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Ethnic Minority Conflicts and Governance in Nigeria

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Rotimi T. Suberu

Chapter Two

Background: The Chequered Fortunes of Ethnic Minorities under Changing Political Regimes in Nigeria

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1Nigeria’s current ethnic minority problems have been shaped by developments in the country’s recent and distant past. Indeed, by most accounts, the fortunes of Nigeria’s ethnic minorities have varied in tandem with changes in the internal territorial configuration of the federation, in the composition and orientation of successive federal government administrations, and in the rules for allocating centralized resources among the constituent governments and segments of the country.

2In the following pages, the impact of the aforementioned sociopolitical and economic changes on the fortunes of ethnic minorities during five broad phases of Nigeria’s political history will be discussed. The five phases are: the immediate pre-independence period from 1954 to 1960; the First Republic, 1960-66; the first military interregnum 1966-79; the Second Republic, 1979-83; and the second military interregnum, 1984-till date.

The Immediate Pre-independence Period, 1954-60

3This period marked the beginning of the institutionalization of the regional system and the development of ethnic minority discontent in Nigeria. It also witnessed the establishment of a colonially appointed Commission of Inquiry into the Fears of Minorities and the Means of Allaying them. As shall be shown subsequently, this commission came to be widely denounced for its failure to proffer adequate and timely solutions for accommodating and resolving ethnic minority grievances in Nigeria.

4Leaving aside the profound anomalies and inequities arising from the accidental and irregular processes of British colonial conquest and incorporation which culminated in the establishment of Nigeria as a single entity in 1914, the roots of Nigeria’s minority problems can be traced to the following three factors:

  • The transformation of the three culturally artificial administrative regions initially established for the North, West and East in 1939 into fully autonomous units of a federal polity in 1954.
  • The progressive movement towards regional and national self-government, and the attendant anxieties among minority communities regarding the replacement of the British colonial rulers with indigenous ruling elites drawn predominantly from the majority sections; and
  • The astute mobilization of big tribe nationalism around electoral majorities as part of the process of transition towards self-government.

5Apart from establishing the demographic and political predominance of the North over the Western and Eastern Regions, the federal system instituted in 1954 also reified and entrenched the interests and identities of the Northern Hausa-Fulani, Western Yoruba and Eastern Ibo nationalities in the three regional units.

6The obvious and increasingly vociferous victims of this regional arrangement were the diverse minority groups which comprised roughly about a third of the population of each of the three regions. These groupings consisted primarily of the Kanuri, Nupe, Tiv, Igala, Jukun and the Ilorin-Kabba Yoruba in the North, the Edo, Urhobo, Ijaw, Itsekiri and the Western Ibos in the Western Region and the Ibibio-Annang, Efik and Ijaw in the East. Fearing or alleging political domination and socioeconomic discrimination under the tripartite regional system, these minority groups embarked on a vigorous campaign for new regions or states in which their minority status could be substantially ameliorated, or completely eliminated.

7Thus, as independence approached, the overriding concern of the minorities was to ensure that independence would be granted on the basis of an ethnically equitable, multistate federal framework, rather than the structurally lopsided tripartite regional system. Unfortunately, the crucial issue of new states (or regions) was dodged by the 1957-58 Colonial Commission of Inquiry into the problems of minorities.

8In deciding against the creation of new regions, the Minorities Commission was apparently influenced by the Colonial Government’s blunt insistence that the creation of new states was not only affirmatively undesirable but also manifestly incompatible with the scheduled granting of independence in 1960. Claiming that the fears of the minorities were real, but exaggerated, the commission concluded that the creation of new states was unnecessary. This is because, in the opinion of the commission, such new units would not eliminate the problems of minorities, would impose heavy administrative and financial burdens on the new federation and would perpetuate tribalist or separatist sentiments that ”might otherwise disappear” (Willink, 1958:88).

9On the other hand, the commission was optimistic that the institutionalization of a liberal democratic political system, the growth in the power and prestige of the federal administration (as distinct from the regional governments), and the attendant incentive for the parties to appeal to ethnic minority constituencies in the quest for electoral advantage at the national level, would combine to produce strong pressures for the conciliation of the minorities.

10However, the commission proposed a number of formal constitutional and administrative mechanisms to allay the fears of the minorities. These included: the establishment of minority areas in Benin and Calabar Provinces; the creation of a special Development Board for the Ijaw of the Niger Delta; the continued implementation of legal reforms to protect non-Muslim minorities in the North; the entrenchment of fundamental human rights in the constitution; the establishment of a national, rather than regionalized, police force; and the organization of a plebiscite to determine whether the Ilorin and Kabba Yoruba minority in the North should be transferred to the Western Region.

