Regional Rivalry, Party Politics, and Ethnic Identity in Nigeria - 1979-1983

When Nigerians won political independence from Great Britain in 1960, they adopted its parliamentary form of political representation. But Nigeria's First Republic was markedly unstable, marred by power-grabbing, corruption and, in the end, the civil unrest was only quelled by a military coup d'etat in 1966. During the subsequent period of military rule, from 1966 to 1979, Nigerians witnessed four coups and a bloody civil war. Finally, in 1979, Nigeria's military leaders proclaimed that they would adopt an American-style constitutional democracy.

The ensuing five year period of party politics, dubbed Nigeria's democratic experiment, was eagerly anticipated by Nigerian and Western observers alike. Using such terms as "political evolution" and "political modernization," Western (and Western-educated) journalists, politicians and academics suggested that Nigerians were now on the "correct path," undoubtedly meaning they were becoming "more like us." However, party politics in Nigeria has never functioned as it has in America, partly because of the unresolved political and ethnic strife of the last half century. Accordingly, the Second Republic met its doom when rioting in the southwest and southeast followed the announcement of electoral victory by the party perceived as Northern. In December 1983, the military once again assumed power.

Nigerian and Western observers alike often blame inter-ethnic competition, known locally as tribalism, for the instability and weakness of Nigeria's "democracy." On the contrary, Nigeria's constitutional democracy is weak because it is an imported ideology imposed on an artificial political unit. The territory known as Nigeria springs not from an African, but a European, logic - from lines drawn on a map 100 years ago at a conference table in Berlin. Nigerians have no common history and no communal symbols. What past they share consists of rigged elections and violent political confrontation, largely the result of regional rivalry. The government's redistribution of petroleum revenues according to constituent territorial units fosters this rivalry. Political patronage - the bedrock of Nigerian politics - has in turn fed off these regional and ethnic rivalries, further undermining national solidarity.

Regional and Ethnic Distinctions

Nigeria is the most populous and diverse country in Africa. The more than 100 million people who live within its borders form over 250 ethnic groups and speak more than 800 dialects. Hence, the question of identity is complicated and confusing. For any individual, several overlapping issues are involved: town of origin, dialect spoken at home, language groups, religious affiliation, state of origin, state of residence, and broader regional loyalty (education, class and occupation are less important criteria).

Nevertheless, much of Nigeria's political history may be understood in terms of a three-way struggle for hegemony. The T-shaped Niger-Benue River divides the nation into three regions. Each region is populated by numerous distinct groups, but dominated by the largest. The savannahs of the north were dominated by the Muslim Hausa-Fulani feudal empires. The warring city-states of the western forests were consolidated into one Yoruba identity during this century. The eastern rainforests have always been politically fragmented, but more people claim Igbo identity than any other.

World religions do not cut across ethnic lines: Muslims dominate the north, Protestants the west and Catholics the east. The exceptions also prove the rule: While some Yoruba are Muslim, and others are Catholic, they invariably worship in distinct mosques and churches.

Nigeria's three main ethnic groups - Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo - only constitute two thirds of the country's population. Countless smaller linguistic groups make up the other third of the population, including: Edo, Urhobo, Itsekiri in the west; Tiv, Igala, Idoma, Nupe, Igbirra in the north; Ibibio, Efik, and Ijaw in the east. In some ways, these minorities help unify Nigeria as a nation, for none could be viable independently. If within its own region, a minority groups finds local-level politics dominated by a larger group, then they tend to forge alliances with a party dominant in the administration of another region.

To speak of Nigeria as if it were still divided into three regions is tempting, but the number of states has recently grown from 3 to 12 to 19. A territory subsuming 250 smaller polities, however, raises the question what is a reasonable sub-unit? Before its demise, the last civilian regime declared its intention to create 49 states.

Competition for Resources Breeds "Tribalism"

As long as the Nigerian government redistributes national resources according to its constituent states, ethnic rivalry is here to stay. "Tribalism" is bred by neither tradition nor custom nor sentiment, but by the regional scramble for national resources. Nigeria's vast petroleum wealth is pooled at the center and redistributed among the 19 states. Oil is so lucrative that each community is almost completely dependent on the federal government for all infrastructural improvements.

It follows that the community is the group with common interests. Individuals have to declare their town of origin on all government forms. Many seemingly incongruous policy decisions are based on the need to "reflect Nigeria's federal character." Formalized in government policy, ethnic rivalry has now also become a folk category or guiding principle - palpable and real. A visitor to Nigeria will immediately notice ethnic prejudices and tensions. For each ethnic group (and this factioning may be infinitely fine-tuned) a particular stereotype prevails. Liberal-minded Americans would indeed be shocked at the level of "bigotry" acceptable here.

Identity is firmly founded in an individual's town of origin, no matter where s/he lives or how far s/he roams. This sense of identity leads to tremendous and unwavering pressure to marry within one's ethnic group. Those who defy this pressure risk endless family squabbles, an unstable union, and - worst of all - children with only ambiguous claims on relatives' resources.

The irony of this uncomfortable situation is that until the middle of the twentieth century, there were always tremendous population movements within the region. Towns eagerly incorporated immigrants and captives. But since prime cocoa-producing land became scarce following World War II, "stranger" has become a permanent status.

