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MOST / ENA / LIMSI, 2002

Is Democracy Really the Answer: State of Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria

Edlyne Anugwom
Dept. of Sociology/Anthropology
University of Nigeria,
Nsukka, Nigeria

Ethnic conflicts and wrangling seem to be a permanent feature of the Nigerian socio-political landscape. In the last two years or so conflict around ethnic affiliations has become more pronounced and has taken its toll on the development of the entire country. This is especially worrisome against the realization that the eventual enthronement of democracy in the country was expected to usher in a new period of inter-ethnic harmony or at least a reduction in the number of conflicts around ethnicity. This expectation that is not really out of place can be viewed as a product of two factors.

In the first place, the previous era of military rule with its consequent dictatorial rule, corruption of state power and economic profligacy had heightened relationship between various ethnic groups in the country. The military itself as the history of Nigeria would show is a product of the interplay of ethnic and geographical forces (see, Anugwom, 2001). Therefore, the military utilized ethnicity as a tool to perpetuate its hold on power as well as to negate any attempt by the civil society to strive towards democracy and responsible governance. But even more crucial than the role of the military in the power equation in Nigeria is the fact that democracy is ideally seen as the bastion of equity, freedom and justice. Therefore, democracy was rightly expected to bring into existence a new socio-political era devoid of pronounced ethnicity or rampant ethnic conflict.

Ironically in the last two years in Nigeria, which coincides with the era of democracy, ethno-religious conflicts have heightened and become more widespread. In fact, it is estimated that in three years there has been over 50 ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria in which over 25,000 lives were lost and property worth billions destroyed (see, The Guardian, Oct., 22, 2001; Vanguard, Sept., 16, and Oct., 11, 2001; The Post Express, Nov., 2, 2001). The more popular and recent of these conflicts are the Kaduna ethno-religious conflict, 2001; the Jos ethnic crisis, 2001; the Tiv-Jukun conflict, 2001; the OPC-Hausa/Fulani ethnic conflict in Lagos, 2002 etc. All these conflicts were very bloody and lasted days and even months (the Tiv-Jukun conflict) and pitched one ethnic group against another.

It is against the foregoing that this paper examines the ethnic conflict scenario in Nigeria in the immediate past two years; the dynamic force behind the nebulous upsurge in ethnicity and ethnic conflicts and the role of democracy as an ideal mediating factor in ethnic conflicts in Nigeria.

Ethnicity and Development in Nigeria: The Journey so far
It would not be totally out of place to argue that Nigeria's socio-political history has been shaped by ethnic and religious conflicts in the last two decades. Even the long reign of the military did little to ease the frequent ethnic tension and conflicts between the different groups in the country. The army itself being a social institution rooted in ethnicity in Nigeria (see, Anugwom, 2001; see also, Oyediran, 1979a and 1979b for a good account of the military's role in this regard) also exploited ethnic identities in perpetuating its rule and in sabotaging genuine efforts to establish democracy. As has been argued elsewhere (see, Anugwom, 2001), the military in Nigeria made a remarkable use of the ethnic factor and divisive politics in truncating Nigeria's move towards democracy and in holding tight to the reins of power.

Ethnic and ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria are usually fed by the peculiar religious, ethnic and regional divisions in the country. The coalesce of these three forces of division may have engendered potential conflicts readily actualized or manifested in the political sphere of the national life. The distinctions and the conflicts they generate usually become more prominent when the competition for resources and benefits become politicized. Nnoli (1978) in his seminal work on the politicization of ethnicity in Nigeria has aptly shown how the ethnic factor is mobilized by the urban elites in the quest for political resources. In this case, ethnic mobilization right from the onset of independence in Nigeria has been viewed as very crucial in politics. Incidentally, the religious divide between the North and South of the country has been brought into play in this sort of mobilization so much so that ethnic conflicts can hardly be distinguished from religious conflicts.

