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Ethnic Minority Conflicts and Governance in Nigeria

Rotimi T. Suberu

Chapter Five

Ethnic Minority Problems and Governance in Nigeria: Retrospect and Prospect

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1The foregoing discussion of the travails and struggles of ethnic minority communities in Rivers and Kaduna States — the former contending against economic expropriation and the latter against both cultural extinction and politico-economic marginalization — may now be related to the wider dimensions and conditions of ethnic minority alienation and discontent in the Nigerian federation. Indeed, in a fundamental sense, the problems of Nigeria’s ethnic minorities have resulted directly from specific contradictions and tensions in the evolution and operation of the Nigerian federal system. Several aspects of this federalist crisis can be readily identified. They include the over-centralization of the inter-governmental system; the inadequate recognition of the country’s ethnic configuration in the territorial organization of the federation; the relatively limited development of accommodative, consensual or power-sharing mechanisms; the absence or weakness of key mediatory or regulatory institutions; and the repeated distortion and abortion of democratic institutions and constitutions by the country’s civilian and military elites. A concerted and constructive rectification of these anomalies is indispensable to the amelioration of the plight of minorities in Nigeria.

Overcentralization and the Defective Federal State

2The overconcentration of power and resources in the federal government is perhaps the most widely lamented feature of the Nigerian federal system today. This overcentralization has resulted from the extended periods of military rule in the country, the heavy reliance of the political economy on centralized oil revenues, the popularity of centralist philosophies and strategies of development and the weak commitment of key elites to the practice of democratic decentralization. Among other consequences, this ”extreme centralization” has led to the virtual abrogation of truly federalist institutions and values, the destructive competition for the control of the central governmental machinery (especially the federal presidency), the loss of financial coherence and discipline at the federal level, the extreme dependence of the states and localities on federal developmental patronage and financial largesse and, consequently, the persistent communal pressures for new, federally-funded units of state and local government (Olowu, 1990).

3For the ethnic minority communities, in particular, overcentralization has led to such inauspicious and obnoxious outcomes as the erosion of the autonomy and security that genuinely federalist arrangements assure for minorities, the inordinate appropriation by the centre of the resources of the oil-rich Delta minority communities, and the direct and often counter-productive intervention of central authorities in those local and regional issues, such as the determination of local government boundaries, that are best left to subnational authorities or communities.

4MOSOP, for instance, claims that ”the fundamental problem of Nigeria is the centralization of state and economic powers which has led to the abject marginalization and impoverishment of minority groups and to some extent other non-ruling groups” (The Guardian, 27 June 1994:5). Similarly, a communique issued, during February 1994, by S.A. Asemota, Graham Douglas, Edwin Clark, George Innih and other prominent southern ethnic minority elites, advanced the ”general opinion...that repeated military intervention and dictatorship had fully established unitary government in Nigeria, which was exploited by the three largest ethnic nationalities to the utter neglect of the interest of the small nationalities, especially the Southern minorities” (The Guardian, 6 February 1994:A20).

5It is sometimes argued that a strong central state apparatus is needed if government is to intervene decisively to enforce, or prevent abuses of, ethnic minority rights at the subnational level. This argument would appear to be validated by Nigeria’s experiences during the late sixties, when the abrogation of the centrifugal regional system, and the consolidation of centralized federal powers, helped to secure the autonomy and dignity of Nigeria’s marginalized regional minorities. Nevertheless, the unchecked concentration of powers at the federal level has opened up the political process to excesses and abuses which invariably have harmed politically excluded or inadequately included segments, especially the ethnic minorities. Furthermore, given Nigeria’s relatively centralized ethnic structure (with three ethnic groups predominating), it is inevitable that political processes at the federal level will revolve largely around the accommodation of the interests of the ”big three”, at the expense of the consideration and conciliation of the interests of the more fragmented ethnic minority groups.

6In essence, it is on a decentralized structure of federalism, rather than upon a hegemonic central state apparatus, that Nigeria’s minorities must rely for the protection and promotion of minority rights. Genuine decentralization at all levels of governmental authority would give minority communities the autonomy and security they need to protect their rights from being eroded by the hegemonic machinations of the bigger ethnicities. To be effective in the Nigerian setting, such decentralization should encompass both political and economic devolution.

