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Ethnicity & Tribalism

Politics of Ethnicity in Nigeria: The Way Forward

by Collins G. Adeyanju



Tribalism or ethnicity, religion and corruption are popular clichés used to describe or analyze various forms of anomalies in Nigerian nation building. In this article, tribalism and ethnicity are used interchangeably, because of its varying use to different people, but refers to same subject in the discourse. According to Wikipedia, tribalism is the state of being organized in, or advocating for, a tribe or tribes. In terms of conformity, tribalism may also refer in popular cultural terms to a way of thinking or behaving in which people are more loyal to their tribe than to their friends, their country, or any other social group. Tribalism has been defined in engaged theory as a 'way of being' based upon variable combinations of kinship-based organization, reciprocal exchange, oral communication, and analogical enquiry. It is defined as “a label for social groups who feel a distinct sense of difference by virtue of common culture and descent” (Glazer and Moynihan; 1975).

This subject is crucial because, while tribal societies have been pushed to the edges of globalization, tribalism is arguably undiminished; because it is founded upon intense feelings of common identity that leads people to feel tribally connected. It is often more about “feeling” of commonality than actual commonality; and that is why it is as powerful as religion in Africa.

In Nigerian context, ethnicity or tribalism is defined as social phenomenon associated with the identity of members of a competing communal group(s) seeking to protect and advance their interest in a political system. The relevant communal factor may be language, culture, race, religion and/or common history. What is peculiar to ethnicity or tribalism is that “it involves demands by one group on other competing group(s)” (Nnoli; 2008). Chinua Achebe in his view describes ethnicity “as discrimination against a citizen because of his/her place of birth” (Achebe; 1997).

In Nigeria today, tribalism has been elevated to dominate national discourse, controls how people think and talk, and determines what they oppose or support. It is promoted by the political elites, embraced by the young and the old, passed from generation to generation, and even has base in the constitution. This explains the assumption that conflicts in Nigeria is motivated by ethnic competition. Nigerians must ask, ‘How did we get here, what and who are responsible’? Why are other countries (India, Indonesia, Brazil, United States, Switzerland, Belgium, China, etc.) which are as diverse as Nigeria not half as obsessed with their diversity? The ethnic diversity of Nigeria has more or less been a threat rather than a source of national pride and development as countries above have experienced. Why? This article intends to address this question by looking at the role of Nigeria’s political history, impacts of tribal obsession and conflicts generated, and proffer ideas on the way forward.


Ethnicity or Tribalism in Nigeria’s Political Development

Ethnicity had played manifesting roles in Nigerian politics since the pre-colonial era and is arguably one of the important causes of conflict and an overall obstacle to economic development of the country. Sadly, the foundation of Nigeria’s party politics was tribally-oriented as portrayed in the First until Fourth Republics. For example, shortly after independence, the political scene of the First Republic transmitted a pure picture of Nigeria’s ethno-religious division;

  • the Action Group (AG) was dominant only in the Western region (mainly Yoruba-speaking group) and headed by Chief Obafemi Awolowo
  • the National Council of Nigerian Citizen (NCNC), formerly National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons) allied with the Igbos tribe and was dominant only in the Eastern Nigeria,
  • while the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) was formed by the Jammaa Arewa – Hausa/Fulani ethnic group and dominated only in Northern Nigeria.

All the parties were formed along ethnic lines. Apparently, the British colonial administrators’ ethnic policy and the regional autonomy reinforced the division of the three regions; a factor which contributed to ethno-regional character of governance in Nigeria (Igbuzor; 2011).

By 1914, for ease of governance, the British amalgamated the Northern and Southern protectorates and one political Nigeria was born. But as soon as they left in 1960, inter-tribal suspicion resurfaced. Several coups and countercoups motivated by ethnic sentiments culminated in the 30-month (1967 – 1970) civil war which claimed the lives of more than 2 million people. Incidentally more than 90% of those killed belong to an ethnic extraction which further exacerbates distrust among one another.

According to the Report of the National Opinion Survey of International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), Washington DC, an independent survey of public opinion in Nigeria states ethnicity as the strongest type of identity among Nigerians sampling 48.2%, as compared to 28.4% occupational identities, while 21% identify themselves with a religion. This is more or less a confirmation of the obvious. The correlation between ethnicity and the electorate is identified on aggregate and this shows that an electorate have tendency to concentrate his/her vote along discernible ethnic lines.

The 2011 general elections in Nigeria gave a clearer view. The outcome of the presidential election shows a pattern of vote that was deeply ethnic and religion-oriented. Both candidates had more than 95% of the votes casted in their regions. This trend is one of the early warning signs of political crisis and must be addressed in time. Several analysts have argued that the political behaviour of some Nigerians is influenced heavily by the hyperbolic assumption that one’s destiny is intrinsically and exclusively linked with one’s ethnic, linguistic and religious identities.


