It is unlikely that the crisis generated by the “deportation” of some Nigerians from Lagos to Anambra State will abate anytime soon. Even though we are a nation of short memory and every week comes with its own crisis that is soon forgotten (Senator Ahmed Yerima and his band of pro-child marriage warriors must be thanking their lucky stars) as soon as the next crisis rears its head, this crisis is one that is sure to linger.  After all, this is “silly season” when you throw as much mud on your opponents hoping that it will stick and resonate with voters.

There seems to be no agreement on the particulars of the current crisis, either the categorization (“deportation”, “home return for proper integration”, “integration with home communities” or “routine humanitarian gesture”), or the number of citizens involved. According to the Lagos State government, “Fourteen not 70 (seventy) or 72 (seventy-two) destitute (citizens) were picked up on the streets of Lagos as part of a continuous exercise to assist vulnerable citizens who roam our streets without food, or shelter and a number who have medical ailments, usually in the nature of mental ailments”. Critics speak of a bus load of fellow citizens who were bundled and sent “home”. They have also taken issue with how and where they were dropped off.  

Some commentators, even purportedly educated ones, have reduced the action of the Lagos State government to an issue of Igbo versus Yoruba or even a party affair. From all indications, this is a programme of Lagos State that also affected citizens from other parts of the country in the past. That of course does not make it right. It has also been noted that other states in the country, including the Federal Capital Territory, have at one time or the other embarked on the same action taken by Lagos State. We can also add to the list, the Abia State government that sacked civil servants in the state who were non-indigenes.

However, whether we are talking about the moral of the action of the Lagos State government, the shenanigans of those who have been accused of playing politics with the issue or the other loathsome activities of various states across the country like engaging Nigerians from some parts of the country as “contract” workers, treating foreigners better than Nigerians because of the colour of their skin or their religion, we are confronted with a fundamental question about our federation and the rights of citizens.  

Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State failed that test when he sought solace in President Goodluck Jonathan. In matters of this nature, the proper thing to do would have been to go to court not just to prove the unconstitutionality of the action of the Lagos State government but to seek relief for the affected citizens. We are still a nation of laws not minding the fact that the actions and inaction of the judiciary sometimes leave much to be desired.

In response to critics, the governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola (SAN), was quoted as saying that, “While his government respects the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the constitution, none of them is absolute in the way that some ‘experts’ want the public to believe”. I am a firm believer in and supporter of the rights of states. But when those rights are in conflict with the rights of the federation (as Nigeria is presently constituted), the latter ought to supersede.

As long as we claim to be the Federal Republic of Nigeria, my understanding is that the right of citizens to reside in any part of Nigeria is guaranteed and absolute. There is no other way of looking at it. If such citizens break the law, they are subject to the laws of their state of residence (and not the laws of their state of origin) and the laws of the federation if necessary.

In this regard, the Anambra State government can justify its non-response to the entreaties of Lagos State to come pick up its weary and needy. The “deportees” or “rehabilitated destitute” citizens are Nigerians. Anambra State is not a sovereign state so the government does not have control over where citizens live even if they claim to be indigenes of the state. Even if Anambra State heeded the request of the Lagos State government to “come and validate and identify the individuals who claimed to be from that State”, it would have been unconstitutional for Anambra State to forcibly take them “home” if they didn’t want to go back to the state.

Of course, there is nothing wrong for governors to discuss and come to an agreement to help relocate citizens of their states who are in need. The governors concerned could have reached a common understanding if, for example, the citizens concerned sought help to reunite with their families as claimed by the Lagos State government.

We need to stop playing saints and sinners. There are so many things flawed about this federation of ours. There are many other rights in the constitution that we have turned a blind eye to or for one reason or another are not enforceable. And until we are brave enough to confront this problem, it would continue to haunt us.

It is still not late for Anambra State or the citizens concerned to go to court just as it is not late for civil servants who were expelled from Abia State to go to court to seek justice. We need to continue pushing the frontiers of our federalism until such a time that a sovereign conference of Nigerians becomes inevitable. This is not a battle for MASSOB and ethnic bigots. Banning Lagos State government officials from South-east Nigeria is not only provocative, it is utterly silly. 

It is confounding that100 years after the creation of the country, 53 years after independence and 43 years after the end of a bitter and internecine civil war we are still talking about non-indigenes and host communities; we still see ourselves first as Igbos, Yorubas, Hausas, Fulanis, Tivs, Ibibios, Efiks, Ijaws, etc. For how long will this pretence of nationhood go on?  

Perhaps, the latest incident is a wake-up call. Rather than splitting hairs, we should confront the fundamental problem because it will happen again and again in different guise in a different state. Now is the time to tinker with the structure of our federation that makes it possible that 10 million of our children, the future of our nation if ever it has one, are not in school.

Now, not tomorrow, is the time to end national oppression, to question the illogic of states not controlling their resources in a federation, to restore the full rights of citizens, to destroy the many fault lines that have made us a nation only in name; and above all to tackle poverty, unemployment and other social problems so that we can restore the dignity of every man, woman and child.

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