The Atiku Citizenship Debate

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Atiku Abubakar

Although Alhaji Atiku Abubakar’s citizenship controversy appears no less a distraction, it is above all a good debate that could help to strengthen the laws of the land in such a sensitive matter. Olawale Olaleye writes

For generations yet unborn, the debate stirred by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) on Alhaji Atiku Abubakar’s controversial birth place is going to remain a critical talking point, both in law and political sciences classes, which in the final analysis would help to enrich the body of the nation’s constitution and other extant laws.

The APC, last week, at the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal in Abuja said Atiku was not a Nigerian. That, of course, changed the tenor of the election debate as well as the mood of the nation. This was supposed to be APC’s response to Atiku’s petition on the presidential election after the tribunal gave a go-ahead to serve his petition against the outcome of the election, which declared President Muhammadu Buhari winner.

Perhaps, in a bid not to waste the time of the tribunal, the APC declared that in the first instance, Atiku was not eligible to contest the election on grounds of his nationality. It claimed that since Atiku is a Cameroonian and not a Nigerian citizen by birth, his petition against Buhari, should be dismissed for lacking merit.

In the response filed by its lead counsel, Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), APC faulted the candidacy of Atiku in the election, insisted that Atiku was born on November 25, 1946 in Jada, Adamawa in Northern Cameroon and is therefore a citizen of Cameroon and not a Nigerian by birth.

Prior to 1919, APC claimed, Cameroon was administered by Germany and that following the defeat of Germany in the World War I, which ended in 1918, Cameroon became a league of nation’s mandate territory split into French Cameroon and British Cameroon in 1919.

Thus, in 1961, APC posited that a plebiscite was held in British Cameroon to determine whether the people preferred to stay in Cameroon or align with Nigeria. But while northern Cameroon preferred a union with Nigeria, the southern Cameroon chose to align with her mother country and so, it was as a result of the plebiscite that northern Cameroon which included the present Adamawa became a part of Nigeria.

Consequent upon this, the APC said contrary to the assertion by Atiku in his petition, he (Atiku) had no right to be voted for as a candidate in the election to the office of president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria held on February 23, 2019 for reason of a critical constitutional requirement.

But Atiku had since responded. In his reply made through his media adviser, Mr. Paul Ibe, he described APC’s response as idiotic, shameful and disrespectful to the office he once occupied as vice president of Nigeria.

“It is disrespectful of the office Osinbajo occupies and others will still occupy in the future. This is the downside of excluding history as a subject in our schools. The APC is unaware that those in the defunct Northern Cameroon became Nigerian citizen a long time ago after a plebiscite.

“Are they trying to rewrite history or is this a case of dementia? It shows that the APC has no defence in this case. We are hopeful that the judiciary will dispense justice fairly,” he said in his reply.

But beyond the political fisticuffs that might have arisen from this is the very serious constitutional and historical perspectives that must be dealt a distinct legal context for future clarity and by so doing, put paid to the matter once and for all.

Indeed, many commentators had since come up with different interpretations of that part of the constitution that deals with the issues of citizenship and indigenship as well as the constitutional expectations from both with respect to standing for an election.

Whilst a majority of the interpretations were largely informed by political leanings, it is the one reason the judiciary must make a profound pronouncement on the matter so that moving forward and for the sake of the foreseeable future, even the layman could have a ready-made answer to such posers.

This notwithstanding, there is a simple interpretation of the constitution, which a majority of the commentators have failed to dissect or deliberately ignored and which seemed to have inadvertently diminished the stature of the debate as it currently stands.

Start off this way. Sections 25, 26 and 27 of the 1999 Constitution stipulated how a person can become a citizen of Nigeria in any of these three ways: birth, registration and naturalisation. However, the debate is citizenship by birth, because only Nigerian citizens by birth can contest for the office of the president. 

Thus, Section 25 of the Constitution states without ambiguity, who is a citizen by birth. Here: “The following persons are citizens of Nigeria by birth, namely: (a) every 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;

Provided that a person shall not become a citizen of Nigeria by virtue of this section if neither of his parents nor any of his grandparents was born in Nigeria.

