MOST Ethno-Net publication: Africa at Crossroads


Africa Forty Years Later - Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflits,
PAAA / APA 2001

The Criminalization of Ethnicity and the Contest For Social Space In Africa: The Case of Nigeria

Chris O. Uroh
Department of Philosophy
University of Ibadan
Ibadan, Nigeria


At what point does an individual's identification with his primordial groups become pathological and threatening to social cohesion in plural societies? This is the question, which this paper tries to answer with particular reference to the African State. Though the discussion is more theoretical, paper however draws examples from Nigeria and some other African countries to illustrate the issues raised.

The main trusts of this paper are (1) That there is nothing conflictual about ethnicity; (2) That ethnicity has actually served, and in fact continues to serve some positive ends in some African societies, and therefore that (3) what should be of concern to intellectuals in Africa, is the interrogation of the why and how ethnicity and other forms of differences have continued to be exploited by political leaders in their various contests for social space.
It is divided into three major parts. The first part puts into perspective the idea of ethnicity. The second part leading from the first, shows how ethnicity has been deployed positively in Nigeria and also why it has at the same time become a potent weapon for the negotiation of sociopolitical space in Africa generally and Nigeria in particular. The third part suggests some of the measures that could be put in place to reduce, if not totally eliminate the phenomenon of ethnicity and the xenophobic backlash it has continued to generate in the continent.

Who is Ethnic?
In answering this question we should start by noting that social identities are constructed within the context of the contestations by groups for social space. Thus, to understand how and why a particular social construction works and the principles that sustain it within a particular social space and milieu necessitates a proper understanding of the circumstances under which it has arisen. This is true of ethnicity, racism, class differentiation, and tribalism, among other factors our ever pluralizing world.
Let me start with a tentative definition of ethnicity as “the active sense of identification with some ethnic unit, whether or not this group has any institutional structure of its own, or whether it has any real existence in the pre-colonial epoch”(Young, 1965; 234). In other words, ethnicity is “the feeling of allegiance to one’s ethnic group” (Sanda, 1978:33). The idea of identification with a group is crucial to every conception of ethnicity. Added to this also is the arguable conception of it by Abner Cohen (1964:4) as, strife between “ethnic groups in the course of which people stress their identity and exclusiveness”. There is a need for caution here because the impression the foregoing creates is that ethnicity necessarily involves “strife”. The truth is that it needs not. Which is not to say that it does not though. I will come to this later.

It is important in the meantime to state here that “ethnic” is most often a labeling done from outside rather than from within. Put another way, the “ethnic” is usually a “construction” done by groups other than the one that is being "ethnicised". It is therefore an identity for the other, “the natural attitude”, if we agree with Agnes Heller (1984) “of all cultures toward alien ones”. Here, the alien defines the “ethnic”. But, as I shall show presently, it is even more than that.

But let us for the time being forget who is doing the labeling and for what purpose and pose the question: What is an ethnic group? Or, what amounts to the same thing; what makes a group ethnic? The very meaning of “ethnic groups” has not only varied among scholars but has even sometimes differed from one society to another as history, geography among others have contributed to the definition of otherness. In the United States for instance, “nationality”, “race”, “religion”, “sequence of migration” or a combination of these factors, have been used to draw the boundaries of ethnic groups, in which case “any group which is defined or set off by race, religion, or national origin, or some combination of these categories” qualifies as an ethnic group. What distinguishes an ethnic group from another in the circumstance, is that members of a particular group have a feeling of some shared characters which they also believe or are believed by others, to mark them off from others. Seen this way an ethnic group can be said to consist of "interacting members, who define themselves as belonging to a named or labeled social group with whose interest they identify, and which manifests certain aspects of a unique culture, while constituting a part of a wider society"(Sanda, 1978:32). This, I believe is what Eghosa Osaghae (1992:46) also means when he defines an ethnic group as “a distinct group which possesses amongst others, language, culture, myth of common origin and territory, which differentiate it from other groups”.

What we can possibly deduce from the foregoing is that ethnicity means the identification of people with any group on the basis of a distinctive characteristics be these characteristics real or imagined. Two major features of ethnicity therefore is its inclusiviness and by implication, exclusiviness. In other words, ethnic units are marked off from one another by some “perceived distinctive” characteristics which form the basis for drawing up the “boundaries” between particular groups and others. The idea of exclusivity here also implies that members guard ethnic boundaries. In multi-ethnic societies, says Okwudiba Nnoli (1980:7) such exclusiveness is kept “through interethnic discrimination in jobs, housing, admission into educational institutions, marriages, business transactions or the distributions of social welfare services”. Frederick Barth (1969:14) describes this as the ascriptive sense of ethnic identity; adding that “when defined as an ascriptive and exclusive group, the nature of continuity of ethnic unit is clear, it depends on the maintenance of a boundary”. But this boundary, I must quickly note, is not cast in iron. On the contrary,

Ethnic boundaries are permeable, existing despite the flow of personnel or interactions across them; criteria of ethnic ascription and subscription are variable in their nature and salience (Jenkins, 1994:198)

There are many factors that have been implicated in the explanation of the fluidity of ethnic boundaries. I am not going into that here. I will now show how ethnicity, like other forms of discriminations, occurs within the context of contest for social space. The first main thesis that I have argued, and will go ahead to prove is that; people are discriminated against when there are some social benefits and burdens at stake, and that it is in a bid not to share such benefit that identities are constructed. Therefore, without such benefits or burdens, there can hardly be any need for any discrimination. Another way to put this is to say that ethnicity is rooted in the unwillingness to share equally burdens and benefits of a particular society which thus leads to intolerance. It thus, follows that properly speaking, ethnicity is not the problem that we take it to be, but only implicated in the cause of negotiating other problem(s) (see Uroh, 1997; 1998) The natural question to ask therefore is, what is the root of intolerance and consequently, discrimination?

When Ethnicity is not Criminalized
We have defined ethnicity as a process of identifying with an ethnic group. On the other hand, ethnic group can pass as a cultural group that is, comprising a people who either see themselves or are perceived by others as sharing some cultural affinities. Now, culture as the opaque lens through which a people perceive and interpret reality is the “locus of value priorities, indicating the behavior of a given group and hence, the choices among the many possible futures”. For this, as I had affirmed elsewhere (Uroh, 1999)when physical survival is threatened and the cultural identity of a people is challenged by values different from their own, they strive to find an identity to which they can remain steadfastly faithful on an attempt to recover their security. It is in this sense that it is in fact, necessary to protect the cultural identity of a people. This has even become more imperative in a milieu where cultural heritage of people are daily assaulted by alien values which continues to erode the self-esteem of the people and disorient them.

Among societies where ethnic identity has played major positive roles is the Igbo of South-eastern Nigeria. Here, we have ethnic groups who through communal efforts have built Airports (the Imo Airport for in stance) among other developmental projects, without the aid of any governments.
The point needs to be emphasized here that in the precolonial days, our societies were not that homogenous. There were differences among the people. The difference between what therefore obtained then and the present reality in the African continent is the fact that differences have become criminalized and are daily exploited by the elite in their contest for social space.

The Contest for Social space and the Criminalization of Ethnicity
We can make this generalization without contradiction, that all forms of discriminations are products of intolerance and are nurtured by anxiety. They are by-products of fear; the fear of the future, about what to expect, about what could happen. It is important to emphasis here that it is “when people are uncertain about the future” that they “retreat, and through an instinct of self-preservation, become intolerant and selfish" (Wilhem, 1996:12). What is here implied is that when people are certain about some positive consequences for the future, they are not likely to be hostile towards the other. At the same time what follows when people recoil to themselves is to "defend what they have today (since) they do not know what they will have tomorrow" (Ibid.). Put another way, intolerance, and therefore discrimination, are products of uncertainty. They are expressions of desperation towards an unpredictable, unknown and the apparently, unavoidable. It is, in other words, created mostly by people's uncertainty about the future.

Our attitude towards the present social realities is usually determined by our positioning within such realities. It is a fact of life that our contemplation of the future, as it is informed by our present interpretations of the realities that we currently live, will lead us to treat the present and contemplate the future in any of two different ways: The first is to view the future with confidence, certainty or perhaps more appropriately, optimism. The second is to contemplate the future with justifiable and sometimes helpless desperation. In other words, to be pessimistic about the “looming tomorrow”.

It is a simple logic that when we are optimistic about the future the tendency is high that we become less aggressive, less avaricious, and so less self-centered. Which is the same thing as saying that, when we have nothing to be afraid of, we tend to naturally “warm up to others”. However, when the reverse is the case, when that is, what is expected from the future holds no promise beyond the present (or, even, as it sometimes happens, the present is frustrating enough), despondency, and aggression, set in as the desire to take care of the rainy days (or to plug the holes of the leaking roof) seizes the human person. This is where self-preservation, the arguably first law of nature, takes possession of our person above any other consideration. And here the instinct to excel others by all means, displaces the natural human feelings of caring about fellow human whom, at this point are considered simply as the other; that is, an opponent in a zero-sum game for survival. Now, when the scenario as I have painted above plays out among people what results is “cleaving” which can take ethnic, tribal, racial, class, or even gender, among other forms. It thus follows that in tackling the problem of ethnicity in any Africa today, what we need to do is to first address those conditions that lead to the ethnicization of the social space. I shall now do this using Nigeria as an example.

