech to curb the merchants of prejudice in our midst. The protection of ethnic and religious minorities across the federation from nativist fanatics and tribal fundamentalists has to be a key pillar of our national security doctrine. Ending institutionalised discrimination against Nigerians because they are deemed “non-indigenes” is a priority. A federal administration would not be at all remiss in seeking to bar states which persist in such discrimination from partaking of the federation account.
As long as our political economy revolves around the distribution of oil rents, identity politics will remain a factor. Thus, creating a truly federal economic architecture in which states and municipalities enjoy a fair degree of economic autonomy will shift the axes of political discourse from rent-seeking and patronage to productivity and value for human capital. States will then build economies not on a resource bonanza but by enabling and taxing productive citizens. This is a worthwhile political objective to work towards. But in the interim, with political will, public opinion and a progressive moral consensus, we can nullify the most virulent forms of identity politics and chauvinism.
– Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and political analyst. Naomi Lucas is blogger and Entrepreneur resident in Lagos, Nigeria.
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija