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Ethnic Politics in Nigeria: The Realities of Regionalism

By Nicole Lancia

In Africa, colonial administrations and imperial occupations carved up boundaries that divided territories inhabited by indigenous societies and brought together a diversity of ethnic communities within unitary administrative structures. In Nigeria, between 1914 and 1915, British colonial administrators created three regional territories that explain ethno-genesis and later ethnic tensions: the Northern region occupied by Hausa/Fulani, the Eastern region inhabited by the Ibo, and the Western region of the Yoruba. Within this divisive colonial structure, ethnic tensions emerged between these unequally developed groups primarily in the 1950s. The colonial tripartite division of Nigeria prevented a Nigerian nationalistic movement, manipulating geographical boundaries to reinforce separation between ethnic groups and transforming ethnicity into an identity by which to gain political power; this structure along with other administrative decisions emphasized ethnic nationalism and regional politics, resulting from significant uneven development within each region. The colonial division of Nigeria that reinforced ethnic groups, the rise of ethno-political consciousness, and the development of ethnic/regional political parties demonstrated that the British administration intentionally prevented the rise and success of Nigerian nationalism, instead promoting regionalism as a means to gain political power.

The hyper-federalism of the Nigerian state by British colonial officials highlighted ethno-genesis and the tensions between majority and minority ethnic groups; furthermore, it reinforced ethnic/ regional boundaries and marginalized minority ethnic groups, encouraging groups to compete as interest groups vying for political power. The Nigerian State is composed of various ethnicities, but the existence of multiple nationalities does not by itself constitute a political problem; in the process of modernization, the interests of ethnic groups elevate to the political realm (Ethnicity and the Nigerian State). In “Ethnicity in sub-Saharan Africa,” Welsh asserts that “the precipitation of ethnic identities becomes incomprehensible if it is divorced from colonial rule” (479); similarly, ethnicity is not a “natural cultural residue but a consciously crafted ideological creation” (480). These two statements directly apply to colonial Nigeria as they discuss the relevant connection between colonialism and ethnic or cultural identity, the former creating and manipulating the latter. British colonial administrators implemented policies through this tripartite structure with the intention of producing a Nigerian federation presiding over three regional governments with legislative power (Cooper 69). This tripartite division perpetuated ethnic divisions between the Northern Hausa/Fulani, Eastern Ibo, and Western Yoruba and between the majority and minority ethnic groups; it strengthened these ethnic identities as interest groups fighting for political representation and power. In support of this point, Cooper states that “instead of allowing a wide-variety of interest groups to make claims on the Nigerian state, the federal system focused power on the three regions,” ignoring the concerns of unrepresented minority ethnic groups (70). The existence of these three politically-dominant ethnic groups conveyed the contribution of colonialism to ethno-genesis and its effect on the individual ethnic identities of the various peoples within Nigeria.

Colonial structures ignored and marginalized minority ethnic groups within Nigeria, as they were not recognized as one of the three main peoples. Osaghae states that ethnic minorities are usually defined in contradistinction to major groups with whom they co-exist in political systems (3). The terms “majority” and “minority” evolved only after the creation of the three regions in the 1940s, which mobilized the main regions to unify and push the minorities to the periphery (5). This rise of hegemonic nationalism and use of exclusionary politics by the majority groups inhibited the minorities from demonstrating political participation beginning in the 1950s. The majority versus minority conflict as a subset within the larger ethnic divisions between the Hausa/Fulani, Ibo, and Yoruba indicated that British colonial administrators desired to exclude certain ethnic groups from political participation and maintain ethnic tensions to prevent a rise of Nigerian nationalism.

The growth of ethnic nationalism among the Ibo, Yoruba, and Hausa/Fulani illustrated that Britain’s vision of a Nigerian federation sparked uneven sociopolitical and economic development in each region and introduced competitive politics, which preserved ethnic conflicts. Nigeria emerged in 1914 as a composite political unit and, as a result, westernizing influences impinged unevenly upon the people of Nigeria; as Cooper points out, the three regions were not equivalent: “the north was the most populous, but had the weakest educational system,” ruled by a Muslim elite; the west was the wealthiest as the capital city Lagos lay within its borders; the east possessed the best educated population (69). Coleman describes two manifestations of regional tension arising from uneven development: the struggle between the Yoruba and the Ibo and the rivalry between the north and southern provinces (331).

Because of the early advantages of the Yoruba in “educational and professional attainments,” the group’s monopoly over political activity centered in Lagos. Until the 1930s when the Ibo-led National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) emerged, the Yoruba held an overwhelming majority of higher positions in the African civil service (Coleman 331). Because of the densely populated, infertile rural area where the Ibo resided, the Ibo expanded territorially and migrated to urban centers for work. By the end of World War II, Ibo clerks and laborers constituted a sizable minority group in every urban center of Nigeria and the Cameroons (Coleman 332). As a consequence of the comparative lack of opportunity in the east, the Ibo embraced Western education and Christian missions; by 1945 the educational difference between the Yoruba and the Ibo had been closed. However, the Ibo strove to assert themselves politically, which incited Yoruba-Ibo competition and tension. The tensions between the Muslim north and the Christian south deepened with the north’s growing recognition of the division. More importantly, rigid structures in the north produced a delayed movement toward nationalism due to the prevalence of Islam, the lack of an uprooted Western-educated class, and the 1922 Clifford and 1946 Richards Constitutions (Coleman 354; Nmoma 315). Since the Muslim community was linked with an authoritarian political structure, the Muslim elite, or Filanin gida, were anti-nationalist and opposed to sociopolitical reform. The most striking feature of the northern situation involved the inactivity and silence of the Western-educated class, or ma’aikata; in other areas, this group had been responsible for leading nationalist activity, but the ma’aikata were recruited into the native administrations and thus, did not experience the abuse and prejudice characteristic of some European officials in the African civil service (355). Furthermore, the Hausa/Fulani never developed a revolutionary mindset against inequality; from the lack of exposure to abusive behavior and unequal treatment, they became “accommodationist rather than revolutionary,” delaying any rise of nationalism in the north (357).

