Politics and Elections in Nigeria:
Overview of Current Trends
Edlyne E. Anugwom
Department of Sociology/Anthropology
University of Nigeria
The paper, against the examination of past elections in Nigeria, posits
that ethnicity has always found a place in contemporary Nigerian politics.
Specifically it is argued that electoral fortune both at the national
and state levels depends on the play of ethnic and intra-ethnic loyalties.
This situation was also the case in the last general elections in Nigeria
in 2003. Ethnic politics results directly from the lack of performance
of the political class who resort to primordial factors in winning elections
rather than a track record of performance. This type of politics in Nigeria
has also been reinforced by the prevailing culture of prebendalism and
a neo-patrimonial state caught in the grips of centrifugal forces being
orchestrated by a self-serving and corrupt political class. Therefore,
only a reorientation of the political actors and the committed restructuring
of the state in Nigeria can tackle the problem of ethnic politics.
It now begs the issue to point out that Nigeria is a multi-ethnic or plural
society in which relations between various ethnic groups have shaped and
reshaped the state. However, the ethnic factor seems an entrenched and
often reinforced phenomenon in Nigeria. This is particularly the case
in this era of partisan politics where the quest for a grassroots base
by politicians and aspiring political office holders has made identity
a core factor.
To this end, ethnic affiliation being the largest source of intra-nation
identity has become prominent. Hence, politicians especially at the national
level, have exploited this factor in the quest for political gains. But
the ethnic situation has been largely affected by the groundswell of ethnic
conflicts early in year 2002 and the government’s decisive response
to such conflicts. The avowed commitment of the government to ameliorate
such conflicts and the series of fora organized on it by the government
and even the NGOs have more or less lessened the bite of the ethnic factor
albeit for a short duration. In a sense, it could be argued that ethnicity
has been moved from the streets (where it occasions disruptive violence)
to the political circles (where it influences power and resource allocation).
The ethnic factor in national socio-political life somehow took a back
seat as politicians started a massive realignment of forces in the last
quarter of 2002 in preparation for the general elections in 2003. This
however did not really subdue the spate of urban violence and terrorism
of ethnic militia groups as street urchins and touts were quickly drafted
in as political thugs. The result of this was the escalation of political
violence in the face of the desperation of the political class to either
keep power or acquire it by all means. In fact, this scenario was captured
by one news magazine:
is mounting in the land as the nation is gradually sliding into anarchy.
The inconclusive political parties local government congresses has increased
the incidence of political violence and assassinations (Insider weekly,
It has been
further reported that as at the last count over 34 persons (mostly politicians)
have been killed in politically motivated assassinations in the country
since 1999 (see, New Age, March 7, 2003), the latest being the slaying
in Abuja of Dr. Harry Marshal a Chieftain of the opposition party by unknown
However, despite the seeming lull in ethnic conflict in the last quarter
of 2002, intra-ethnic conflicts in areas like the oil rich South-South
geopolitical zone has continued sporadically. Moreover, the realignment
of forces among the political class has been predicated on and reinforced
by the ethnic factor. Thus, the ethnic affiliation of office holders and
aspirants, especially at the national level, has become very useful in
the determination of electoral fortunes. Very prominent in this play of
ethnicity is the exalted office of the President where the normal contestation
between the three major ethnic groups has become even sharper.
Even though the much awaited 2003 general elections have come and gone,
it would be fruitful to really examine the role of the ethnic factor in
the elections; how this is consistent with the history of elections in
the country; the implication of this for the nation’s democracy
as well as how to curb the divisive force of ethnicity in contemporary
PEOPLE, MY MANDATE: ETHNICITY AND POLITICS IN NIGERIA
Ethnicity and the inordinate passion weaved around it are no strange elements
to Nigeria. The socio-political history of Nigeria has been a study in
the dynamic, divisive and deepening role of the ethnic factor in the state
building project. Incidentally, the role of ethnicity has been largely
negative viz-a-viz national aspirations and the evolvement of a contemporary
state devoid excessive primordialism. Thus, Okafor (1997:1) avers, “the
unhealthy ethnic politics and mutual distrust among the various cultural,
linguistic and ethnic groups in Nigeria are the mean causes of Nigeria’s
social and political upheavals”. Actually, the ethnic factor and
the centrifugal forces webbed around it can be seen as largely responsible
for the death of genuine democracy in Nigeria even till now. This fact
has been acknowledged by scholars who see ethnicity as a prudent of the
contest for political and other resources in urban Nigeria (See, Nnoli,
1978) and as the factor behind endless transitions to democracy and still-born
democratic regimes in Nigeria (see, Anugwom, 2001; Joseph, 1987).
