Friday, 24 May 2024.

Top 5 This Week

Related News

Why do Nigerians identify by tribe and religion instead of nationality?

By Emanuel Ayanleke

How can Nigerians unite to create real change in their country if there is so much division amongst themselves?

First, let me clear up one or two misconceptions I can intuit in your question:

  1. Nigerians readily identify themselves as Nigerian (without qualification) where such identification matters. E.g. in official dealings with government and other corporate bodies within Nigeria (except further specific identification is demanded) or outside the country (where the subordinate identities will matter very little, or even not at all).
  2. Two, Nigerians rarely primarily self-identify by “tribe”; I think you mean to say “ethnic group”. There is a significant difference between the two around these parts: None but the smallest ethnic groups are coterminous with a single tribe. For instance, I’m of the Yoruba ethnic group, but my tribe within that group is Oyo – and we also have Ijebu, Egba, Ondo, Ijesha and so many other tribes (about 14 or 16 in all, if I’m not mistaken) within the Yoruba ethnic group. The average Yoruba, introducing themselves to another Nigerian will simply produce “I’m Yoruba” without qualification, except when pressed for details. The same goes for several other of our main ethnic groups: Igbo, Hausa, Fulani, Edo, Kanuri and so on (we have about 250 ethnic groups, all told).

Now to properly answer your question:

Nigerians hold their primary identity within their country to be their ethnic group because that is the identity more organic and authentic to them within the sociopolitical (and ethnocultural) context of Nigeria (naturalised citizens and offspring of mixed ethnic marriages are in a special class but even most of them tend to associate most closely with the ethnic culture they came into the country via – for naturalised citizens – or grew up in – for offspring of mixed ethnicity; some shrewd members of this latter demographic rather leverage their multiple ethnic affiliations to great advantage within the context of Nigeria but that is a separate tale entirely).

A refined form of your question would then be: why is it that the ethnic identity is the more organic and refined identity of Nigerians within the context of Nigeria?

The answer to this would involve us taking a little historical tour (with byways into sociology, psychology, economics, even philosophy and metaphysics). Bear with me awhile while I labour to make the matter plain.

As you may, no doubt, have gleaned from my prefatory comments above, Nigeria is a commonwealth of nations i.e. its ethnic groups, and the largest 20 of them can even stand on their own as independent geopolitics. That, in fact, was the state of affairs in the country up till about 150-180 years ago (at which time almost all the ethnic groups subtended not one but many political states which had existed for hundreds of years, and in several cases thousands) when European imperialists came in to subvert the sovereignty of these states – which infamy culminated in the cobbling together of a “modern” (I use the label only to signify recent historicity and not in a sociological nor political sense; not even in a psychological nor economic sense) state in 1914, and Nigerians were literally born – before this date, there was no political animal like a Nigerian!

It is important to note that this geopolitical cobbling together was done without any consultation whatsoever of any of the peoples who were shortly to become “Nigerians” – even if some so-called representatives (natural rulers who had had their royal teeth pulled by the colonial juggernaut) were at the ceremony of amalgamation to rubber stamp the farce (if they refused to show up they get deposed and exiled). The decision to amalgamate the country, had in fact, been proposed at a dinner party two years before the deed as an administrative convenience to relieve the British taxpayer of the burden of maintaining one of the colonies now being amalgamated into a larger whole.

On the face of it, it seemed like a neat administrative solution – let the natives pay for their own governance. Except for two facts that won’t go away:

  1. The “colony” in question (Protectorate of Northern Nigeria) had until conquest been
  2. The Sokoto Caliphate – an Islamic confederation of 14 or so states founded about a hundred years prior on the rump of Hausa city-states – which had existed for close to a thousand years at the time – was defeated in a jihad led by Shehu Uthman Dan Fodiyo
  3. Half of the Kanem-Bornu Empire (the other half now lay within the French sphere of influence, as assigned at the 1884 Berlin Conference – a meeting of European powers convened and chaired by Prince Otto von Bismarck to “partition” Africa in order to avoid European conflict on the continent; again, no African was consulted neither were any of its teeming potentates asked for their permission) which had also existed for over a thousand years prior to the time of conquest by the British
  4. A constellation of city-states in what today is Nigeria’s Middle Belt

These three groups of territories had been gradually consolidated over a quarter of a century into a single administrative and political entity. At no time in the one thousand years preceding 1900 (the year formally designated the start of the protectorate of Northern Nigeria when the consolidation was completed, even though the area wasn’t fully conquered – “pacified” was the term preferred by the imperialist interlopers – until 1904-1906) was the British taxpayer called upon to subsidise the governance costs of any of these territories; their resources were more than ample to run their affairs of state, and the Sokoto Caliphate even had an administration which resembled the modern states of the day, being modelled in some respects on the Ottoman states.

