Bridging Nigeria’s ethno-religious fault lines, By Agbo, Ochonu & Kperogi


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Nigeria, a country with over 250 ethnic nationalities was once the home to many storied ancient kingdoms and empires that prided themselves with fighting great wars, conquering territories and, yes, claiming victories both far and near. Today, the ethnic sub-nationalities that survived those great kingdoms each continue to maintain unique cultural identities, subscribing to their individual ways of life, while sharply divided along religious lines. Many Nigerians today are quicker to pledge allegiance to their ethnic groups and religions before identifying with the green-white-green flag.

When Lord Frederick Lugard cobbled together this entity, later christened Nigeria, in January 1914, with the amalgamation of what were then the Southern and Northern Protectorates, he paid no attention to how those within this cultural mosaic could peacefully co-exist. Rather, it was something created purely for administrative convenience.

To make matters worse, the British colonial authorities, while in Nigeria, adopted a policy which they had implemented in almost all the colonies, namely, divide and rule. The policy thrust was geared towards exploiting ethnic and religious differences between the colonial subjects and competing ethnic groups in order to maintain a firm grip on power and exert total control over the country. This created a legacy of ethnic and religious tensions that started even prior to independence and which was exacerbated thereafter.

In one widely circulated interview video, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the then Premier of the Northern Region boldly expressed his preference to fill his region’s civil service vacancies with expatriates, instead of Nigerians from other ethnic groups. The politics of ethnic bigotry was also the reason that led to the infamous cross-carpeting in 1951, when Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was denied the chance of becoming the Premier of the Western Region by Awolowo, stoking ethnic sentiments to make his case.

Our everyday life in Nigeria and indeed most of Africa is defined by our religious and ethnic identities. Many consider suitability for an elective office or lack of it strictly based on primordial considerations, rather than competence. Yet, the late Samora Moisés Machel cautioned that for post-colonial Africa to survive, “tribes” must die.

It appears that nobody paid attention to the Mozambican revolutionary and leader. At no time in Nigeria’s election cycles was the ethno-religious fault line more visible than in the recently concluded 2023 election. I would love to hear your takes on how to tackle this monster, which, according to one commentator, has made Nigeria an amorphous collection of competing ethnic groups.

Moses: Well, I’m not sure I agree with Samora Machel’s point that ethnicity and ethnic identity should be sublimated to national identity, or that ethnic identification is, in and of itself, antithetical to national cohesion.

Machel’s point is a cop out, an outdated product of lazy neo-Marxist thinking about ethnicity in Africa. The task of nation-building in a context in which nation-states did not exist prior to colonisation and in a post-colonial nationalist frame of contending identitarian aspirations and struggles for power, resources, and recognition, is not an easy one. However, trying to discount or erase ethnicity on the belief that doing so would make it easier to build a united postcolonial nation-state is escapist at best.

Nigerians, like other Africans, identify primarily, and as a first order mode of belonging, with ethnic and ancestral cleavages. The national identity is usually a secondary one. This identity configuration will not change anytime soon. Some postcolonial leaders, including Nigerian nationalist leaders, believed naively but with sincerity of purpose and good intentions that ethnic identity and especially its politicisation stood in the way of nation-building.

Some leaders sought to suppress any hint of ethnic political identification. In those cases, the project of subsuming ethnic identity under a national identity backfired.

That, frankly, was the wrong approach. It was not practical to arbitrarily suppress ethnic identity or discipline it under the rubric of national identity.

Forced, top-down projects of national unity don’t work. They drive parochial identities underground and make them more insidious and dangerous to the national socio-political fabric.

Machel’s position is analogous to that of some Marxist and Left-leaning African intellectuals who claim that ethnic difference is not real but is rather something manipulated by elites for political purposes. While elite manipulation and political rhetoric do stoke ethnic tension, these intellectuals forget that elites do not invent ethnic identity and its emotions and that the reason the political exploitation of ethnicity works is that Nigerians and other Africans are already sentimentally wedded to their ethnic selfhood in ways that make them receptive to ethnic political messaging.

You gave the example of Ahmadu Bello’s infamous interview footage. The truth is that he stated crudely and in less politically correct language the dominant sentiment among most of the regional political blocs and parties of the First Republic.

Bello and his Northern Peoples Congress co-travelers embraced an extreme version of ethnic exclusivity and isolationism because, given the North’s educational backwardness relative to the South, they feared that recruiting and embracing Southern expats would bring about a feared Southern dominance.

Bello and his cohorts embraced what they called Northernisation to protect their region from this feared Southern domination. Although it produced political paranoia and led to the referenced infamous pronouncement by Bello, the fear was legitimate in the context of a sinister, divide-and-rule British colonial policy of regionalisation and ethnic partition. That template encouraged Africans to understand politics as a zero-sum game played along ethnic and regional lines.

