|Posted by The Reunion Black Family on October 2, 2011 at 5:55 AM|
Nigeria is a state of wide cultural diversity consisting of several distinct ethnic groups. What role do these ethnic groups play in Nigerian politics and what impact do they have on political developments in Nigeria?
Nigeria developed over time, under British colonial rule, as a federal state consisting of various ethnic groups. The British colonial power recognized the ethnic diversity of Nigeria and, with the support of the various Nigerian leaders in colonial times, decided that the federal system of government was the best political and constitutional arrangements for Nigeria.
Only one political party, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), formed in 1944, pressed for a unitary form of government. But this idea found very little support among the leaders of Northern Nigeria and Western Nigeria. In his Path to Nigerian Freedom, published in London in 1947, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who emerged as the leader of the Action Group (Egbe Omo Oduduwa), rejected the idea of a unitary system of government for Nigeria, arguing that in view of Nigeria’s ethnic diversity, a federal system of government best suited Nigeria’s condition.
Both the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello, and Tafawa Balewa, later Prime Minister of the federation, shared Awolowo’s views regarding the preference for a federal system of government in Nigeria. But their rejection of the idea of a unitary system of government was borne out of fear that under a unitary system of government the North will be dominated by the better educated and vociferous elite of the South, and that northern interests would not be protected.
By the 1950s two major regional political parties embracing the idea of a federal system of government in Nigeria had emerged. These were the Northern Peoples Congress in Northern Nigeria and the Action Group in the Western Region. The colonial authorities also preferred a federal system of government. The oldest of the three major parties, the NCNC, which argued and campaigned hard for a unitary system of government in Nigeria, lost out in the period of political agitation for independence. By 1951 it was clear that federalism had been broadly accepted as the system best suited to Nigeria’s ethnic diversity and plurality.
The McPherson Constitution of 1951 had firmly established the foundation for a federal system of government in Nigeria. In view of the ethnic plurality of Nigeria this development of a federal system for Nigeria was broadly accepted by all the ethnic groups as it reflected the cultural and political realities of Nigeria at the time. A few radical politicians mainly in the so_called Zikist movement preferred a unitary system of government. But they were a hopeless minority.
In view of the large size of some of these ethnic groups, (the Y oruba, the Hausa_Fulani, and the Igbo), many analysts prefer to describe Nigeria as a federation of sub_nationalities. Whatever their various sizes it is necessary to define what is commonly referred to as ethnic groups in the context of Nigeria, and its political variant, ethnic nationalism.
Ethnic groups have been defined as “social formations distinguished by the communal character of their boundaries in terms of language and culture, or both” with language constituting the most crucial variable in Africa. (1) Colonial and European ethnographers and demographers prefer to use the word “tribe” in referring to African linguistic groups. But this term is generally unacceptable to educated and enlightened Africans.
Ethnic groups existed in Nigeria long before the advent of colonial rule.
But contacts among the various groups were limited. Many of them, particularly the smaller ones, had only limited trade contacts with other groups. In most cases, they were self sufficient as their main occupation was farming and hunting for games. The advent of colonial rule was to change all that as the introduction of colonial institutions on a national scale brought the various ethnic groups increasingly into contact with one another. It made the various ethnic groups increasingly aware of their distinct and varying cultures.
This was to facilitate colonial rule and make the economic exploitation of the colonies easier. But this development set in motion a process that was to lead to greater contact and competition among the various ethnic groups for dominance and the economic advantage over other ethnic groups that would accompany such dominance.
As linguistic and socio_cultural entities, each ethnic group in Nigeria can be identified with a specific geographical territory or space, while allowing for diffusion and migration. But how many such groups exist in Nigeria or can be identified? Estimates of this vary. The United Nations says there are 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria. Many consider this as underestimated.