But immediately after the imperialist incursion occurred, the area began to rack up budgetary deficits which the British taxpayer needed to pick up. It doesn’t take an administrative or financial genius to realise that the fault of this development lay with the new political masters, and it was they who needed to find extra sources of income to run the new territory (the British taxpayer was as good a source as any, since the imperialist incursion was in their name, if not exactly at their behest)…or leave the territory well alone.

  1. By this sleight of hand, the burden of governance shifted from the British tax-payer – who, though not native to Northern Nigeria, had at least some moral obligation, albeit indirect, in the matter – to the rate-payers and merchants across the River Niger, who were not natives of Northern Nigeria but whose budgetary surpluses now would go to subsidise the colonial administration there.

To add insult to injury, whenever the natives of the territories south of the Niger (and even sometimes the “Northern Nigerian” natives who were Middle Belters – which was how this distinction arose to begin with) travelled up North (read this as the far North) they were obliged to stay in Strangers’ Quarters (Sabon Garin) outside the main walled town (Birnin), and when the Northerners travelled south (not many did this before independence) they huddled together in similarly-named Sabon Garin. In short, there was no systematic effort to encourage internal integration or cohesion – which was understandable (if simultaneously reprehensible) during the colonial years but has become a lot less so in the post-independence era even though southern revenue is still subsidising Northern administration as of today 2024 (in fact, revenue from southern oilfields is the current mainstay of Nigerian governmental revenue i.e. subsidising the entire country’s administration but its biggest beneficiaries are persons from elsewhere in the country).

The Southerners in the North back in the day had few to no political rights, as was expected under a colonial regime. But it became rather apparent in the nationalistic era of the run-up to Independence that southern residents in Northern geopolitics could not stand for elections (and after the first few electoral cycles, attempts to vote even were met with intimidation). Also, during the colonial era, the southerners in the North had almost no sociocultural rights – they could not attend Northern government schools for instance – and certainly no ethnocultural recognition, despite attempts by many of them to assimilate into their immediate community (which is more than can be said for most northerners in the south). All these added up to a potent undercurrent of resentment on both sides, which was almost exclusively expressed in defiant ethnic pride. But that wasn’t the only issue, nor even the most important.

The most important aspect of the matter is tied also to revenue, and it is that Nigeria – both as halves (which form were its original incarnation, and which cleavage the colonial masters faithfully maintained till they left but which unfortunately still persists, along with many other secondary and tertiary cleavages arising from that all-important one) and as the whole – was designed (and I am using this term extremely loosely here; not much deliberate thought has gone into the organisation or maintenance of the political state called Nigeria) to facilitate economic extraction, and secondarily to drive consumption of finished products. All its institutions and political processes are geared towards that end. In fact, it got political independence because a semblance of political sovereignty in the country was going to bring higher extractive returns to British firms and so on.

To be sure, all colonies in the wake of the Industrial Revolution (coupled with the emergence of pernicious ethological thought which had profound sociological and psychological effects on white and non-white relations going forward) were designed to be this way, but very few were in the class of Nigeria in which earlier mechanisms and systems of engagement with world commerce were swept aside in favour of a new and deliberately repressive regime (which it still labours under till today, although this is as much due to the cooperation of its leadership and elites in the last half-century as it is due to historical injustices).

READ ALSO: PDP Appoints Caretaker Committees for State, LG, Ward Chapters

The one thing Nigeria could not be allowed to become was a strong and virile geopolitics with a well-developed sense of manifest destiny (á là the United States of America – which we have been likened to many a time on account of the multiplicity of nations amidst us, even if not joined in a federal unit except by accidental proxy), a disciplined, tutored and patriotic citizenry to pursue said manifest destiny with vigour and finesse, and prudential systems for optimising returns on the abundant wealth our geographic location is blessed with.

If that was allowed to happen (and we came close to achieving this several times in the 1960s and 1970s but external forces leveraged on internal facilitators time and again to frustrate this – but after the 1980s such hopes became a moot point; now in the 2020s, we’re in no actual danger of attaining such fabulous heights – our time has passed, it seems), we would cease to be a primarily extractive economy, which development would hurt the global economic system (and the attendant global financial system which runs it). At the risk of sounding immodest, this is so for two reasons:

  1. Nigeria is a huge concentratedly reciprocal extractive and consumptive “market” (it’s actually not a proper market but I won’t split economic hairs here now), and as long as it remains so economic adventurers can multiply whatever trading capital they bring to this market without necessarily investing in infrastructure – the lack of it even makes their business model more lucrative (although they have to exist at/above a certain critical mass of capitalisation and organisation to reap these lucrative benefits). If it moves away from being one, huge profits will be lost by the firms benefitting from its status quo ante which they’re loathe to lose.
  2. Even though Nigeria is but a fraction of the overall extractive-consumptive economic sphere of the globe, it’s in a unique position within this sphere such that if it lifts itself out of this sphere the sphere as we know it may cease to exist, or become so depleted by “defections” hanging on to its coattails (Nigeria was set to do this, in fact, with ECOWAS in the 1970s before the trio of US, UK and France stepped in but that’s another story) that the superstructure of the global economic system could not survive it in the short-to-medium terms without fundamental amendments…or a global war (the same type of war von Bismarck sought to prevent back in the 19th century by partitioning Africa to European powers). This is because the current global economic system (which came into force at the tail end of the 19th century) is a pyramid of global knowledge and product – and culture – metropolises sitting atop a middle layer of “brokers” which both in turn sit atop a base of extractive – for raw materials – and consumptive – for finished metropolitan products: culture, learning, sophistication, technological applications, material products etc (in addition to bearing disproportionately the costs of this iniquitious arrangement, the global south – which is the undisputed base of the pyramid – also find out that their prized products i.e. raw materials can only have one go within the cycle while the products from other places can have several go’s and the global south geopolities soon find themselves heavy in debt…which global north actors further help them into by actively ensuring their political systems never throw up the right sort of leaders; where the right sort emerge they are killed or hounded into exile).

With this sort of information background, a number of developments in Nigerian history begin to make better sense (even though they still remain entirely inexcusable for their proximate actors): the failings and foibles of the First Republic (events like the “federal legislative coup d’etat” enacted against the Western Region government in 1962, the census brouhaha of 1962 and 1963 and finally the election irregularities of 1964 and 1965 which proved to be the last straw), the “inducement” to a violent change of government in Jan 1966 and the slanted BBC reportage of the affair – which set the stage for the bloody reprisals later in the year culminating in a bloodier civil war and at the end of it that bloody decade Nigerians lost for a season any notions of greatness or of becoming anything more than an extractive-consumptive economy, in addition to acquiring national and sectional bad habits (which haunt us still to this day).

We rebooted to status quo – as it were – with a vengeance, and even embraced rabid conspicuous consumption (which had already made an entrance into the national psyche since the late 1950s but went into some abeyance with the economic restrictions brought on by the Nigerian Civil War) which we then began to pay for by rapacious corruption – since our governments became increasingly niggardly with remuneration even as we became more enamoured of baubles and fripperies – and by other social unsavoury. These moral failings we, in turn, attempted to extirpate by overweening religiosity and rank sociocultural hypocrisy (this is really a sweeping sociological and psychological generalisation but I believe it effectively summarises what is in fact a complicated existential phenomenon) and we muddled on from there, constantly inventing new ways of shuffling and shovelling our shit in order to deodorise it (but never actually attempting to remove it all; with it might disappear the “national identity” we won in the wake of our “War of National Unity”).

When, some three years later, dreams of national greatness (and of international significance) resurged (resulting in the organisation of ECOWAS), the head government of the day was removed unceremoniously (under some political pretext or the other). When the successor proved too energetic in that direction as well, he was similarly removed (albeit in a more bloody fashion and using “native messengers” to send a louder message) and at last the lesson was learnt. By 1980 (with a new “democratic” government in the saddle) that type of dream was finally laid to rest officially. The Fifth National Development Plan launched that year tells the tale eloquently vis à vis the very ambitious Third and Fourth National Development Plans; in the event, little or no attempt was made to implement the plan (although the money earmarked for it was mostly looted) before the military came calling once more and declared the death of all National Development plans. Incidentally, the man who led this effort got elected as President 30 years on and served out two full terms (make of that what you will).

Against the backdrop of all the foregoing (whose relevance to your question you may justifiably wonder at), you may be able to glimpse that for Nigerians in Nigeria: ethnic identity (and increasingly religious identity too) is an identity of law-abiding survival based on the pattern, content and outcome of our sociopolitical, ethnocultural, psycho-moral and geo-economic relations with each other, and with our governments and their institutions of the state (which is another anomaly in our setting: in other places, the government is an institution of the state but in Nigeria the government is also the state, and the state institutions are incarnations of government, and of the particular section of the geopolitics forming such a government – like a mediaeval state but a hundred times worse in terms of efficiency) over the course of our century or so of living together.

Does this then mean there’s nowhere within Nigeria where citizens (this is another problematic concept in our geopolitics but I’d rather say little or nothing about it here) spontaneously congregate as Nigerians and nothing else?