Awolowo was similarly a champion of narrow ethno-regional interest, although he was more sophisticated than Bello.

Even Nnamdi Azikiwe, perhaps the most nationalist of the troika, eventually withdrew into the cocoon of ethno-regional politics in the East. Some say he had no choice, given the backlash against his attempt to build a political base in the South-West, but he too appealed to ethnic and regional solidarity, even as he expressed nationalist and pan-African inclinations.

I’ve gone on a tangent a bit but let me say this: there is nothing wrong with ethnicity and identities and aspirations that flow from it. The problem in Nigeria, as in most African countries, is twofold. There is the wrong assumption that, as Samora Machel put it, we must kill ethnicity so that it doesn’t kill the nation. There’s also the inability or unwillingness of postcolonial African nations to reckon with the reality, the potent, persistent political reality, of ethnic identity as a legitimate vehicle for political claim-making and identity politics.

After independence, the problem was political laziness on the part of the new leaders. In many cases, they simply continued with the exclusive ethnic templates established by the colonisers instead of producing more pragmatically inclusive structures and constitutions that recognise the importance of ethnic identity in Africa.

Had postcolonial African states like Nigeria recognised the political reality of ethnic identity and how it shapes citizens’ group political choices, aspirations, values, and attitudes to the nation, they would have put in place constitutional frameworks and outlets for its expression, instead of demonising it as the enemy of national cohesion.

Ethnicity is not going away, especially in our nation, which has hundreds of ethno-linguistic groups, and especially in a context in which ethnicity, along with religion, is a veritable platform of political mobilisation and a modality of interest in politics.

Given this situation, what we need to do is to craft institutions that not only recognise the reality of ethnic identity and group ethnic political behaviour but also productively manage it. We need to invent constitutional instruments that explicitly guarantee ethnic and regional representation. If we have to tweak our democratic experiment to accomplish that guarantee, then so be it. We’re trying to save and build a nation.

Ethnicity-based inclusive instruments are not detrimental to nation-building as some people believe. On the contrary, such instruments would make ethnic identity a less charged and less volatile political phenomenon. They would also make it difficult for those who seek to profit from ethnic acrimony and the rhetoric of ethnic hatred to be successful in their odious endeavours.

If the constitution guarantees access to power and representation for ethnic and regional blocs, electoral contests will cease to be zero-sum ethnic and primordial exercises and may become more about dueling ideologies, programmes, platforms, and ideas.

The despicable ethnic and xenophobic rhetoric and violence that characterised the last election was not the first in our political history and sadly it won’t be the last because ethnicity is an emotive subject and most human beings are susceptible to us-versus-them identity rhetoric that demonises others, while ennobling the in-group.

Ethnic political mobilisation resonates and works for political actors because, in the absence of a constitutional framework for managing difference and for guaranteeing primordial representational justice and fairness in the realm of political power, ethnicity-based electoral struggles become the only ways in which members of ethnic communities can imagine themselves accessing political power and the almost exclusive access to resources and privileges that power confers on its holder in Nigeria and other African countries.

Osmund: Farooq, please before you weigh in, I just need to clarify my position, in response to what Mo’ said here: I do not believe that Samora Machel’s suggestion was that people should lose their identity to build a prosperous nation. On the contrary, ethnic identities are an integral part of many African societies and cultures, and they provide people with a sense of identity, community, and belonging. Besides, attempting to destroy these identities would be both futile and counterproductive.

However, ethnic identities can become barriers to social and economic progress when they are used to exclude, discriminate against, or marginalise other groups. Instead of privileging one ethnic identity or religion over another, as is the case in Nigeria, for example, we should focus on building a society that values diversity, promotes inclusion, and fosters cooperation among different groups. This is the only way to build a stable and prosperous nation.

But at least, we can all agree that Nigerians should work together to overcome the barriers and challenges that arise from differences in identity and background. By embracing this approach, we can create a society that leverages the strengths of its diversity, rather than being held back by its differences.

Farooq: Great conversation, folks! I agree with both of you. It’s impossible to have a society that can transcend, sublimate, or eliminate ethnic and religious identities. Trying to avoid our ethnic identities is like trying to avoid contact with the sun. You can do it but only with an effort so strenuous it crosses the bounds of sanity. Ethnicity is to nation-states what the climate is to the environment. It defines and constitutes it.

In general, people tend to initiate and sustain relational encounters more easily with their kind than they do with “others.” This is often actuated by a primal ease with the known and the familiar and an untutored instinct to be suspicious of the unknown and the unfamiliar. I call that involuntary, benign xenophobia. In other words, it’s not a bad thing. This often dissipates with more interactions and knowledge.

It isn’t ethnic and religious differences in and of themselves that are the problem. It’s the navigation of the contours of these differences by people who wield political and symbolic power that activates stifling tensile stress.

