By Onyedika Agbedo
The constitutionality of action of some state governors in ‘deporting’ some non-indigenes, especially Almajiris, to their states of origin under the guise of preventing the spread of COVID-19 may need to be tested in court
The deportation of some Nigerians from their state of residence to their state of origin following the spread of COVID-19 has again re-opened citizenship rights debate in the country. The Northern Governors’ Forum (NGF) had recently issued a statement where they observed that Almajiri children were exposed to the risk of contracting coronavirus and unanimously resolved to ban the almajiri system and also evacuate the children to their parents or states of origin.
As at yesterday, at least three states in the north had started implementing the decision. The Kano State Commissioner for Local Government, Murtala Garo, last Sunday, disclosed that 419 almajiris had been deported to Katsina, 524 to Jigawa and 155 to Kaduna, totalling 1,098. The Kaduna State government has also reportedly deported 40 almajiris to Kebbi State government while Benue State government has evacuated 17 to Bauchi and 42 to Katsina states, respectively, bringing the total to 59.
The action of the northern governors apparently gave the green light to the Rivers State government to send 150 non-indigenes to their states of origin last Wednesday. Reports said some of those deported came from Ebonyi, Akwa Ibom and northern states as well as Niger Republic. Governor Nyesom Wike had in a statewide broadcast disclosed that he had directed the Commissioner for Social Welfare “to round up and deport all vagrants, including the almajiri, to their states of origin to protect our people from the threat they present to the transmission of this pandemic.”
Also last Wednesday, the Osun State government raised the alarm over the large influx of northern youths, especially Zamfara State indigenes, into the state.
The Deputy Chief of Staff to the Governor of Osun State, Prince Adeyanju Biniyo, had accused the northerners of “sneaking” into the state, threatening that the Osun Amotekun Corps has been mandated to arrest and deport the “strangers.”
All the states that have threatened to deport non-indigenes or have actually deported them claim that the action is for the common good of the state and Nigeria in general, saying it was part of measures to curb the spread of coronavirus pandemic.
But what does the Nigerian Constitution say? At a time when the states are locking their borders to limit interstate transmission of the disease, what is the rational in forcefully moving residents to other states? Now that it is obvious that the deportees were not tested by their host states before their evacuation, with their indigenous states announcing that some of them have tested positive to the virus, isn’t it possible that many of them were actually infected while in transit, given that the states obviously violated the social distancing advisory just to accomplish their mission? And since the Federal Government has been providing support to all the states as it concerns battling the pandemic, why didn’t the states arrest and test those it considers prone to the virus, and then treat positive cases? What is the guarantee that the security of the deportees would be better protected in their states of origin as the governors claim?
Section 41 of the 1999 Constitution provides 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.” Also, Section 42 provides that “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.”
Chairman of the Presidential task Force for the Control of Coronavirus and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, who spoke on the deportations last Monday, in a veiled condemnation of the action of the state governments noted that most of the almajiris being deported were minors who needed people to be responsible for them.
“Most of them are minors. As a matter of fact, by the time they get to their teens they mature and become the Mallams. And I think every government has a responsibility given to it by the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to provide for the welfare and the security of its citizens. I also believe that the governors taking this option have that at the back of their minds. The states in which these almajiris are operating, can we say that their welfare is being taken care of? Is adequate security being provided for them? And being minors, somebody has to take that responsibility. And I said we should look at it within this context,” he said.
Worried by the development, civil society organisations under the aegis of Human Rights Agenda Network (HRAN), in a statement last Thursday, also condemned the deportations outright and declared the action as illegal.
HRAN said: “The deportation of the almajiris is illegal and unconstitutional because every Nigerian, irrespective of his or her status, is entitled to the full enjoyment of the fundamental human rights in the Constitution. Section 41 of the 1999 Constitution guarantees the right of every Nigerian to reside anywhere in the country. A citizen cannot be deported from his/her own country. It is a gross violation of his/her right as a citizen. It is unlawful for the government of any state to forcefully deport or move any person or group from one state to another against their will. It is unconscionable that the governments of the concerned states who are supposed to take care of the education and welfare of the almajiris are maltreating them.”
According to the group, the almajiri phenomenon arose purely as a result of failure of governance. “These children are entitled to their constitutional right to free and compulsory primary and secondary education. Rather than carry out their constitutional duty of providing for the security and welfare of the people, northern state governors in particular have allowed almajiris roam the streets, exposing them to exploitation.
“Nigeria has an obligation to adequately protect and promote the rights of a child under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, duly domesticated in the Child Rights Act.
“These forced movements constitute violations of their right to respect for the dignity of their persons guaranteed under Section 34 of the 1999 Constitution and the right to personal liberty protected under Section 35 of the constitution. Also, targeting the almajiris as a social group for deportation is a violation of their right to protection against discrimination, which is provided under Section 42 of the 1999 Constitution and Article 2 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act,” they added.
HRAN added that the forced movements of the almajiris from one state to another contitute a major public health risk in the context of COVID-19 pandemic.
“The governors of the northern states claim that the deportation of the almajaris is to curb the spread of COVID-19 and enforcement of the lockdown orders in the states. On the contrary, the deportation from a state with COVID-19 cases such as Kano State without prior testing and isolation, portends grave risks in the spread of the virus across states,” HRAN added.
Special Adviser to the Zamfara State Governor on Public Enlightenment, Media and Communications, Zailani Bappa, has also described as dangerous the threat by the Osun State government to deport non-indigenes particularly those from ‘Farming is Our Pride’ state.
“As if the entrants brought in war, he also called on the Osun indigenes ‘not to panic’ as the state has instructed Amotekun to fish them out and ensure that anyone escorting trucks that offload goods is turned back and escorted out of the state.
“Doubtlessly, the above position as portrayed by the Deputy Chief of Staff is not statesmanlike and smacks of bad taste. Indeed, it is condescending and totally negates good practices expected of leaders in a Federal setting such as Nigeria.
“Nigeria and the world at large are facing a serious and challenging pandemic. All civilised societies are joining hands together to fight the spread of this pandemic and even extending helping hands to others. It is, therefore, disheartening that Osun State will take the path of isolating assumed outsiders and segregating what should be a common fight by all Nigerians,” Bappa said.
This is not the first time there would be controversy over deportation of Nigerians within Nigeria. In 2013, the Lagos State government during the administration of former governor Babatunde Raji Fashola deported 14 beggars and destitute to Anambra State where they claimed to have come from. Then governor of Anambra State, Mr Peter Obi, who put the number of the deportees at 72, was furious at the development and threatened a reprisal. Amid the controversy that ensued, Lagos State government adduced evidence that the Akwa Ibom State government had also deported Lagos indigenes in the past. The deportees later filed a N1 billion suit against the Lagos State government at the Federal High Court, Lagos, but not much was heard about it after many adjournments.
The current wave of deportations may need to be tested in court again as it has cast a shadow on the prospects of building a country where all citizens would truly feel at home in any part therein and their rights respected.