Posted April 21, 2011 from Nigeria

It has been widely perceived that ethnicity is the bane of Nigerian politics. Ethnicity pinpoints on community of a nation, a community of various tribes and backgrounds. In some cases, it can be seen as a social construct where individuals are incited to accept ethnic identity to express who they are and what they want. In the Nigerian context, ethnic and religious differences form sentiments which override perceptions of nationalism. Leaders and subjects are distracted from national thinking and focus on ethnic interests; hence ethnicity shapes people’s behaviour and directs same towards sentiments of origin and descent. This tends to conflict with actions towards national interest, which to a large extent should be dependent on being cautious of the various needs of the various constituencies.

In the Nigerian context, ethnicity is more of a concept which focuses on sentiments of origin, culture, language and religion. It tends to encompass the way in which people think of themselves and others and make sense of the world around them. However, expressions of ethnicity in Nigerian politics have largely been associated with war, clashes and other forms of violence. This disregards postulations by scholars that the mere existence of different ethnic groupings in one nation should not necessarily mean violence. The mere fact that Nigeria harbours more than 250 ethnic groups does not automatically mean that there should be conflicts or divisions. After all, the various groups are meant to co-exist peacefully since they collectively make up the territorial landmass. They are controlled by a government, have national army, pledged under a national anthem, and have same identity and other paraphernalia which qualifies Nigeria as a sovereign nation. In that sense, nationalist thinking is supposed to overtake ethnic thinking, but the reverse has been the case.

Again, notions of ethnicity is supposed to act as powerful supporting tool to notions of nationalism where the state should be conscious of varying interest groups and work cautiously towards satisfying the needs. This could be done by channeling competitions through constitutional institutions. If well utilized, ethnicity should augur well for equity and justice which are democratic principles. This was the case in the western countries, where ethnicity has served as a positive force for the expansion of rights and entrenchment of democracy. But in Nigeria, instead of emphasizing on aspects of justice and equality, factions propelled by ethnic consciousness do only seek advantages for themselves, not just in competition with one another but being domineering other than removing domination.

Alex Thomson argues that ethnicity is not a primordial tribal force. This work wishes to argue that in Nigeria, the tie between ethnic grouping and religion makes ethnicity look a primordial tribal force. Each group is particularly associated with one religious belief and therefore ethnicity and religion go hand in hand in making people assume they are bound together in a tie. Though Thomson believes that with time and civilization, political interactions may become more peaceful and devoid of ethnicism, as was the case with some western countries. This work wishes to point out that Africans naturally owe allegiance first to their families, to their tribes, then to the state and the nation. Then in a situation where there is multiplicity of tribes and states as it is in Nigeria it might be difficult to easily overcome the barrier posed by ethnicity. Again her federal system of government with its three-tier structure largely encourages ethnic politics. Obviously, the states are created along ethnic lines and the local government councils comprise of related towns and families. The federal structure tends to make the citizens be attached to their states of origin more than they are attached to the nation-state. Peculiar to the Nigerian nation also is the fact that politics is seen as the only access to national resources. Based on the latter, a ‘do or die’ attitude is applied hence avenues like ethnicism are mobilised to attain positions. With this, ethnic politics thrives while at the same time constitutes a negative force plaguing efforts at democracy in Nigeria.

The emphasis on ethno-religious differences has been a political strategy used in Nigeria to manipulate the nation’s politics. The existence of different ethnic groups is manipulated and used sentimentally by persons who aim at power and other selfish interests. This is a tribal politics which originated during the Nigerian 1956/57 Premiership elections. However, ethnicity has largely been a means or tool to achieve ends. It is applied in the form of divide and rule and this works against patriotic nationalism in the nation’s politics.

The divide and rule policy started during the colonial era. It ignited ethnic consciousness and ushered in separation. There were two colonial policies: namely the Land and Native Rights Ordinance initiated in 1910 and the Sabongari policy . These policies initiated a social division existing between the north and southern Nigeria. In practical sense, the policies overlook the similarities among the people and lay emphasis on their differences. Overtime, the effects of this emphasis have been negative forces which produce trails of destructive violence and threat to the nation’s territorial integrity. The Ogoni-Andoni, Jukun-Tiv, Hausa-Mambilla and a host of other blood-lettings are aftermaths of the above said policies. They encourage urban-based segregations. Then the ethnic massacre of the Igbos living in the north preceded the civil war of 1967-70 , the Ogoni saga of the 1990s and the subsequent Ijaw/Yoruba, Yoruba/Igbo crisis have lingering connections with the segregations. Furthermore, the annulment of the June 12 1993 election further reinforced the divisions and mistrust among the various groups. At the peak of Nigeria’s dictatorial regimes, that is, prior to 1999 transition to democratic rule, there arose ethnic wildfires in the Niger Delta and other parts with almost all groups crying of marginalization and segregation. The various events and conflicts further politicized ethnic divisions and threatened the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Nigeria. They take pernicious dimensions which have negative effects on national unity and democracy.