7Political Decentralization: This would entail a comprehensive decentralization of the federal system in order to endow the nation’s constituent segments with the opportunities and resources needed for self-governance. Such decentralization does not imply an endorsement or legitimation of ethno-confederal, secessionist or other destructive and divisive centrifugal formulas. As many of the ethnic minority communities themselves have acknowledged, given their small size and extreme heterogeneity, the minorities may have little to gain from ethnoconfederal or secessionist arrangements, which tend to favour only homogeneous large ethnoregional groups. Moreover, because ”ethnic identities are multiple and fluid, shifting up or down in scale depending on the political context, the problems of ethnic conflict in developing countries are rarely solved by changing the composition of the nation” (Diamond, 1987:212). Hitherto subtle differences within minority communities can be manipulated to engender new and unending cycles of destructive fragmentation and dissolution. Furthermore, as Amitai Etzioni (1992-93:27) has eloquently argued:

The world may well survive the creation of many more toy states... But what meaning does self-determination have when minuscule countries are at the economic and military mercy, even whim, of larger states—states in whose government they have no representation at all...? As a rule,...we should encourage groups to work out their differences within existing national communities.... Governments that face ethnic challenges ... should be urged to provide more local autonomy and more democratic federalism in order to prevent dissolution.

8In essence, political decentralization in the Nigerian setting would entail the politico-economic empowerment of the country’s anaemic and virtually moribund state and local governments, the divestment of the central government of many of its current ”extraneous” responsibilities which derogate from the autonomy of the subnational governments, and the transformation of the present barely concealed unitary system into a more authentic system of federalism.

9This decentralist political reform should extend beyond the formal structures of federalism to embrace the system of traditional governance. In other words, traditional authority systems which institutionalize or entrench relations of unequal exchange and internal colonialism between communities should be reconstituted and reformed in order to give greater freedom, protection and dignity to the inequitably incorporated communities. Thus, ongoing agitations for new chiefdoms and/or districts among minority communities in northern Nigeria should be treated with far more sensitivity and sympathy by the government than is currently the case.

10Economic Decentralization: Political decentralization must be complemented with economic decentralization. The tight control which the federation currently exercises over oil revenues should, for instance, be relaxed to give the oil producing communities a greater share of the resources exploited in their regions. Mineral rents, in particular, should accrue directly to the oil-producing communities involved, rather than to the central government. Furthermore, revenue sharing arrangements should not only devolve greater resources to the subnational authorities, but should give greater weight to the principles of internal revenue generation effort and derivation in sharing revenues among these authorities. Such horizontal revenue sharing principles should help not only to reduce the grievances of the oil-producing sections, but also to encourage a greater degree of economic coherence and efficiency among Nigeria’s financially anaemic state and local government units. In the words of some southern ethnic minority delegates at the 1994 National Constitutional Conference:

To release the resource potentials of states and propel them towards self-actualisation, emphasis must shift from the politics of allocation to the reality of generation. In this regard, the rights of the states to exploit and develop their resource potentials must be guaranteed by the Constitution. Accordingly, the notion of looking up to the centre for succour in terms of ’need’, ’population’, size of landmass’ or ’watermass’ must now be laid to rest [in favour of the derivation principle] (Vanguard, 2 October 1994:14).

11All this is not to say that resource-poor regions will be penalized, and further impoverished, or that the central government will relinquish its responsibility for ensuring even regional development in the country. Rather, it is to say that emphasis should be placed on the need to reward truly economically efficient subnational units, mobilize the productive resources of the nation and endow the oil-producers with the resources necessary to redress almost forty decades of criminal neglect, while the current divisive sectional struggles over national ”cake-sharing”, which have done a lot to distort the operation of the Nigerian federal system, should be officially discouraged.

12While the oil producing communities must be allowed to control a larger share of the resources exploited in their regions, the Federal Government should continue to respond to the special ecological circumstances and concerns of these communities. Indeed, the achievement of long-term stability in the oil-producing areas will require a concerted campaign by the Government and the oil companies to ensure that oil exploration activities conform to minimum universal standards of ecological safety.

The Federal Territorial Structure and Ethnic Minorities

13The overcentralization of the federal system is perhaps the most important source of ethnic minority distress and disaffection in the Nigerian federal system today. But a related, if not equally important, source of discontent among minorities involves the internal territorial configuration of the federation.

