Elections and Violence in Nigeria: The Question of Citizenship in Sub-Saharan Africa

Since its independence in 1960, Nigeria’s ruling civilian and military elites have never engaged their fellow citizens in the type of robust civil discourse that would have allowed them to confront the critical issue of citizenship. Nigeria’s regular incidences of violence, most of which seem to flair up after an election, do have something to do with how Nigerians see the issue of citizenship.

According to news reports, violence from political and religious conflict has killed more than 2,000 people in and around the city of Jos. The people targeted are usually members of immigrant groups that have settled in the area and are said not to belong to the geographic region where the fighting is taking place. During one particular violent outbreak in Jos in which Christian villages were sacked and burned and over 200 people were killed, observers claimed that the massacres were carried out by Muslims in retaliation for previous attacks against them, which left over 300 dead. In the disputed villages around Jos, Muslims (who are mostly Hausa or Fulani) claim that the territory is theirs by virtue of possession, but other groups argue that they are the true citizens (“native sons” or “sons of the soil”) of these farmlands by virtue of their ancestry.

Although the 1999 Nigerian constitution guarantees each citizen the right to free internal exit as well as the right to settle in any part of the country, the issue of what constitutes Nigerian citizenship has never been put to rigorous open discussion. Section 41(1) of the constitution states that “[e]very 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.” Section 42(2) states that “[n]o citizen of Nigeria shall be subjected to any disability or deprivation merely by reason of the circumstances of his birth.”

The violence that erupted in Kaduna State following the release of the results of the presidential election that took place on April 16 was just the latest in a series of violent attacks by various groups who believe strongly that “home” does not mean Nigeria but the individual’s so-called “ancestral land” within the country. In order to win the election, a candidate had to obtain a majority of the votes cast, as well as receive at least 25 percent of the votes cast in two-thirds of the country’s 36 States. Mr. Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, easily reached that threshold in 31 states in an election that was declared by both the national electoral commission and international observers as largely free and fair. The electoral commission declared Mr. Jonathan the winner and shortly afterward, homes of his supporters, churches and police stations were set ablaze in the northern cities of Kano and Kaduna, leaving many dead.

Nigerian legal philosopher Olufemi Taiwo argues that although post-independence politicians have sought to create a common citizenship, they have neglected to engage the people in a discussion of citizenship and “what citizenship involves in terms of rights, duties, immunities, privileges and forbearances for its bearers.” As observed by Taiwo, for citizenship to be meaningful and have any value, “it must prevail over the entire territory of the country for which it exists, without regard to how many nationalities and ethnicities are to be found therein.”

Nigeria’s constitution prescribes three ways through which an individual can acquire Nigerian citizenship: by birth, by registration and by naturalization. Yes as evidenced by recent chaos in Nigeria, citizenship outside one’s ancestral land is insecure and can be stripped arbitrarily. Many Nigerians believe that various geographic parts of the country should be left exclusively for the benefit of the so-called “indigenes” or “native sons” or “sons of the soil.” In essence, the idea of a shared common citizenship that goes beyond one’s ethnic group and place of birth in line with the constitution is deficient. As a result, the concept of internal exit—the right to locate oneself anywhere within the geographic boundaries of Nigeria and have one’s person and property protected by both national and local laws—really does not exist in the country today. For example, while a Yoruba from Lagos State can migrate to Kaduna, he is likely to encounter serious opposition from indigenes if the new migrant (or stranger in local jargon) attempts to run for public office or purchase property in the state.

The Issue of Citizenship and African Countries

The issue of citizenship is not just a Nigerian problem but one that characterizes most of Sub-Saharan Africa. For example, in Kenya, a country, which has also recently encountered post-election violence, that violence was related to unresolved grievances by groups that believed that their rights to their ancestral lands were being infringed or usurped by members of other groups that had settled on those lands. While these people who have settled outside their ancestral homes are Kenyans, they are not considered full citizens of these regions. Likewise, failure to develop the concept of common citizenship is behind the bloody ethnic struggles that have killed many Ivorians since 2002. Like other Africans, when Ivorians gained independence in 1960, the county’s leaders never engaged its people in the type of robust civil discourse that would have allowed them to deal with the critical issue of citizenship. As a consequence, the bloody civil war, which started in 2002, was fought over the issue of citizenship. A law enacted shortly before the country’s 2000 presidential election required all presidential candidates to have both their parents born in the Ivory Coast. This was a slap in the face of many northern Ivorians, including presidential candidate, Alassane Ouattara, whose parents are said to be immigrants from Burkina Faso.

As long as the issue of citizenship is not appropriately resolved, conflicts will continue and it will be difficult to achieve the economic growth targets that these African countries have set for themselves. Africans must focus their attention on creating a concept of citizenship that is in line with the modern state structure—the person and his or her property must be secure, not only in the so-called ancestral home but also outside of it.

Citizenship in a modern state is characterized by its portability—the ability to exit one political jurisdiction within the polity (a local government area, a state or province) and enter another without the requirement to assert citizenship in the new political jurisdiction in order to participate in and benefit from economic and political activities. Thus, a Nigerian citizen who migrates from Lagos State to Kano State should, after a reasonable time period, be able to acquire residency in Kano and the rights, privileges, immunities and burdens available to other Kano residents. Regardless of their ethno-regional grouping, Nigerian citizens should be able to establish residency in any of the 36 states and Federal Capital Territory and suffer no discrimination based simply on the fact that he or she is not an indigene of the state or territory in question. Such genuine citizenship, characterized by portability, does not currently exist in Nigeria or in many other African countries.

Portability of citizenship is even more important now that many African countries have adopted or are evaluating adoption of new federalist constitutions. While these decentralized structures serve to diffuse executive powers, they could generate more conflict should they dilute the concept of citizenship. What the recent bloody clashes in Kenya, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria teach us is that Africans must work together to engage in a robust discussion of what it means to be a citizen of their countries. In order for violence to stop, there is need to collectively reject the concept of citizenship based on consanguinity and geography and instead embrace a citizenship based on association. Only when Africans accept this holistic approach to citizenship will peaceful coexistence be assured to every citizen so they can fully and effectively participate in the economic development of their respective countries.

References and further reading:

Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999.

Mwangi S. Kimenyi, Ethnic Diversity and Liberty: The African Dilemma (Aldershot, UK: Edward Elgar, 1997).

John Mukum Mbaku, Institutions and Reform in Africa: The Public Choice Perspective (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997).

Olufemi Taiwo, “Of Citizens and Citizenship,” in Akibá, O. (ed.), Constitutionalism and Society in Africa (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 55-78.