National service and matters arising

If not that we politicise everything in Nigeria, the Kemi Adeosun saga should provoke a genuine public debate on reforming the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). The constitution and other laws are supposed to be living, not embalmed, documents. No constitution is perfect. Through practice, we encounter the flaws. This dynamism allows us to modernise our laws in tandem with global standards. The process of fine-tuning makes democracy and rule of law so sweet. It does not mean Adeosun would benefit from any new amendment, but it does mean we are learning and the grey areas and faulty provisions in our laws can be resolved in favour of common sense.

The issues of national service and citizenship have been brought to the fore in connection with the case of Mrs Adeosun, the former minister of finance who recently resigned her appointment. Adeosun, a very smart woman who made her mark during her stint in President Muhammadu Buhari’s cabinet, was accused of dodging national service and presenting a forged certificate of exemption in an investigative report by Premium Times, the online newspaper. The certificate saga dragged on embarrassingly for over two months before Adeosun finally fell on her sword. I was sorry to see her go, such an innovative lady, but we can learn useful lessons and improve our policies.

We were still screaming at each other over the Adeosun case when it turned out that Alhaji Adebayo Shittu, the minister of communications, also did not do national service. It appears we have more cases in our hands than we presumed. If we are to scrutinise every person who has served or is serving in government over their NYSC record, we may have a major national crisis in our hands. I won’t be surprised if the chambers of the national assembly become virtually empty. Even Buhari’s cabinet may be heavily hit. Governors? State legislators? Commissioners? There would be an earthquake. Dodging national service is a crime in most countries, including Nigeria.

In the case of Adeosun, there are two issues at play. One, at what age did she become a Nigerian? Two, should she have been exempted from national service? According to the NYSC Act, national youth service is compulsory for Nigerians who are below 30 upon graduation. If you are 30 or above, you are entitled to exemption. Basically, with effect from 1973, every Nigerian graduate must have an NYSC certificate — either the one affirming service or confirming exemption. The argument is that having never had the Nigerian passport until she was 34, Adeosun was not really a Nigerian as at the time she earned her first degree at 22. Is this argument acceptable?

When Miss Folakemi Oguntomoju was born on March 9, 1967 in London, UK, was she born a Nigerian or a Briton? This is a tricky part of the equation. As at that time, she was a citizen of two countries: the UK and Nigeria. All children born in the UK, irrespective of the nationality of their parents, were automatically British citizens until Mrs Margaret Thatcher started curtailing immigration in the 1980s. By our laws too, Folakemi was automatically born a citizen of Nigeria because her parents were Nigerians. If they had renounced their Nigerian citizenship before she was born, Folakemi would not have been born a Nigerian.

Section 12 of the 1963 constitution, under which she was born, said any person born outside Nigeria after September 30, 1960 “shall become a citizen of Nigeria at the date of his birth if at that date his father is a citizen of Nigeria”. The constitution allowed dual citizenship to an extent. Section 13 provided that “any person who, upon his attainment of the age of twenty-one years, was a citizen of Nigeria and also a citizen of some country other than Nigeria, shall cease to be a citizen of Nigeria upon his attainment of the age of twenty-two years”. By 1989, then, Folakemi would automatically cease to be a Nigerian at 22 without lifting a finger.

But the 1979 constitution came along and replaced that of 1963. Section 26 (1) said “a person shall forfeit forthwith his Nigerian citizenship if he acquires or retains the citizenship or nationality of a country other than Nigeria”. She didn’t acquire British citizenship — she was born into it. But she was not expected to retain it beyond the age of 21 if she was still interested in being a Nigerian. Section 26 (3) provided that she must forfeit her Nigerian citizenship by age 21 or by September 30, 1980 — whichever was later — if she retained some other nationality. By 1988, therefore, she was deemed by law to have lost her Nigerian citizenship at 21.

The 1999 constitution, thankfully, allows dual nationality. But could see benefit from it, having lost her citizenship in 1988? This issue is very complicated as far as I am concerned and we may need a judicial pronouncement for future purposes. Someone would argue that she was qualified since section 25 (c) of the 1999 constitution simply says you are a Nigerian “by birth” if you were born outside Nigeria but either of your parents is a citizen of Nigeria. But someone else would argue that she could no longer claim the citizenship having lost it. The option open to her would be naturalisation or registration as a spouse of a Nigerian, assuming the husband also has Nigerian citizenship. It is complicated.

Some have argued that her Nigerian citizenship was only “dormant” and she “activated” it by collecting the Nigerian passport in 2001. But there is no single provision in the constitution on how to activate citizenship “by birth”. Indeed, nowhere does the constitution require any further action for you to become a Nigerian citizen “by birth”. Interestingly, the constitution says you can renounce your citizenship. If we argue that she got back her citizenship on May 29, 1999 at the age of 32 when the new constitution became operational, the next question is: did she still need to serve since she was above 30?

A more complicated view, though, is that she was not even a Nigerian when she got the passport in 2001 and she should not have benefited from dual citizenship. This is another one for the courts because of other people that might be in a similar situation. We really need help here. However, the notion that she only became a Nigerian by collecting the passport at the age of 34 is awkward. Legally, getting a Nigerian passport is not what makes you a Nigerian. There is no such law yet. Rather, you get the passport becauseyou are a Nigerian.

You wear the hood because you are a monk; you are not a monk because you wear the hood! Let me make it simpler. Even if you don’t have a Nigerian international passport, a national ID card, a PVC or a driving licence, you are still a Nigerian. The passport is not what makes you a Nigerian. There are millions of Nigerians without the passport. If a Nigerian couple without British citizenship or permanent residency has a child in the UK today, they will need to go to the Nigerian High Commission to get a passport for the baby to travel. If they don’t, the child can’t travel out of UK. But the child is still a Nigerian, with or without a Nigerian passport.

There is still a problem. When she applied for exemption from national service, did NYSC reply her? What was their response? That would have put all this argument to rest. I assume her application was not granted. That was why an “associate” would arrange a certificate for her. I believe her when she said she did not know the certificate was forged. Nigeria and forgery are twins. Ignorance is definitely not an excuse in law. If she is charged to court, a lenient judge could, nevertheless, take our peculiar circumstances in Nigeria into consideration. For the record, I am not justifying forgery of any kind. I am just saying judges may look at the gravity and the circumstances.

My concluding remarks. Beyond Adeosun, does it make any sense that you only need secondary school education to become president of Nigeria but you are not qualified to run even if you have a PhD because you didn’t do national service? That’s rubbish, pardon my French. Also, can you imagine an accomplished Nigerian in Diaspora is not qualified for appointment because of NYSC, whereas a stark illiterate can be effortlessly appointed because he does not need to show any certificate of national service? We are denying ourselves valuable human resources when we shut out Nigerians — who have lived and worked abroad — because they did not do national service.

This is not about Adeosun. The deed has been done. But the government must seize this opportunity to rethink the NYSC Act. The waivers should be extended to a category of talents that might have escaped the NYSC net by the circumstances of their birth, education or career. We are short-changing ourselves at the expense of national development. We must not waste this Adeosun experience. In 2010, the terminal ailment of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua taught us to adjust our laws for the vice-president to automatically become acting president in the absence of an official presidential communication to the national assembly. We must learn from our experiences.

News Reporter
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