Mixed Flows: Nigeria, ECOWAS must make citizens’ identification justiciable

By Olajide Adelana

Ladi Musa thought she was the luckiest woman on Earth as she walked down the aisle to exchange marital vows with her heartthrob, Paul Ibrahim, in Ngoshe village, Gwoza local government area (LGA) of Borno state. Although Boko Haram had attacked her LGA seven months earlier, killing hundreds of people, Ladi said she agreed to go ahead with the wedding after assurances were given by officers of the Nigerian army in the village about the people’s safety.

Boko Haram, loosely translated as ‘Western education is a sin’, is an Islamist terrorist group calling for the Islamisation of northern Nigeria. It has grown in influence and spread across the West African region with a specific impact on the rights of women, girls and children.

A few days after the wedding, while Ladi was still exploring her new status, Boko Haram struck again. Her ‘honeymoon’ was over all of a sudden, and what would later define her future began. The army was nowhere to be found, and Ladi together with other villagers ran to the mountains for safety.

It is over three years since Ladi told me her story. And while the Nigerian army makes effort to halt Boko Haram’s terrorism, the Islamic sect still wields much influence and cannot be said to have been “technically defeated”. One recurring decimal in the fight against terrorism in Nigeria and the entire Lake Chad region is the relapse of successes recorded by the military of the concerned countries, including the coalition intervention called Multinational Joint Taskforce (MJT). This has over time been linked to the dearth of complementary efforts by way of economic and social efforts. It is expected that institutions of governments across these troubled spots double their efforts in offering and encouraging social and economic intervention and integration after military liberation. But this is happening at a slow pace.

The UNHCR together with other humanitarian actors recently launched a three-year Humanitarian Response Strategy (HRS) from 2019 to 2021 and the Nigerian Regional Refugees Response Plan (RRRP) to address humanitarian challenges in the Lake Chad Basin (LCB) region. However, commitment of respective governments and getting enough funding is a major concern. The UN is seeking the total sum of $983 million for implementation of the two plans. Of this amount, $840 million is needed to implement the HRS while $135 million is required for the RRRP to provide food, water, shelter and protection to IDPs and refugees, the UN says.

From Cameroun, Ladi fled to Abuja, Nigeria and has since started a new life but has nothing to prove that she is a Nigerian aside from testimonies from people who knew her.

This is hardly an isolated situation. Like Ladi, there are many citizens especially women, and children who have fled their countries of origin, become refugees in a foreign land with limited means of identifying their nationalities. In Nigeria, it is even more complicated for children of refugees who were born less than 10 years ago before or at the onset of the Boko Haram crisis.

These kids, who supposedly should be recognised based on their parents’ nationalities, are left confused as their parents’ nationality is far from being legalized without any form of identity most of which were left behind as they fled the crisis. Invariably, these children together with their parents are left stateless becoming part of a huge statistics of stateless people in the West African sub-region.

Statelessness which occurs when a person is not considered as a nationality of any country has become a major issue worldwide with about 10 million people said to be stateless. It is estimated that at least one million stateless people reside in West Africa. Nigeria adds significantly to this burden with over 750,000 stateless people allegedly residing in the country. There are other scenarios why there has been increased movement and displacement of people within member states of ECOWAS.

The summation of these movements is called mixed flows or migration and participants at the 2019 UNHCR-ECOWAS Ambassadors’ retreat in Uyo have decried the spate of these flows in the sub-region. Mixed flows or migration can be voluntary in the case of people moving across borders on their own volition, and involuntary when they flee their country of origin because of “events or crisis” within or without their country.

There are quite a number of reasons for mixed migration, and UNHCR representative to Nigeria and ECOWAS, Mr. Antonio Jose Canhandula, puts it succinctly while reiterating the retreat’s objectives and expected outcomes.

He said: “We cannot talk of mixed migration as a result of bad governance because when we say mixed we are talking about migration that has many reasons. Some of them, of course, are caused by bad governance like refugees who are displaced because of conflict in their country of origin. But it may also not be bad governance because people might be running away not because of the insecurity that is caused by forces that are foreign to that country. So it is a mixed situation.

“Then we have youths that are actually looking for greener pastures because they don’t have those opportunities in their country. That one can be said to be bad governance. You might also have youths that may find a better expression somewhere because their skills are better used somewhere in the context of a normal cross-border movement population. When we talk of mixed migration or mixed flows we are talking of both the good and bad reasons that make people to move.

“However, in the mixed movement you will also have people who are actually victims’ of mixed movement not because they actually want to move but because they are being trafficked. We have voluntary, involuntary and forced movements that create a lot of protection problems because these people are not protected by their country. So who is protecting them?” he queried.

Different proposals have been suggested by stakeholders and experts on the best way offering protection to stateless persons, asylum-seekers, vulnerable people and generally proffering solution to migration problems across the entire sub-region. Suggested solutions include ensuring political stability, regular knowledge sharing amongst member states’, and provision of social and economic support and development architecture that would seek to promote patriotism, and engender inclusiveness amongst constituent states within the geo-polity. But all the proposed solutions would be difficult to implement without robust biometric data of people living in a particular region.

Data is important in any serious endeavour. Without the appropriate data, effective and planning is hindered. Nigeria has started working in this regard through the National Identity Management Council which has registered over 33 million Nigerians in its data base at October 2018.  There  is still room for improvements as the ratio of registered to unregistered Nigeria stands at 1:5. There is need for member states to take identity management more seriously if they are to protect and proffer durable solutions to the issue mass migration or mixed flows within the sub-region.

Rather than reiterating the need for biometric data collation of citizens, ECOWAS should, through the ECOWAS Parliament, make a brave move to ensure that identity management is justiciable in the sub-region. Until respective governments take the identity management (data collection) seriously, the protection of citizens, refugees, asylum seekers and indeed the entire sub-region is on a knife edge.


By Olajide Adelana (Investigative researcher and development expert writes from Abuja)