(b) every person born in Nigeria after the date of independence either of whose parents or any of whose grandparents is a citizen of Nigeria; and 

(c) every person born outside Nigeria either of whose parents is a citizen of Nigeria.

In this section, “the date of independence” means the first day of October 1960.”

First, going by the provision of this section of the constitution and the clear fact that Atiku was born on November 25, 1946 (before independence) in Jada, in the present Ganye Local Government Area of Adamawa State, an area which wasn’t part of Nigeria until February 1961, when the people voted to join Nigeria, you will see that Atiku is not a Nigerian by birth. But just before you screamed yeah, that is not all there is about the interpretation of that section.

Bouncing off his constitutional and historical understanding of the subject matter on his Facebook page, First Baba Isa (FBI), an Abuja-based legal practitioner, reckoned that “The problem is that people are not looking at other sections of the constitution. They are not looking at the whole law, that’s why they are coming to the conclusion that Atiku is not a Nigerian citizen by birth.” 

Here are some of his facts. According to him, “Section 309 of the same 1999 Constitution of Nigeria states that: ‘Notwithstanding the provisions of Chapter III of this Constitution but subject to section 28 thereof, any person, who became a citizen of Nigeria by birth, registration or naturalisation under the provisions of any other Constitution shall continue to be a citizen of Nigeria under this Constitution.”

He claimed further that, “Many persons have argued that no section of the 1999 Constitution took cognizance of the citizenship of those, who voted in 1961 to become citizens of Nigeria. I agree. But there is nothing to worry about as long as section 309 of the 1999 Constitution is concerned. 

“The valid question now will be has there been any other Constitution that recognised, defined and determined the citizenship of those who voted in 1961 to become Nigerians? Yes. There is. The 1963 Constitution of Nigeria, Section 10. The title of this section is ‘Special Provisions as to Northern Cameroons’.

The said section 10 of the 1963 Constitution states that: 

“10(1) For the purpose of determining the status of persons connected with the part of Northern Nigeria, which was not included in the federation on the thirty-first day of May, 1961. The forgoing provisions of this chapter and subsection (3) of section 17 of this constitution shall have effect as if:

“(a) for any reference to a particular date they were substituted a reference to the last day of the period of eight months beginning with the day next following that date; and (b) for any reference to the former colony or protectorate of Nigeria (other than the second reference in section 7) there were substituted a reference to the part aforesaid; and (c) That other reference included a reference to the part aforesaid 

“(2) nothing in subsection (1) of this section shall prejudice the status of any person, who is or may become a citizen of Nigeria apart from that subsection.”

“There it is. Very clear! The 1963 Constitution recognised the plebiscite of the people of Northern Cameroon and then backdated it to before 1st October, 1960 to give them the status of citizens by birth.” 

Concluding, he noted that “1. Conceding that Atiku Abubakar was born before independence in an area, which wasn’t part of Nigeria; his parents were not from an area indigenous to Nigeria before independence in 1960.

“2. Through a plebiscite, the people from the place, where Atiku is from, voted to be part of Nigeria in 1961.  3. This plebiscite was captured in Section 10, supra, of the 1963 Constitution and backdated to give these people citizenship by birth. 4. Section 309 of the present 1999 Constitution stated that any person who became a citizen of Nigeria by birth under any other Constitution shall remain a citizen by birth under the present Constitution. 

“5. And since Alhaji Atiku Abubakar became a citizen by birth under the 1963 Constitution, he is by all intents and purposes and by the ordination of Section 309 of the present Constitution, a citizen by birth and therefore eligible to run for the office of the President of Nigeria.”

Further arguing that there were other valid defences to this challenge to Atiku’s citizenship by birth, Isa said “But I will stop here. I trust that his lawyers know these defences already.”

Suffice it to say that while Isa made it as easy and as thorough as possible with simple constitutional references that the ordinary Nigerian could relate to, those who thought otherwise seemed to have picked their constitutional references merely on the surface, including the defence team of the president and ran to the public arcade, the very reason the debate appears no less a tactical distraction from the real issues of election petition.

It is for this reason that the judiciary must take the matter as seriously as it is now, succinctly adjudicate on it and lay to rest the diversion the debate has created now and which it is also capable of creating in the foreseeable future, at least, for posterity.