‘The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich and the poor alike to beg, to sleep under bridges and to steal bread’ – Anatole France
Where in Nigeria is our Constitution respected? Where within our boundaries is the protection of the vulnerable considered an overarching value to be prioritised above all else? Certainly not in Northern Nigeria, whose senators recently caused a national uproar by their retention of the constitutional clause recognising child marriage in Nigeria. Not in the East, where the currently loquacious Peter Obi cynically boosted his popularity with the untutored rabble by leading the demolition of the property of a murder suspect, before bringing him to trial, and certainly before any judicial determination of his guilt had been made. Not in the South-South, where Rotimi Amaechi, after months of casting himself as the persecuted victim of Aso Rock politics orchestrated by a vindictive Swamp Dweller, has just ‘deported’ over a hundred fellow compatriots to their alleged states of origin, in emulation of the urban renewal efforts of the most admired governor in Nigeria, Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN.
I find it impossible to conduct any exploration of Fashola’s executive aberrations in isolation, principally because much of what alarms us about him is part of a larger national disease, and we all know it. It has been the fashion of Fashola’s defenders in that past few days to point to the big picture, trying to place his resettlement of 72 destitutes of eastern origin within the perspective of Lagos’s unique problems of overpopulation, rural-urban migration, the strain on public facilities, and the Governors commendable drive in his mega city vision for Lagos. All of this can be conceded, while reminding them that the important point has been totally missed: in every polity there is a hierarchy of values that define it at the most fundamental level, codified in its norms of conduct, and the most definitive of these values are non-negotiable at any price. There can be no possible justification for betraying them.
His defenders also attack the motives of their Igbo interlocutors, asking why such protests were not made when other ethnic groups were similarly targeted for relocation by the Lagos State government. This argument is an unworthy one, made only for the purposes of diverting attention from the important question; whether there is any reason good enough to justify the cavalier abrogation of the constitutional rights of Nigerian citizens by the government, without regard to due process, decency or their basic welfare and security. But they have been helped along by the approach of their critics. Far too many easterners have seized on this heaven-sent opportunity to fight the Civil War all over again instead of focussing on the true nature of the threat. The ‘Nobody owns Lagos’ argument for instance is insensitive and insulting. This is not about Yorubas and Igbos, if they will listen. It’s between the powerful and the powerless, the poor and the rich. Even more precisely, it is between lawlessness in power and the people the law was put in place to protect. The danger in turning this into an ethnic battle is that the identity of the common danger facing us, regardless of tribe, will be obscured, and we will lose the strength in unity that should be the effective check to lawlessness in power. For me, it is a source of despair to even speculate whether the amount of outrage being expressed by Igbo commentators is ONLY due to the fact that the deportees are Igbo, and not necessarily because they are human beings.
It is a self-defeating approach kicked off by Peter Obi, in his attempt to make political capital of the whole mess, instead of taking swift legal action against a patent illegality by the Lagos State government. By threatening to carry out his own reprisal deportations, also in direct violation of the Constitution, he placed himself on the same moral plane as Fashola. But I have come to expect very little from him; his permanent pose as an ethnic champion has come to be his default position, to the detriment of available superior arguments that might actually contribute to national progress. The way he lambasted Nasir El-Rufai as a hater of the Igbo race merely because that gentleman, in his series of write-ups evaluating the budgets of various states in the federation, had said some critical words about Anambra State’s budget implementation, was proof enough that he places no faith in constructive engagement when the ready benefits of exploiting a siege mentality are to be had for the taking. In any case a man like that, with his own sorry record of constitutional violations, should not be heard talking too loudly about adherence to the Constitution and the rule of law. I understand: When the conversation gets dangerously close to the subject of tails, you will hear the Frog politely request that you change the subject!