14In multiethnic federations, constituent units are generally demarcated on the basis of ethnolinguistic identities in order to enable each cultural group to enjoy and exercise some degree of local autonomy within its territorial space. In Nigeria, however, the boundaries of constituent states or regions have hardly followed identifiable ethnic boundaries. Thus, the pre-1967 regions were arbitrary and artificial units which simply secured the hegemony of the three major nationalities over the minority sections. Although the 1967 state-creation exercise was largely designed to promote a more equitable accommodation of minority groups within the federal structure, subsequent reorganization exercises have been guided largely by the need to give satisfaction to distributive pressures emanating mainly from the majority communities. In the process, the homogeneous majority nationalities have been subdivided into several federally-funded states, while many of the minority communities ”have been corralled into unitary.... multiethnic states” (Saro-Wiwa, 1992:37). Not surprisingly, many of the ethnic minority states (and even localities) have become veritable theatres of inter-ethnic and communal conflagrations and explosion.

15Clearly, the practice of using territorial reforms to promote the distributive interests of the majority sections, at the expense of a more systematic attention to ethnic minority problems, will have to be checked. With appropriate changes in revenue sharing arrangements (see above), the tendency to perceive and pursue territorial reorganizations as an easy avenue to federal revenues should become less powerful. Nevertheless, future territorial reorganizations in Nigeria should give over-riding consideration to the need to ameliorate the grievances of ethnic communities which have been oppressively and arbitrarily incorporated into the extant structure of constituent federal units. This would invariably mean a downgrading of the long-standing strategy of sub-dividing large but homogeneous ethnic communities for purely distributive or so-called ”developmental” reasons.

Power-Sharing or Accommodative Strategies

16Nigeria is often regarded as a pioneer and exemplar in Africa in the use of power-sharing mechanisms and practices to promote inter-ethnic inclusiveness, or discourage sectional imbalance and bias, in decision-making processes (Rotchild, 1985, 1986, 1991). The ”federal character” principle, the allocation and rotation of political party positions among geo-ethnic zones (’zoning’) and the establishment of inter-party coalition governments, represent some of the ways by which Nigeria’s political elites have sought to institutionalize power-sharing strategies in the Nigerian context.

17Nevertheless, these strategies have often been distorted or frustrated by the hegemonic ambitions of the majority nationalities, the pervasiveness of the winner-takes-all syndrome in the Nigerian political landscape, the imperfections and contradictions in the constitutional provisions on power-sharing, and the underlying anomalies in the territorial configuration of the federation.

18Zoning arrangements in political parties have, for instance, sometimes operated merely to legitimize or reproduce the hegemony of the majority groups. This was particularly so in the Second Republic, when the ruling National Party of Nigeria ”zoned” the three leading positions of presidential candidate, vice-presidential candidate and party chairman to the Hausa-Fulani, Ibo and Yoruba respectively.

19In a similar vein, far from enforcing the constitutional principle for ”federal character” or broad inter-ethnic representation in the conduct and composition of public agencies, governing elites at all levels of public authority in Nigeria have tended to bias the distribution of resources and opportunities in favour of their communal and/or political clientele. At the national level, this abuse has meant the marginalization of minority communities by hegemonic majority interests in the federal government. Thus, writing specifically on the impact of the ”federal character” principle on the fortunes of minority communities in the Middle-Belt, Sonni Gwanle Tyoden claims that:

.... those who control the apparatus of national power have either not taken the interests of the Middle Belt into consideration in the composition and conduct of the affairs of the government and its agencies, or have not given these interests enough consideration. This...means that the constitutional provisions (on ’federal character’) have not ameliorated... feelings of alienation and deprivation (in the Middle-Belt) because of the refusal or the reluctance of those that have controlled the reins of power in the country over the years to live true to the demands of these provisions (Tyoden, 1993:7).

