By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
The Federal High Court sitting in Abuja, on Monday, slated February 21, 2022, to deliver judgement in a suit seeking to bar former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, from vying for presidency in 2023.
The suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/177, is challenging Atiku’s eligibility on the premise that he is not a Nigerian by birth.
A group, under the eagis of the Incorporated Trustees of Egalitarian Mission for Africa, had in the suit, posed three legal questions for the determination of the court.
It asked the court to determine; “Whether section 25 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), is the sole authority that spells out ways by which a person can become a Nigerian citizen by birth?
“Whether by the provisions of section 131(a) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), only a Nigeria citizen by birth can contest for the office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria?
As well as, “Whether by the combined interpretation of section 25(1) & (2) and 131(a) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), and giving the circumstances surrounding the birth of the 1st Defendant (Atiku), he can be cleared by the 2nd and 3rd Defendants to contest for the office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria?.
Upon determination of the questions, the Plaintiff applied for a declaration that by the provisions of the Constitution, “only a Nigerian citizen by birth can contest for the office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
It urged the court to declare that giving the circumstances surrounding Atiku’s birth, he cannot be cleared by either PDP or the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to vie for Presidency.
The Plaintiff, which told the court that it is a Non-governmental Organization that is duly registered in 13 African countries, argued that Atiku is not a Nigerian by birth and thus not eligible to contest to become the President of Nigeria.
It told the court that it has specific concerns for promoting the principles of equality, rule of law and human rights in Africa generally, but with particular interest in Nigeria.
In a 12-paragraphed affidavit deposed to by one Michael Okejimi, the Plaintiff, noted that Atiku was born on December 25, 1946.
It said the 1st Defendant had in his own testimony that was gazetted and published in most national dailies, stated that he is from Jada town in Adamawa State.
“Jada used to be in Ganye Local Government Area in Adamawa. That Ganye is regarded as the mother of the whole Chamba tribe.
“That Ganye, however, was never part of Nigeria legally as at the date of birth of the 1st Defendant. That the area had been entrusted to Britain by a League of Nations mandate in 1919 and later as Trust Territory by the United Nations in 1946.
“That the defeat of Germany in World War 1, Cameroon became a League of Nations mandate territory and was split into French Cameroons and British Cameroons in 1919.
“That while France integrated the economy of their part of Cameroon with that of France, the British, administered theirs from neighboring Nigeria, making 1st Defendant’s Jada a British franchise.
“That a plebiscite was held in British Cameroons to determine whether the people preferred to stay in Cameroon or align with Nigeria.
“That while Northern Cameroon preferred a union with Nigeria, Southern Cameroon chose alignment with the mother country.
“That on June 1, 1961, Northern Cameroon became part of Nigeria, and on October 1, 1961, the Southern territory dissolved into Cameroon.
“That Ganye, which incorporates the 1st Defendant’s birthplace of Jada was the headquarters of British Cameroons, but it joined Nigeria following the plebiscite.
“That when the 1st Defendant was on November 25, 1946, born to a Fulani trader and farmer, Garba Abubakar, Jada village and other parts of Chamba land in the then Northern Cameroon, were still known as British Cameroon.
“That none of the 1st Defendant’s parents or grandparents was born in Nigeria. That the 1st Defendant’s father died a citizen of Northern Cameroon in 1957 prior the referendum of June 1, 1961, that made Northern Cameroon became part of Nigeria.
“That the 1st Defendant’s ancestral origin is deeply rooted in the then Northern Cameroon. That the 1st Defendant is not a Nigerian citizen by birth.
“That the 1st Defendant is not qualified to be elected into the office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”, the Plaintiff added.
Aside from Atiku, other Defendants in the matter are the PDP, INEC, Attorney-General of the Federation, and the Attorney-General of Adamawa State.
Meantime, while other Defendants urged the court to dismiss the case, the AGF, Abubakar Malami, SAN, threw his weight behind the suit, insisting that Atiku is not constitutionally eligible to vie for Presidency.
Arguing that the former Vice President is not a Nigerian by birth, Malami, noted that Atiku, whose home town, Jada, was formerly a part of Northern Cameroon, acquired Nigerian citizenship following a plebiscite that held in 1961.