A federal government demographic survey in 1976 identified 394 language groups. One estimate put it as high as 400 with the highest density of languages in Taraba and Adamawa states. From these figures, Nigeria can be described as one of the most diverse ethnic states in the world, only surpassed by India and Indonesia. Nigeria’s share of African ethnic groups has been put at over 40 per cent. The sheer number of different local languages in Nigeria and the consequent cultural pluralism makes the Nigerian political scene very complex.
This immense cultural diversity tends to make the country look increasingly difficult to govern. One perceptive foreign observer of the huge ethnic diversity in Africa, Arthur Lewis, asserted that
“Africans differ more from each other than Europeans-one can find within a hundred miles two tribes whose though? patterns differ from each other more fundamentally than those of France and Germany than Europeans”.
But the seemingly unending political crises in Nigeria may be attributed to this ethnic diversity and the failure of the Nigerian political system to ,contain the fissiparous and centrifugal tendencies of these ethnic groups as they jostle for power among themselves. Nigeria, particularly under the long and politically debilitating period of military rule, has been run as a quasi-federal system, or a medieval autocracy in which the aspirations of the various ethnic groups have been ignored. The ruling national elite in Nigeria is not based on a consensus or sharing of values and it tends to be contemptuous of the demand of the ethnic groups for openness, fair competition, local autonomy, and accountability.
In Nigeria, the political hands are too visible and tend to give some ethnic groups undue political and economic advantage over the others. It is this situation that creates political tension in Nigeria. The introduction of the principle of federal character in employment in the public sector is intended to ensure fairness in employment in the public sector.
The Nationality Question
It is the failure of the Nigerian political elite to accept and demonstrate the values of openness and fairness among the ethnic groups that is the source of the nationality question and the demand for greater local autonomy and true federalism.
The Federal Government is too dominant. It takes the lion share of the nation’s revenue, more than the share of the 37 states, and 774 local governments combined. This is what engenders the fierce competition among the ethnic groups for the control of the central government.
Of course, Nigeria is not the only country with this cultural diversity and ethnic groups.
In the case of Nigeria, the issue of the so-called minorities has assumed a salience not seen before with violent conflicts in such places as Plateau and Delta states. But these so-called minorities when taken together constitute a significant part of the Nigerian federation. From the point of view of power relationships, these minorities constitute the majority of the Nigerian people, and they can be found at every level of Nigerian politics national, state and local.
Nigeria now has 36 states plus the Federal Capital Territory. But there is still growing demand for the creation of more states. But even in the 36 states, most of which are not really viable on their own financially, there are still ethnic groups that consider themselves minorities and complain about being marginalized by the dominant ethnic group. Examples of this can be found in the Delta, Kwara, Kogi, Edo, and other parts of the country. Even among the Yoruba, a more homogenous ethnic group, there are intra-ethnic conflicts over the control of the limited resources of the state.
Role of Ethnic Groups in Nigerian Politics·
From the Nigerian experience, it can be argued that ethnic nationalism is not inherently inimical to the practice of federalism or the development of a pan-Nigerian nationalism. In fact, properly channeled and managed, it can serve as a check on the development of autocratic power at the federal level. In addition, from the outset, it was these ethnic organisations that played a crucial role in the political mobilisation against British colonial rule in Nigeria.
The Arewa in Northern Nigeria, Egbe Omo Oduduwa in Western Nigeria, and the Igbo State Union were ethnically based political groups that combined successfully to agitate for independence from British colonial rule. NCNC (National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons) started in Lagos as a pan-Nigerian political party led by the Lagos elite. Its first leader was the late Herbert Macaulay who, after his death, was succeeded by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.
But the existing system of indirect rule tended to foster regional political parties. It led to the emergence of Northern Peoples’ Congress in Northern Nigeria and Action Group in the Western Region. Progressively, NCNC which, hitherto had been a national party, became a political party with very strong Igbo affiliation and support. The constraint of time and space will not allow me to go into details on this. But there can be little or no doubt that the emergence of regional political parties in Nigeria was a reflection of its ethnic diversity and the divisive policies of the British colonial government in Nigeria.