As you both have already pointed out, British colonialists deepened and instrumentalised the primordial cleavages that they met to advance their self-interests. Our post-independence elites simply rehashed the template the British left for them.

In The Trouble with Nigeria, Chinua Achebe pointed out that one of Nigeria’s greatest originative calamities is that the successors to British colonialists weren’t far-sighted, transcendent national leaders who were fired up by the zeal to form a nation out of the nations that the British coalesced; they were, for the most part, regional particularists who doubled down on the divisions that the departing colonialists exacerbated and, in some cases, created.

Even the casual and well-considered thoughts of Nigeria’s post-independence leaders, Achebe pointed out, betrayed “a tendency to pious materialistic woolliness and self-centered pedestrianism.” The successor to British colonial overlords derived the cultural locus of their symbolic and political authority from sharpening the striking edges of ethnic and religious differences. And that, sadly, is the tradition that continues to define our politics to this day.

You guys talked about Ahmadu Bello and Obafemi Awolowo, but Nnamdi Azikiwe also intensified ethnic division in the former Eastern Region when he conspired to upstage Eyo Ita — an older, more educated person than he, who was an ethnic minority — as Head of Government Business of Eastern Nigeria, after he failed to assume a similar position in the Western Region. That sowed the seed of mutual suspicion and distrust between the Igbo and ethnic minorities in the defunct Eastern Nigeria.

While we cannot wish away our ethnic and religious identities — and differences — we can manage them in productive ways. And one of the best ways to do that, as Moses has pointed out and I have written in several past columns, is to give people a sense that their ethnicity, religion, region, etc. do not constitute barriers to their aspirations and quest for personal growth. That’s why I’ve been writing on the need to formalise power rotation among all of Nigeria’s constituent units.

Osmund: Thank you, Farooq. I completely agree with your submission. However, I am curious to hear your thoughts on power rotation and how it can address the concerns of minorities who aspire to have their turn to rule, instead of being subsumed under a larger group as currently obtains. This is because I am certain we will not be rotating among 250 or so ethnic groups, and therefore, we may need to utilise an artificially concocted arrangement similar to the six geopolitical zonal structures. Alternatively, are you going to recommend something akin to the Willink Commission of 1957, which was tasked with devising a way forward to address the fear of ethnic domination among minorities? In any case, let me not get ahead of myself here. 

Moses: Osmund, you’ve raised a practical question about what an all-encompassing inclusive political configuration might look like, especially with regard to minorities, and I have a few thoughts on that.

We can take up that question in detail in another chat, but as the saying goes, where there’s a will there’s a way. Those nuts-and-bolts issues can be worked out and are precisely why the changes we advocate need to happen through constitutional reforms that would be preceded by serious discussions and debate on what models can accomplish ethno-regional inclusion without entrenching majoritarian political tyranny and navel-gazing.

Let me leave you with this personal angle to make the point that minority agitation for political inclusion does not mean that every ethnic nation must produce the president or vice president.

When Jonathan, an ethnic minority from Bayelsa State, became president in 2010 and won an election in 2011, many minorities in the North and South saw him as representing them and saw his ascent as the vicarious fulfillment of their own political aspirations. For them, it showed that a minority like them could run and win a national election. That was significant.

As an Idoma from Benue State, I would feel a much greater sense of political inclusion in the Nigerian project if a Berom from Plateau State or a Batonu from Kwara state were to become president.

Inclusion is symbolic. It doesn’t require or imply precise, atomistic ethnic representation for everyone in the nation.

Farooq: Moses, you took the words right out of my mouth! Distributive and representational justice in politics is more about symbolism than it is about anything else. People who have a narrow, one-dimensional, and mechanistic understanding of human nature dismiss the salience of symbolism and emotions, even though the history of the world shows most wars are fought on account of notions of symbolic oppression.

Our politics tends to privilege the material over the symbolic. That’s why you hear statements like, “What has Goodluck Jonathan’s five-year presidency done for Ijaw people?” (For the record, Jonathan is Ogbia, not Ijaw, and the Ogbia and the Ijaw people are distinct, unrelated people). Or “What has Buhari’s eight years as president done for Fulani people”?

These are legitimate questions that even I have asked in the past. But the questions assume that humans are merely material beings. That’s reductionist. Humans are complex creatures that embody a multiplicity of reasons for being.

Emotions, sense of self, community pride, etc. can sometimes even be more important than bread-and-butter issues. That’s why some people would rather give up their very lives than give up their ways of life. From a materialist perspective, that’s senseless, but human actions and inactions are not reducible to a predictable set of principles of human nature.

I have ideas about how we can draw what I call an emotional cartography of Nigeria for the purpose of power rotation in light of the impossibility of guaranteeing every ethnic group in the country a chance to produce the president. But this chat is already too long.

Osmund: Quite an arduous but inescapable conversation to have, I must say. We will pick up from where we stopped next time. You guys are appreciated.








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