11Except for the proposed Ilorin-Kabba plebiscite, all the aforementioned recommendations were eventually implemented by the parties concerned. Furthermore, a subsequent constitutional conference in 1958, while upholding the Colonial Government’s opposition to the immediate creation of new states, nevertheless agreed upon a procedure by which such units could be created in the future.

12Nevertheless, the Minorities Commission’s proposals fell short of the demands of the minorities, or of their objective needs as structurally disadvantaged segments of the federation. The commission would appear to have underestimated the ideological and political potency of the separate state movements. It also ignored the potentially centralizing, integrative and stabilizing role of the new states. Moreover, it overlooked the vulnerability of mere constitutional safeguards for human and minority rights in the face of the increasingly bitter and intense rivalry and competition for power among regional elites. Above all, the commission evidently shared the Colonial Government’s thinly veiled opposition to the fragmentation of the redoubtable regional base of the conservative, pro-British Northern political class, which inherited the mantle of power from the colonialists at independence.

13In essence, Nigeria attained independence in October 1960 as a federation with an unusual composition and a weak foundation of legitimacy among the ethnic minorities. This patently flawed federal structure was an important source of the political crisis and ethnic conflicts which convulsed and consumed Nigeria’s first post-independence experiment in democratic governance (Diamond, 1988).

The First Republic, 1960-66

14The key feature of this phase of Nigeria’s political history was the perpetuation of a regionalist federal system that gave very little recognition to Nigeria’s complex ethnic diversities, to the need for structural balance in the composition of the federation and to minority fears of discriminatory domination under majority rule. Other notable features of this era of Nigeria’s political development were the continued manipulation of ethnic minority fears in the competitive struggles among the major parties, and the politically motivated excision of the Mid-West Region from the West in 1963.

15The unresolved issue of minority states was an important element in electoral struggles among the three major regional parties, namely the Hausa-Fulani-dominated Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), the Yoruba-based Action Group (AG), and the Ibo-led National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC). The elections held during this period often became a ”crucial test of strength on the minority issue,” with the AG, in particular, relying on the vigorous manipulation of ethnic minority grievances in a bid to penetrate the regional bases of its rivals and/or assume control of the Federal Government (Rotchild, 1963). Indeed, the AG and its rivals established instrumental alliances with political associations which had emerged in opposing regions to advance ethnic minority demands. The AG, for instance, aligned at various times with the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC), the Bornu Youth Movement (BYM), and the Ilorin Talaka Parapo in the North, and the United National Independence Party (UNIP) in the East.

16Although it flirted with various ethnic and political minority associations in the North, the NCNC was involved primarily with associations agitating for the separation of the Mid-West (which included a significant Ibo population) from the Western Region. These associations included the Benin-Delta Peoples Party (BDPP), the Mid-West. State Movement (MSM) and the Otu-Edo.

17Given its commitment to the continuity of the regional system in general, and to the stability of its redoubtable Northern regional base in particular, the NPC was the least enthusiastic of the major parties about employing the strategy of inciting or supporting separatist movements in regions controlled by rival parties. Nevertheless, the NPC ultimately came to be associated with the Niger Delta Congress (NDC) in the East and the Mid-West Democratic Front (MDF). Indeed, the NPC’s support was a decisive factor in the eventual establishment of the Mid-West as the fourth region of the federation in 1963.

18The creation of the Mid-West Region was the outcome of a determined assault by the NPC-NCNC coalition Federal Government on the AG opposition. The move did not reflect a genuine desire of the coalition partners to resolve ethnic minority grievances in the federation. Thus, while demonstrating an eagerness to use their dominant position to decimate the Action Group’s Western regional base, the federal coalition parties would not contemplate any reorganizations of their own Northern and Eastern bases, even though these areas contained very restive minority communities. In essence, the reorganization of 1963 left the flawed federal structure virtually intact, and could not mitigate the destructive ethnoregional conflicts that led to the collapse of the First Republic and the imposition of military rule in January 1966.

The First Military Interregnum, 1966-79

19This period featured historic and dramatic changes in the federal structure and in majority-minority relations. These changes were themselves the result of several important developments in Nigeria’s political economy. These developments included the rise to political prominence of a military-bureaucratic establishment in which ethnic minority elements were disproportionately represented; the replacement of the regional system with a multi-state federal structure; and the phenomenal expansion and growing domination of public finances by oil revenues, derived largely from the southern minority areas.

