Expelling Non-indigenes Threatens National Unity, Senior Lawyers Warn

Femi Falana
  • Litigation underway to challenge expulsion of citizens
  • Lament sabotage of guidelines by security operatives

Gboyega Akinsanmi

With the sustained evacuation of non-indigenes from different states of the federation as part of measures to enforce the COVID-19 guidelines and regulations, senior lawyers saturday warned that such decisions might stoke constitutional crisis and further endanger the unity of the country.

Besides, the lawyers argued that the decisions of the state governments to send non-indigenes to their states of origin violated Chapter III and section 41 of the 1999 Constitution, which respectively spell out the privileges of every Nigerian citizen and guarantee fundamental human rights.

In separate conversations with THISDAY, a former President of the West African Bar Association (WABA), Mr. Femi Falana (SAN); Nigeria’s leading human rights lawyer, Mr. Ebun Adegboruwa (SAN) and a former Chairman, Governing Council, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Dr. Chidi Odinkalu expressed grave concern about the decisions of these governors.

Hiding under the enforcement of the COVID-19 guidelines and regulations, the Kano State Government had evacuated non-indigenes, especially Almajiris residing within its territories to their states of origin across the North.

The decision of the Kano State Government had sparked reprisal in other states across the federation with Kaduna, Kwara, Lagos, Nasarawa and Osun, among others, either expelling non-indigenes from their states of residence to their states of origin or denying them entry into their territories under the guide of enforcing the COVID-19 guidelines and regulations.

With these developments, Falana observed that the fundament rights to freedom of movement, like other rights under the 1999 Constitution, might be derogated from or abridged in defence of public health, public safety or public morality.
The human rights lawyer acknowledged that in order to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, the federal government banned inter state locomotion of all citizens for two weeks.

He noted that the decision “cannot be questioned since it is based on the protection of public health. Section 45 of the 1999 Constitution allows such derogations,” which according to him, are based strictly on public interest.

However, Falana observed the policy might be impugned if it is applied in a discriminatory or selective manner, noting that even though the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) suggested the policy, the federal government accepted it.

The senior advocate said the state governors “have incorporated the ban into the COVID 19 regulations made by them. They are binding on all and sundry.”

He, however, lamented that the ban “is not effective as it is being sabotaged by security forces who have erected toll gates in the border towns.”

He faulted the decision of some state governments expelling non-indigenes residing within their territories, noting that such decision violated the fundamental rights of the affected citizens under the 1999 Constitution.

He explained that the 1999 Constitution “has recognised the fundamental rights of citizens to move freely and reside in any part of Nigeria. To that extent, the expulsion of flotsam and jetsam otherwise called Almajaris by some northern governors is illegal and unconstitutional.

“The danger of the illegal expulsion at this point in time is that many of the expelled citizens are COVID 19 positive. So the actions of the governors are promoting community transmission of the infectious disease.”

He lamented that the federal government “has not deemed it fit to call the governors to order. Some public interest litigation lawyers have concluded plans to challenge the constitutional validity of the expulsions in the federal high court after the lockdown..”

Like Falana, Adegboruwa provided two interrelated grounds, which according to him, showed that the decisions of some state governments to expel non-indigenes living within territories are completely unconstitutional.

He, first, cited the significance of citizenship to the federation, to which a whole chapter of the 1999 Constitution was devoted and the chapter explicitly outlined the rights and privileges attached to the citizenship status.

He said: “Once you are born in Nigeria and can trace any of your parents to Nigerian origin, you are a free born citizen with all the rights and privileges attached to that citizenship in line with the provisions of Chapter 3 of the Constitution.

“This cannot be taken away by a declaration by a governor. I have no doubt that the decisions of the governors in expelling citizens from their states on the ground that they are not indigenes of those states are totally unconstitutional.

“It is unfortunate what is currently happening in Nigeria, in respect of the COVID 19, which now seems to have its own Nigerian identity, from fake test results, to propaganda of bloated capacity and even corruption,” Adegboruwa.

He, also, explained the illegality of the decisions of the governors under section 41 of the Constitution, which according to him, stated that every citizen of Nigeria “is entitled to move freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part thereof and no citizen shall be expelled from Nigeria or refused entry or exit.

“This provision is very sacrosanct to our unity as a nation, going by our collective motto of unity and progress. You should be able to stay in any part of Nigeria, so long as you are law-abiding and you have not committed any offence to warrant the deprivation of your rights as a citizen.

“Now, some of the reasons given are that these are itinerant persons who have no visible means of livelihood and they are said to constitute some risks to the containment of the COVID 19 pandemic. The question then is this.

“If they are already infected persons, will the act of expelling them from their state of residence take away the virus from them? Is the virus regulated by physical boundary between states such that once you are expelled, then the virus would immediately recognise the boundary and then disappear?

“We compel those who occupy positions of authority to familiarize themselves with the provisions of the Constitution which they have all sworn to uphold. In that wise, we will have less infractions of the Constitution when leaders become more aware of its provisions,” the senior advocate said.

He warned against expelling citizens from their places of residence to their states of origin, noting that such decision “is like sowing the seed of disunity.”

He said the state governments that expelled them “are simply telling them that even though they have worked and lived all their lives in their places of residence, they are not welcome as Nigerian citizens unless they can trace their states of origin. It will lead to social disintegration, social disharmony.”

He, also, noted that the action of the state governments discriminated “against these citizens on grounds of places of origin and their status in society, because most of the states that are expelling Almajaris still accommodate the rich men and women from the same state where the Almajaris come from.

“They are just being targeted because of poverty and low status. If this is allowed to fester, then you cannot refer to Nigeria as a federation. In section 2 of the Constitution, it is clearly stated that Nigeria is one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign state to be known by the name of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“But when you don’t allow citizens of other states to reside and take abode in your state freely, you are telling them that you are not part of the federation, which then would mean that the governor executing such illegality is not fit to remain in office as a governor, having committed a breach of his oath office to uphold the 1999 Constitution,” he said.

Adegboruwa, therefore, urged the NGF to convene an emergency meeting and encourage all its members “to accept the people as they are. In many cases now, those who have tested positive to COVID 19 are not necessarily indigenes of the states where they reside.

“We should not get to the level where out of panic, the problem of COVID-19 that we are trying to solve will be escalated because these almajaris are packed together in trucks as if they are not human beings and in that wise, they will not be able to observe the social distancing and hygiene policies associated with COVID 19.

“Even though one appreciates the concern of the governors that are affected, it is important to realise that the 1999 Constitution is the grundnorm and the organic document of our existence as a nation and it is important not to take steps that fly in the face of that basic document,” he explained.

In his response, Odinkalu noted that lots of issues (have been happening in the country “that are strange to federal structure. Expelling non-indigenes from their states of residence is one of such strange happenings.”

In any federation, Odinkalu argued that citizens “can live anywhere or move from one place to the other without let or hindrance. These people have not committed any crimes. Poverty is not a crime. Nor is destitution.

“But even if these were crimes, internal banishment is not a punishment and there is nothing like repatriation or deportation to your place of origin. As a fact, no one knows where most of these people come from in terms of origins.

“The state governors, who have paid no heed to them all this while, are all of a sudden inventing reasons to be nasty and amoral in a way that frankly endangers everyone. It is the cluster removed from Kano that began the spike in Gombe and Bauchi as well as in Kano’s North-west neighbours,” he said.

With these developments, he said the federal government “has the responsibility to protect the integrity of the federation. It is failing woefully. Governors who swore to defend the constitution are undermining it egregiously.”