‘…..they took me to another place in Ikorodu,close to Ijebu-Ode. After taking my statement, they pushed me inside the cell where I was, for eight months….Two days before we were deported, a man whom they called boss came with a paper and a biro and said those of us interested in going to our home town should put down our names. Some did while others did not for fear that they were going to be killed. That was how we were sandwiched inside a truck and brought here at the wee hours” (Testimony of deportee: Vanguard Newspapers, 3rd August 2013)
That Vanguard newspaper account is a chilling summary of the absolute disregard for human rights and welfare displayed by the democratically elected Lagos State government on a daily basis in this post-modern age. You will find there first person accounts of Nigerians being arrested by KAI officials without warrant or charge, being detained without trial for up to seven or eight months, being put in imminent fear of extra-judicial execution by the very awareness that all constitutional guarantees supposedly provided by our government amount to precisely – nothing. It will dawn on you, listening to these pathetic narratives, that all the mealy-mouthed defences mounted by or on behalf of the Lagos State government claiming that these people were resettled for their own good, being mentally unfit persons, amount to hogwash.
If only 14 persons were deported, as claimed by Fashola, how come the Red Cross was saddled with so many returnees even after the majority had been claimed by their families? Are they so fertile that they started miraculously multiplying, even as the five loaves and two fish, on the vehicle conveying them? And if they were not up to something nefarious, why choose the hour of 3 o’clock in the morning, the favourite hour of witches, warlocks and armed robbers, to dump these people in their state of origin, particularly when the alibi is that they are mentally unstable and need specialised care? I will not even dignify the purported correspondence between the Lagos and Anambra state governments with an in-depth analysis: only a constitutional ignoramus would entertain the idea for one second that Anambra State, or any other state, was legally obligated to restrict the flow of their indigenes to Lagos if that was where they wanted to go, or that Lagos State was owed any duty by Anambra to accept any Igbos Lagos State did not want, breach of which entitled her to throw out Nigerian citizens from her confines.
“…..(Fashola) warned 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.”
(SaharaReporters, August 2, 2013)
Beyond the chilling record of human rights violations perpetrated by his government, beyond even the reported death of one of the deportees as a direct consequence of the ordeal they were put through, there is the troubling picture of the mentality of the Lagos State Governor, with regard to the constitutional rights of his citizens. In the words quoted above you hear a blanket justification for every thing he has done to the 72 deportees and those who were deported before them. The unlawful arrests, the illegal detentions, the ‘consents to resettlement’ extracted by naked intimidation, the Nazi-like transportations conducted in inhuman conditions, all can be defended on the basis that the rights they violate ‘are not absolute’. Not even the right to Life! Or Liberty! Or Fair hearing! Or protection from torture, degrading, inhuman or unusual punishment! Which one has he not violated? Which one has he apologised for?
I shall take a stab at reading the mind of the learned SAN, and speculate that he had section 45 of the Constitution in mind when he made this shocking statement. I cite subsection (1) as follows:
“45. (1) Nothing in sections 37, 38, 39, 40 and 41 of this Constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society
(a) in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or
(b) for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom or other persons”
Freedom of movement, being covered by S.41 of the Constitution, might therefore be said to be derogable in the manner provided for by S.45, as S.41 is included therein as one of the sections whose rights can be so derogated from. But Fashola has not shown us any law of Lagos State made pursuant to this provision which entitles him to sweep up non-indigenes from the street, lock them up without trial, and transport them in the dead of night across several states to another jurisdiction. Worse, he has not shown that the persons affected were tried under such laws by a court of competent jurisdiction and found guilty. He has not provided the legal source for deportation as a valid punishment to be imposed by a Lagos court on a Nigerian citizen, or that in fact any court did so impose such a punishment. NULLUM POENA SINE LEGE remains a cornerstone of our criminal jurisprudence: No punishment can be imposed unless prescribed by a written law. And if this is not a punishment, pray what s it? State-sponsored kidnapping?
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria is heading an administration seriously confused about the principle of separation of powers. Whether it recognises any principles at all, whether of law, morality or decency, is seriously open to doubt. If the only reason why these persons were kicked out of Lagos was because they are not citizens of Lagos, then Fashola is in breach of S.42 (1) (a) of the Constitution which forbids discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin, and that admits of no derogation whatsoever:
“42. (1) A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such a person:-
(a) be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions are not made subject;
(2) No citizen of Nigeria shall be subjected to any disability or deprivation merely by reason of the circumstances of his birth.”