The Impact of Ethnicity/Tribalism on National Development

Ethnicity has flourished because the Nigerian elites who inherited the colonial state have conceptualized development as transferring resources from civil public to primordial public. It is in this view that Cletus Umezinwa argued that Nigeria is a failed state, backing his opinion up with a number of factors that included cultural and value decadence, fragile political structure, poor leadership and frequent ethno-religious crisis. Conflicts in Nigeria most often link with religion or ethnicity, and mostly deplored to settle economic and political imbalances; breeding the evolution of ethnic militias such as the Bakkasi Boys; Movement for Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB); Odua People’s Congress (OPC), Egbesu Boys; Movement for Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND); Arewa Forum; Yandaba; Boko Haram; Ombatse group; etc.

The impacts of ethnicity include:

  • Inability to Fight Corruption: There is a tradition in Nigeria that forbids citizens from exposing or prosecuting fellow tribesmen for corrupt practices. Corrupt tendencies are exhibited and laws violated, yet such individuals invoke ethnic sentiment to get away from, or prevent prosecution. For example, recently, a private jet belonging to the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) – Bishop Ayo Oritsajafor, was apprehended in South Africa over possession of $9.3 million allegedly meant for purchasing arms. Before the South African government could conclude investigation, his ethnic region and kinsmen were already in the media defending and exonerating him, and declaring war if their son is prosecuted.
  • Employment: Guarantee of employment or award of contract in public service is a function of one’s tribesperson in position of authority. The phrase “it is our turn was coined from this practise”. Merit and excellence are sacrificed on the altar of primordial thinking.
  • Politics of Division: Current political tension in the country is mainly as a result of avoidable clash between forces of democracy and that of tribal interests. The political power-play in the name of building consensus within political party structures have negatively influenced a tradition or emerging mentality of political office rotation between the North and the South. In fact, an analyst posits that this form the fulcrum of scaling of Boko Haram insurgency. That the ethnic elements in the North felt cheated when the seat of power didn’t returned to them in 2011 as agreed within the ruling party.
  • Distrust: A fundamental impact of tribalism in Nigeria is a culture of distrust amongst various ethnic groups in the country. Due to distrust, confidence on objective and legitimate issues of poverty and environmental pollution in the Niger Delta is trivialized as ‘Ijaw’ issues or as ‘Ogoni’ issues.
  • Promotion of mediocrity and suppression of justice: tribalism flourishes in Nigeria mainly because it is an effective tool that gives the user an edge in the eternal struggle to gain government patronage (i.e. political appointments). After getting the appointment, tribal sentiment is again used as a cover to abuse the office, and then to escape justice after leaving the office.


The constant reference to tribal animosities and differences affects the youth’s psyche and has created a pattern or legacy of hate and suspicion which the successive generation carries like a mantle. Ethnic and religious intolerance has exposed the nation to bizarre conflict experiences with loss of lives and properties, creating uncertainties in the polity. Boko Haram insurgent group is a classic example of the outcome of a long stretch of ethnic distrust and rivalry. It is surprising that Nigeria has not gone the way of Sudan, Central Africa Republic, Mali, Somalia, etc. This could be a testimony of resilience and the fact that, even though there are so many distrust and suspicion, the people still believe in the indivisibility of the country.

The just concluded 2014 national conference is another plus to the resolve of the country’s diversity to make it work. It is therefore imperative for every Nigerian to put aside their differences and embrace harmony to move forward. There is need to re-educate or re-orientate the political elites on the constant danger of using the ethno-religious card to acquire electoral offices or leadership positions. This trend must not be allowed to continue in the 21st century. However, the failure of successive political leadership to address the common yearning for good governance is considered the biggest factor for the endemic loyalty of citizens to their ethnic origin rather than to the Nigerian state.

The greatness of Unites States lies in her diversity. People from across the world converge in the United States, with diverse and unique talents, and pushes the edevelopment envelope every day. Nigeria should not be different, it must bring her unique talents and gifts to the amalgam, and must be guided by the principles of ‘united we stand, divided we fall’. Her diversity should be a blessing rather than a tool for exploitation by elites for political gains.

The survival of Nigeria hangs in the balance if the political leaders do not proactively come together, and weather the storm of the 2015 general elections. Some analysts had assumed that the fall-out of the 2011 general elections created the monstrous Boko Haram insurgent group (from the Hausa/Fulani ethnic extraction), out of revolt against a president of another ethnic origin. The group has almost paralysed socio-economic activities in the North-Eastern part since 2011. Therefore, the fabric of the society will be tested once again during the 2015 general elections and her survival will determine the future prospect of a truly united Nigeria.


The Way Forward

The way out of tribalism in Nigeria shall be discussed using mainly dual facet approaches drawn from two schools of thought. This section intends to pitch a preference on the two views of Nigerians when the issue of ethnicity is discussed, with the motive of proffering ideas that would address the diverse challenges retarding the country’s progress. One of the directions of this discussion is a structural solution, which advocates for further degree of autonomy to component ethnic groups. The second way forward perspective is the human behaviour and attitude school that jettisons primordial instincts and focus on an individual person’s characteristics, irrespective of places of origin or ethnicity.