The fact that Nigeria had not one but two constitutions also exacerbated ethnic conflict. The Clifford Constitution (1922) created a legislative council, from which the north was excluded, with the first-ever African elected members in British Africa. From 1922-1939, the British did not involve Northern Nigeria in political affairs, which enabled Southern Nigeria to become, for a temporary period, more politically advanced (Nmoma 315). The Richards Constitution (1946) stated the Nigeria must allow for “unity in diversity” within separate regions and legislatures; this separation of powers served to prevent single ethnic group domination and present territorial politics as the only viable option for political advancement, with each region united by a history of advantages and disadvantages.

As ethnic consciousness resulting from colonialism motivated the majority ethnic groups to develop regional political parties which stimulated inter-ethnic tensions, ethnic politics inevitably became the main deterrent to Nigerian nationalism. In each region, a party dominated by members of the majority ethnic group obtained office and provided services and patronage for the group (Cooper 69). The Hausa/Fulani led the Northern Political Congress (NPC) and the Northern Elements’ Progressive Union (NEPU); in the east, the Ibo formed the NCNC, a party for Nigerian unity; the Yoruba developed the Action Group (AG), a regional political party dedicated to strengthening ethnic organizations in the west and cooperating with other organizations for self-government for Nigeria (Coleman 364; Cooper 69). The NPC, formed in the 1950s, desired to designate power to a conservative coalition of young educated elements and moderate elements (360). Its motto became “one north, one people,” which illustrated its regional objective. NEPU, on the other hand, rejected the notion of regional separation and assumed the reputation as the “radical wing” of northern politics (Coleman 364). The NPC ultimately won the northern 1951 elections since the unifying element among northerners was common opposition to the NEPU due to its working alliance with the NCNC, the symbol of potential southern domination (Coleman 359).

The NCNC based its foundation on anti-British nationalism and its powerful urge for self-transformation motivated it to initiate Nigerian nationalism. Coleman states that poor soil and overpopulation were also factors in Ibo gravitation toward a Pan-Nigerian objective; the wide dispersion of clerks and laborers fostered among the Ibo a consciousness of the potentialities of Nigerian unity and the strength of unification around nationality (338). After the formation of organizations such as the Egba Society (1918) and the Yoruba Language Society (1942), the Yoruba created the Action Group (1951) whose goals included: “encouragement of all ethnical organizations in the Western Region” and “cooperation with all other nationalists…as a united team toward the realization of self-government for Nigeria” (Coleman 350). The Action Group leaders demonstrated that the only avenue to power, given the situation within Nigeria at that time, was a regional political party who opposed the threat of Ibo domination (350). In response, the NCNC employed tribalism among the non-Yoruba to undermine the predominantly Yoruba Action Group, however, “the victory of the Action Group over the NCNC in the 1951 elections in the west was the triumph of regional nationalism” (351). It is clear that while organizations such as NEPU and NCNC aimed at Pan-Nigerian unity, the success of the AG and NPC exemplified the inevitable necessity for regional politics as the ultimate structure of government in Nigeria.

Examining the impact of the British tripartite division of Nigeria, from ethno-genesis to its effects on uneven development to the failure of Nigerian nationalism and success of regionalism, illustrates that within such a diverse nation-state, regionalism was intended, supported, and necessary in order to advance politically and socially. Due to ethnic and regional tensions resulting from uneven socioeconomic development in the Hausa/Fulani north, Ibo east, and Yoruba west, ethnic consciousness influenced the formation of regional political parties and was the main deterrent to Nigerian unity. Hyper-federalism in diverse Nigeria cut across territorial and ethnic boundaries only to allow the majority ethnic group of each region to dominate and minority groups to become marginalized, excluded from the political realm. Most importantly, British colonialism shaped the way the ethnic groups developed and acted upon their ethnic consciousness; each region employed ethnic politics, idealistically striving for Nigerian unity while realistically forming regional political parties: a successful means to gaining political control over a situation imposed on them as well as paving a path toward success in a system determined for them.

Works Cited:

Coleman, James S. Nigeria: Background to Nationalism. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1960.

Cooper, Frederick. Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

“Ethnicity and the Nigerian State.” 05 April 2005. http://www.nigerdeltacongress.com.

Glickman, Harvey. “Issues in the Analysis of Ethnic Conflict and Democratization Processes in Africa Today” in Ethnic Conflict and Democratization in Africa. Ed. Harvey Glickman. Atlanta: African Studies Association Press, 1995.

Nmoma, Veronica. “Ethnic Conflict, Constitutional Engineering and Democracy in Nigeria” in Ethnic Conflict and Democratization in Africa. Ed. Harvey Glickman. Atlanta: African Studies Association Press, 1995. 311-316.

Osaghae, Eghosa E. “Managing Multiple Minority Problems in a Divided Society: the Nigerian Experience” in The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 36, no.1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Welsh, David. “Ethnicity in sub-Saharan Africa” in International Affairs, vol. 72, no.3, 1996.