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Ethnic Nationalities and Emerging Challenges in Nigeria (Part 2) Introduction

Read Time:8 Minute, 43 Second

Ethnic Conflicts and Nigeria

Nigeria is befuddled with grave ethnic conflicts. This deprives her of the much needed National Unity. No Nation can ever develop, along those fundamental fault lines of ethnic disharmony. National unity is thereby, endangered.

National unity is the most important factor, that holds a country together. It occurs when people live and work together, in harmony and love. It allows leaders to harvest citizens’ commitment and contribution, to nation-building and national development. It serves as one of the most effective weapons of preventing internal conflicts, which are capable of draining the internal resources of a nation and derailing its progress. Most people do not care, about a country parting or breaking up. No country can develop meaningfully, without an idea of national unity. Nigeria, according to Prof Onigu Otite, has 374 ethnic groups, speaking over 500 languages. This ought, ordinarily, to amplify her rich plurality and diversities in a positive way. But, the reverse appears to be the case.

These groups are broken down along religious, linguistic and tribal lines. These divisions had always existed, but were further broken down at independence into a multi-ethnic nation State.

With these centripetal and centrifugal divisions, the nation has been battling with the problem of ethnicity on the one hand, and the problem of ethno-religious conflicts on the other, as has been witnessed severally when ethnic and religious intolerance led to ethno-religious conflicts.

Even from the atavistic tone of the names of organisations championing the Niger Delta struggles since independence, the mobilisation efforts sketched above present a challenge for analysts, many of whom have simply interpreted the motivations and agendas of grassroots struggles in the Niger Delta as primordial, exclusionist and particularistic; in other words, as fundamentally ethnic and capable of undermining national renaissance. It is important to mention here that, ‘ethnic group’ refers to the social identity built on the mythopoetry of language, history, cultural practices, myths, symbols and (in the case of Nigeria also) geographic location. This working definition in no way endorses primordialism ideas of frozen or fossilised identities, and does certainly take account of the constructivist notion of changeability and manipulability. It does not accept extreme constructivist ideas of ‘ethnic group’, as something entirely invented or fabricated.

A notable scholarly attempt to dissect the Niger Delta struggle and similar tendencies in other parts of Nigeria, which contains case analyses of the mobilisation activities of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Odua People’s Congress (OPC), and Arewa People’s Congress (APC), Ikelegbe tries to show how, contrary to popular notions of ‘civil society’ as “the beacon of freedom, the fountain for the protection of civil rights and of resistance against State repression, the objectives, methods and roles” of ‘civil society’ organisations could undermine the democratic project. The IYC, which as earlier indicated, has been involved in the Niger Delta mobilisation since the 1990s, is portrayed as only speaking the minds of the Ijaws, and at least parts of the Niger Delta’ – a prime example of what the author terms, ‘perverse’ civil society.

Accordingly, the author offers an insight into what the term ‘ethnic’ could mean, by contrasting it with ‘civic’ or ‘ideal’. He argues that ‘ethnic’ mobilisation tends to be ‘sectional’, ‘criminal’, ‘anarchic’, ‘parochial’ and ‘centrifugal’. The three organisations in his analysis are therefore, ethnic movements ‘masquerading as civil society’. This focus on the activities of formal activist organisations, rather than on the narratives and lived worlds of the ordinary people the organisations ‘represent’, presents analytical difficulties of its own, as shown later. For one thing, it makes it easy to cast local struggles as ‘sectional’ and ‘parochial’. The organisations are also portrayed as ‘criminal’ and ‘anarchic’, on account of their protest methodology. Their key protest strategy, is believed to be ‘violence’. The ‘tendency for aggrieved groups to take up arms in their encounters with the State and other groups, and the support the groups enjoy from ‘civil groups of elders and political leaders’ are deplored. This is despite sociological arguments, that violence is sometimes a ‘smoke from the fire’ of unjust public institutions, State policies and the political process, or injustices in the corporate and transnational spheres.

Cesarz et al also hinted that, the Niger Delta mobilisation could be disguised ethnicity. For them, inter-ethnic violence is a longstanding feature of the oil-rich Niger Delta, and Ijaw militancy in particular, is viewed as a risk to international oil interests and to Nigeria’s future as a united and stable polity. Local groups, the authors suggest, are no longer to be seen as ‘a loosely organised ethnic, sporadic movement, they are now an ‘armed ethnic militia’ capable of derailing Nigeria’s new-found democracy. Reacting to that line of analysis are Douglas et al, who challenge the use of the term ‘ethnic militia’ to describe local activist groups. Such a depiction, they argue, misrepresents the essence of the Niger Delta struggle.

