A cross section of lawyers and members of the legislature Thursday reacted angrily to the statement credited to the Chairman of the National Population Commission (NPC), Mr. Festus Odimegwu, that Nigerians not captured in the 2016 census would lose their citizenship.
The lawyers, who spoke with THISDAY, said not only is Odimegwu ignorant of the constitution, the statement portrayed him as unlearned.
The NPC chairman had at the second National Family Planning Conference in Abuja on Wednesday, said any Nigerian who is not captured in the next demographic survey beginning next year will not be recognised as a citizen of the country, after the 2016 national population census.
Reacting to the statement, a former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), vehemently disagreed with Odimegwu, saying that the statement was not only unfounded and unconstitutional, but also ungodly.
Olanipekun said with the statement, the NPC chairman was "trying to play God in advance."
He wondered why Odimegwu would hold such a view when no court in the country could even decree it.
Saying that the NPC chairman must have made the statement in error, the former NBA boss challenged him to stretch his statement further by telling all pregnant women in the country to go for scans so that their unborn babies could be counted; otherwise, they would lose their citizenship.
"With due respect to Mr. Odimegwu, I am sure the statement was made in error, assuming that he was misquoted.
"The statement is not only unfounded, unconstitutional, illegal but also ungodly. God will not decree that any citizen of the country will lose his/her citizenship because he/she was not counted.
"Even the constitution of the country cannot decree it. I dare say that no court of law in the country can decree such a thing. Not even our revered Supreme Court.
Also faulting Odimegwu's statement, Prof. Koinyinsola Ajayi (SAN) said there is no law in the country that says a person must be counted during census.
"It is a huge joke. You know that man is a hilarious man. How can he say that when he knows that it is not compulsory that you must be counted.
"He is saying that the about 20 million Nigerians in the Diaspora must come home and be counted otherwise they will lose their citizenship? That is the surprise," he said.
On his part, constitutional lawyer, Dr. Joseph Nwobike (SAN), said the statement has no foundation in law. Describing the statement as erroneous and misconceived, Nwobike wondered when it became a law for citizenship to be acquired through a population census.
"Is citizenship acquired through census? There are constitutional ways to acquire citizenship. Census is not a means to acquire or lose citizenship.
"The statement is not only unfounded in law, it is also erroneous and misconceived," he said.
Also, human rights lawyer, Mr, Femi Falana (SAN), described Odimegwu's statement as inconceivable.
Falana said there is no country in the world that will make her citizens lose citizenship on the grounds that they are not counted during a census.
While advising Odimegwu to appeal to Nigerians to embrace the census or mount campaigns for them to be counted, Falana said he should stop insulting their sensibilities.
On whether the census could be made mandatory in the constitution, the human rights lawyer said accrued rights cannot be abrogated.
He therefore advised the NPC chairman to be properly guided on the statements he makes.
"The statement is a joke. There is no country in the world that makes her citizens lose citizenship on the grounds that they are not counted.
"Citizenship is not conferred by the president or the NPC. Let him begin from now, begin to advise Nigerians to be counted or mount campaigns for them to be counted, not what he is saying now," he said.
Similarly, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Enyinanya Abaribe, said that there was nothing in Section 30 of the 1999 Constitution that supports the plans of the NPC that a Nigeria would lose his or her citizenship if not captured in the 2016 head count. The head count, he said, was not a parameter for citizenship.
Also speaking, Senator Ahmed Lawal said the Chairman of NPC is entitled to his own opinion but disagreed with the assertion.
"I disagree with him absolutely on this issue. The citizenship of a country has been fully spelt out in the constitution and criteria like a head count is not the major determinant of who a citizen is," he said.
According to him, the purpose of undertaking a head count is essentially to help government in planning and could not be used as a tool to deny a Nigerian of his or her citizenship.
He said: "The chairman is only giving his personal opinion as it is the constitution that states who a citizen of a country is, a census is not one of the conditions that makes one a Nigerian.
"However, it is advisable that every citizen must make him or herself available for the head count because of the uses to which it will be put."
In the House of Representatives, the situation was not different as the lawmakers were unanimous in their opposition to the issue of citizenship through participation in a census.
They were however divided on the inclusion of religion and ethnicity in the data base.
Hon. Baba Kaita (CPC/Katsina) said that there was nothing wrong with capturing the full biometrics of a citizen provided that the sole objective was to help government plan better for the people.
Kaita, however, warned that it would be wrong to include such data if it would lead to some form of discrimination.
Chairman, House Committee on Niger Delta, Hon. Warman Ogoriba, and Deputy Chairman, House Committee on Media, Hon Victor Ogene, were also in agreement that the inclusion of ethnicity and religion might become an instrument for discrimination.
On his part, Minority Leader of the House, Hon Femi Gbajabiamila, vehemently challenged the constitutionality of the proposal to deny anyone citizenship on the grounds that they are captured in a population census.
He said there was no constitutional basis for such action, as citizenship is conferred by virtue of birth or naturalisation. He was, however, cautious on the inclusion of religion and ethnicity in the census.
According to Gbajabiamila, such information will be good to have as long as it will be used for the purpose of planning.