Hence, in recent times, the religious factor as a primary triggering factor has become very pronounced following the politicization of the Sharia question by the Northern political elites. As a matter of fact, the recent ethnic conflagrations in such core Northern cities as Kano and Kaduna can be linked to the advent of Sharia as the basis of civil and criminal law in that part of the country.

The overriding dominance of ethnicity or ethnic affiliations in Nigeria's contemporary life can further be explained along the lines of the role of symbolic elements or figures in the mobilization of members of each ethnic group. In other words, certain elements or symbolic events and personalities are made into cults and become the rallying points of solidarity. This orientation seems almost in tune with the definition of an ethnic group as a collectivity within a larger society having real or putative ancestry, memories of shared historical past and a cultural focus on one or more symbolic elements defined as the epitome of their people-hood (Schmerhorn, 1970). Hence in Nigeria, the Yoruba are easily mobilized on the Oduduwa myth and other minor derivations from that myth and the late Obafemi Awolowo as the personification of the Yoruba nationhood; the Hausa-Fulani are organized around the Islamic religio-social belief system and a fixation on the myth of Hausa-Fulani leadership over other ethnic groups (a myth somehow spawned by the colonial administrators); the Igbo are brought together by long memories of the Civil War or the Biafran past and a perceived marginalisation as a result of the war; the South-South minorities are mobilized on the legacy of a deprived group and more recently on the injustice of resource control and underdevelopment.

New Dimensions of Ethnic Conflicts: Much of the old, something of the new
If ever there was the need for a befitting epitaph for the year 2001 in Nigeria, it should read, "the year of pronounced bloody inter-ethnic strife". In fact, the preponderance of ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria in that year alone has been succinctly captured in the following lines:
from Modakeke-Ife crisis in the South-West to the Ijaw-Itsekiri conflicts in South-South to the religious cum ethnic riots in Kaduna and Kano and now to the inter-ethnic crisis in Jos and Tiv-Jukun conflicts in Benue state, it is un-abating gory tales of needless loss of human lives and material possessions all the way (Ajayi, 2002:8).

Apart from an alarming and astounding increase in both number and magnitude of loss, ethnic conflicts in Nigeria since the era of the nascent democracy has become fused into the political agitation strategies of groups. In this case, while conflict may have become more rapid and heightened, the nature has undergone considerable change. The change has been in the fact that ethnic conflicts, even while bloody, are now channeled towards garnering more political benefits and economic gains for the group concerned within the context of the democratic dispensation. As Anugwom (2002) has argued, ethnic mobilization even among the very conscious Niger Delta people is now geared towards improving their lot within the ambit of democracy and a free society. In other words, the ethnic associations are not any longer engaged in a zero sum game mobilization but see the prevailing socio-political dispensation as amenable to the fulfillment of their aspirations.

But even this sort of ethnic articulation which has been championed by the leading Niger Delta elements and even the Yoruba leadership of the Afenifere socio-political organisation has been more often than not contradicted by the violent activities of the militant ethnic youth groups. Thus, the Yoruba Odua Peoples' Congress (OPC) while championing ethnic survival has been involved in bloody clashes with other ethnic groups particularly in the Lagos area while the Egbesu Boys of Africa in the Niger Delta region has been very militant in actualizing the demands of the Niger Delta people. Obviously, the elite leadership of all the ethnic groups in Nigeria appears helpless in the effort to rein in the youthful militant and often splinter groups. But equally worth mentioning is the fact that the actions of the elite leadership have often smirked of a subtle collaboration with the militant elements. Hence, The Week magazine opines:
the open endorsement of militant groups, as seen in Abraham Adesanya holding the hands of the leaders of OPC factions in the 'spirit of reconciliation', is an indication that he does not understand the full impetus of the message he is passing to the public (The Week, 2002:3).

Abraham Adesanya is the leader of the Yoruba socio-political group, the Afenifere. The romance between the old elite and militant groups in the various ethnic groups in Nigeria may serve as further boost to the bloodletting tendencies of the militants.