REGIONAL POLITICS AND POLARISATION OF INTEREST Ethnic differences informed impressions associated with political activities in Nigeria. Politicians claim that they champion the interests of the ethnic groups hence the formation of political parties along local lines. The NCNC, AG and NPC/NEPU are pioneer party formations which took off on ethnic lines.

Until the 1999 transition, Nigeria has not had a powerful nationwide political party. The NPN of the second republic pretends to be a national party but in practice the bulk of its power lay in the northern region hence led by Alhaji Shehu Shagari, a northerner. Different ethnic regions overtime, identify with one party or the other hence such languages as ‘Igbo’, ‘Hausa’ or ‘Yoruba’ party. Regional politics entrench suspicion and lack of trust and the various attempts at joining forces with one another result to instability, which most times lead to military interventions in Nigerian politics. The military coups of 1966 buttress this point. The cohesion becomes impossible because of differences in political backgrounds, general perception of politics and mistrust existing among the various groups. This has failed to institutionalize stable political system. Political activities always take a three-legged oligopoly and are always headed by the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani. The three groups oftentimes control the nation’s political activities on increasingly regional basis.

However, it must be said that mobilization along ethnic lines might constitute a positive force in protecting and preserving some elements of democracy in the country. This can be achieved if mobilization behind different factions can lead to decentralization of power. Hence each group strives to ensure that the state treats its members fairly. Then the great question is, what about the groups who do not have representations at the federal level? While one group demands equity for themselves through their representative, they oftentimes do not accept same for other ethnic groups. A typical example of this is the attitude towards property abandoned by the Igbo during the civil war. The post-war reconstruction policy initiated by Yakubu Gowon, a northerner, said that a minimal percentage of money left in banks by Igbos who are mainly business people will be paid back and the rest freezed. The policy further denied the easterners access to their resources and millions of them became destitute who languish in hunger, starvation and poverty. This example buttresses that cases of injustice committed against one group by others are often treated lackadaisically. It leaves a trail of injustice and inequity in dealing with different people that make up the nation.

Ethnic politics and polarization of interest constitute a major problem to democracy and this threatens the Nigerian security. In the absence of a common cause and collective interests of the people, common concern for the generality of the masses, which is the basis for democratic governance is lacking. Democracy ought to aim at addressing common concerns of the citizenry, which should presuppose constitution of the political society as a nation. This should be opposed to addressing concerns as a group but as a nation with shared interests and common course. In this way, the state should be a public asset for managing affairs of the entire nation. But with the explained ethnic politics being played on the platforms of sentiment and origin, and encouraged by the system, democratic politics seems virtually difficult.

VARIOUS ATTEMPTS MADE TO MANAGE ETHNIC PROBLEMS. However, various policies were implemented to check the problems caused by ethnicity in Nigeria. It has to be said that such policies as Sabongari, which was mentioned earlier and the Native Authority System initiated during the colonial period mainly had objectives to containing, instead of eliminating ethnic conflicts. They ended up creating a new symbolic focus as well as reproducing divisions. Furthermore, federalism was introduced in 1954 and was characterized by devolution of national power to ethno-regional entities. Sub-units changed from three regions to the 36 states of today. The politics associated with federalism are viewed as the only road to economic security, political power and gain. However, federalism feeds into the existing dichotomy and aids in expanding sectarianism. With federalism, the constituent units exercise some degree of autonomy over their affairs. The adoption of Islamic system of jurisprudence called ‘Sharia Law’ in Zamfara, a state which also harbours non-Muslim citizens in a secular nation can be viewed as an implication of federalism. The incessant revolts, burning of properties and infiltration into other Muslim-controlled states are trails which work against democratic government and security in the country.

The most recent policy, which seems a distributive effort to representing various groups in the national decision making, is called the ‘federal character’. This policy which was initiated in 1979 is hoped to replace ethnic consciousness with national consciousness, that is, in determining people’s political behaviour. However, federal character encourages marginalization and domination by the elite group. These are concretely expressed in appointment to offices, federal bureaucracy, military and the police. It can be contended that ‘federal character’ failed in distribution of social amenities to the needy at the grassroot but focused on demand by elites. This can be likened to Rothchild’s term of hegemonial exchange. It should be noted that some ethnic groups have inherited disadvantages in the sense that they lack representation at the elite level. However, the above illustrations are indications that the instruments used to manage multi-ethnicity themselves become factors responsible in its increase in intensity.

