An allegation by the Nigerian Senate that the government of the country’s southeast Imo State planned to register, and issue Identification Cards to citizens from northern Nigeria over fears of Boko Haram attacks, was false, PREMIUM TIMES can report today.
The Senate had in a resolution July 3 urged President Goodluck Jonathan, as Nigeria’s Commander-in-Chief, to direct all security agencies to refuse cooperation with the Imo State government in the implementation of the “ID and registration policy”. The Senate also urged the Imo government to rescind the policy immediately.
The resolutions by the 109-member Senate, Nigeria’s highest law-making body, heightened tension in an already divided nation for weeks in a case the federal government warned could have disintegrated Nigeria.
An extensive review of the highly volatile case that started June, has shown the resolutions were unnecessary as they were based on false and unverified allegations. In passing them, PREMIUM TIMES found, the Senate violated its own rules by acting on what was effectively a rumour, without cross-checking it.
Widespread claims after attempted bomb
The resolution followed weeks of widespread reports that the Imo State government had initiated a policy to register and issue Identification Cards to all Nigerians from the north where Boko Haram is based, to check threats by the extremist group to strike in southern Nigeria.
The allegations started barely a week after police on June 15 found a massive bomb hidden in a large congregation of the Living Faith Church in Owerri, the Imo State capital.
The Imo State government estimated that if detonated, the explosive material had the capacity to deliver a deadly impact at least half a kilometre radius.
Days after the foiled bomb attack, news emerged of a plan by the same state authorities to register northern citizens who would be issued ID cards. The allegation drew widespread condemnation, mainly from the leaders and officials from the North’s Hausa/Fulani ethnic group.
If implemented, the policy would have violated Section 41 of the Nigerian Constitution which guarantees every Nigerian rights to “move freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part thereof”.
It would have also contravened Section 42 of the same law which prohibits subjecting a Nigerian citizen of “a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion… to disabilities or restrictions” to which other Nigerians are not made subject.
The reports triggered swift reprisal moves by some northern states despite denials by the Imo State government.
On June 30, a senior member of the Federal House of Representatives, Suleiman Sumaila, from the North’s Kano State, accused the Imo State governor, Rochas Okorocha, of originating and forging on with the registration plan. Mr. Sumaila did not substantiated.
In a statement July 1, the Imo State government denied the lawmaker’s charge.
“The Governor Okorocha government has not begun the registration of northerners in the state and does not have any plan to do that, especially where those behind the malicious claim could not mention the places or offices of the state government where the claimed registrations are taking place, since registration involving human beings could not be done in the vacuum,” a statement by Sam Onwuemeodo, the media assistant to Governor Okorocha, said.
Other state officials also denied the reports.
Regardless of the rebuttals, on July 3 the Senate allowed a motion on the purported ID card and registration in Imo State, and against its tradition of referring such matters to a committee for verification before a decision, suspended key plenary rules and adopted a position same day.
The motion was sponsored by Abdul Ningi, a first-term member representing Bauchi State, in Nigeria’s northeast.
Mr. Ningi claimed in proposals later adopted by the entire Senate that the Imo State government had issued a “policy statement” directing all Northerners residing in the state to be issued an ID card. Checks by this paper showed there was no such policy statement.
In its deliberation, the Senate duly noted how such registration would breach Sections 41 and 42 of the Nigerian Constitution.
Lawmakers slammed Mr. Okorocha and questioned his judgement in a charging debate that lasted nearly an hour. One of the most acerbic criticisms came from Chris Anyanwu, a Senator from Imo State, and a political foe of Mr. Okorocha.
The entire deliberation was based on mere rumour, our investigations show.
After the resolution
For many Nigerians, the Senate’s debate and resolution provided the first official validation of speculation that had circulated for weeks.
The resolutions swiftly amplified tension across the country amid Boko Haram’s increasing deadly onslaught and the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in northeast Borno State. In days, the Arewa Youth Development Foundation, a northern pressure group, gave all southern Nigerian residents in the North two weeks to quit the region in retaliation for the alleged Imo State policy.
A day later, another group, the Arewa Consultative Forum, threatened to destroy the investments of Nigerians from southeast living and doing business in the North. Southeast Nigeria comprises five states, including Imo.
