Essays / The Pontifical Papers


AYO SOGUNRO PRESENWhat does it mean to be a Nigerian citizen?

I have considered this question several times. Other than the capacity to vote and be voted for, what quality can I attach to the phrase: “I am a Nigerian citizen”? This is not a question many Nigerians can answer and still feel patriotic. But, of what use is national pride when: one, the association is often a fortuitous circumstance of birth; and two, the association does not secure any quality of existence for an individual?

These questions are, of course, related to those of national identity. Still, in this fait accompli stage of our national existence, the questions on the rights that attach to Nigerian citizenship are not quite settled. The extent to which these rights can be qualified by gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class or age is even less clear.

Yes, there are laws specifying rights and qualifications. The fourth chapter of the 1999 Constitution dishes a generous serving of human rights. But these rights are illusory. An irritated Army general can terminate the right to life—the most basic of all fundamental rights—with impunity. The jurisprudence promoted by the Constitution is, again and again, eroded by the ignorance and malice of the political class and their supporters. In the daily affairs of the majority of Nigerians, these constitutional rights are less useful than a stack of gold bars earned in a game of Candy Crush.

Hence, Nigerian socio-legal philosophy—though nominally democratic—is, in its application, structured around an interlocking system of earned rights creating its own subtle kyriarchy. Nigerians are not entitled to any particular quality of existence as a right. Instead, they have to earn it through socioeconomic class, religious affiliation, gender, culture, or political patronage. The machinery of government—supposedly representative of the people—does not even protect rights based on citizenship, much less those based on humanity. It is not surprising, then, that the entire socio-legal setting is rigged against the majority of Nigerians: especially the poor, the young, the disabled, and the female.

It is difficult for the political class to agree that all Nigerians should be treated equally. Admitting this point will threaten their dominance in the socio-legal pyramid. Their natural, self-preserving, reaction is to declare satisfaction with the existing setup, invoke some scriptural text or cultural reference, and feign blindness or ignorance to the injustices that bleed out across the country.

When it comes to blindness and ignorance, the Nigerian National Assembly is the most valuable player. That association of mostly wobbling, work-loathing individuals is a parasitic economic burden and a stumbling block to social development. This is self-evident: social development is incompatible with economic parasitism. Of course, there are a few good women and men in the legislature, but it is difficult for them to work against a system that has helped in securing their political advancement.

And so, I was not that surprised when the Senate rejected a “Gender and Equal Opportunity” bill last week. The naysayers in the Senate gave the usual excuses: invoking culture and religion as though these twin precepts constituted the grundnorm of the Nigerian. Culture and religion have their uses, but they are not designed for the administration of a constitutional democracy.

Still, the order of civic precedence has been reaffirmed. Other men of lesser political importance will inflict violence on women; confident that the legislature has validated their “earned right” to do so. As far as the naysayers in the Nigerian Senate are concerned, everything is awesome.

One awesome “something” that must have escaped the legislature’s notice is the incident that occurred in the Ovre-Eku community of Delta State earlier this month. It seems the women of the community had been upset with the transfer of (what they considered as) their land to an oil company. If the newspapers are correct, they staged a peaceful protest. Somehow, the local army unit got involved.  And, as these things usually go in Nigeria, the Unit Commander ordered his men to flog the women and send them off. According to a report, the commander ordered the flogging as a demonstration of “minimal force”.

I suppose that this type of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is what our lawmakers consider as fairness to women. If it had been a male protest, the soldiers would have fired on the protesters. Gender equality, if you ask our lawmakers, would imply ordering soldiers to shoot disagreeable women. For them, equality is about extending existing abuses, not reducing them.

The political class justifies these abuses as a necessary aspect of preserving government authority—because official violence is the granddad to domestic violence. Like an abusive husband, the Army commander still sleeps easy: he has merely done his part in upholding authority. But the office of the president—or any other political office—is not derived from divinity. Political office is an extension of the citizenry, and the dignity of citizens is the dignity of office. There is nothing grand about the King of Slaves. It is illogical that our respect for authority should take precedence over respect for the rights of the citizens who constituted the authority.

Yet, a chronic cycle of degradation is the value of Nigerian citizenship. Whipping women and not shooting at them is the pinnacle of state responsibility to women.

However, the Nigerian political class would learn someday that political sustainability is directly proportional to the protection of the rights of citizens by the State. We live in a constantly evolving world, and self-awareness is creeping on Nigerians. The Nigerians of the future are not going to be directed by the world view of 1914. The natural progression of human history is slanted towards equality and freedom; those who refuse to accept this progress might as well push back a tide with a fishing net.

Naturally, they will be swept aside.

Originally published here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.

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