The persistence and widening of ethnic problems becomes a threat to the nation’s security and a great concern to some Nigerians hence the various prescriptions and actions. For example, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the leader of Biafran faction during the civil war prescribed eradication of federalism as a solution to ethnic problems in Nigerian politics. Again during Babangida’s regime, he conducted a national debate through a political bureau to sample people’s opinion on the issue of federalism. The report was in affirmation of federal system for the nation. He later imposed a two-party system and insisted that the parties must demonstrate country-wide support before they could be recognized for election purposes. The aim was to create public consciousness and incorporate competition within parties rather than between ethnic groups. This policy collapsed along side Babangida’s transition. It must be pointed out that despite the above pointed negative implications of federalism; it brings government very close to the people at the grass root.

Taking a critical look into why these various remedial policies failed to deliver the required results, this work tends to say that Nigerians perceive ethnic identity as a leftover from the past. People seem to take parochial stance in matters of ethnicity. They attach importance to who they are and who the neighbours are. The effect becomes discordant inter-ethnic relations. This could be traced to ethnic consciousness instituted by imperial regime and the events of the civil war. Mistrust, acrimony and betrayal of the past, coupled with suspicion emanating from uneven development in the country still play prominent role in shaping relationships. The past grievances and perceptions of identity tend to reactivate ethnic consciousness in the minds of the people. This equally increases ethnic awareness hence the policies became open to manipulations. In this vein, the effect can be likened to pouring water on hard rock which will definitely have no penetration.

More importantly, governments have never been neutral on ethnic conflicts as it sounds from the various remedial policies. This is said because both the colonial regimes, the civilians and military which control the nation over the years exhibited and took some ethnic colorations. This is done in various ways ranging from discriminatory policies to use of language during election campaigns. And for this reason, the state becomes a contested platform for ethnic interests and gains. Nigerian state, overtime has instituted policies which instigate ethnic consciousness, controversies and divisions. Though a few measures like the NYSC and establishment of Unity Schools are implemented to check ethnic consciousness, their objectives are never strictly adhered to. Proffering remedies to ethnic problems will equally require deep commitment from the state instead of sounding neutral and yet the elites are seen manipulating the differences for self aggrandizements. This explanation therefore begs the question of why ethnicity has been the bane of Nigerian politics and hinders democracy in the country.

In concluding this chapter, it must be pointed out that there are links between the issues which embody the analytical tool to the problems hindering good governace in Nigeria. The fact remains that persistent and pervasive poverty, which creates alienation and socio-economic insecurity, coupled with low level of civic awareness, impel the people to seek solace in ethnic and religious identities. Thus, the elites easily entice and bamboozle the citizens into giving them support. They use local idioms, languages, religious factor to solicit votes and also project ethnicity as a panacea for economic woes. Peoples’ sentiments are whipped by emphasis on the neglect of the respective groups; and promise to end such neglects. Therefore, people’s rights are repressed, as well as emasculated and intimidated.

Again ethnic sectarianism in the form of state structure is inherently undemocratic. It serves as a repressive apparatus for power retention. Individuals, ethnic groups and religious groups are oppressed. Candidates ascend to leadership positions not for issues they stand for but because they are ‘sons/daughters of the soil’ and the conviction on the size of the ‘national cake’ that will accrue through them. Corruption is been encouraged and promoted by reliance on ethnic patronage. Several policies put in place to check ethnicity fail to yield results but rather widen its awareness and consciousness.

Celine Ebere Osukwu Dec 2004.

Comments 2

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Apr 24, 2011
Apr 24, 2011

This is so educative, you finally nailed it on its head and I always admire your brilliance, all I do these days is pray for Nigeria, if we cannot be together we should at least live peacefully wherever we are, because recent killings and amputation of NYSC arms in Northern NIGERIA is nothing to write home about. I always feel that we are not together becasue what seperates us is more thatn what unites us, what unites us is the sharing formular of oil money aside that there is no respect for human lives. The last election violemce left sour taste in my mouth. The government is hiding the numbers of victims but those who bury their dead know the number.

May God grant us PEACE. Amen

Apr 27, 2011
Apr 27, 2011

Thank you dear sister Olutosin, the sharing formula is only at the level of the ruling class, who perpetuate and promote corruption in the country. They only use the common people to carry out violence should they see the that the table is turning against them. They lack love for the common man and lack spirit of nationalism for other groups. National interest is never in their agenda as leaders. May God deliver us from their hands, Amen

Celine Osukwu Divine Foundation for Disabled Persons