The Democracy Question
As records show in the last two decades in Nigeria, there has been tremendous loss of lives and property due to violent ethnic and ethno-religious conflicts. This apparently underlines the fact that ethno-religious conflicts constitute real cogs in the wheel of development of the country. Even more touching is the fact that ethnic conflicts, apart from causing loss of lives and property more often than not lead to internal population displacement. In this situation, some people become refugees in their home country, while the conducive environment for economic growth becomes jeopardized. Ethnic conflict usually raises questions regarding the citizenship rights and status of those affected or the victims. This question becomes even more poignant when the recurrence of conflict indicates either the inability of the state to mediate in such conflicts or the unwillingness of the state to effectively deal with the problem.

The role of the state in ethnic conflict generally in Africa has been hampered by the nature of the state as an entity incapable of engendering genuine nationalism. In fact, Jackson (1990) has traced the dilemma of the nation-state in Africa in this regard to the emergence of these states after colonialism as 'quasi-state' in which the allegiance of citizens reside more with their primordial groups than the state. In this sense, African states have been weakened by the prominent play of primordial attachments in such states.

While this may appear equally plausible the contention of Idowu (1999) in the case of Nigeria is very cogent. In the views of Idowu, the failure of the Nigerian state to come to terms with ethnic problems results mainly from the fact that the state itself is ethnicised and is used by the power elites in perpetuating certain sectional interests to the detriment of other social groups in the polity and this invariably breeds a recourse to primordial loyalties. In view of this, he argues that the Nigerian state may be more meaningfully explained along the lines of the pluralist theory that sees the individual as owing allegiance to the primordial group. Be that as it may, the advent of such primordial attachments may ultimately lie with the nature of the state and its role in mediating ethnic conflicts. Therefore, a more realistic explanation is that the Nigerian state has because of structural deficiencies from the onset fostered a spirit of ethno-nationalism. In this regard, national institutions collapse by not fulfilling people's basic needs (Synder, 1993). Faced with the reality of an under-performing and ethnically biased state, the people seek alternatives in sub-nationalities or ethnic groups that now form the basis of identity.

The most worrying aspect of the recent escalation of ethnic conflicts in the country seems to be its impact on the nascent democracy and the prospects of democratic consolidation. As Nigeria's contemporary history shows, periods of great socio-political instability are usually climaxed with the overthrow of the civilian government and the assumption of power by the military. Given the long reign of the military in Nigeria and the fact that they only recently left the stage, the threat of a military comeback is more than apparent. Beside the threat of the military, the growing domestic instability and turmoil in the country now seriously negates the ideals of democracy. Hence, the sustenance of democracy in a context of heightened inter-ethnic rivalry, division and distrust seems quite unlikely. Democracy thrives in an atmosphere of peace and freedom that guarantees basic rights to citizens. It is in this regard that democracy is promoted as having the potential to engender peace, equality of groups and development. The prominence of democracy in the globalisation enterprise (see Held, 1995, 1997) stems from the conviction that it creates the right environment for socio-economic development and the actualization of individual and group aspirations.

Also the democratic factor becomes very important when it is realized that as the abundant literature reveals and as already stated the nature of the state is very crucial in the mediation of ethnicity and ethnic conflicts (see, Idowu, 1999; Jackson, 1990). The truth of this contention is apparently glaring in the case of Nigeria where the role of the state has been seen as the remote cause of conflict between different ethnic groups. In the most recent, Feb. 2, 2002 clash between the Yoruba group, OPC and the Hausa-Fulani settlers in the Idi-Araba area of Lagos which was immediately triggered off by a minor row over defecation, the acrimony with which the two groups battled each other has been traced to the lingering animosity between the two ethnic groups. Actually, The Week (2002) has traced the root of the Hausa/Yoruba problem to the annulment of the June, 12, 1993 elections won by the late Moshood Abiola, a Yoruba man. The annulment of the election by the then ruling Hausa-Fulani military junta of Ibrahim Babangida has been seen as breaking the thin line of harmony existing between the two groups. This position is aptly captured in the following lines:
the Hausa-Fulani/Yoruba relationship, while it had never been cordial in the history of Nigeria, never degenerated to the extent of killing, burning and maiming until the sad events of 1993 which pitched the Western part of the country against the North (The Week, 2002:3).

