According to Faisal Lawal, the screening is in line with a recent declaration by Governor Okorocha tagged “Know Your Neighbour.” He said elements of the screening include the name of the person, his state of origin, the type of trade he is pursuing, his trading location as well as an endorsement by the chairman of his trade association. After a person is screened, the SSA said, he will be issued with an identity card bearing his or her name, passport photograph and signature of the chairman of the trading association. The Sarkin Hausawa of the respective town in Imo State must also endorse the ID card. He further said that at the end of the exercise, every Northern trader living in Imo State would be fully documented.
The SSA also recalled the recent warning that Governor Rochas Okorocha handed down to Northern traders in Imo State, that they must stop entering the state with their goods at night.
While acknowledging that some Northern traders have lived in Owerri for the past 100 years, Lawal said every Northerner living in Imo State should have a business and should not engage in terrorising the state’s people. All these strange measures were an apparent response by the Imo State Government to the discovery of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) placed at a church in Owerri.
The discovery of an IED at a church was certainly a cause for concern and the security agencies as well as the Imo State government should be expected to enhance security measures in the state. Yet, there is reason to believe that they rushed to judgment in this case. It was instantly assumed that this device was placed by the terrorist group Boko Haram. IEDs may be new to Imo State but the state is not short of criminal elements, so the security agencies and the state government should have tarried awhile and concluded their investigations before jumping to any far reaching conclusions.
Even if at the end of their investigations they have reason to believe that Boko Haram planted the IED, their assumption that the bomb planters are of Northern origin is also hasty, given the heterogeneous criminal mix that is Boko Haram. Foreign elements have also been proved to predominate in some Boko Haram cells. Whatever the source of the Owerri IED and whatever the ethnic or national origins of the intended bombers, the Imo State government’s peculiar reaction to this situation tramples upon the law, the Constitution, peaceful coexistence, the unity of Nigeria and even plain common sense.
Issuing a certain group of citizens with a discriminatory ID card recalls to mind the South African “pass” system in the heydays of apartheid, when blacks had to carry passes not unlike the ones being proposed by the Imo State government. Right now, Faisal Lawal’s announcement is hollow because there is no law backing such a measure. And if the Imo State House of Assembly were to pass such a law, the courts will easily strike it down on the grounds that the Constitution prohibits discrimination on account of gender, tribe, religion etc. It would have been a different thing perhaps if ALL residents of Imo State are required to carry an ID card. In fact, if the Federal Government had not turned its national ID card scheme into the biggest public drain pipe of the last 40 years, every Nigerian would be carrying an ID card by now.
Every community and state authority in Nigeria should take measures to insulate itself from the bloody Boko haram insurgency but such measures must be within the ambit of the law. The push for complete national integration has been our national project for many decades now. While it has brought benefits to all communities, it also brings with it some problems. The coming of persons from other parts of the country to settle in some communities sometimes bring along unhealthy traits such as crime. No Northern state for example ever required the millions of Igbos resident in the North to carry ID cards on the grounds that some armed robbers and other criminals of Igbo ethnic origins were captured in those states.
The biggest danger that the Imo experiment poses is that some states may be tempted to engage in retaliatory measures. Anyone can sit down and associate some criminal or immoral activities with some ethnic groups and proceed to profile them on that basis. The logical next step is for some states to prevent citizens from other states from living in their states. Incidentally this has already happened; when the Lagos State Government deported some Eastern Nigerians back to their states because it was not happy with their activities in Lagos, there was a lot of hue and cry that it amounted to “ethnic cleansing” and that their constitutional rights were violated.
There is also the practical problem of identifying the ethnic origins of some people with certainty, given the mix that has already occurred in Nigeria. Many Northerners today could pass for Easterners on account of looks, dress, mannerisms and language proficiency, just like many Easterners could easily pass for Northerners on the same grounds. We should not jeopardise this process of continuing national integration on the altar of the fear of Boko Haram which is but a temporary nuisance, albeit a deadly one, in the unfolding story of Nigeria.