By Olukayode Oyeleye
Many educated Nigerians in contemporary times do not know if they are truly citizens or mere countrymen in Nigeria, their own country. Has anyone ever wondered why immigrants into some developed countries are eager to take up citizenship there? In other words, why do they choose to naturalise there? The simple answer is “to grant them access to rights and privileges enjoyed by those who are in such countries by birth.”
A citizen therefore has more rights and privileges beyond the indisputable minimum fundamental human rights applicable to everyone irrespective of country of origin. I do not want to delve into the subject of race or gender here as these have become hackneyed terms, used sometimes inappropriately at some people’s convenience.
A country is as strong as its people’s sense of citizenship; this goes with loyalty. Countries with strong citizens have loyal people who are committed to common causes. From strong citizenship arise strong institutions, committed and loyal leaders who rally people around common noble causes. The opposite of these are also true. Countries with low or non-existent sense of citizenship have weak institutions, disloyal followers and corrupt leaders. Where the sense of citizenship is strong, people of diverse cultures, languages, regions or even races live and work together harmoniously. Trusted leaders are chosen who lead the people under common allegiance.
Where the sense of citizenship is strong, people put the country before self and serve with one mind. Followers or leaders subsume their regional peculiarities under a common canopy of a country. Leaders exhibit the attributes of statesmen, not of openly regional sentiments. They don’t elevate one region or religion above the other. They don’t violate a national constitution that emphasises secularity, nor do they set up sub-national constitution at variance with the Supreme national constitution, nor use public money to build religious houses in offices. They leave the practice of religion to individuals.
Citizenship entitles the bearer to employment, food, housing, healthcare services, education and security. These are the barest minimum that a citizen should rightly expect and get as long as he remains law abiding. Denying individuals all these opportunities could make criminals out of countrymen. In fact, a good citizens will need less or no force of the law or its retribution to be law abiding. A good citizen instinctively, intuitively and consciously reciprocates by being law abiding. Problems with citizenship in Nigeria have been aptly demonstrated by the frustration of the melodramatic “Andrew” (real name Enebeli) in the 1980s that said he was checking out because of the lack a number of social benefits. To be sure, many who were inspired by his dissatisfaction then, who left the shores of Nigeria, are citizens of some other countries today. Their children,. mostly born out there, have become citizens of such countries by birth. They only casually refer to themselves as being of Nigerian parentage or, as some say, “originally from Nigeria.” Problems with citizenship in Nigeria has thus led to massive brain drain and loss of enormous human capital.
Leaders’ roles in citizenship is of immense importance. Leadership by exclusion, subjugation, denial, ostracism, segregation or nepotism denies some citizens their rights and privileges while preferring some over others. Citizenship is strong where hard work and merits are acknowledged and rewarded. It is strong where the process of emergence of leaders is transparent, fair, equitable and considerate. A country that has been divided into a bipolar nation by politicians would need a balance in the access to power at the centre to keep the people, not just as countrymen but as citizens. To entrench the citizens’ trust, elections must be free and fair. Nigeria came close to true opportunity to manifest true citizenship in 1993, but the behind-the-scene umpire then destroyed this lifetime opportunity by nullifying that election on frivolous grounds. No credible explanation has been given for that intervention after 29 years.
The reason many Nigerians are not committed to the nationhood is therefore not far-fetched. Election cycle is back here, now. How the leaders to be voted into office emerge is a cornerstone of citizenship in Nigeria. Their quality either encourages or discourages the voters. Voter apathy or election rigging robs people of their citizenship. They become mere countrymen as someone still get sworn in to that leadership office and his decisions affect you. Just think over the past seven years as a Nigerian whether you are a citizen or just a countryman. Think, again, if you want to be a citizen or a countryman in the years ahead. Sitting on the fence is too expensive. It is not even a choice. Now, you have to decide. You need to play an active part in the elections ahead as a voter. You need to participate in the emergence of the next set of leaders, not based on their riches, regions and religions but on convincing attributes that would elevate you, ennoble you and empower you, not the ones that would rob you of your honour, prestige and individuality. You have been a countryman for so long. Get involved. Now choose to become a citizen. Get ready to vote and elect credible candidates, and those that can be held accountable: not those that are above the law. Your singular participation can make a remarkable difference. Therefore, be a citizen today. Participate in choosing your leaders.