On July 19, yet another group, The Arewa Citizens’ Group, submitted a bill to the Kano State House of Assembly seeking the registration of all Southerners residing in the state.
The bill stipulated that no “Southerner wishing to enter the boundaries of the state shall be permitted to do so unless he is duly registered with the appropriate authority and issued with an identity card.”
The new legislation was to take effect August 1, 2014.
On July 21, the same group submitted the same legislation to the Kaduna State Assembly.
Besides the purported Imo ID card policy, the immediate trigger for the two bills was an announcement by a Southeast group, Igbo Leaders of Thought, of what the group called “a security awareness programme” for the southeast governors to adopt, to secure the region from Boko Haram.
PREMIUM TIMES interviewed several state and federal officials in Imo State and spoke to the Hausa community- the umbrella body of northerners resident in Imo state- to establish the origin of the ID Card controversy.
This newspaper also confirmed that against the usual procedure, the Senate did not contact the Imo State government at any time to authenticate the reports.
All those interviewed denied the Imo government had any role in the matter. The officials explained that the Hausa community in the State initiated the ID plan after what appeared a hostile response from Imo indigenes in the wake of the bloody Boko Haram attacks up north.
The Hausa community only requested the state government to assist in facilitating the plan- a request the government had not taken up at the time the controversy started, they told PREMIUM TIMES.
Some officials said the matter was “politicised” by the opponents of the governor, not minding the implication for national security and unity.
Mr. Okorocha said the allegations were “all lies”.
“It’s all lies, we have police in Imo, we have SSS (State Security Service) in Imo, we have the media. It was all lies. And nobody could say anything,” the governor said.
On whether the government was contacted by the Senate, he said “There were communication gap and we must close it so that we do not allow rumours overtake our country especially at this time that we have security challenges”.
The deputy governor, Eze Madumere, was even more forceful on the matter.
“It has nothing to do with the government,” Mr. Madumere said of the alleged plan by the Hausa community to register its members in Imo State. “They just wanted to identify their people. The Senate did not talk to the state government. There was nothing like that before the debate.”
The police spokesperson for Imo State, Andrew Enwerem, also denied the alleged plan by the state to register members of the Hausa community.
“The thing was over-politicized,” Mr. Enwerem said. “We investigated when the issue came up. Our investigation showed that the northerners requested the governor to do so.
“Nobody forced them to do. They requested because the terrain here was frightening that when they see northerners here, they start shouting Boko Haram. The situation here became frightening.
“So we carried out public enlightenment before the tension calmed. After that they said they should identify their people so that if they see one they can know,” Mr. Enwerem said.
The head of the Hausa community, Sarkin Hausa, Baba Sulaiman, confirmed the findings.
Mr. Sulaiman told PREMIUM TIMES his association originated the idea and merely requested the assistance of the state government.
“We the Hausa Community in Imo State requested that we should get registered. It was never initiated by Imo State government,” he said.
The Senate refused to disclose its source of the reports beyond the media, and how it authenticated the allegation before tabling it for discussion in its chamber.
PREMIUM TIMES repeatedly sought comments from Mr. Ningi, the sponsor of the motion. The lawmaker did not respond to our enquiry.
This paper also requested clarification from Ms. Anyanwu and the Senate spokesperson, Enyinayya Abaribe. The two lawmakers refused to respond.
Ita Enang, the Chairman Senate committee on Business and Rules- in charge of daily proceedings during Senate sessions– declined to comment when asked to explain how the Senate sourced and verified its report.
Mr. Enang, also a first-term member, claimed the Senate was on vacation, as such, he could not comment.
As reprisal moves heightened in Kano State, North West Nigeria, the controversy the Senate helped fan only began to ebb after the Federal Executive Council on July 21 warned against any perceived registration or reprisal anywhere in the country.
At an extraordinary National Council of State meeting, the federal government warned that the issues “was more potent than Boko Haram and could disintegrate the country”.
“And we take this very seriously, for people to deport people, for people to take people from one place to the other, for registration of indigenes no matter where they are. No matter where they are they are free to settle anywhere they like,” said Ita Ekpenyong, the Director General of the SSS, who spoke to the media after the meeting.
The Nigerian senate is yet to apologise to the country for stoking tension and exacerbating division between the North and the South based on mere rumour.