At Nigeria’s independence in 1960, there were three major political parties, NPC,AG, and NCNC, all of them regionally or tribally based. But there were other minority parties such as NEPU in Northern Nigeria, Otu Edo in current Edo State, Middle Belt Congress in the Middle belt, and a cluster of political parties in other minority areas, such as the old Cross River area.
The competition for power and economic advantage even among the big three parties was such that the country tottered from one political crisis to the other until the military stepped into the political scene in 1966, blaming the rot in the political system on the greed and selfishness of the political leaders. But as it turned out, military rule was essentially a continuation of Northern domination of the country, even in a quasi-federal system of government. Evidence abounds that military rule in Nigeria favoured the North as it promoted Northern interests above national interests.
In the years preceding the granting of independence to colonial Africa, there were fears, inside and outside Africa, that independence would lead to a fierce competition for power, position, and jobs among Africans in the post-colonial period, that this would be along tribal lines, and that the more successful nationality groups in the competition would treat the others like colonial subjects. As the distinguished British colonial historian, Margery Perham, observed rightly, colonial rule was a ‘steel grid’ holding tribal African communities in peace by force.
The colonial rulers were not always fair to some of these ethnic groups, tending in some cases, such as the Hausa-Fulani, to favour one group over another. Once this grid was removed each ethnic group would be ‘pre-occupied with reckoning up what natural strength it had to protect itself or dominate its neighbours when all are left to find their own levels of power’ in the new dispensation.
The Nigerian experience would seem to validate this view that once the restraining hand of colonial rule was removed the competition for power at the centre would be vicious and could lead to bloody conflicts as we have seen in Nigeria and other African countries with ethnic diversity such as Nigeria’s.
Negative consequences of ethnic politics in Nigeria:
1. Political tension and instability, as the various ethnic groups jostle for power and economic dominance at the centre, state, and local levels
II. Lack of accountability in governance as the tribal leaders fan the embers of ethnic competition to conceal their lack of commitment to good governance and the democratic process
III. Massive public corruption at all levels in the quest for personal and tribal economic power and influence. There is no universality of values among the various ethnic groups as so much is at stake in the competition for power. This accounts (or the lack of commitment among the politicians to the fight against public corruption that is now pervasive in Nigeria.
IV. Electoral malpractices to keep the ruling ethnic group in power at all costs.
v. The use of state-sponsored force to keep a ruling ethnic group in power regardless of its unpopularity.
Recent political developments regarding the ethnic groups-
Since 1999, when the military finally stepped down from power following massive public opposition to military rule, there has been a resurgence of ethnic politics and competition for power in Nigeria. In 1999, a civilian democratically-elected President, Olusegun Obasanjo, took over power. It was the second time he had assumed power, but the first time was as a military leader in succession to the assassinated military ruler, Gen. Murtala Muhammed. Even in 1999 when he contested the election and won as candidate of PDP (Peoples Democratic Party), he was sponsored by the northern elite, particularly the northern military.
It was a smart move by the northern elite, including the military, as it had been agreed by the ruling party, PDP and Obasanjo himself that he would be succeeded by a northern candidate after two terms in office. He was widely regarded as a northern protege, and his sponsorship was regarded as compensation to the Yoruba for the cavalier manner in which the military under the administration of General Ibrahim Babangida had annulled the election in June 1993, of Chief Moshood Abiola as President of Nigeria.
In the 1999 presidential election, Obasanjo was rejected by his own people, the Yoruba, but won with overwhelming northern and eastern votes, including the so-called minorities. In a way, the support of the minorities in the East for Obasanjo was a continuation of the old politics in Nigeria in which the ethnic minorities voted for the party that they believed would best serve their political and economic interests.
It was strategic. In Nigeria, this phenomenon is referred to as joining the political mainstream to ensure that the dividends of electoral victory are shared by the ethnic minorities. But this is not usually the result of joining the political mainstream as the reward of electoral victory hardly ever percolates down. In 2003, the presidential election was so blatantly rigged that the main opposition party, AD, lost all the five states it won in 1999, except Lagos. As in 1999, the ethnic minorities either voted massively for Obasanjo, or were fraudulently recorded as having done so.
