Ethnic Politics and the National Question in Nigeria

Factual Pursuit of Truth for Progress

The term “divide et impera” (divide and conquer), was reported to have been coined by Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, at c.300 BC. It was a military strategy of disuniting and playing the component sections of an enemy’s territory against one another to make their conquest very easy. It was effectively applied by past warriors such as Julius Cesar and other ancient generals and lately by the British Empire builders. After the conquest, the same policy (of divide and rule) was applied to rule the conquered people. The colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ was pre-empting the fear that if the conquered people were allowed to unite, they would collaborate to liquidate the colonial enterprise.

Britain used the divide and rule policy to its great advantage throughout the colonial period. It was first applied in colonial India, with success before doing so in the colonial Nigeria. Given that the colonial rule itself was a coercive endeavour, a continuation of coercion or manipulation by other means was needed to keep the colonised people under control. This was well achieved by the Indirect Rule system which localised politics at the levels of the traditional rulers in the respective Nigerian regions. Emirs; Obas; Obis; Ovies; Etsus; Tor-Tivs, to mention a few, became the rallying points of the indirect rule system.

When party politics came on later during colonial rule, it was significantly influenced by ethnic politics. The first sets of political parties that emerged were created to reflect the ethnic backgrounds and sentiments of its founders. Examples included the Obafemi Awolowo-led Action Group (mainly Yoruba in composition); the Ahmadu Bello-led Northern Peoples’ Congress (a Northern Party); the Nnamdi Azikiwe-led National Council of Nigerian Citizens (ostensibly national in outlook but dominated by the Igbo).  With the above situation, the foundation of ethnic politics in Nigeria was solidly laid right from the period of the politics of decolonisation in the country.         

While it might be understandable during colonial rule, it would be quite difficult to understand the rationale behind the retention of ethnic sentiments in the post-independence Nigeria. In principle, the Nigerian nationalist leaders appeared to agree to the necessity of building a nation where ethnic and sub-ethnic factors would be secondary and national feelings and aspirations would be primary and dominant. The first stanza of Nigeria’s national anthem at independence confirmed this view eloquently. It read as follows:

Nigeria we hail Thee

Our own dear native land

Though tribe and tongue may differ

In brotherhood we stand

Nigerians all are proud to serve

Our sovereign mother land. (Emphasis mine) 

The wordings of the above defunct Nigeria’s national anthem clearly captured the desire, by the newly liberated Nigerian colonial subjects, to build a true nation. They desired to build a nation where ethnic sentiments and sub-ethnic considerations would not stand in the way of building a truly sovereign and egalitarian modern nation. In spite of this lofty nationalist aspiration pointed out above, the types of political parties and party politics, at the time, undermined the attainment of such a nation. With the failure of Nigeria’s first democratic experiment and the collapse of its First Republic in 1966,      the ethnic nationalities constituting Nigeria could no longer “stand in brotherhood” as desired in their national anthem. With the military coups and a Civil War, it became difficult for the Nigerian peoples to stand as one.

While it has been fashionable, in the recent past, to blame all the woes of Nigeria on the long years of military rule, it could hardly be justified to defend such arguments after twenty years of continuous democratic governance. The worrisome fact was that ethnically related malaise collectively afflicting Nigeria had not disappeared. They had rather multiplied to make nonsense of any move to make the Nigerian project work. One of the findings of this article was that many Nigerians were not satisfied with the way the country is presently configured. This partly accounted for the recent calls for a sovereign national conference where mutually acceptable federating formula would be agreed upon.

Nigerian government had organised National Conferences twice since the commencement of the Fourth Republic. The first was in 2005 under President Olusegun Obasanjo. The second was in 2014 under President Goodluck Jonathan. Delegates were drawn from across all Nigerian states. The two conferences were aimed at generating ideas useful for restructuring the country in more acceptable ways. It was however, not certain if the reports of the two conferences had been factored into the governance of the country since then. This article concludes that a true nation cannot be built on a foundation where ethnic factors appear to manifest in its politics and influence its  governance.

R.F. Obinta, PhD

Department of History,

Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.



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