In the following example, we can see how people make decisions today, based on conditions today, in the name of tradition. An elderly man I met in Aghalokpe had moved when young from Eku. He had instructed his children to bury him in the house he had built in Aghalokpe. Last year, though, he was buried in his father's house in Eku, as his junior relatives (with whom he had been quarreling for years) invoked "Urhobo tradition." When he was young, early in the century, it had been possible to shift loyalties or identities. But this seemed an outrageous request to his younger kin.

Development of Yoruba Ethnic Consciousness

Ethnic consciousness among the people in Ondo Town (the town of 300,000 where I did research from 1981-1984) dates back only to just after World War Two. It arose when the educated elite of Ondo first became aware of their incorporation into a European-born multi-ethnic state. Missionaries had codified in written form the Yoruba dialect spoken in Oyo Town, while secondary schools gathered together the best pupils from many regions. Consequently - contrary to many liberal-minded Americans' views of the relationship between education and prejudice - Nigeria's educated elite are more ethnically conscious than average, for they understand just how much is at stake.

By the late 1940s, Obafemi Awolowo, an Ijebu-Yoruba, had formed the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, a fraternal organization whose sole purpose was to create a self-conscious Yoruba identity. By the time Nigera won its independence, the Society had developed into Awolowo's Action Group. At the time, it was the only political party with an ethnic genesis. Over the years, Yoruba identity has solidified. Awolowo, now in his late 70s, remains the adored leader. Yet many older folks in Ondo still refuse the lable Yoruba. To them, Yoruba refers to their old antagonists from Oyo Town, whose language they consider barely intelligible.

Political Factioning

Contrary to common assumptions, party affiliation does not derive from unswerving loyalty based on sentimental attachment to a monolithic ethnic group. Political scientists and journalists often speak of ethnic politics as if party and ethnic group were coextensive. This is only true in a very crude sense, for competition over resources does split ethnic groups. It is under the guise of party affiliation that old rivalries within and between towns re-emerge in a transformed context.

For instance, during the bloody civil strife of 1983, old rivalries were resurrected in the name of UPN/NPN party alignment. What happened in 1983 was essentially identical to the rioting twenty years before. Party affiliation is a way to express other kinds of political divisions, such as familial disputes between first-cousins or half-siblings.

In a clientilist system, every personal achievement or setback is linked to one's factional membership. Gaining a job, a title or admission to further study, or being fired or arrested is never devoid of party political significance. All such events are manifestations of political struggle.

Success in politics is based on the ability to gain influence by spending money generously and attracting a large personal following. What Westerners so often condemn as corruption, greed and nepotism, actually springs from the moral imperative to share and the political need to attract and maintain loyal dependents. These moral and political attitudes date back to pre-colonial days when wealth was based on control over the labor of dependent relatives and clients, rather than on land or capital.

Clientilist politics persist. In spite of Nigeria's emerging class structure, most of its citizens consider the relation between rich and poor in patron/client terms. They also, however, judge their powerful neighbors with respect to the state resources they funnel into the community. Consequently, political patronage cannot be divorced from its ethnic component. Redistribution from the federal government helps unify the country, but it also simultaneously reinforces regional rivalries. If the government gives in to the ever-present pressure for creating more states, it will further weaken itself.

Nigeria's political and ethnic strife illustrates the problems inherent in incorporating diverse local groups into one polity given infrastructural constraints. Townspeople I questioned about democracy lectured me on how "politics [that is party politics] has spoiled everything." They firmly believe it holds back the town's - and the nation's - progress.

How to break the cycle remains unclear. Diarchy - joint military and civilian rule - is one current proposal. Another is reorganizing Nigeria into a confederation. Unlike previous military Heads of State, however. General Buhari has never indicated any intention to hold elections. In fact, he has banned all public discussion of the topic.


On August 27, 1985, the Nigerian political scene was transformed once again. While the Head of State, Major General Buhari, was in his home village for the breaking of the Ramadan fast, and the second in command, Major General Idiagbon, was performing the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, the third in command. Army Chief of Staff Major General Babangida, took over the reigns of government in what is believed to have been a bloodless coup d'etat. When Cultural Survival Quarterly went to press, the whereabouts of the overthrown leaders was still unknown.

Although Babangida had masterminded the 1983 coup, he declined (for unknown reasons) to be made Head of State, and instead accepted the position of third in command. During the last 20 months, however, he felt he was denied input into the new regime's unilateral decisions. Most Nigerians had welcomed the 1983 regime, but as the months passed, their good will dissipated. Along with Babangida, they felt Buhari and Idiagbon were mishandling the economy, promulgating high-handed decrees breaching fundamental human rights, and rigidly refusing advice from other members of the Supreme Military Council.

Regional rivalry was a relatively unimportant factor in Babangida's takeover; this latest coup was largely a result of internal disputes and public disappointment. As an editorial in the September 2nd issue of West Africa described the latest turnover in power:

"Nigeria's sixth military coup in 25 years is not a new dawn; it is more like the redemption [sic] of a struggle which started 20 months ago, but lost its way."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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