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Nigeria’s New Era, Part 3: Issue of Ethnic and National Identity

2024-05-07 11:51

Jan Záhořík

#Nigeria , #NationalUnity , #EthnicIdentity , #ColonialLegacy , #BiafraWar , #Corruption , #PoliticalReform , #SocioEconomicDevelopment,

Nigeria’s New Era, Part 3: Issue of Ethnic and National Identity

"Nigeria's ethnic identity crises, colonial impacts, and the need for reforms to foster unity and mitigate corruption."

In April 2024, a group of Yoruba nationalists attempted to proclaim independence of the Yoruba from Nigeria.[1] Although it was a rather desperate and poorly prepared attempt destined to fail, it shows that Nigeria is in crisis – especially when it comes to unresolved issues of national cohesion, identity and ethnic diversity combined with marginalization, oppression and corruption. 


To say that Nigeria is undergoing series of crises is nothing new. Besides all the socio-economic and security related issues we discussed earlier, there is one element which is a key to our understanding of the nature of interlinked problems in Nigeria. That element is the issue of ethnic and national identity. Nigeria was born in 1960 as an artificial entity composed of many different ethnic and religious groups with different histories and trajectories. In Nigeria today, there exist officially about 450 different ethno-linguistic groups which are dispersed across 36 federal states. This simply means that each federal state is multiethnic. 


Obviously, one of the root causes of the current situation is the era of colonialism. Nigeria is a product of (in this case) British colonialism during which the Hausa and Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo and many other ethnic groups were put together in a political entity in which there was hardly a space for building a national cohesion. While the North was for centuries under the rule of Hausa-Fulani aristocracy, later on incorporated into the system of indirect rule of the British colonial administration, the South had much closer connection to the outside world and local elites had access to the Western type of education during the colonial period. 


When in 1960 Nigeria gained independence, mutual fear and suspicion was gaining prominence in the country, resulting in 1966 coup and the fear of “Igbo conspiracy”. The subsequent era of military coups only deepened mutual distrust among the major ethnic groups so that politics became highly ethnicized. Some observers claim that already the great national leaders such Tafawa Balewa, Nnamdi Azikiwe or Ahmadou Bello did everything to protect “their ethnic enclaves.”[2]


The war in Biafra (1967-1970) left tangible traces in the way the major ethnic groups and their elites deal with each other. Many observers think that its legacy still in one way or another shapes the Nigerian society. According to Williams, for instance, the Biafra proclamation of independence was meant to be a rejection of “tribalism”, as well as the anti-thesis to Nigeria’s corrupt political system based on ethno-regional loyalties.[3] Other claim, that Nigeria is a “myth” while every member of each ethnic group stays loyal to his/her ancestral land which is the real “home.”[4]


What developed then can be described as a system of clientelism, corruption, ethnic rivalry, and the politics of entitlement that resembles what Igwe calls a “kidnapped democracy.”[5] Although there have been attempts to fight corruption as a tool how to minimize further tensions within the society, it has usually failed due to its selective nature or due to the fact that people dismissed from public offices (in order to make the state more effective) had certain technical and other skills that were difficult to replace.[6] Corruption is an important factor in the ethnic/identity divide in Nigeria. If we agree on the definition of corruption as misuse of power for private gains, in a divided society like in Nigeria, we may observe a process of ethnicization of corruption, to use the term by Arowolo.[7] Ethnicization of corruption also means that state funds are misused for the purpose of ethnic favoritism in which certain members of the ethnic group to which the state officials belong benefit from. 


Another important element of the long-term identity crisis is the inability of political elites to think in “future tense.” As we discussed in previous parts of this trilogy, especially during the Buhari era, tensions and insecurity began to become more and more tangible, affecting majority of regions in Nigeria. One of the dimensions of the identity conflict is the farmer-herder dichotomy. Pastoralism is usually associated with the Fulani people who are perceived as having a specific culture, language, eating habits, dressing, and many other things.[8] 


While the herder are predominantly Muslims, farmers are either animists or Christians. This is another social divide in already complex and multilayered society. When talking about movements of people, in this case Fulani herders, we necessarily get back to the issue of ancestral land and indigeneity. The communities of herders, moving from one place of another and searching for new green pastures get into conflict with farmers occupying the land which they claim to be their own indigenous territory.[9] 


One of the key problems of Nigeria today and for the future is, just like in many other African countries (Ethiopia is a perfect example), rather primordialist and essentialist approach to ethnicity taking ethnicity as something given, unchangeable and therefore (in a certain sense) in constant competition with the national (Nigerian) identity. Ethnicity is also closely related to territoriality. Each of the big ethnic groups (Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo) are attached to a specific region which is why many people think of Nigeria as being (in a way) automatically divided into these three zones. National identity is constructed as an ideology of the state but because the state is hardly able to satisfy the needs of the population, many people turn to their ethnic background and support. This leads us to ethnicization of corruption, beside many other things. The future of Nigeria thus remains uncertain, especially when we take into account a simple fact that the country is supposed to have 430 million inhabitants in 2050. Reforms of all kinds are necessary, especially in terms of diversification of economy, and anti-corruption campaign which should not be take selectively. Improving socio-economic situation (discussed in previous parts) may also help minimize ethnic rivalry. 




[1] Trifling with agitation: Yoruba Nation Army. In: https://thenationonlineng.net/trifling-with-agitation-yoruba-nation-army/ 


[2] Utibe Monday Titus – Ilufoye Sarafa Ogundiya (2023): The national question and Nigeria’s ethnic and identity crisis. African Identities, p. 7. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14725843.2023.2265574 

[3] Gavin Williams (2024): Revisiting the Legacy and Lessons of the Nigerian Civil War: A Reflection on History and Healing, in: https://www.theelephant.info/analysis/2024/03/29/revisiting-the-legacy-and-lessons-of-the-nigerian-civil-war-a-reflection-on-history-and-healing/

[4] Shayera Dark (2017): The legacy of Biafra and the idea of being Nigerian, in: https://africasacountry.com/2017/06/the-legacy-of-biafra-and-the-idea-of-being-nigerian

[5] Paul Agu Igwe (2024): NIgerian identity crisis: what’s behind the growing insecurity and separatism? African Identities, p. 7., https://doi.org/10.1080/14725843.2023.2299367 


[6] Richard A. Joseph (2014): Democracy and prebendal politics in NIgeria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 87. 


[7] Dare Ezekiel Arowolo (2020): Ethnicisation of corruption in NIgeria. The Emerlad, https://www.emerald.com/insight/1359-0790.htm


[8] Kialee Nyiayaana (2022): Ethnicity, Peacebuilding, and Conflict Transformation in Nigeria: The Case of Herder-Farmer Conflict, in: Toyin Falola and Céline A. Jaquemin (eds.): Identity Transformation and Politicization in Africa. Lanham: Lexington Books, p. 133. 


[9] Ibid. 

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