20The ethnopolitical obstacle to the effective implementation of proportionality, accommodative or power-sharing principles has been compounded by the constitutional and structural contradictions that are built into the operation of the Nigerian federal system. Writing on the Second Republic, for instance, Donald Williams (1992:206) argues as follows:

The implementation of proportionality principles was surrounded by controversy from the very beginning. This resulted from the fact that no specific ethnic allocation formula was spelled out in the Constitution, nor was any settled in subsequent negotiations. Rather, allocation was to be apportioned solely on the basis of the nineteen states, a system that was flawed from the start because none of Nigeria’s states possesses a perfect demarcation between ethnic groups and boundaries... More importantly, there was no clarification drawn between minority or majority ethnic groups, or North — South cleavages — both important in rectifying inequalities of the past.

21Despite its congenital and operational flaws, however, the ”federal character” principle ”has become a cornerstone of ethnic justice and fair government in Nigeria” (Diamond 1987:212). The challenge is to enhance its effectiveness, and reduce its susceptibility to manipulation and misapplication by the majority segments. In particular, the ”federal character” principle can be made justiciable in order to enable politically excluded or inadequately represented minority communities to seek appropriate judicial redress. Another additional solution would be to specify the relevant parameters for inter-group representation — for example, by linking such representation to relative ethnic group population, in the true spirit of proportionality.

22Consideration must also be given to the need to ensure a more equitable access to the critical institution of the federal presidency. In a fundamental sense, the choice of a presidential system under the Second Republic Constitution was a setback for power-sharing because it replaced the collegial structure of the First Republic’s parliamentary system with a power-structure that was dominated by a single presidential figure. This concentration of power in the hands of a single person is obviously one of the major sources of ethnoregional conflict and anxiety in the federation today. In the words of General Olusegun Obasanjo’s National Unity Organization:

... the enormous powers of the executive presidency are the only real bone of contention in national politics. Through the control which the Head of State exercises in releasing or withholding statutory allocations, in awarding military and petroleum contracts, in making key appointments, and in giving special grants, the President of the Federal. Republic is the sovereign factor in the Nigerian political economy (Sunday Vanguard, 23 October 1994:16).

23It was, indeed, in the effort to ensure that the occupant of the Presidency would enjoy a broad national mandate and legitimacy that Murtala Mohammed advised the Constitution Drafting Committee in 1975 to devise constitutional provisions which would ensure that ”the president and vice-president are elected into office in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of the country.” Consequently, the 1979 Constitution required the president not only to win a quarter of the vote in each of at least two-thirds of the states in order to be elected directly, but also to take cognizance of the ”federal character” of the country in the composition and conduct of his government by appointing at least one person from each state into his cabinet. The current divisive debates and struggles over the control of the Presidency are symptomatic of the failure of these measures to promote inter-ethnic equity, consensus and accommodation.

24Ethnic minority groups and elites, especially in the South, are in the forefront of the ongoing campaigns to reform or recast the presidential system in a manner that would make for more equitable access to national political power in the federation. These reform proposals are quite diverse and sometimes inconsistent. The more prominent ones include:

  • The rotation of the Presidency between the North and South and/or among the six key geo-ethnic zones in the country, namely, the North-East, North-West, Middle-Belt, South-East, South-West and South-Central (or Southern Minorities).
  • The limitation of the tenure of the President to a single five-year term or the denial of the right of self- succession to an incumbent president.
  • The introduction of a multiple vice-presidential system in order to ensure that more than just the three ethnic majority groups would be represented at the apex of the federal executive.
  • The introduction of a French-style presidential-parliamentary model to help balance and expand the ethnoregional base of federal executive power.
  • The institution of a collegial presidential system on the Swiss model, with the Presidency of the federation being rotated annually among the members of a presidential council, made up of representatives of each of the six or more geo-ethnic zones in the country.

25The precise mix of changes that will be instituted to reform the Nigerian presidential system is still a matter of conjecture. What is of moment is the recognition that a lot of the pressures for presidential reforms are the result of ethnic minority opposition to perceived inequities in the operation of the presidential system, and that the legitimacy and continuity of the system will require some significant institutional modification or recasting of the current American-style presidential model (see Vanguard, 17 October 1994:1).

The Role of Mediatory Institutions

26Nigeria’s minorities have suffered from the absence, paucity, fragility or depreciation of key regulatory or mediatory institutions like an effective and independent press, police and judiciary. The role of these institutions in the Nigerian setting has often been severely circumscribed by inordinate political pressures or partisan obstruction or manipulation. The judiciary, in particular, has suffered enormously under military rule in Nigeria. In the words of one observer:

Usually, laws passed by military governments (decrees at the federal level, edicts at the state level) cannot be challenged in a court of law. The judiciary also has no autonomous operational management or financing. Even though the Nigerian judicial system has shown some resilience, its development and confidence have been stunted by military rule (Olowu, 1990:208).