In 2007, Yar’ Adua succeeded Obasanjo predictably and the voting pattern remained basically unchanged. In fact, Obasanjo had wanted an extension of his tenure in breach of the zoning principle to which he was supposed to be committed. But the whole nation was utterly opposed to the idea of giving him a third term as this would be in breach of the Constitution and the zoning principle. Yar’Adua would have remained in power until 2015 but died regrettably in 2010.
His death was to cause a major transformation of Nigerian politics. For the first time in Nigeria’s political history, an obscure politician from an ethnic minority, Ijaw, Goodluck Jonathan, succeeded Yar’ Ardua as president. This development was totally unexpected and would not have occurred but for the untimely death of Yar’ Adua. In fact, the northem elite (Atiku and Babangida) opposed the candidature of Jonathan very fiercely and few gave him any chance of winning either his party’s nomination or the presidential election itself. Against all odds, he won the elections by a wide margin.
Does this political development mark the end of the zoning formula in Nigerian elections? Can the feat be repeated in future, in the next presidential election? We can only speculate as the next elections are not due until 2015. The probability is that Jonathan will run again. But he will have to contend with fierce northern opposition.
It is said that a day in politics is a long time during which much can change. Ethnic politics has not changed. What has changed is the strategy of the ethnic groups in supporting the ruling party to enable them share in the spoils of office. Nigerian politics is still being conducted on the basis of ethnicity, rather than ideology. But ethnic politics can have some advantages in terms of keeping the executive in check as he has to balance the interests of the various ethnic groups if he is to win their support. This could enhance stability in the polity as it would be difficult to ignore the demands of the ethnic groups for political accountability for too long.
The ethnic groups from the South have been pressing for fiscal federalism. That would mean control over their oil resources and the creation of more states. These are complex political and economic issues the outcome of which is by no means certain as it will require a lot of political wheeling and dealing to resolve. How about the issue of zoning? Is it still in force in PDP, the ruling party? How will this play out in 2015 when the next presidential elections are due? Will the ethnic minorities embrace and support a northern candidate in 2015? I doubt it. Having tasted power for the first time ever, it is unlikely that the eastern ethnic groups will give it up willingly, or without a fight. There is too much at stake for them.
The Role of Nigerian media
Let me conclude this paper by examining the role of the Nigerian press in the developing political drama. There can be no doubt that the Nigerian media, particularly the newspapers, have acquitted themselves creditably over the years by playing a positive role in the political development of Nigeria.
It was in the vanguard of the struggle against British colonial rule in Nigeria. Many Nigerian journalists were sent off to jail for taking a stand against British rule in Nigeria. The most prominent of those convicted and jailed was the late Chief Anthony Enahoro, then a young editor at West African Pilot owned then by Dr. Azikiwe.
The Nigerian press was also strongly opposed to military rule in Nigeria during which many papers were closed and leading journalists jailed by the military rulers. Even under civilian democratic rule, the media have faced hard times with some journalists being manhandled by security agents under the prompting of the so-called political leaders. It has a tradition of which it can be immensely proud.
But there have also been occasions when Nigerian journalists have tended to fan tribal embers by writing provocative and scurrilous reports reflecting tribal tendencies and views. This is to be expected to some extent in a situation where the newspapers are owned by governments or politicians whose main interest is in having their own views prevail. Nigerian journalists have to use their discretion in drawing a line between what is professionally acceptable and what is not. Here the Nigerian Guild of Editors has a responsibility to ensure that the best professional ethics and standards of journalism are adhered to by its members.
Being paper delivered by Ambassador Oladapo Fafowora on September 23, 2011, at Benin, Edo State, at the All Nigeria Editors Conference of the Nigerian Guild of Editors.