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Nigeria: How not to throw citizens under the bus

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Federal agents hold a detainee, center, at a downtown Los Angeles parking lot after predawn raids that saw dozens of people arrested in the L.A. area Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. U.S. authorities have unsealed a 252-count federal grand jury indictment charging 80 people with participating in a conspiracy to steal millions of dollars through a range of fraud schemes and laundering the funds through a Los Angeles-based network. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says Thursday most of the defendants are Nigerian nationals.<br /> REED SAXON/AP

Back in the days when Roman legions marched across the earth and imposed the will of the Emperor on one and all, a concept emerged, first mooted by the prolific consul, Cicero. The concept was simple, “Civis Romanus sum.” That means, “I am a Roman citizen.”

Cicero didn’t live to see Rome become an empire, he was killed on the orders of Mark Anthony during the long fallout that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, an act that although he had not taken part in, he had endorsed. However, his idea of “Civis Romanus sum” was carried forward by the eventual emperor of Rome, Augustus Caesar.

It was that idea that was played upon by the Christian apostle, Paul, a century later. Having arrived in Jerusalem to settle a little brouhaha with the senior apostle James, who was effectively the head of the fledgeling Christian church in Jerusalem, Paul was observed preaching heresy (yes, Christianity was once a heresy) in the temple by some Jews who had come in from Asia. The crowd set upon him and mobbed him before the Roman garrison intervened to stop the burgeoning riot. Unlike Jesus himself two decades earlier, Paul was able to speak in Greek (the operating language of the Roman Empire) to the commander of the garrison and introduce himself as a Jew born in Tarsus (modern-day Turkey for those who are interested), and crucially, end his statement with the words, “Civis Romanus sum.”

While the garrison commander had purchased his citizenship, Paul, was a birthright citizen of Rome, and as a result, if that crowd had killed him that day, the Roman garrison in Jerusalem would have been obliged to kill a few of them in return. Paul had a right to get his case heard by no less a person than the Emperor. He would eventually stand trial before Emperor Nero.

A few millennia later, Rome was no longer in charge of the earth, it was an island, Great Britain, that now ruled the waves. In 1847, a Jewish man, David Pacifico, was attacked by an anti-Semitic mob in Athens, Greece. The police did nothing and instead arrested the victim. But Pacifico had an ace in the hole. He wrote to Edmund Lyons, the British envoy to Greece, and crucially in his letter, inserted the claim, with evidence, that he was a British citizen. That fact, swung the British into action, and it no longer mattered that Pacifico had offended local Greek customs leading to the attack, what mattered was that he was British, and Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary at the time sent a demand to the Greeks asking compensation for Pacifico. The sum demanded was more than the value of the Greek Royal Palace, and the Greeks replied that this was a judicial affair, and that separation of powers would not permit them to intervene.

Two years passed, and there was still no compensation for Pacifico, so Palmerston instructed the Royal Navy to blockade the port of Athens (ever heard of gunboat diplomacy?). The blockade lasted two months, and in the end, a humiliated Greece agreed to compensate Pacifico to the tune of £500, a prince’s ransom in those days.

In sending the Royal Navy to punish the Greeks, Palmerston quoted Cicero’s “Civis Romanus sum”, and paraphrased it with “An injury to one is an injury to all,” setting the tone for the passport system in use in international relations till this day. When a British (or insert serious country here) passport holder is detained in another country, it matters what not he has done, the diplomats of his home country are duty-bound to defend his interests. If he is convicted and sent to prison, a diplomatic official is sure to take on the role of visiting him in prison, on a regular basis, until he is set free.

Thus it was that following the arrests of more than 50 Nigerian passport holders in the United States on fraud charges, an organisation called the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission released a statement, signed by Abike Dabiri, essentially throwing the alleged fraudsters under the bus. Alleged here, because the US government has not yet proven them guilty in court.

Now, individual Nigerians have every right to wring their hands and wail about how those people have brought shame on us, BUT, the Nigerian state has a duty, an obligation, to provide protection and services for all Nigerian passport holders outside of Nigeria, even those accused of murder. Last I checked, Nigeria has three diplomatic missions in the US, Washington, Atlanta and New York. Has anyone of them made any effort to reach out to these people?

A nation ought to be way beyond claiming the glory of its citizens and descendants when they shine. A nation as a sovereign has a duty to shield its citizens even when they are wrong. Because sometimes, you may find that one person among the arrested, that is actually innocent. By throwing the accused under the bus so quickly and so publicly, the Nigerian state has told every one of us that it will not be there when we need it.


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