‘Ruling class frustrating Nigerians’ quest for social justice’

Immediate past chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Attahiru M. Jega, has blamed the widening poverty in Nigeria on the shoulders of the country’s ruling class.

Jega lamented that the absence of social justice in the country has been underscored by the unfair treatment to citizens, particularly the lack of safety nets and other instruments of reducing economic inequalities and poverty.

While throwing his weight behind the call for restructuring, Prof. Jega recommended constitutional amendment, adding: “Rather than embark upon a wholesale amendment of the constitution, the country should learn from the failures of the previous efforts, and global best practices, and pursue incremental, constructive positive changes in the short to medium term.”

The former INEC chairman made the assertions while delivering the 2019 Gani Fawehinmi Annual Scholarship Award lecture at Nigeria Law Public House, Ikeja, Lagos. Jega spoke on “Citizenship and Social Justice in Nigeria.”

He maintained that the wealth of society should ideally be fairly distributed with equity and with equality of opportunity guaranteed, stressing that social justice is a fundamental requirement for the state in assigning rights and duties in the interest of the society.

While citing UN definition of social justice “as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth,” Jega noted: “Unless and until the struggle of Nigerians for legitimate and universally acknowledged citizenship rights compels the ruling class to come to terms with and resolve what can be termed as the ‘Citizenship Question’ the country would continue to be bedeviled by unwholesome ethnoreligious and communal conflicts and generalized instability.”

He added that stunted economic growth and acute poverty would be the inevitable follow up to that atrocious state of things, remarking that Nigerians have been aspiring for social justice and have constantly and consistently struggled for it. The former INEC boss regretted that the ruling class has refused to confer all the rights and privileges to Nigerians, which citizenship ordinarily confers.

“Rather,” he argued, “the ruling class has manipulated primordial identities to subvert the essence and content of citizenship, significantly elevated so-called “indigene rights”, which are no more than spurious, unjustified privileges, over and above citizenship rights, with dire negative consequences on national cohesion, stability and socio-economic development of Nigeria.”

The keynote speaker stated that the struggle to acquire, protect and defend citizenship rights is linked to the general struggles for expansion of democratic space, for protection and defense of fundamental rights, for the right to live in peace and securely. He included among the struggles the right to earn a living in any part of Nigeria, good and democratic governance, which would ensure justice and equity as well as purposefully address the fundamental needs and aspirations of the majority of ordinary Nigerians.

Jega dismissed suggestions that the struggle for citizenship rights amounts to exercise in futility, saying: “It is necessary, and should be embraced by all if Nigeria is to become a truly democratic, stable and developed nation with the requisite sense of belonging by all.

“To my mind, the struggle for citizenship rights, in the context of social justice, focuses upon the question of how a nation-state can discharge its responsibilities and obligations to its citizens through coherent redistributive policies, conceived and implemented by public agencies, on the basis of equality before the law, equity and equality of opportunities.”

In contextualizing the concepts of citizenship and social justice in Nigeria, Jega expressed the view that the “starting point of any serious consideration of the question of Citizenship Rights and Social Justice in Nigeria has to come to terms with the British colonial origin of the modern Nigerian ‘nation-state.’

He said: “At the time (Lord Frederick) Luggard created what we now know as the modern Nigerian ‘nation-state’, under colonial rule, through the infamous “amalgamation” of the two British “protectorates” in 1914, the inhabitants of the area were considered as “subjects” of the British Sovereign and they only commenced the technical transition from “subjects” to Nigerian citizens with political independence on 1st October 1960…

“Perhaps nowhere in Africa are the legacies of colonialism pertaining to the national question, and citizenship as it relates to social justice, as damning as in Nigeria.

“After conquest and colonization, followed the indirect rule as essentially a cost-effective mechanism of colonial administration, and the divide and rule tactics, reliant on mobilization of ethnoreligious and regional differences.

“These heightened mutual suspicions and fears and constrained or obstructed the emergence of a unifying national identity to catalyze progress and development in the new emergent ‘nation-state’.”

As a way out, the Political Science professor recommended a constitutional amendment, which borrows a leaf from the 14th Amendment of the United States of America’s Constitution to address the question of Citizenship and Social Justice in Nigeria.

According to him, “We can solve the existing contradiction in our constitution between citizenship rights and ‘indigene’ ‘rights’ (or more appropriately privileges), with an amendment such as:

“All persons born or naturalized in Nigeria, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of Nigeria and the state wherein they reside.”

He reasoned that such a provision would be justiciable and would solve the problem of the prevailing spurious distinction being made between “citizen” with truncated constitutionally ‘guaranteed’ rights and “indigene” with highly elevated privileges to the status of illegally acquired “rights”.

“Such an amendment has the potential of placing a hold on the impunity with which citizenship rights are crassly violated by federal and, especially, state governments,” he added.

He said Nigerians have to engage without hesitating to get into the mud of the country’s political terrain in order to stop the ‘swine’ that not only flourish in the dirty mud but also “trample upon our citizenship rights and aspiration for democratic development and governance.”

“We need to stop beating about the bush and recognize that some form of restructuring is necessary in the short and medium terms.

“In particular it is desirable to strengthen Nigeria’s federal arrangement by reducing the powers and responsibilities of the Federal Government under the Exclusive List, and the resources allocated to these, and reallocating these to the states under the Residual List, with accompanying resources to carry them out.

“This is a sort of unbundling the powers and responsibilities of the Federal Government to make it trimmer, more efficient and more focused on truly federal matters in the context of the universal principles of federalism.”

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