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Ethnic Minority Conflicts and Governance in Nigeria

Rotimi T. Suberu


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1Ethnic minority tensions and agitations are an important feature of the ongoing struggles to resolve the ”national question” and re-institute democracy in Nigeria. This book explores the fundamental contours and dimensions of contemporary ethnic minority problems in Nigeria through narrative profiles of two of the most recent and incendiary instances of minority conflicts and agitations, namely, the campaigns for economic restitution and ecological rehabilitation by oil-bearing communities in the Rivers State and the struggles for self-determination and cultural integrity by non-Hausa-Fulani communities of ”Southern Zaria” in Kaduna State.

2The report and its case-studies are organised around the illumination and discussion of four broad themes: the underlying structural and historical sources of ethnic minority problems in Nigeria; the strategies by which ethnic minority groups have sought to protest and overcome their disadvantaged positions in the Nigerian federation; the policy responses of the Nigerian state to ethnic minority agitations and tensions; and the requisites and prospects for the creative, ordered, rule-based, peaceful and more equitable accommodation and resolution of the country’s ethnic minority problems.

3The book suggests that minority problems in Nigeria are deeply rooted in complex historical and structural processes of pre-colonial and colonial incorporation and consolidation of diverse ethnic segments, federal territorial evolution and reorganizations, revenue allocation, and political competition and representation. These processes have operated not only to foster and institutionalize the oppressive hegemony of the country’s three major ethnicities of Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Ibo, but also to legitimize the inordinate expropriation of the resources of the oil-producing communities as part of an official strategy of centralized national ”cake-sharing”.

4Since 1986, ethnic minority leadership groups and communities have reacted to the abuses, excesses and inequities of the Nigerian state through a combination of peaceful and violent campaigns for wide-ranging political reforms. In the Rivers State, the oil-bearing communities have sought economic and political concessions from the federation through peaceful domestic demonstrations and protestations, the mobilization of international support and sympathy for the ecological concerns of these communities and the violent disruption of the operations and installations of state-backed multinational companies in the oil sector. The political strategy of the southern Kaduna minorities has consisted mainly of fatally violent uprisings or rebellions against the (traditionally-entrenched) political, cultural and economic hegemony of Hausa settler-communities and the Fulani emirate system.

5Official responses to this ethnic minority ferment have been redistributive, reorganizational and/or regulative or repressive in nature. Redistributive state responses to ethnic minority grievances have involved token revisions in federal revenue sharing arrangements to accommodate and assuage the strident claims of ”oil-producing communities to a significant proportion of economic resources obtained from their localities. Reorganizational policies have included the creation of new units of constituent, federally-funded, state and local authorities in response to ethnic minority demands for autonomy, participation and decentralization.

6Reflecting the inadequacy and failure of its redistributive and reorganizational policies, however, the Nigerian state has resorted increasingly to regulatory or repressive strategies of ethnic minority containment. These regulatory measures have included the proscription or banning of ethnic minority associations; the confinement, detention, arbitrary conviction and/or imprisonment of outspoken ethnic minority elites; the violent suppression, by military force, of protests, demonstrations and uprisings by ethnic minority communities; and the official declaration of ethnic minority agitations for autonomy or self-determination as a seditious or treasonable offence punishable with the death penalty!

7These intimidatory and regulatory responses to ethnic minority grievances, however, merely reflect and compound a profound crisis of state legitimacy and federal governance in Nigeria. In order to mediate or moderate this crisis, and enhance the capacity of the Nigerian state to pursue and promote non-repressive and accommodative policies of inter-ethnic equity, reciprocity and amity, the concluding chapter of the book proposes a number of institutional reforms. These include considerable decentralization of power and resources away from the central state apparatus to the constituent governments and ethnic segments; greater recognition of the peculiar needs and fears of minority communities in the implementation of federal territorial reforms; the rigorous elaboration, constitutionalization and implementation of consociative or ”power-sharing” mechanisms in the political process; the empowerment of the judiciary and related mediatory political and societal institutions; the rapid and radical demilitarization and democratization of the Nigerian polity; and the organization of a vigorous and cohesive ”ethnic minority advocacy infrastructure”.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1996

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