What would ordinarily be dismissed as election season banters and vulgar abuse have for the 2023 general elections degenerated to the perfunctory recourse to and normalization of hate speech as a tool for political engagement. This worrisome development is rife particularly in Lagos State. Recent history shows that anytime the political tendency in control of the state faces serious threat of losing election ready recourse is made to ethnic baiting; setting up the Yoruba speaking residents collectivized as indigenes with aboriginal Lagosians on one side and against the very large ‘non-indigene’ population on the other. Observers are used to the quadrennial narrative every election season of how ‘non-indigenes, especially Igbos, are set to ‘takeover Lagos’, and any serious contender for the Governorship appearing primed to upset the applecart demonized as a saboteur; the standard bearer of the barbarian ‘non-indigenes’ storming the gate.
However, the levels of acrimony attendant upon political contestation in this election season is unprecedented. Hate speeches, fear mongering, ethnic baiting and outright xenophobia have poisoned the air over Lagos State with many otherwise sober people allowing themselves to be swept by the polluting avalanche into joining the dangerous chorus. It has become a case of banality of evil. More egregious, high profile, examples abound. There was the viral voice recording of a traditional ruler in the Ibeju-Lekki axis of the Lagos metropolis and one of his henchmen, a political operative, assembling non indigenes to threaten them to vote for the ruling party or suffer dire consequences.
An even more grotesque spectacle was the equally viral video over the past couple of days of an official of the Lagos State Government and notorious high level operative of the ruling party, Musiliu Akinsanya (aka MC Oluomo), openly threatening to harm Igbos who dare to come out and vote in the gubernatorial election tomorrow, and urging his army of thugs to disrupt the election anywhere it appears that their party is losing. He had issued similar threats in the run up to the presidential election and was caught on camera disrupting a polling station during that election. It beggars belief that if the police did not see fit on its own to at least subject him to serious interrogation INEC that has overall responsibility for the elections and their integrity did not request it to take action or issue any statement on such a critical issue adversely affecting the elections.
Barring Abubakar Atiku, none of the three frontline candidates in the last presidential election has thought fit to come out with the appropriately ringing denunciation of this metastasizing xenophobia ravaging the otherwise cordial inter-ethnic relations and politics in Lagos State; and unwittingly providing a road sign to Rwanda which must be avoided. The bigger shame is the silence and inaction of constituted authorities and especially the law enforcement agencies. President Buhari as head of state had for long gone AWOL and no one really expected or should expect much from those quarters. The Lagos State Governor has only offered some mealymouthed platitudes unbecoming of the Chief Executive of a state tethering on the brink of open widescale ethnic strife. Regardless that he is seeking re-election and is the putative beneficiary of the evolving chaos, his position as Governor is juridically and morally prior to that of gubernatorial aspirant and he must accordingly rise to meet the demands of the former in the present circumstances.
Section 215(4) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) enjoins him, as Lagos State Governor to “give to the Commissioner of Police of [the] State such lawful directions with respect to the maintenance and securing of public safety and public order within the State as he may consider necessary, and the Commissioner of Police shall comply with those directions or cause them to be complied with.” With identifiable and visible persons riding not only roughshod over Nigerians’ sensibilities but also in the process engaged in blatantly criminal conducts which are in coalescence with the toxic brew of ethnic baiting, hate speech and politics of intolerance, the Governor should have caused the immediate arrest and prosecution of a number of the perpetrators to affirm the primacy of the rule of law and send the right signals in his domain.
Apart from the appearance of commission of sundry offences under various statutes like the Criminal Code some provisions of the Electoral Act 2022 and Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention etc) Act 2015 are particularly relevant in the foregoing regard. Section 128 of the Electoral Act provides that-
“A person who-
directly or indirectly, by his or herself or by another person on his or her behalf, makes use of or threatens to make use of any force, violence or restraint;
inflicts or threatens to inflict by his or herself or by any other person, any minor or serious injury, damage, harm or loss on or against a person in order to induce or compel that person to vote or refrain from voting, or on account of such person having voted or refrained from voting;
………commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N1,000,000:00 or imprisonment for a term of three years.”
Section 26 of the Cybercrimes Act criminalizes a range of xenophobic conducts, including threatening or/and insulting people of particular ethnic origins, perpetrated through the agency of computers and the internet. And the punishment is a jail term of five years or a fine of N10,000,000:00 or both.
It is noteworthy that at the heart of the periodic inter-ethnic storm in Lagos State is the questioning, albeit sublimated or disguised, of the fundamental norm of universal adult suffrage. The question in more stark terms is whether non-indigenes should have the right to vote in the state. Of course, that question would extend to other states, and if attempted to be answered in the negative would involve a constitutional paradigm shift. The Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy include the provisions in section 14 of the Constitution that “The Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be a State based on the principles of democracy and social justice”…and that “the participation by the people in their government shall be ensured in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.”
Article 13 of the African Charter of Human and Peoples Rights, to which Nigeria is a signatory, provides that “Every citizen shall have the right to participate freely in the government of his country, either directly or through freely chosen representatives in accordance with the provisions of the law.” The provisions of the Nigerian Constitution stipulate the unfettered liberty of all adult Nigerian citizens to participate in government at all levels by standing for elections or/and voting for those standing for the elections in all parts of the country, not only within their states of origin. All those insistent on curtailment or outright withdrawal of the voting rights of non-indigenes in Lagos State may do well to first see through a constitutional amendment, and by which they would themselves also be forfeiting such rights in other states. A foreseeable challenge in such a solution is that the Nigerian Constitution contemplates and indeed recognizes only states, and not ethnic/linguistic groups, as federating units.
It is common knowledge that, as with many of those insistent on creating an insular ethnic laager out of the cosmopolitan former Federal capital that the core of Lagos State is, majority of the State Governors since 1999 though ethnic Yorubas are not indigenes of the state. Therefore, if we retain the states as the federating units in restricting citizens’ voting rights to their states of origin then most of the protagonists of Lagos State as a laager would find themselves in the same boat as “Lagos State non-indigenes” which in effective terms seems to contemplate only Nigerian citizens of Southern Nigerian origin other than Yorubas.
Regardless of the political advantage the instigators of the strife may aim to achieve by fanning its embers, the problem brings to the fore the critical need for Nigerian peoples to earnestly renegotiate the terms of their union. Based on the outcome of such renegotiation the peoples can then affirm or merely tweak the current structure of their federation or fundamentally restructure it accordingly, and upon which a new constitution would emerge. The next government of the country should prioritize this exercise. In the meantime, the law should be robustly applied and sanctions visited on those found guilty of criminal offences committed in the course of the present xenophobic political maelstrom in Lagos State. It is a useful reminder that time does not run against criminal prosecution. And it may be important for the victims, the perpetrators and those constitutionally empowered to enforce the applicable laws to know that the Ben Nwabueze Center is collaborating with relevant bodies within and outside the country, including international law enforcement agencies, to keep close watch and take actions as may be appropriate if the situation degenerates further and warrant their direct action.
For: Ben Nwabueze Center for Constitutional Studies & Rule of Law
CHIJIOKE OKOLI, SAN.