COVID-19 dramatises Nigeria’s countries-within-a-country conundrum

The novel coronavirus is exposing the fragility of our sense of nationhood and accelerating the shredding of all pretenses to national unity. This started more than two weeks ago when the Kano State government “deported” a man who tested positive for COVID-19 to his home state of Jigawa—in contravention of both common sense and well-established conventions.

As the chairman of the Jigawa COVID-19 Task Force by the name of Abba Zakari pointed out on April 17, “The procedure is that wherever a sample is taken for testing, the result, positive or negative, belongs to that particular state where the sample was taken from.”

There is, in fact, no example anywhere in the world where countries deported foreigners in their land because they tested positive for COVID-19. But in Nigeria, federating units are openly pathologizing and “deporting” citizens without any consequences.

Note that Kano and Jigawa used to be the same state until August 27, 1991 and are, in fact, culturally, linguistically, and religiously indistinguishable. Were Nigeria to split, Jigawa and Kano would be in the same country. As we say in Nigeria, if a crocodile can eat its own eggs, what would it not do to the flesh of a frog.

No one of consequence in the Nigerian commentariat or in northern Nigerian political circles condemned Kano State government’s dangerous and illegal act. Neither the Arewa Consultative Forum nor the Northern Elders’ Forum, to my knowledge, has denounced the Kano State government.

The Kano State government also opened the floodgates for the recriminatory “deportations” of almajirai in Nigeria’s northwestern states by first “deporting” more than 1,000 children to their home states. Apart from being unconstitutional, it is aiding in the spread of the virus.

This is particularly troubling because Kano is emerging as not just the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria, it is also now the super spreader of the virus in the north. It was no surprise when it came to light that 16 almajirai “deported” from Kano to Kaduna tested positive for COVID-19. We can only imagine what is happening elsewhere.

The Rivers State government has joined the fray and is also going to “deport” almajirai to their states of origin. “We have also directed the Commissioner of Social Welfare to roundup and deport all vagrants, including the almajiris, to their states of origin to protect our people from the threat they present to the transmission of this pandemic,” Governor Nyesom Wike said on April 27.

The Osun State government on April 27 also signaled its intention to “deport” northerners in the state, like Lagos State government attempted in August 2019 decision. The Deputy Chief of Staff to the Governor of Osun State by the name of Adeyanju Binuyo was reported to have said northerners were “sneaking” into the state and that “all Northern Youth who had escaped into the state by hiding in trucks” would be fished out and deported.

Recall that in 2019, the Lagos State government also accused northerners of “illegal mass movement” into the state. In an August 31, 2019 tweet, the Lagos State government announced the “Arrest of illegal mass movement of Okada riders to Lagos from the North jointly coordinated by the State Commissioner for The Environment and Water Resources, Mr Tunji Bello and his Transportation counterpart, Dr. Abimbola Oladehinde.”

The Zamfara State government is so far the only state government I am aware of that expressed outrage over the planned “deportation” of northerners in Osun state. It said it is “disheartening that Osun State will take the path of isolating assumed outsiders and segregating what should be a common fight by all Nigerians.”

The Zamfara State government’s statement was predictably met with widespread scorn because of its hypocritical selectivity. It never expressed similar outrage when the Kano State government “deported” hundreds of almajirai on account of COVID-19.

In fact, the Kaduna State government sensationalized Nigeria’s countries-within-a-country absurdity on April 28 when it closed its “borders” and arrested 100 people “hidden inside a truck coming from Kano, and several others smuggled from Lagos by a trailer conveying goods to Kano,” according to Channels TV. No government, as far as I’m aware, has condemned this.

Since states are not sovereign entities, they can’t have “borders.” What they have, according to the Nigerian constitution, are “boundaries,” which they, in fact, have no jurisdictional competence to police. Only the federal government can, under certain circumstances, impose limits on freedom of movement within the country.

States can also not “deport” citizens of one state to another. Deportation means the expulsion of people from one country to another. It’s both semantically and legally impossible to “deport” citizens of a country within their own country. That’s both an abuse of the English language and of the constitution.

Chapter 4, Section 41 of the Nigerian Constitution unambiguously states that, “Every citizen of Nigeria is entitled to move freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part thereof, and no citizen of Nigeria shall be expelled from Nigeria or refused entry thereby or exit therefrom.”

Although I resent the almajiri system, which is basically unconscionable child abuse that needs to stop forthwith, no state government has any right under the constitution to “deport” anyone, including the almajirai, to their home states.

That state governments talk of “borders” and initiate “deportations” of Nigerian citizens while the federal government continues to pretend that nothing unusual is going on is all the evidence you need to know that Nigeria has not even started the process of, nor is it even interested in, becoming a country.

Yet, one of the most tediously sterile clichés among Nigeria’s political elites is the notion that the country’s “unity is settled and non-negotiable.” First, as I’ve stated in previous interventions, nation-building is never “settled”; it is always in a state of negotiation and renegotiation. To proclaim that something as potentially fleeting and as emotion-laden as “unity” is settled and non-negotiable is to betray profound ignorance of how nations are built and why nations collapse.

Second, unity is never a given and doesn’t spring forth from the idle fantasies of a country’s self-interested elites. It is consciously sowed, watered, and nourished by equity, justice, consensus-building, deliberate healing of the existential wounds that naturally emerge in our interactions as constituents of a common national space, and by acknowledging and working to tend to our ethnic, religious, regional, and cultural fissures.

The Nigerian political elites are not prepared for such hard work. They merely want to wish “unity” into being by glibly mouthing it. That is why the federal government isn’t bothered by the “deportations” of Nigerian citizens within Nigeria. Of course, the usurpation of its powers, not to mention the blatant violations of the constitution, by state governments doesn’t bother it, too, because it doesn’t border on the sharing of national resources.







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