By Festus Ogun
Over the weekend, the All Progressives Congress (APC) boldly claimed that the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party in the 2019 presidential election, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, is not a citizen of Nigeria by birth and he ought not to have been allowed to contest the election. Since the matter might set a perilous precedent, if left unattended to, we have found it pertinent to make a resolution of some of the key legal issues arising therefrom.
In a constitutional democracy, the different ways, by which citizenship can be acquired, are clearly stipulated in the constitution. By virtue of Section 25, 26 and 27 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 2011 as amended, a person can become a citizen of Nigeria by one of these three ways: by birth, registration and naturalisation. Since the fulcrum of this discussion is on citizenship by birth, the two other methods of acquiring citizenship will not be discussed in detail.
Section 25 of the Constitution provides thus: The following persons are citizens of Nigeria by birth, namely: (a) every person born in Nigeria before the date of independence, either of whose parents or any of whose grandparents belongs or belonged to a community indigenous to Nigeria; provided that a person shall not become a citizen of Nigeria by virtue of this section if neither of his parents nor any of his grandparents was born in Nigeria.(b) every person born in Nigeria after the date of independence either of whose parents or any of whose grandparents is a citizen of Nigeria; and (c) every person born outside Nigeria either of whose parents is a citizen of Nigeria. (2) In this section, “the date of independence” means the 1st day of October 1960.
It is true that the above constitutional provision can be easily appreciated by a mind that is unpolluted with political prejudices. In fact, the Supreme Court in Shugaba v. Minister of Internal Affairs (1981) 1 NCLR 459 gave judicial approval and interpretation to that particular section.
The next issue to be determined, therefore, is, owing to Atiku’s ancestral link with Northern Cameroon, can he be said to be “born in Nigeria before the date of independence”? Can it also be said that his parents or grandparents belongs or belonged to a community indigenous to Nigeria?
Before answers are given to these sacrosanct questions, let it be said that for our laws to be properly understood, an appreciation of the history before the advent of that particular law, or that which led to the promulgation of such a law, must be taken into consideration. On this issue, too, a quick sojourn into the history of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar and that of his people must be embarked on.
Atiku was born November 25, 1946 (before independence) in Jada town in Adamawa. He is an indigene of the same town. As Premium Times reported, Jada used to be in Ganye Local Government Area of Adamawa State. This area was never part of Nigeria legally until the February 1961 plebiscite in which the people of the then Northern Cameroon voted to join Nigeria. Atiku’s father was from Jada Village of the old Northern Cameroon.
Can someone born before independence outside Nigeria in a community not indigenous to Nigeria become a Nigerian by birth? NO! But Atiku’s case is different. After the plebiscite that made Northern Cameroon part of Nigeria in 1961, all the people of Northern Cameroon, whether born before or after 1960, were seen as Nigerians and all the communities therein became indigenous to Nigeria. Therefore, the legal implication of the 1961 plebiscite is that all communities of the “British Cameroon” are deemed to be communities indigenous to Nigeria. In fact, the people in Northern Cameroon were not part of the Republic of Cameroon, but they belonged to a geographical territory controlled by the British Colonial masters.
To buttress the argument canvassed above, Section 10 of the 1963 Constitution is to the effect that those who became Nigerians by virtue of the February 1961 plebiscite are deemed to be citizens of Nigeria by birth and their communities are indigenous to Nigeria.
From the above, it requires little or no imagination to detect that Atiku and in fact, anyone from the communities that joined Nigeria by plebiscite in 1961 are citizens of Nigeria by birth. Consequently, they can eligibly run for the office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria under Section 131(a) of the 1999 Constitution and any political office, whatsoever, without any hindrance once other constitutional requirements are met.
Lord Denning has long said that words are not instruments of mathematical precision. Our courts have consistently posited that where the strict application of the plain, ordinary and grammatical meaning of words used in legislation will amount to absurdity, inconsistency and miscarriage of justice, the court should modify the words with a secondary meaning that is capable of bearing (Okeke v. A.G. Anambra State (1992) 1 NWLR 60).
Several factors are put into consideration in the interpretation of law. If by any means the application of the plain letters of law to a set of facts will amount to absurdity or miscarriage of justice, the court of justice will be quick to reject such an evil attempt and stand on the firm side of law i.e. justice.
An attempt to twist history for the satisfaction of political prejudices should not be allowed to stand. If the votes of those “affected” areas can be counted as valid in elections, if those areas are recognised by the Constitution under Section 3, if revenue can be generated from that same area, why then should they be treated as aliens in their country? This is brewing another crisis in the country. The engine behind this controversy should watch it.
Festus Ogun wrote in from Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye, Ogun State.