For every child who dies of hunger; every victim of Boko Haram; everyday spent without the rescue of the Chibok girls; every youth who languishes in unemployment; every woman who dies during childbirth due to inadequate care and every accident due to bad roads, please, remember that these are heart-breaking manifestations of the type of country we have built because we have renounced our citizenship.
One of my friends recently renounced his Nigerian citizenship. His email confirming the renunciation had no text and was simply titled “Citizenship renounced”. A copy of his new identity document was included as attachment. His subsequent WhatsApp message indicated that some of the “greatest things about one’s citizenship are national pride and satisfactory sense of belonging”. He argues that the corruption, poor social services, the “inhumane treatment meted out” to citizens, among other factors “do not inspire pride” and the failure of the state to “guarantee the safety and welfare of its citizens nailed the coffin for me.”
I have been pondering on the decision of my friend and that of other Nigerians whom I know had refused to renew their Nigerian passports for several years and obtained visas to travel to Nigeria. One was quite clear about his reasons. He argued that the Canadian government would come to his rescue if he got into trouble anywhere in the world but the Nigerian government did not know that he existed and could not be bothered.
Given the current socio-economic climate, these are no doubt relatively privileged individuals. Their actions are seemingly inconsequential in a country of over 160 million people. Our friend is unlikely to be missed in Nigeria. Those refusing to renew their Nigerian passports may merely ensure reduced workload for our foreign missions. Nonetheless, these individual acts are forms of protest and should spur some questions. What is citizenship? What does it mean to renounce one’s citizenship? What is the symbolism of our friend’s renunciation of his Nigerian citizenship?
Many books have been written on the question of citizenship. My aim is not to rehash a fairly robust scholarly debate. My basic premise is that as Nigerians, we have all in various ways renounced our citizenship. Giving up your passport is just a performative act of citizenship renunciation. There are other more subtle yet serious ways by which citizenship is renounced. In particular, citizenship is more quickly renounced via inaction than action.
We renounce our citizenship when we watch successive groups of charlatans take over power in messages that typically begin with “fellow Nigerians” and obey their commands to remain indoors “until further notice”. The success of the coups in our country’s recent history was due in part to our acquiescence to our domination — a product of our renunciation of our citizenship. The recent failed coup in Turkey exemplifies what it means to not renounce one’s citizenship. The whole world watched in both shock and admiration as the Turkish people took to the streets despite threats to their lives to ensure that the 2016 coup failed. A piece by Kani Torun on the Al Jazeera website summarises why the coup failed: “The turning point was (Turkish President) Erdogan’s television appearance…He said the military’s activity was an illegal action against the democratically elected government and urged people to take to the streets and protest against the coup attempt…This coup attempt was defeated by the citizens of Turkey, regardless of their political affiliation. It was a victory for Turkish democracy.” We must all for ever wonder what Nigeria would look like today if we had all collectively resisted coup plotters like the Turkish people did in 2016 after witnessing several coups in the past.
Almost without any exceptions, countries that today (at least in theory) enjoy a cornucopia of human and citizenship rights have had to fight for those rights. We have hundreds of years of history to learn from and do not have to reenact orgies of violence experienced in many of those countries.
Despite the ineptitude of the Buhari administration, we must resist the urge to set our country back and insist on democratic change afforded by peaceful and fair elections. There is no contradiction between defending democracy while fundamentally disagreeing with the government of the day. Millions of Turkish people and the opposition party fought against a coup that would have removed a government many of them totally disagreed with and a president whose approval rating was becoming abysmal. That is how not to renounce citizenship.
We renounce our citizenship when there is little to no consequence for the deaths of our fellow citizens through the fraudulent recruitment examination conducted in 2014 by the Nigeria Immigration Service. The dead reportedly included a pregnant woman. We renounce our citizenship when the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) engage in discriminatory and surreptitious hiring of staff in a manner that favours the kith and kin of the elites and yet no civil action follows. Apart from the July 27th 2016 protest in Abuja by an organisation called “Citizens of Impact”, there has been no coherent and sustained civil action against these acts by a government that was elected on the platform of change. The National Bureau of Statistics estimates that the rate of youth unemployment and underemployment is 42.24 percent. It is baffling that even the unemployed are unable to fight for their rights. That is how to renounce one’s citizenship.
