In the pre-colonial era and since the independence of Nigeria, ethnicity played and still playing manifest and latent roles in the body politics of Nigeria. As Otite (1990) observed and quite rightly too, the ethnic virus has been one of the most important causes of social crisis and political instability in Nigeria; and ethnicity has been perceived in general as a major obstacle to the overall politic – economic development of the country. Nnoli (1978) defined ethnicity as “a social phenomenon associated with interactions among members of different ethnic groups.” He further explained that ethnic groups are social formations distinguished by the communal character of their boundaries and that an ethnic group may not necessarily linguistically or culturally homogenous. Osaghae (1995) defined ethnicity as “the employment of mobilization of ethnic identity and difference to gain advantage in situations of competition, conflict or co-operation”.
However, Azeez (2004) views ethnicity as a sense of people hood that has its foundation in the combined remembrance of past experience and common aspiration. Nigeria is a plural society and it is made up of over 250 ethnic groups with many sub-groups three ethnic groups – Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo – dominate the political landscape. All other ethnic groups are swept under the carpet. This has created sub-nationalism. Ekeh (1973) has argued that ethnicity has flourished because the Nigerian elite who inherited the colonial state have conceptualized development as transferring resources from the civil public to the primordial pubic it is against this background that this writer would x-ray in a laconic manner the interplay of ethnicity in the body politics of Nigeria in pre-independence era and from independence till date.
In pre-independence era, party politics in Nigeria was based on ethnic factor thus one can say that it was during this period in question that the seed of ethnic politics was sown, germinated in the first republic and the products started spreading during the 3rd and 4th republics. For example, the Action Group as a party developed from a Yoruba Cultural Association, Egbe Omo Oduduwa; the NCNC was closely allied with the Igbo Union while the NPC developed from Jamiyyar Arewa. Thus the leadership of the aforementioned parties was along ethnic cleavages. The A.G. was led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a Yoruba; the NCNC leadership fell on Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo while NPC was led by Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sarduna of Sokoto, a Fulani. Even to a large extent, the colonial administrative arrangement in Nigeria during the colonial period encouraged ethnic politics. The 1946 Richard Constitution had divided Nigeria into three regions for administrative convenience which are directly associated with the three major ethnic groups – Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo. It is not surprising therefore that the first political parties were formed along ethnic lines.
During the first republic, politics was organized in the same way as during the pre-colonial era. The three political parties that existed during the pre-independence era also came into lime right and dominated the landscape; although other parties sprang up. These included Northern Elements Progressive union (NEPU) by Aminu Kano; United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) led by Joseph Tarka, NPC by Sir Ahamdu Bello; A.G. by Chief Obafemi Awolowo and NCNC led by Dr. Nnamdi Okpara. There was no radical department from those of the pre-colonial era as the parties had ethnic colouration in terms of leadership and regional affiliations.
However, it was in the 2nd republic that regionalism was played down a bit. The 1979 constitution stipulated that for a political party to be registered, it must be national in outlook i.e. wide geographical spread across the country. The new political parties that were registered had their leadership replicated along ethnic lines as in the first republic. Thus, Obafemi Awolowo retained the leadership of A.G. which metamorphosed into UPN; Nnamdi Azikiwe controlled the Igbo speaking areas under NPP which is an offshoot of the old NCNC. NPN dominated the Hausa – Fulani areas; PRP in Hausa speaking while GNPP led by Ibrahim Waziri controlled the Kanuri speaking area. Therefore, ethnic colouration and affiliation played out in political parties formation and operation during the 2nd Republic. Voting patterns followed ethnic lines in the elections.
It should be pointed out that political parties formation had a different dimension in the third republic which was midwived by President Ibrahim Babangida government. Two political parties were formed and funded by the government. These were the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC). Even though these parties were established by government, ethno – religious cleavages were visible in the membership and composition of the two parties. While the SDP favoured the southerners, NRC was a party for the Hausa – Fulani North as could be observed from their operation.
In the current political dispensation of the Fourth Republic ethnic colouration has reared its ugly head. With ANPP considered as a party predominantly occupied by the Hausa – Fulani and AD as direct successor to Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action group and Unity Party of Nigeria and as a result dominated the six Yoruba speaking states of Lagos, Ekiti, Ogun, Ondo Osun and Oyo until 2003 when it lost all the states except Lagos. The ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is being perceived as to have deviated a bit from the usual ethno-religious dominated party politics of the past with their membership and formation cutting across the clime of Nigeria. However in the 2011 general elections, ethnic and regional politics started to play itself out.
With the demise of Alhaji Umar Musa Yar’adua some people in the North felt power should not shift to the south and they started kicking against the presidency of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. The new parties on contest like APGA is seen as Igbo party; ACN as a re-incarnation of A.G. or UPN which is Yoruba based, CPC and ANPP are seen as the party of Hausa – Fulani affiliations. It is only the PDP that to some extent has national outlook but the insistence on certain part of the country to produce the 2011 presidency has shown that ethnic and religious politics is still with us and will continue to plague the body politics and unity of Nigeria as a sovereign state.
Azeez, A. (2004), The Dynamics of Ethnic Politics and Democratic Consolidation in Nigeria: A Prognosis in Duro Oni et al (ed) Nigeria and Globalization: Discourses on Identify Politics and Social Conflict Ibadan: Stirling – Horden Publishers
Nnoli, O. (1978) Ethnic Politics in Nigeria: Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers
Otite, O. (1990) Ethnic Pluralism and Ethnicity in Nigeria Ibadan: Shaneson C.I. Ltd
Ukiwo, U. (2005) On the study of Ethnicity in Nigeria Crises Working Papers No. 12 June, 2005. University of Oxford.
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