Be that as it may ethnicity has becomes very politicised in Nigeria. This
fact is usually accentuated in the process of political contestation for
national political offices. Hence, politicians in Nigeria have over the
years imbibed the culture of equating their political aspirations with
that of their ethnic, social or primordial group. To this end, the failure
or otherwise of the candidate in election is seen as the failure or otherwise
of his own group. A thinking that is even more popular when the contestants
are from different socio-geographical zones in the country. Even in the
contest for political positions within a given geographical zone or state
in the country, intra-ethnic and primordial factors are usually utilized
in defining the aspiration of the candidates as those of their primary
social groups. Apart from heightening political contests, primordial and
crude social considerations become the basis of choice and this most times
implies that the candidate from one’s own group is preferred in
spite of his failure or the obvious superiority of the other(s) from another
In other words, group consciousness is used by aspiring politicians to
ensure that their personal mandate are defined as the group mandate. Apparently,
group consciousness while engendering solidarity amongst the members of
a given group breeds division and discrimination in the relations between
different groups in a particular society. Actually, group consciousness
is defined as a psychological and or attitudinal orientation which sees
some people as the same with oneself and others as different (see, Igbo
and Anugwom, 2001). From a sociological point of view, group consciousness
can be maintained or sustained by common cultural and symbolic symbols
like language, dressing, norms and even rules of conduct towards others
defined as outsiders. It is this group consciousness and the solidarity
deriving form it that politicians in Nigeria have exploited over the years
in their quest for power.
However, one may wonder why divisive factors seem to proliferate in Nigerian
politics in spite of the decades of existence as one country. In other
words, why are there only very few Nigerian politicians who are patriots
and genuine statesmen beyond pandering to ethnic and primordial sentiments.
The answer lies squarely in the nature of development of the political
elites in the Nigeria. The political elites in Nigeria can be seen as
products of different nationalities brought together to forge one nation.
Before the emergence of the Nigerian nation state, there were different
ethnic-nationalities with a well advanced political culture and elite
formation. Thus before the emergence of Nigeria, there were already these
groups which were relating to each other as more or less independent socio-political
entities. Even though the similarities between these groups were built
on by the colonial powers to forge the Nigerian state, the differences
between them were significant and were not subjected to efforts towards
eliminating or blunting them in the initial process of nation building.
The colonial policy of maintaining the distinct identity of each major
ethnic group and region did not augur well for the unification project
in Nigeria. A case in point in this regard was the regionalization of
the legislature and the entrenchment of division between diverse ethnic
groups by the Macpherson Constitution of 1951. According to Abubakar (1997:74),
“with the regionalization of the legislature, the British colonial
state subverted the possibilities of national unity and integration because
there was no national forum where the emergent Nigerian elite could begin
to discuss the future of their country”. The end product was the
existence and recognition of independent nationalities which define themselves
essentially in ethnic, linguistic, religious and geographical terms. Predictably,
this scenario created a situation in which political elites have to first
emerge as ethnic champions before negotiating the national or central
political terrain . This ethno-nationalism incidentally has been sustained
by the nature of the contemporary Nigerian state. Therefore, the planning
failure of the Nigerian state both to mediate objectively in inter-ethnic
conflicts between groups and to impact positively on the lives of citizens
make ethno-nationalism an attractive alternative. Thus, as Synder (1993:12)
posits ethno-nationalism, “predominates when institutions collapse,
when existing institutions are not fulfilling people’s basic needs
and when satisfactory alternative structures are not readily available”
it is this reality that easily transforms individual political aspirations
into a group’s political project in Nigeria.
THE ETHNIC FACTOR IN PAST ELECTIONS IN NIGERIA
The ethnic factor has been a prominent feature in elections in post-colonial
Nigeria. As the foregoing section portrays, elections are often made a
contest between ethnic groups and the primary group orientation of the
contestants becomes a crucial element in electoral fortunes. Even though,
logic and the wisdom of hindsight would suggest that politicians in Nigeria
with a notable history of mediocre performance see the ethnic factor as
an attractive selling point. In this case, the ethnic factor and primordial
considerations come into play and over-shadow the more important issues
of performance, antecedents and service.