In the way they were arrested, held in custody without trial and subjected to degrading treatment, he was in breach of their constitutional rights to personal liberty, fair hearing and the dignity of the human person, and these also, admit of no derogation whatsoever. In the case of Shugaba Darman v Minister of Internal Affairs, the Supreme Court made it clear that deportation is not a measure that can be applied to a Nigerian citizen, hence the mortal fear Fashola’s goons have displayed at the mention of the word deportation. They prefer the word ‘resettlement’, except that you cannot extort consent from people in fear of their lives to such resettlement, pack them like sardines into vehicles in callous disregard to their health, dump them under a bridge at unholy hours and expect to make sense when explaining yourself to reasonable and intelligent people.
Truth is, the values of the Fashola Administration were clear from the start. His approach to eliminating poverty in Lagos is by eliminating the poor. In his book, and that of his cohorts, you have no place residing in Lagos unless you have taxable income. On this extreme utilitarian basis, all the policies of his administration are founded. I would be an ungrateful sod not to at least acknowledge the palpable difference his energetic interventions have wrought in significant aspects of governance in Lagos, but a time must come when we have to ask: at what cost? That the monetary cost is unacceptable is compellingly highlighted by the example of the Lekki/Epe Expressway, merely expanded by his administration and concessioned to the LCC for thirty years, forcing residents of those parts to either pay the excessive tolls levied or remain house-bound. The human cost is another matter entirely, the brutal slum clearances, with Badia as the outstanding example, are carried out with no adequate measures for the rehousing of the evicted residents.
When you get down to brass-tacks, the ‘Eko o ni baje’ mantra, this vision of transforming Lagos into a second Singapore a la Lee Kuan Yew, is defined in the interests of who exactly? The common man in Lagos or the jet-setting high-flyer? Fashola seems to have been so obsessed with transforming the Lagos skyline to match what we see in Dubai and Mumbai that he has forgotten the basic truism: cities are people. If the only way he can achieve the set objectives of his administration is by trampling on the non-negotiable rights of the Nigerian citizen, however insignificant that citizen may be, then he is not competent to be governor.
While I hold jealously to my cultural identity as a Yoruba and a Lagosian, increasingly I have to redefine for myself what that means. The increasing diversity of Lagos is a reality and will not be reversed in years to come. We should be leading the way in the task of national integration, being the most accommodating state in the entire federation – and I say this with no apologies. It’s time we held Fashola strictly to the terms of his oath of office as governor to protect and uphold the constitution by virtue of which he exercises his powers. Not only must he respect our human rights, he is obligated to take the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy, enshrined in chapter 3 of the constitution, into cognisance. S.15 (2) and (3) thereof state in part:
“(2) ……national integration shall be actively encouraged, whilst discrimination on the grounds of place of origin, sex, religion, status, ethnic or linguistic association or ties shall be prohibited.
(3) For the purpose of promoting national integration, it shall be the duty of the State to:
(a) provide adequate facilities for and encourage free mobility of people, goods and services throughout the Federation.
(b) secure full residence rights for every citizen in all parts of the Federation.”
This policy of deportation, by whatever name called, is in direct violation of the stated objectives of the Federation as defined by the constitution. There is no excuse for it, even while we acknowledge the peculiar problems Lagos has. The policy creates more problems than it can ever solve, exacerbates unnecessary ethnic tensions, and in the final analysis is based on a most delinquent abdication by the state of its constitutional responsibility to provide care for the vulnerable in society.
The most elegant solution to the problem would be for Fashola to see reason, reverse his policy, tender an unreserved apology and adequate compensation to the victims and give adequate guarantees for the future to the people of Lagos, irrespective of ethnic origin. Failing that, the ball lies in Governor Peter Obi’s court. In addition to securing a Supreme Court pronouncement on the constitutionality of Lagos State actively dumping human beings in his state like so much toxic waste, he would do very well by appointing a legal team to represent the 72 deportees in a suit against the Lagos state government claiming compensation for the egregious violation of their fundamental human rights.
I do not very much trust these two gentlemen to do the proper thing instead of continuing to play dangerous ethnic politics with the lives and welfare of the deportees, so the third alternative, failing the above, would be for civil society, specifically the Nigerian Bar Association, to take up the case of the Onitsha 72 in the courts and force it through to a judicial determination, however long it takes.
Fashola must be sent a clear unequivocal message: we love you, we support you, but some things are simply unacceptable, unless we are prepared to slide into a dark age of tyranny, and we will NOT accept this.