The Nigerian Environment and the Recourse to the Self
Right from independence, and perhaps even before, one question that has dominated the social discourse in Nigeria is, who gets what? It is a question that was promoted to almost a national ideology with the insertion of the “federal character” clause in the 1979 Constitution. I am not going to discuss the merits or otherwise of this provision since I have done that in a more detailed form in an earlier works (see Uroh, 1997; 1998). Suffice to say here that whether one thinks in terms of the threat in 1953 by the North to secede from the country, the threat, also by the defunct Western Region to quit the Union over the “Lagos question” in 1953, the thirty-month (Biafra) civil war, the Zango-Kataf riots in Kaduna, the Tsayawa /Fulani disturbances in Tafawa Balewa and Bauchi, the Ife/ Modakeke lingering crisis, the Aguleri/Umuleri, among several others, one factor that is central is the question of groups’ asses to the economic resource of the country. Need I add here that the whole crisis of the Niger-Delta which peaked with the execution of the Minority right activist, Kenule Saro-Wiwa and eight others by the government of the late Sanni Abacha, are all linked to the same question of what in the Nigeria parlance is called, "the sharing of the national cake".

The prebendal nature of the Nigerian politics coupled with its zero-sum-game characteristics, among others has made mutual distrust among various groups and interests within the state a permanent feature of social relation. What this means therefore is that a workable solution to the problem is one, which creates a polity, founded on the mutual trust, in which the federation is based on principles that are advantageous to all parties. Only when all are known to benefit, that "each can reasonably rely on the other to keep the agreement” (Biker, 1995:508). This is what William Biker (Ibid.) calls "enforcement by rational mutual confidence in each other."

There are many obstacles to the realization of this ideal in Nigeria. To start with, there is too much centralization of powers in the Federal Government. At present the federal government takes 48. 5 percent of total national revenue, the 36 states, including the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja, share 24 percent, the 776 local councils share 20 percent while the remaining 13 percent goes to the oil-producing states. The argument has been that the Federal Government is taking more than its share in the national revenue while leaving the other levels of government to suffer. Furthermore, section 44(3) of the 1999 Constitution gives the Federal Government an exclusive power to exploit mineral resources anywhere in the country. This section provides that:

...the entire property in and control of all minerals, mineral oils and natural gas in, under or upon any land in Nigeria or in, under or upon the territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone of Nigeria shall vest in the Government of the Federation, and shall be managed in such manner as may be prescribed by the National Assembly.

Coupled with this is the "Land Use Decree" which empowers the Government to acquire and use any land with or without compensation to the community who hitherto occupied it. “This expropriation of the fundamental economic right of the ethnic group which make up the Nigerian federation”, writes Kenule Saro-Wiwa (1991), "is peculiar to Nigeria". This, among other factors, has made Nigeria what Claude E. Welch (1995:635) calls a `misleading federation', where "power and resources flow downwards".

Since access to resources has been one of the major sources of suspicions among the various groups in Nigeria, it therefore follows that it is the factor that creates the atmosphere whereby people resort to their differences as the means for social expression that should be tackled if the real problem is to be resolved. What this demands is that a conscious effort should be made "to facilitate the access of all to the goods and services produced by society, creating conditions that give priority to those who have less” (Flores, 1996:19). Within the context of the Nigerian state, and considering the size and population, a restructuring that gives way for decentralization of governance, especially as this relates to the question of access to the revenue of the State becomes one way out of the problem. The structure of governance which "is based on a hierarchy of tiers of government in which the federal government is pre-eminent and the state and local governments are subordinate" which the military encouraged over the years has not helped matter (Olukoshi et al, 1996:86). And since experience shows that the distant federal government "cannot be trusted to understand or act effectively on grassroots priorities" (Welch, 1995:636) local autonomy therefore becomes a viable option that would enable the individual groups manage their own sociopolitical and economic destinies.
Let me conclude however, that there is nothing basically conflictual about cultural plurality. It is its exploitation that causes social tensions.


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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.