He told the court that having not been born a Nigerian or by Nigerian parents, and having not met the provisions of Sections 25(1) &(2) and 131(a) of the constitution, Atiku, would be violating Section 118(1)(k) of the Electoral Act should he put himself forward as a presidential candidate.
“The first Defendant (Atiku) is not a fit and proper person to be a candidate for election to the office of president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“The first Defendant was born on the 25th of November, 1946 at Jada, at the time in Northern Cameroon. By the plebiscite of 1961, the town of Jada was incorporated into Nigeria.
“The first defendant is a Nigerian by virtue of the 1961 plebiscite, but not a Nigerian by birth. The first defendant’s parents died before the 1961 plebiscite”, Malami argued in support of a suit.
Malami, in an affidavit that was filed by his team of lawyers led by Oladipo Okpeseyi, SAN, argued that Atiku, having contested election to the office of the Vice President before now, even though he knew that he is not a Nigeria citizen by birth, committed an offence under Section 118(1)(k) of the Electoral Act.
He contended that the effect of the June1, 1961 plebiscite was to have the people of Northern Cameroon integrated into Nigeria as new citizens of the country, even after Nigeria’s independence.
“This qualified all those born before the 1961 plebiscIte as citizens of Nigeria, but not Nigerian citizen by birth. Consequently, only citizens born after the 1961 plebiscite are citizens of Nigeria by birth”, Malami added.
Citing provisions of the 1960, 1963, 1979 and 1999 Constitutions, the AGF, argued that “reasoning of the lawmakers in ensuring that the persons to be the President of Nigeria is a citizen of Nigeria by birth is because such a person is the number one citizen and the image of the Nigerian state.”
He told the court that where it is revealed that a person was born outside Nigeria before Nigeria’s independence in 1960, in a location which was never part of Nigeria until June 1, 1961, as in Atiku’s case, such a person cannot claim citizenship of Nigeria by birth.
“This is even more so where his parents do not belong to any tribe indigenous to Nigeria until their death. The facts of his (Atiku’s) birth on the Cameroonian territory to Cameroonian parents remain unchallenged.
“At best, the first defendant can only acquire Nigerian citizenship by the 1961 plebiscite. The citizenship qualifications under Section 26 and 27 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999), by implication, has limited the first defendant’s privileges or rights and cannot be equal or proportional to the privileges of other citizens who acquire their citizenship status by birth.
“This would include the legal preclusion of the first defendant from contesting for the office of the President of Nigeria”.
He further argued that the only situation where Atiku could have acquired Nigerian citizenship by birth under the 1999 Constitution, was if both or either of his parents and grand parents were Nigerian citizens by birth.
He added that another way would have been if either his parents had become Nigerian citizen by virtue of Section 25(1) of the 1999 Constitution, which must be in compliance with Sections 26 and 27of the same constitution.
“With no concrete proof of compliance, we submit that the first defendant cannot contest election to the office of the Nigerian President”, Malami added.
However, in a preliminary objection he jointly filed with the PDP, Atiku, maintained that he is “a bonafide citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”.
He told the court that aside from serving as Vice President from 1999 to 2007, he held many public/private offices in Nigeria, including serving as Governor of Adamawa State and as a Comissioned Officer of the Nigeria Customs Service.
He said both his parents, grandparents and great grandparents were born in Nigeria and they lived, died as Nigerians and were buried in Nigeria.
“I know as a fact that this suit as filed by the Trustees of the Plaintiff is aimed at maligning the person and integrity of the 1st Defendant”, Atiku’s lawyer, Chief Eyitayo Jegede, SAN, argued.
Querying the locus standi of the group to challenge his nationality, Atiku, argued that the Plaintiff failed to show before the court, the interest it has above other citizens of Nigeria to have the right to institute the action.
He told the court that he was earlier cleared when the issue of his citizenship was raised during the 2019 presidential election.
“What this suit is doing is that it is challenging the citizenship of everyone that is from Adamawa, Borno and Taraba as non Nigerians. This is notwithstanding the fact that the Constitution recognises that there are 36 states of the Federation”, Atiku added, even as he described the suit against him as stale and “very unusual in many ways”.
On its part, INEC, said it would abide by the decision of the court in the matter.
After all the parties adopted their final briefs of argument on Monday, Justice Inyang Ekwo adjourned the case for judgement.