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Occasionnal Paper / Article ponctuel,

August 2003

Ethnicity, Politics and Elections in Nigeria:
Overview of Current Trends

Edlyne E. Anugwom
Department of Sociology/Anthropology
University of Nigeria
Nsukka, 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:

tension 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, 2002: 18)

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 gunmen.

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 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 group.

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 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 political history.

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 the way.

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 El-Dorado.

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 Nigeria.

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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.