In fact, the contention that current ethnic clashes between the Yoruba and the Hausa can be traced remotely to the annulment of the of the June 12 1993 elections also finds support in the views of Abubakar (1997). According to him:
more specifically, the annulment of the June 12 presidential election resuscitated afresh the erstwhile ethno-regional conflict of the first republic over the control of state power (Abubakar, 1997:91).

It would appear that the Nigerian state is not unaware of the massive resurgence of ethnic conflicts in the last two years in the country. Hence, it has organized quite a few retreats on the problem. The latest or most recent of this was the well - attended Kuru Retreat on Conflict Resolution. However, laudable as this is, the government has been indicted in some quarters as not really doing enough in the direction of either conflict resolution or tackling the root of conflict. In fact one insightful commentary argued that the government's position that ethnic conflicts are actually the result of manipulation by elites shows a narrow understanding of the problem (see, Tempo, 2002). This source posits that ethnic conflict lies more with the mismanagement of the economy and associated poverty, the citizenship problem and general dissatisfaction with government and its policies.
The manipulation thesis that used to be a popular explanation of the ethnic problem in most of Africa has been negated in contemporary times. Therefore, while elites may really exploit ethnic cleavages in cornering scarce desirable political and economic resources, the notion of an uninformed and robotic civil society it connotes is far from the truth. Actually, it would appear more appropriate to argue in the case of Nigeria that the people have more often than not used ethnic affiliation to manipulate the elites. In many areas in Nigeria, prominent members of the society acquire narrow definitions of official obligations in the process of doing the bidding of their primordial social groups. In other words, a person's (elite) relevance to his autochthonous group is often measured by the extent of patronage dispensed to members of such a group.

Thus, in the process of manipulating the masses, the elites are in turn manipulated. It is therefore quite contrary to the facts on the ground to totally allude that the current ethnic conflicts in Nigeria can be meaningfully explained by elite manipulation. It would appear that the inability of the state to perform effectively and mediate the conflicts between different ethnic groups in Nigeria is a more plausible explanation.

Factors in Recent Ethnic Conflicts in Nigeria
A critical examination of the prominent ethnic conflicts in Nigeria in the last three years would reveal the dominance of certain socio-political factors that have assumed importance in the realignment of the political and economic relationship among the various ethno-socio groups in the country. In other words, ethnic conflicts have emanated from multiple factors conditioned mainlly by the return of democracy and the perceived injustices of the past.

Hence, it becomes very necessary to separate these multiple factors into remote and immediate categories while taking cognisance of the peculiar nature of each conflict and the parties involved. We can therefore categorise these conflicts in the following ways:

Table I: Categorisation of Recent Ethnic Conflicts in Nigeria

Immediate Cause Remote Cause Parties Involved in the Conflict Location/Year
Defeacation Political Animosity Yoruba OPC and Hausa/Fulani Lagos 2002 (Feb. 2)
Political Appointment Power Struggle/Religious Differences Hausa/Fulani and other Indigenous Settlers Jos 2001 (Feb. 7)
Struggle over Land Socio-Political Differences/Domination Jukun and the Tiv in Benue and Taraba states Taraba and Benue states 2001 (May - Oct.)
U.S Military Campaign in Afghanistan Sharia Religious Rennaissance in Northern Nigeria Hausa/Fulani Moslems and resident christians from the South of Nigeria Kano 2001 (Oct. 12)
Resource Control/Marginalisation Oil Politics/Political Domination South-South Minorities and Government Niger Delta region 1999, 2000, 2001