The First Republic (1960-66) election and politics in Nigeria was duely
coloured by the Macpherson Constitution of 1951 which in addition to the
colonial divide-and-rule tactics entrenched division between social and
ethnic groups in Nigeria. The regionalization of the legislature in that
constitution (the constitution introduced three major regions in Nigeria,
each with its own autonomous legislature) provided the breeding ground
for ethnic politics as it were. In fact, Coleman (1960) in a very spontaneous
apprisal of the constitution saw it as accelerating the drift towards
ethno-nationalism and tribalism. In an ostentatious bid to capture the
regional legislature, political parties made primordial sentiments the
primary planks of their mobilization of the electorate. Also, the ethnic
factor was aided by the initial controversy emanating from the motion
for political independence for Nigeria in 1956 moved by Anthony Enahoro
in the federal legislature in 1953. Predictably the Northerners reacted
to this motion as a move by the Southerners then in command of crucial
sectors of national life to railroad them into independence and eventual
domination. An interpretation that had the implicit blessing of the colonial
powers who responded with more divisive programmes. The controversy generated
by the Enahoro motion and the fears of the minorities then engendered
a conscious bid by different groups to protect their own primary interests
in the emergent Nigeria nation. The patriotic spirit that marked the nationalistic
struggle of 1940s and early 1950s soon gave way to deepening ethno-nationalism
and primordial politics.
Against the above background, the politics and political parties of the
First Republic were products of narrow ethnic and social groups calculations.
In fact, each political party that emerged then was the front of a particular
ethnic group (whether minority or majority ethnic group). As a result,
the elections were determined by ethnic factors and the victorious Nigeria
Peoples Congress (NPC) was the party of the largest ethnic group-the Hausa
Fulani. But while petty, ethnic and primary social factors can form formidable
forces in the formative stages of a political party aspiring for national
office, the sustenance of such a party can hardly be built on these factors.
Therefore, the First Republic collapsed soon enough and landed Nigeria
eventually into a civil war and the most trying period in its existence
as a nation state.
In spite of the emergence from the brink of national collapse due largely
to the ethnicization of the politics of the First Republic, the Second
Republic politicians also proved adamant to the lessons of history. The
Second Republic politics as Joseph (1987) has shown most vividly was played
on the ethnic plank which also led to its demise. The voting patterns
in the elections revealed that voters choice was a product of the ethnic
affiliation of the candidate and more crucially the known ethnic base
of his party. In this case, people voted for political parties and not
for the candidates. The spread of support for the political parties during
the elections showed that the perceived ethnic origin or base of the party
was of paramount importance. This fact was clearly demonstrated in the
presidential elections in which each ethnic group voted for the candidate
it identified as its own son as it were. Even though Alhaji Shehu Shagari
was pronounced President based on the interpretation of the constitutional
provision that such a candidate must have the highest number of votes
cast and not less than one-quarter of votes cast in at least two-thirds
of all the states of the Federation, to mean 12? of the 19 states then
existing and not necessarily 13 as vigorously promoted by the supporters
of the late Obafemi Awolowo who came second, it generated a great controversy
that further worsened the ethnic cleavage. The end products of this situation
were the escalation of ethno-religious conflicts (see Elaigwu, 1993),
the polarization of the political parties and a general winner-takes-all
mentality of the victorious National Party of Nigeria (NPN). These factors
and the prebendalization of state power in Nigeria’s Second republic
(see Joseph, 1983 for more) predictably led to the demise of the Second
Republic in the form of a coup by the military.
In spite the military’s involvement in the prolonged democracy dilemma
in Nigeria, it supervised one of the freest, fairest and de-ethnicized
elections in the history of Nigeria. This was the June 12, 1993 presidential
elections that would have ushered in the third republic which was aborted
due to intransigence of the Nigerian military under General Ibrahim Babangida.
The June 12, election is significant not just because of the crisis following
its annulment but in the sense that it was a clear watershed in the history
of politics and elections in Nigeria. Hence, for the first time in Nigeria’s
socio-political history, a political contestant succeeded in bridging
the ethnic gaps in the country. Moshood Abiola who won the elections garnered
formidable support to defeat his opponent even in the archetypical Hausa-Fulani
political bastion-Kano. Abiola also found acceptance among the other major
ethnic groups and a lot of the minority ethnic groups in spite of the
fact that he was from the Yoruba ethnic stock.