However, whether the two groups of analysts are operating from different epistemic platforms, is another matter entirely. For one thing, Douglas et al view the emerging coalition-building efforts among community groups in the Niger Delta, as constituting a ‘bulwark against the ethnic majorities’. Now one will simply ask, what is the empirical basis for suggesting that ordinary people in the Niger Delta as mobilising against the ‘ethnic majorities’, and how is this view different from Cesarz et al’s suggestion that the local activists are involved in a disguised ‘ethnic’ warfare ?

There is also the argument that while local struggles might stem from economic and political disparities in Nigeria, they might fundamentally be attributable to “communal pressures that have characterised the Niger Delta and many other parts of Nigeria”. Welch calls these ‘communal pressures matters of ethnic self-determination, maintaining that economic and political change in a multi-ethnic milieu like Nigeria, invariably triggers ethnic conflict.

Short of portraying Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities as fundamentally incompatible social groupings, he posits that Nigeria as an entity ‘came into being long before a substantial number of its residents felt themselves to be “Nigerians”. While Welch uses this essentialist analysis to interrogate the concept of individual rights and to make a contribution to the ‘group rights’ debate, concerns might be raised as to whether his argument does not, in fact, distort the complexity of the Niger Delta crisis. A more nuanced insight into the Niger Delta conflict might be gained from Bangura’s ‘three crises’ of post-colonial African State – those of ‘capacity’, ‘governance’ and ‘security’. The works of Osadolor, Agboola and Alabi, Agiobenebo and Aribaolanari, and Uga, among others, are more explicit in ‘revealing’ what it is that engenders disaffection between the oil-producing region and the major ethnic nationalities. They argue that it is the ‘majority groups’ that determine the framework for petroleum exploitation (as well as inter-ethnic relations and political governance) in Nigeria, and unfairly profit from it. As Agiobenebo and Aribaolanari put it: “the ethnic minorities of the Niger Delta are treated as objects (property) owned by the majority groups, to be dealt with according to their whims and caprices”. There is even an implicit (but erroneous) assumption by these analysts, that it is on behalf of their own people that the major ethnic groups ‘control’ political power in Nigeria, and suppress socio-economic development in the Niger Delta. It is noteworthy that Obi places the protests and demands of Niger Delta groups such as MOSOP, within the rubric of grassroots struggles for broader societal transformation. He suggests that the Niger Delta conflict must be seen in terms of its connection to “broader popular social struggles for empowerment and democracy”. This line of analysis, which forms part of what Idemudia and Ite call an ‘integrated explanation’, and which speaks directly to the conflict’s deeper social character, has been obscured in so much of the literature.

The above review also shows that while some analysts have acknowledged that the issues in the Niger Delta struggle transcend ‘local concerns’, and that the struggle makes a strong statement on the pains that a ‘distant state’ has inflicted on the Nigerian society as a whole, the failure of governance at the national level is not given the explanatory status it deserves. This begs the question as to why the search for empirical information on grassroots struggles such as those in the Niger Delta, almost inevitably proceeds from an ethnic frame of reference. Could it be, as Mamdani has conjectured concerning conflicts in Africa, that the bifurcated nature of the State shaped under colonialism, and of the politics it shaped in turn, had now appeared in the theory that tried to explain it?

However, the next section sheds some light on this question. Some of the aforementioned analyses, especially the strand that suggests that the Niger Delta struggle is a way of ‘striking back’ at, or at least resisting the major ethnic nationalities who appropriate the ‘lion’s share’ of Nigeria’s petroleum revenues at the expense of the oil-producing region, have all the ingredients of the ‘competition theses of ethnic mobilisation. I will also opine here that, where State policies appear to disproportionately benefit some regions of a multi-ethnic society, heightened ethnic awareness and collective ethnic action across the society become common tendencies in the society in question. As Feagin puts it, ‘competition occurs when two or more ethnic groups attempt to secure the same resources’; besides, ‘ethnic competition destabilises group relations.

Seen from such a perspective, the geologic fact of petroleum not being evenly distributed across Nigeria can be a basis for ethnic competition. However, the competition becomes exacerbated and produces invidious socio-political outcomes for the entire polity, where State policies driving the utilisation of resources seem to favour some geo-ethnic groups, while disadvantaging the others.

The works of Osadolor, Agbola and Alabi, Agiobenebo and Aribaolanari, and Uga, generally make this point. Since groups in the Niger Delta could not be mobilising simply for the sake of doing so, the insight that these analysts attempt to proffer is that the Niger Delta mobilisation must be for the maximisation of sectional interests, with the non-producing ethnic groups a target of their grievance. Also, Akpan stated thus, ‘It would of course, not be correct to assume that the ‘unfair’ appropriation of national resources by some leaders from the major ethnic groups, has been fundamentally for the ‘greater good’ of ordinary people in their geo-ethnic regions.” (To be continued)

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