As already stated the above represent only the prominent ethnic conflicts or disturbances in Nigeria in the last three years and are not by any means exhaustive. In fact, prominent but intra-ethnic conflicts like the Ife-Modakeke violence and the Aguleri-Umuleri conflicts have been excluded from the above Table since they are not really as politically definitive and explosive as the above. Be that as it may, these conflicts in all depict the realignment of political interests and control, struggle over economic and political resources and the resurfacing of past animosities. But more than these causative factors, these conflicts have been aided by the emergence of ethnic militia associations and militant youths on the scene. These groups which were long suppressed or held in check by the long reign of the military have proliferated under the atmosphere of democratic freedom and are now very active in the contest for political space and relevance among the various ethnic groups in the ccountry. Prominent among these associations are: the OPC (Yoruba); the Bakkassi and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) (Igbo), the Arewa Peoples Congress (APC) (Hausa/Fulani), the Egbesu Boys of Africa (Niger Delta), the Chicoco Movement (Niger Delta) etc.

Nigeria's Nascent Democracy & Ethnicity
Even at this stage of political development, Richard Joseph's prebendal thesis remains valid (See, Joseph, 1987). In this sense, the upsurge in ethnic conflicts and the real threat they pose to the sustenance of democracy in Nigeria can be partially explained in terms of the clientelist distribution of resources and privileges and the vast chain of patronage this establishes. The point then seems that the rising trend of inter-group or ethnic conflict may be partly located in the inability of the Nigerian state to rise above partisanship and primordialism in resource distribution. But even more germane is the glaring inability of government programmes, in spite of the over-touted dividends of democracy, to impact directly on the lives of ordinary citizens.

Be that as it may, ethnicity is not actually a strange bed - fellow in Nigerian politics. As a matter of fact, it has been the basis or rallying point for politics in the past. Thus, Nigerian politicians are wont to utilize the ethnic leverage in garnering electoral support and cornering the spoils of office or valuable resources. Equally true is the fact that the pandering to ethnic affiliations or loyalties was one of the factors that undermined Nigeria's previous attempts to democratize. So if these stand to reason why expect any thing new now?

Precisely because the election of the present Government in 1999 was a watershed in the history of elections in Nigeria. In this sense, Nigeria for the first time (with possible exception of the annulled Abiola victory in 1993) voted en masse for a candidate without considering ethnic factors. Actually, the President garnered more votes and acceptance in states far away from his own state or ethnic group. In fact, unlike the Abiola election, the current president was roundly rejected by the electorates in his own ethnic group - the Yoruba but earned the overwhelming support of the other groups in Nigeria. Given this fact, it was expected that partisan politics in Nigeria has finally grown largely above the ethnic factor. However, current events in the country would contradict this optimism. But even more fundamental is the fact that the voting pattern reflects more of a general rejection of the military and dictatorship than a triumph over ethnicity.

The heightening of ethnic conflicts in Nigeria in the immediate past seems more a product of the realignment of ethnic forces in the jostle for political space. The era of democracy, which came on steam in 1999, has opened up spaces for various forms of agitation and contest for resources. However, these agitations have incidentally bred a growing spate of conflict between different peoples in the country that may ultimately hamper the consolidation of democracy.
The role of the state, as already mentioned, in mediating ethnic conflicts is a big factor in the effort to ameliorate conflicts of this nature. Thus, the increasing nature of the phenomenon in recent times suggests the incapacity of the state to effectively come to grips with all the divisive factors unleashed by the atmosphere of freedom in democratic Nigeria.
But even beyond this is the reality that the heightening ethnic conflicts now can be linked still to the prebendal nature of Nigerian politics (See Joseph, 1987). In this case, politicians have fully exploited the ethnic cleavage in the quest for power and resources which have been used as extensions of personal estates. Thus, until government becomes responsive to the dire socio-economic conditions of Nigerian citizens and the state becomes capable of fair and equal treatment of all groups, the problem will persist. But on a more optimistic note, the freedom created for the expression of dissatisfaction by various groups, even though often abused, is a reflection of the healthy socio-political environment fostered by democracy. Therefore, the mere creation of a state where dissession is allowed is an indication of the possible consolidation of democracy in the country, but this can only be if the state acts decisively to limit the violence and destruction associated with it.

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© The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO.

© Les idées et opinions exprimées dans cet article sont celles de l'auteur
et n’engagent pas la responsabilité de l´UNESCO.