20The July 1966 coup, which ousted the six-month old Administration of Ibo General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, installed ethnic minority elements in key positions of state power. Unlike the Ironsi Administration, which came to be associated with a campaign to replace Hausa-Fulani with Ibo hegemony, the incoming Yakubu Gowon Administration was dominated by minority elements and interests.

21Gowon was a northern ethnic-minority officer from the Angas tribe in the Middle-Belt. In managing Nigerian affairs in the difficult period before, during and after the civil war (1967-70), Gowon relied heavily for policy advice and implementation on a powerful group of southern minority civil servants or ”super permanent secretaries” such as Allison Ayida, P.C. Asiodu and Eme Ebong.

22Despite the considerable reversals and reprisals suffered by the minorities in the wake both of Gowon’s removal in July 1975, and of the unsuccessful coup plot against the Murtala Mohammed - Olusegun Obasanjo regime in February 1976, the policies and legacies of the Gowon era were sufficiently profound and immense to guarantee for the minorities an enhanced position in the government and politics of the Nigerian federation.

23Perhaps the most outstanding of Gowon’s policies towards the ethnic minorities was the replacement of the four-region structure with a twelve-state system in 1967. Unlike Ironsi, who avoided the issue of new states, Gowon was convinced from the outset that ”without a definite commitment on the states’ question, normalcy and freedom from fear of domination by one region or the other cannot be achieved” (Elaigwu, 1986:87).

24Consequently, in the wake of the imminent secession of the Eastern Region in May 1967, Gowon inaugurated a twelve-state structure, comprising six states each in the Northern and Southern regions of the country. By fragmenting the North into six states, Gowon not only gave satisfaction to some longstanding Northern minority statehood demands, he also relieved southern apprehensions about the disproportionate size of the North. More importantly, the creation of the Rivers and South-Eastern states for minority communities in the Eastern Region was decisive in sustaining the commitment of these communities to federal unity, and in undermining support for the Ibo-led Eastern regional secessionist bid. In essence, although the 1967 state creation exercise also gave satisfaction to subethnic agitations for statehood status within the majority groups, its primary rationale was to liberate the minorities from the regional stranglehold of the ethnic majority groups.

25Seven additional states were created in 1976 to establish a nineteen-state structure. However, the primary rationale for the 1976 exercise was largely distributive. The states were expected to serve as avenues for the equitable diffusion of federal revenues, rather than simply as instruments of ethnic minority autonomy or security. This distributive rationale required the fragmentation not only of the heterogeneous minority communities but also of the homogeneous majority groups as well. Consequently, while the twelve-state structure had comprised an equal number of ethnic majority and minority states, the nineteen-state structure consisted of a total of twelve ethnic majority states against only seven minority states.

26Perhaps the most glaring example of the victimization or marginalization of the minorities during the 1976 re-organization was the failure of the Mohammed-Obasanjo Administration to endorse the recommendation of the Ayo Irikefe Panel that the minority South Eastern state be split into two (Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1976:30). Instead, the Government chose to maintain the two small, contiguous and homogeneous Yoruba states of Ogun and Lagos as separate units, thereby defying, once again, Irikefe’s recommendation that the two states be merged (Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1976:22).

27The changes in the system of revenue sharing, even more than the prejudiced reorganizations of the state-structure, epitomized the growing subordination of minority to majority ethnic interests during the first phase of military rule in Nigeria. The key feature of intergovernmental financial relations during this period was the alteration of the legal basis for intergovernmental revenue sharing in order to enforce and legitimize both the concentration of financial resources under federal aegis, and the massive transfer of wealth from the oil-rich southern minority states to the other parts of the country. Thus, whereas 50 per cent of all mining rents and royalties was allocated to the state of derivation in March 1969, by March 1979 only 20 per cent of on-shore mining rents and royalties was allocated on the basis of derivation. Furthermore, the military government extinguished derivation or revenue yielding capacity as a principle for allocating the Distributable Pool Account (DPA), which account was established in 1958 for devolving specified centrally-collected revenues to the regions/states. Instead, the two simplistic principles of population and inter-unit equality were invoked by the military to divide the DPA. Given the distribution of states between majority and minority communities, and the larger population of the former, the two revenue sharing principles tended to favour ethnic majority interests.