However, the progress that this victory meant to Nigeria’s nationhood
project was truncated by apparent ethnic considerations. To this end,
the eventual annulment of that elections and the power shift to the south
it implied has been seen as more or less ethnically motivated (see, Idowu,
1999; Abubakar, 1997 etc). The total rejection of the decision of the
Babangida junta to over-rule the popular decision of the people by the
citizens of Nigeria led to enormous crises culminating in the stepping-aside
of Babangida. The 1999 elections which saw Obasanjo’s emergence
as President profited a lot from the general indignation over June, 12
and the resolve of the political class to allow a power shift to the South.
The victory of Obasanjo in 1999 was the product of the above factors and
the need to compensate the late Abiola’s kinsmen-the Yoruba rather
than a clear manifestation of the popularity of Obasanjo’s candidature
or the acceptance of his party’s programme. Given the above realities,
ethnicity was not really de-emphasized but rather emphasized in an ironic
sense and utilized in a positive way for the first time in Nigeria’s
IS OUR TURN: ETHNICITY AND THE 2003 ELECTIONS
As already hinted the 1999 election was a bold attempt to spite the military
by the people of Nigeria. In the presidential election Olusegun Obasanjo
cashing in on the sympathy factor created by the demise of Moshood Abiola
in military gaol and the support of the Hausa-Fulani military establishment
coasted to easy victory in an election that for the very first time in
Nigeria’s history was between two contestants from the southwest.
The above confirms the fact that the politicians had an informal agreement
which was in tune with the pulse of public opinion then that the presidency
should be conceded to the south in a power shift arrangement.
But by 2003, the mood in the country had changed especially in the political
and even beyond. In the first instance was a growing dissatification with
the government which even though came in with a lot of goodwill and public
support was performing below average in terms of improving the quality
of life of the people. Secondly, the ethnic conflict situation remained
unabated. Even though there was a lull between late 2002 and 2003, the
lull was predictably broken in February, 2003 when the Itsekiri and Urhobos
in the oil rich city of Warri in South-south Nigeria clashed. The clash
which lasted over 40 days consumed the lives of an estimated 40 people.
The clash was basically triggered by political factors. The two ethnic
groups went to war over the number of electoral wards to be used in one
of the political parties’ primary elections in the state. But even
before this clash just before the elections, ethnic conflicts had blossomed
in the country between late 2001 and 2002 as a result of the contest over
political and economic resources. In the views of Ajayi (2002:8) from
one end of the country to another are ethnic conflicts and ‘ un-abating
gory tales of needles loss of human lives and material possessions all
Some of the prominent ethnic conflicts in the 2001-2002 period include
the Kaduna ethno- religious conflict 2001; the ethnic clashes in Jos,
2001; the Odua Peoples Congress/Hausa-Fulani ethnic conflict in Lagos,
2002; the Tiv-Jukun conflict of 2001 in which high ranking government
officials were implicated. In fact, it is estimated that in the three
years between 1999 and 2002, there were over 50 ethnic conflicts in Nigeria
and a loss of 25,000 lives and property worth billions (see, the Guardian,
Oct, 22, 2001; Vanguard, Sept. 16 and October 11, 2001; the Post Express,
Nov. 2, 2001). These ethnic conflagrations and the perceived role of the
state in them seem to raise questions regarding the impact of democracy
on the ethnicity problem in Nigeria. Apparently the space which democracy
creates in the political arena has given impetus to the resurgence of
ethnic identities as well as the usage of these identities as crucial
planks for political aspirations.
The third factor in the changing socio-political scenario in contemporary
Nigeria and which impacted on the electoral process in 2003 was the increasing
intensity and scope of political corruption. Definitely, Nigeria is no
stranger to political corruption and corrupt practices in other spheres
of public life (see, Anugwom, 2003; Odey, 2001; Babarinsa, 1999). While
the issue of corruption will not detain us here, it is very necessary
to realise that the utilization of political office for private capital
accumulation and the prebendal nature of politics in Nigeria raises the
political stake. In a situation where by political office holders transform
into over-night billionaires, a winner-takes-all mentality becomes dominant.
Hence, by the time of the 2003 elections, a generality of the populace,
including the politicians saw politics as a means towards achieving economic
Related to this all out quest for political offices because of the perceived
economic and social benefits was the opening up of the political space
by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) with the registration
of thirty political parties to contest the 2003 elections. This was a
fundamental departure from the situation in 1999 when only three parties
contested the elections. However, the additional twenty-seven political
parties were registered late and hardly achieved any spread or significance
close to the big three political parties-Peoples Democratic Party (PDP);
All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) and the alliance for Democracy (AD).