The structural solution does not see Nigeria as a nation by using a very narrow and abstract definition of nation, and does not recognise the degree of integrations that has already taken place between the different ethnic groups through, marriage, religion, commerce and internal migration. This school advocates for a new constitutional arrangement on the basis of ethnicity and argues that multi-ethnic states are unstable and unviable. In fact, they dismiss the unstable mono-ethnic states of Middle East, and fail to acknowledge that there are other constructs on which human beings can segregate even in mono-ethnic countries.

The structural school of thought refuses to recognise that the present constitution is abused by legislators and executives from all ethnic groups and that corruption, abuse of power and criminality are human and not ethnic traits. Secondly, it ignores the error in its conclusion about problems of Nigeria being caused by ethnic groups rather than individuals. The school fails to see that the mono-ethnic and multi-ethnic countries have the same human problems (corruption, impunity, police brutality, lack of respect for the rule of law, intolerance, injustice and unfair distribution of resources, discrimination of minorities, etc.). Third, it fails to see a multi-ethnicity society as strength which had contributed to the success of countries like India, Canada, United States, Indonesia, Switzerland, South Africa, Britain, Brazil, etc. The fact about Nigeria is that there is no truly mono-ethnic group in the purest sense. For example, there are significant internal ethnic differences between a Yoruba man of Ife and Modakeke or an Igbo woman of Onitsha and Obosi, which are comparable to the difference between a Sunni and Shi’ite Bahrainis or catholic and protestant from Northern Ireland. If Nigeria breaks up today, which is not likely, I do not see an end to the number of countries that will emerge from it; since there are over 250 ethnic groups and within the major ethnic groups, there are several minorities.

The second set of Nigerians are those in the school of thought that believes the behaviour and attitude of the people must be reborn, rather than division along ethnic nations which promote conflicts. It lays its credence against the illusion that multi-ethnicity is Nigeria’s problem and source of conflicts. It is against this assumption General Yakubu Gowon created more states (12) in 1976 from the original 3 regions, and the spiral continues to the current 36 states. Rather than solve the problems of bad leadership and corruption, it assumed creating more states along ethnic orientation will foster unity and accelerate development. However, the result is an over-bloated governance and more agitations. In spite of 36 states along ethnic lines, there are still minorities in several states who clamour for autonomy on the basis of ethnicity. This was manifested in the just concluded national conference, where 18 more states were proposed. This school argues that the solution to the problems that fuel conflicts and the desire for mono-ethnic ‘states’ are good governance, justice and equal opportunity, rule of law and other civil values and not structural balkanization of the country on the basis of ethnicity.

The behaviour and attitude school says corruption and tyranny are not ethnic traits, but individual oness. Therefore, the country must evolve a system to deal with the issues and the people promoting this negative behaviour, and not their ethnic origin. That the way out of tribalism is emphasizing civilized values, addressing discrimination and injustices and building a common national identity. The question that begs for an answer according to the structural school is this: Would General Sani Abacha and Mr. Bode George (two known convicted corrupt leaders) be treated as heroes if their crimes were committed in Arewa Caliphate of the Hausa/Fulani North or Oduduwa Kingdom of Yoruba West or Biafra of the Igbo East? The answer is obvious. They are criminals irrespective of their origin, and their behaviour was not informed by ethnic orientation. However, they incite inter-ethnic conflict in order to evade justice. The school sees their behaviour (embezzlement of public funds) as the source of conflict and not their ethnicity. When a part of an unhappy union embarks on self-determination without addressing the root problems that are common to all the people of the country, they end up recreating the same problems that inspired their nationalism amongst the minorities of their new nation. This is exactly what the creation of states has shown in Nigeria.

There is enough evidence of the devastating effect of ethnic nationalism to convince most people that it would be a monumental mistake for Nigeria to ignore the damage ethnic nationalists are doing to her dreams of building a country united by civil values, equality and rule of law. The way out therefore, is that Nigerians need to be well-enlightened about the values that make for peaceful coexistence, whether or not they finally end up in Arewa Caliphate, Oduduwa Nation or Biafra Republic.

The way out of tribalism in Nigeria, besides the above-mentioned, includes cultural reorientation on the beauty of diversity. This article calls on Nigerians, the government, and the African communities to focus on addressing the human factors (advanced above by behavioural and attitude schools) that are contributing to conflicts, underdevelopment and bad governance as against vilifying the beauty of their diversities. The current experience of South Sudan following her cessation from Sudan had created more internal conflicts along ethnic lines than she had anticipated.

Other proposed ways forward are:

  • Constitutional amendment is needed to adequately address clauses that abrogate powers to ethnic or regional structures. For example, the constitutional provision (Section 147, subsection 3 of the 1999 constitution) mandates the appointment of at least a minister per state. This has unleashed mini tribal wars in many states.
  • There is need for a fairer resources management formula that would be acceptable to those who pay the human and environmental prize for Nigeria’s oil powered economy;
  • Nigeria must control corruption by making stealing impossible and prosecution swift and certain. Meanwhile the judiciary must wake-up to the 21st century justice system administration of criminal cases, particularly those that threaten national security, such as corruption;
  • The country must enthrone transparency and accountability in governance.


Collins G. Adeyanju

Research Fellowship: National Defence College Nigeria

Read more about Collins and his view on being a futurist




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