28In addition, the last six months of military rule were characterized by the implementation of the Ojetunji Aboyade Revenue sharing scheme which completely extinguished the principle of derivation from fiscal federalism (Oyovbaire, 1985:193). Essentially, the scheme involved the consolidation of all federally collected revenues, including mineral royalties and profits, into a Federation Account to be shared between the centre, the states, the localities and a federally administered special grants account in the order of 57, 30, 10, and 3 per cent respectively. Although the special grants account was intended to be administered for the benefit of mineral producing areas and other areas in need of special attention, no mention was made of the derivation principle in Aboyade’s proposals for interstate revenue sharing. Indeed, it was not until the inauguration of the Second Republic in October 1979 that a bold attempt was made to re-introduce the derivation principle into the system of revenue sharing in Nigeria, and to end the progressive ”rigging of minority economic rights” under the first phase of military rule (The Guardian, 10 May 1992.B5).

The Second Republic, 1979-83

29Succinctly put, this short-lived period had a mixed impact on ethnic minority fortunes. On the one hand, opportunities for the advancement of ethnic minority interests were afforded by the establishment of an American-style presidential system, which required the President to obtain nation-wide support; by the introduction of the ”federal character” principle, which mandated broad ethnic representation in the composition of key national bodies; and by the key role played by ethnic minority constituencies in the electoral victories of the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN).

30On the other hand, the ethnoregionalist zoning policy of the NPN, the centrist revenue sharing policy prescribed by the Pius Okigbo Commission on Revenue Allocation, the protracted legal conflicts between the Federal Government and the oil-producing minority state of Bendel, the ethnic fragmentation and political fractionalization of the minority groups, and the abrupt termination of the life of the Second Republic at the end of 1983, all combined to abort the effective advancement of ethnic minority interests during this period.

31For instance, the NPN’s controversial ethnoregional zoning formula ultimately operated to re-establish ”the well-known triangular pattern of Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba and Ibo predominance” (Joseph, 1978:84). Thus, although the minorities occupied important positions in the Senate and the federal cabinet under NPN rule, the party’s three most important national positions — presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and party chairman—remained within the firm grip of ethnic majority elements.

32In the economic sphere, the minorities would appear to have benefited only marginally under the Second Republic. The Presidential Commission on Revenue Allocation under Dr. Pius Okigbo opposed the allocation of any percentage of the Federation Account to the oil-rich states on the basis of derivation. The commission, however, recommended the use of two per cent of the Account for the ecological rehabilitation of mineral producing areas. It also called for the restitution of all federally-collected mining rents to the governments of the affected mineral producing states (Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1980).

33The policies implemented by the Shagari Administration differed only marginally from the Okigbo proposals. The Administration assigned two per cent of the Federation Account to the mineral producing states on the basis of derivation, and also provided for the payment of 1.5 per cent of the Account into a special fund to be administered by the Federal Government for the development and rehabilitation of mineral producing areas.

34The Administration, however, objected to the Okigbo Commission’s recommendation that federally-collected mineral rents should be returned in whole to the affected state governments. Furthermore, the protracted legal battles between the Federal Government and the Government of Bendel State not only aborted the implementation of a Senate-initiated Revenue Act that was relatively more favourable to the oil producing minorities, but also prevented the disbursement of 1.5 per cent of the Federation Account approved for the rehabilitation of mineral producing areas (Suberu, 1992:35-41). It was, indeed, not until after the collapse of the Second Republic at the end of 1983 that some attempt was made to administer the fund.

The Second Military Interregnum, 1984 to Date

35This largely is the period covered by this research project. The period has been characterized by the sharpening, hardening and heightening of ethnic minority discontent. Such polarization has occurred in spite of the far-reaching measures that have been implemented by the military administration to mollify aggrieved ethnic minority communities, especially in the oil-producing areas.

36Four reasons may be adduced for the intensification of ethnic minority discontent under the second military interregnum. The first relates simply to the inducement and opportunity which General Ibrahim Babangida’s programmes of democratic transition and economic reconstruction have provided for the mobilization, crystallization and articulation of long-standing ethnic minority grievances in the country. A second reason relates to the accumulated weaknesses, contradictions, inadequacies or counter-productive consequences of some of the policies that have been mounted in response to ethnic minority problems in the federation. A related and third reason involves the sectionally polarizing impact of some decisions implemented by the military government. Examples of such ill-advised policies include the enlistment of the country in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the arbitrary trials of ethnic minority elements implicated in some of the recent ethnic or ethnoreligious disturbances in the federation. The fourth and final reason for the intensification of ethnic minority agitation in the Nigerian federation involves the demonstration effects arising from the global resurgence of ethnic nationality and sectarian movements, particularly in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

37In the subsequent sections of the book, a fuller exploration of two of the most turbulent instances of ethnic minority conflicts during the second military interregnum will be undertaken.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1996

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