Well, there are a few. In fact, we really have only two types of instances where ethnic or religious identity never comes up at all:

  1. Where the interaction is so superficial, and ephemeral and is not expected to prove consequential nor lead to any lasting bond. This mostly occurs in urban areas with interactions like brief conversations in public transport or in clubs and bars (and many times even these may lead up to conversations where ethnic and religious identity come up, partly because we’ve gotten so good at identifying each other right off the bat!) or with frolics like parties, street carnivals and the like. But increasingly, these are getting to become ethnic and religious-themed (or, rather, subsisting ethnic and religious festivals are being rebranded as urban frolics for revenue generation but with the danger that the urban frolic might soon transmogrify into a bastion of ethnic jingoism instead of being its mausoleum).
  2. When a crime or some other such-like illegality/infamy is being planned and/or executed. Yes, the underworld is the most ethnically and religiously integrated sphere in Nigeria. Even with the existence in the last two and a half decades of first ethnic, then latterly (in the last decade and a half or so) religious militia and terrorists, Nigeria’s criminal ecosystem is still far better integrated than any other ecosystem in the country (and it may be the reason it tends to be the most successful sector of the Nigerian economy as well as the most visible in its social spere; it’s reaping wildly the benefits of leveraged diversity).

In every other serious and respectable endeavour in Nigeria, conversations and interactions are foregrounded on careful ethnic and religious balancing (this is actually a socio-legal and politico-cultural requirement of sorts). Ironic, isn’t it? Criminals running a better social and economic governance system than the government of the day. But then, such existential paradoxes abound in the pale shadowlands called Nigeria.

This isn’t meant to be a nailed-shut answer, however; bleak as the outlook is, it isn’t irredeemable. Indeed, the second part of your question asks why the citizens can’t simply get together and eschew their differences.

Again, the question is founded on a fundamental misconception: that the citizens created the mess, and can by a concerted redirection of social and intellectual energies clean it up. Nothing could be further from the truth; not the least because there are informal grades to Nigerian citizenship, and only the top three grades or so reap any sort of benefit from “Nigerian citizenship” – for the rest it’s a huge burden which their ethnic and religious (for the average far northerner and southeasterner or south southerner, this would be “ethnoreligious identity”) does provide some respite from. So there is really no incentive to jettison the ethnic and religious identity for a doubtful Nigerian identity which offers no security for survival.

For those who benefit from it, there’s no incentive to change anything either since their benefit consists, not in systematic oppression or discrimination against anyone but in manipulative oppression of the other lower grades (and membership in the higher or lower grades is really fluid, depending as it does on access to the levers of the supervening extractive economy); change would mean a loss of their privileged position, as well as of the people whose sense of identity they can manipulate to obtain even more political, economic, social or psychological power. It’s no wonder there are secessionist sentiments in every part of geopolitics but the top citizens are loathed to let anyone leave (foremost proponents of ethnic secession have, in fact, been clamped down severely upon).

Of course, the top citizens didn’t create this state of affairs either (although they and their forbears have had numerous opportunities to alter the state of affairs to be more participatory and less confrontational but they declined to do this); in fact, many of them are hard-pressed to state how it came about (and some of them even believe it’s the “ordained pattern of things”).

In this kind of milieu, any change can come only through one of three means:

  1. The emergence of an insightful and decisive leadership (we currently are in no danger of this, sadly) who is concerned enough about the matter and is minded to do something about it (as well as courageous enough to completely dismantle the current warped, self-grown system we have we have, and then proctor the installation of a new carefully negotiated and constructed geopolitical ecosystem);
  2. A radical revolution which sweeps away much of our current sociopolitical and geo-economic arrangements as well as forcefully and irreparably assaults our ethnocultural and psych-moral sensibilities enough to jettison aspects of our expression of same;
  3. An external invasion which forces us to unite behind our commonalities on an equal basis out of a desire for survival.

Of course, Nos 2 and 3 and rather imprecise tools for the job, and can very well lead to more complications in geopolitics. Its executors envisioned January 15, 1966, as a type of No. 2 but the results went horribly sideways and we’re still reeling from the aftereffects of that misadventure 58 years later; the attacks by Islamic terrorists in the North of the country (which one may term an invasion of sorts) has also not resulted in any significant reversals of the problem (mainly because it neatly folded into the problem: for about five or seven years, Northern elite shielded the terrorists as long as they were attacking only southerners and Christians, but once northern moslems began to be attacked then the whole country united behind the narrative of their been terrorists (while still disagreeing on what to do to them).

And one must admit No. 1 is extremely idealist as it is remote from immediate possibilities.

And we’re left, in the best Nigerian fashion, with the option of invoking help from an extraterrestrial Deity (while privately retaining the option of leaning on those of our ethnic and religious extraction for survival).

Editorial Team
Editorial Team
We are a team of experienced journalists, bloggers, writers, columnists, and content creators. We are first to breaking news, top stories and insights.

Latest News