Why do political leaders in Nigeria have little respect for the citizens? A governor from a Southern state was rigorously questioned by someone from his home state at a European airport. Rather than respond with grace and respect, the governor angrily asked his fellow citizen to dare confront him in Nigeria and face the consequences of questioning a state governor. The questioner enjoyed the privilege of his spatial location. I imagine that some persons on the governor’s entourage would have given the citizen the beating of his life had the encounter occurred in Nigeria.
We must now come to the conclusion that our country’s problem is not merely the overproduction of self-serving, incompetent and parasitic elites, who are almost always insecure males. The epicentre of our country’s problem may well be an easily pacified and uncritical public. My observation of the limitations of human rights advocacy in Nigeria in the last two years suggests that we cannot keep fighting for the government to respect rights that we have neither fought for nor won.
Almost without any exceptions, countries that today (at least in theory) enjoy a cornucopia of human and citizenship rights have had to fight for those rights. We have hundreds of years of history to learn from and do not have to reenact orgies of violence experienced in many of those countries. Besides, our rights are not respected in part because we are consumed with the zeal to survive rather than to live. The preoccupation with survival and attendant adjustment (or annihilation) of one’s dreams and ambitions is a huge marker of the present Nigeria.
Nigerians have not acted in a concerted and sustained way to make demands on the government. Some have for years been outsourcing these demands to otherworldly powers. I believe in miracles; I believe in prayers. But with all due respect to General Yakubu Gowon, it is absurd to ask people to fast and pray for electricity and other basic duties of the government.
These are not imported “Western” visions of society. Some of our West African neighbours are surprised at how Nigerians simply try to survive when they ought to occupy the seats of power to demand basic citizenship and human rights. We all began to buy power generators when government failed to supply electricity while we continued to receive huge power bills. We began to dig bore-holes as public water supply dwindled. Some unemployed youth began to fill the huge pot holes and collected payment from drivers as our roads collapsed. We are told that the police are our friends when people are shot to death for failing to pay a bribe. Dead bodies litter the streets for days without being picked up. Even in death our fellow citizens are denied basic human dignity.
Have we asked why a government exists? The statement by John F. Kennedy — “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” — has often been decontextualised. Kennedy’s comment was made within the context of a society with electricity, water, good roads and relative security. The problem Kennedy’s society failed and continues to fail to tackle — gun violence — consumed the life of the beloved president. The implication? There are certain things a state must do for its citizens. There is a reason why volunteers from the ranks of market women or the farmers’ association in Borno state have not gone to fight Boko Haram. That is the work of a well-trained professional military retained by a sovereign state.
Nigerians have not acted in a concerted and sustained way to make demands on the government. Some have for years been outsourcing these demands to otherworldly powers. I believe in miracles; I believe in prayers. But with all due respect to General Yakubu Gowon, it is absurd to ask people to fast and pray for electricity and other basic duties of the government. Please, enjoy your generous pension but do not insult the collective sensibilities of Nigerians.
My friend, the new non-Nigerian, argues that by renouncing his citizenship: “I am adding my voice to a call for better citizenry…Citizenry should awake a yearning, a reawakening of non-violent activism demanding better services, and more importantly a governance citizens would be proud of.”
Our friend is not the only one who has renounced his citizenship. For every child who dies of hunger; every victim of Boko Haram; everyday spent without the rescue of the Chibok girls; every youth who languishes in unemployment; every woman who dies during childbirth due to inadequate care and every accident due to bad roads, please, remember that these are heart-breaking manifestations of the type of country we have built because we have renounced our citizenship.
‘Tope Oriola is professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, Canada. Twitter: @topeoriola