Another factor was the upsurge in the perception of marginalization of
ethnic groups in the political and government processes. Fears and feelings
of marginalization have been expressed by different ethnic groups in the
country (see, Anugwom, 2000). This is politically a worrisome development
when one notes that as succinctly described by Adedeji (1999) internal
marginalization is caused by the mismanagement of the economy and the
pursuit of a development paradigm that polarizes the different social
and economic groups in the society. In this sense, different ethnic groups
have seen political power and the control of the state at the centre as
the panacea for dealing with marginalization. This perception raises the
electoral stakes and reinforces the tendency towards a centrifugal nationalism.
A combination of the foregoing factors in combination heated-up the political
system as it were. In the charged atmosphere of the period and the quest
of the parties to outdo each other, the ethnic factor resurfaced. The
play of ethnicity was very prominent in the contest for the office of
Presidency and amongst the big political parties. The early signal of
the Hausa-Fulani’s interest in the office of president meant the
collapse of the power shift arrangement.
Expectedly the activities of the political parties and the antics of the
politicians themselves gave rise to ethnic consciousness among the people.
In this instance, the political parties saw the ethnic plank as a worthwhile
route to political power. Unsurprisingly, the three big parties in the
run-down to the elections acted in ways boldly suggestive of the ethnic
agenda. In this case, it is now a common feeling among political observers
and even politicians themselves that the failure of the AD to field a
presidential candidate for the election was borne out of ethnic considerations.
It stands to reason that since the incumbent president then from the PDP
was a Yoruba and the AD the only party then with significant following
in the Yoruba South-West, the AD in openly declaring support for the re-election
of the incumbent president was only acting out an ethnic script. In other
words, the AD was acutely aware of the fact that even though the PDP has
a very significant national spread without any serious presence then in
Yoruba land, it apparently remains the only avenue to realise the aspiration
of the Yoruba ethnic group at the national level. Against this realization,
the AD rallied voters in the South-West zone to vote massively for the
PDP candidate, a Yoruba.
The voters did not disappoint. They even went a step further to vote for
the PDP in other elections. Therefore, the PDP took control of the South-West
with the exception of Lagos still in control of the AD. This should represent
a classical case of the boomerang of ethnic politics. Equally germane
to ethnic consciousness was the antics of the ANPP. The party acted in
ways suggestive of a deep-rooted religious and ethnic fundamentalism.
In fact, this suspicion of fundamentalism was the strongest weapon used
by the other parties to fight the election of an ANPP president. A situation
not really helped by the antecedents of the party’s flag bearer
Muhammadu Buhari; a former military leader and the key figure behind the
coup by the military that led to the demise of the Second Republic. Incidentally,
also the ANPP has its stronghold in the core Islamic Sharia states in
the North. True to expectations the ANPP took control of these states
(Kano, Katsina, Zamfara, Sokoto) during the elections but lost the presidential
elections to Olusegun Obasanjo who was re-elected and had the massive
support of his kinsmen unlike in 1999 when the Yoruba rejected his candidature
and voted for Olu Falae . It is obvious that the ethnic consciousness
aroused prior to the elections and the over-heated political system made
the Yoruba to support Obasanjo in order to ensure that the presidency
remains in that ethnic group.
The foregoing presentation readily conveys the right impression that ethnic
politics is far from being over in Nigeria. As recent elections indicate,
the ethnic affiliation of an aspirant to a political office at the centre
is a major determinant of his success. In other words, electoral fortunes
at the centre are largely a product of ethnic affiliation. The 2003 presidential
election as I have argued seems to buttress this point.
It would therefore appear that the willingness of politicians in Nigeria
to exploit the ethnic factor derives essentially from a lack of performance.
Hence, because primordial loyalty is not borne out of objectivity and
clear appraisal of performance, it can be easily exploited to boost electoral
fortunes. This has been the case in post-independent Nigeria where people
have climbed to the highest political office even when they have a history
of mediocre performance or other personal shortfalls. This type of politics
thrives in Nigeria because of a history of prebendalism and a patrimonial
political culture. These factors constitute impediments to the evolvement
of a decent and sustainable democratic culture in Nigeria. As a result,
until politicians and the electorate alike come to terms with the evils
of primacy of primordial factors in democracy, the political culture of
prebendalism which oils the culture of non-performance will continue in
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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.