The question of the citizenship of the Peoples Democratic Party presidential candidate at the last elections, Atiku Abubakar, is another weapon of mass distraction from the All Progressives Congress. This whole hoopla will end up like the cases of President Muhammadu Buhari’s certificate and his body double: it will generate much noise especially from online vuvuzelas and trolls, but will eventually peter out without any logical resolution. There will be no answers, and we will move on after our psychic energies must have been expended. Then, we will move on to another iregbe, and another one until 2023. Anyone who thinks that Atiku’s citizenship debate will settle outstanding questions and determine the parameters of Nigerianness is either being a wild-eyed optimist or pitifully naive. Ideally, such disputes are useful for a country that is still in search of a character like Nigeria, but that is not what is at stake here.
First, this is not the first time Nigeria has raised questions on someone’s background by appealing to nativist sentiments. Whenever these challenges of the contestation of someone’s origin come up, it is most often because there is a political power that needs to be shared or denied. At such moments, they dredge up “citizenship” to arbitrate belonging and exclusion, never when it actually matters to our lives and our fate as inhabitants of this geographical expression called Nigeria.
Those fishing around this mischief are not doing anything different. In 1980, the Shehu Shagari government executed a deportation order on Shugaba Abdurrahman Darman. Darman had won the Borno State House of Assembly election and became the House Majority Leader. His popularity rose so high and rankled then ruling party, the National Party of Nigeria. They declared he was non-Nigerian and deposited him in the Chad Republic. Of course, he sued the government and won. In 2007, even ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo had his ethnic citizenship questioned. At the end of his Presidency, they said the Yoruba no longer have the right to seek the Presidency for another 40 years (after it must have gone around the other five zones). That was when they came up with the story of his “Igbo father,” a discovery that was supposed to expel him from his Yoruba heritage. In Oyo State, a similar thing happened when an election was in the offing. Led by the godfather, Lamidi Adedibu, the rumours that the late Governor Lam Adesina was not a “proper” Ibadan, but an Ebira circulated. After the man had lived his whole life in Ibadan and served as governor, they found that unlike the rest of other Ibadan people, Adesina did not grow up organically from the soil! At all levels, national, ethnic, and even local, this is how Nigeria questions your citizenship and belonging to the polity, never for edifying purposes.
So, 23 years after Atiku first contested the presidency, he too is now Cameroonian? Really? If the Nigerian bureaucracy is incompetent to the point that they run a foreigner for President, does that not also perfectly illustrate why they fail at managing a complicated entity like Nigeria? Why even stop at Atiku? Why not compile a register of all that fall in that category and tell us what they can do or not? How many of them still exist? Have those people been paying taxes as Nigerians or as Cameroonians? Do they vote? Did they vote at the last elections? I do not expect any of these questions to be answered. We have been witnesses to the show called Nigeria for so long to recognise a distraction when we see one.
However, the Nigerian ruling elite owes it to us to define citizenship beyond their weaponisation of the idea of it when they need to cut someone off from political power and privilege. Does Nigerian citizenship matter outside the dynamics of seeking political power? The concept of citizenship means membership of a national community, and a legally defined belonging that grants one access to the terms of the social contract. To be a citizen has a more nuanced depth that goes beyond carrying your country’s passport. It is about whose life matters and the quantity of resources the government will allocate to prove just that. To be a Nigerian citizen should mean that our country owes us certain allegiances, protection from certain indignities, and we are supposed to be served by the apparatuses of government.
But how does the conception of citizenship play out in the Nigerian reality? The government is using our collective mandate to expunge someone for not being citizen, but what does citizenship mean to us, the people, in whose name the action is being executed? Which one of us can confidently state that as citizens, we have privileges and our lives are guaranteed? How many of us in Nigeria, outside those within the protected coterie of the ruling class, enjoy the benefit of citizenship? How did Nigerian citizenship work out for the Shiites and the pro-Biafrans who were victims of state-sanctioned brutal violence? How come their Nigerian citizenship did not come into play in the consciousness of their predators and restrain those murderous hands that cut them down? Of what use is citizenship that decides who contests election or not, but does not guarantee quality life for you and me?
In Nigeria today, millions of children are either not getting an education or they are getting a poor one that will do them more of long-term damage than good. They are currently 13 million of them out of school and according to the Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Education, Mr. Sonny Echono, nearly 60 million others are illiterates. That is easily a third of the whole country with minds rotting way, trapped behind the high walls of lack of education and opportunities. Those that survive birth contend with infant mortality while the mothers struggle with maternal mortality. Recently, the Executive Director of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, Dr. Faisal Shuaib, stated that every day in Nigeria, 2,300 children die of preventable causes. He also said that one out of every 10 children under the age of five that die in the world is a Nigerian, and one out of every eight Nigerian children dies before their fifth birthday. If that is not dire enough, also consider that 145 women die daily from pregnancy-related causes. So, of what use has this thing called citizenship been to all of those who have been killed because the country was not looking out for their welfare?
There is virtually no area of social and physical infrastructure that Nigeria is not lagging. We have descended into poverty; the rate of kidnappings has gone up, and insecurity is equally high. In Nigeria, if one is not killed by bandits, one is killed by Boko Haram or policemen. If they do not get you, hunger or disease will decimate your life. Something will eventually get you!
The irony of all these is that Atiku that they seek to expel for not being a “citizen” has lived a far more decent life than most of us. Nigeria is so quick to mark citizenship with whether you are born within the borders of a country or not, and they forget the more crucial part: the quality of life that you get to live, and how your life is valued or discounted. If being a citizen grants you access to social and political benefits, Atiku has obviously been more citizen than most of us put together. It is a joke to wake up now that you could not convincingly beat him in an election and say he is not a citizen. Until Nigeria has served as well as it has served Atiku, we are not yet citizens in the real sense of it. Let’s not deceive ourselves; we don’t even come up on the radar.