27In essence, the judiciary in Nigeria has not been able to enforce the rights of minority groups. This has been particularly true of the many instances when minority rights have been violated by the state itself. Moreover, as the Federal Government’s intervention in the Zangon Katab and Ogoni crises clearly demonstrates, the state has sought often to use judicial and quasi-judicial institutions to perpetrate human and minority rights’ abuses.

28Quite obviously, a stronger and more independent judiciary is needed in Nigeria if minority rights in particular, and the federal democratic process in general, are to be nurtured and protected (Williams, 1992:115). Such judicial reforms will require a greater political commitment to the supremacy and integrity of the regular courts’ system. Accordingly, the practice of establishing extra-judicial or quasi-judicial bodies to arbitrate or adjudicate upon state — ethnic and related societal conflicts should be discouraged or discontinued.

29The judiciary is only one of several institutions that can play an important mediatory role in preserving the rights of minority groups. An independent and efficient police institution can also help to enforce the rule of law and deter arbitrary and illegal assaults on the rights of vulnerable social groups. Most importantly, a robust Press is needed to give free and fair expression to the grievances and claims of ethnic minorities and other disadvantaged groups. Although the Nigerian press is widely regarded to be one of the freest and most vigorous in Africa, it has been exposed to repeated assaults and repression under successive military regimes. It may, indeed, be argued that no enduring guarantees of basic freedoms (including press freedom) and minority rights can be obtained under military auspices or outside the democratic framework.

The Democratic Imperative

30Prior to the recent (post-1986) upsurge in ethnic minority discontent in the Nigerian federation, it was widely assumed by informed observers that the minorities had fared better under military, than under civilian, auspices. This assumption undoubtedly owed a lot to the decisive role of the military in reconstituting the inequitable pre-1967 regional federal structure into a more ethnically balanced system of multiple states. Nevertheless, subsequent decisions by the military on revenue sharing, territorial reforms and judicial administration have done more to harm, than to advance, ethnic minority interests. Thus, notwithstanding the unimpressive records of the First and Second Republics in the area of ethnic minority rights, most minority elites now see a democratic system as manifestly more likely to be supportive and protective of ethnic minority interests than military rule. In the words of Alfred Ilenre, the General Secretary of the Ethnic Minority Rights Organization of Africa (EMIROAF):

.... the minorities are aware that it is only under a democratic platform that they can have a semblance of justice because democracy is not only the question of the majority having its way, it is also about the protection of minority rights. But under a dictatorship, nobody really cares (for minority rights) since decisions are necessarily enforced through the force of arms (The News, 10 October 1994:37).

31Although democracy is widely associated with majority rule, Ilenre is right in positing an underlying compatibility between democracy and minority interests. His position actually echoes the views of several leading democratic theorists. Robert Dahl (1956:36), for instance, contends that ”every advocate of democracy of whom I am aware.... includes the idea of restraints on majorities.” For Giovanni Sartori (1987:32), ”the working principle of democracy is the principle of limited (restrained) majority rule.” According to J. Burnham, ”the fundamental characteristic of democracy.... is the concession of the right of political expression of minorities” (cited in Sartori, 1987:32). And Lord Acton affirms that ”the most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities” (cited in Sartori, 1987:32).

32As William Zartman (1993:327), has shown, democracy can be an element in the successful resolution of ethnic minority claims and conflicts precisely because it provides ”representation for various opinions through multiparty competition.” According to him:

Even though an aggrieved group is not in charge of governance, the fact that it can compete for election and can make its voice heard through representatives in coalition, or even in the opposition, transfers conflict from the violent to the political arena.... Multiparty competition converts violent conflict to politics, and multiparty representation gives minorities and their causes an officially recognized voice. There is no magic in this conversion; political competition may be almost as debilitating for national governance as military conflict, although less costly in human lives, and representation in the opposition may be no more effective in securing redress of grievances. But the political process contains a potential that can long be pursued (Zartman, 1993:327).

33Moreover, as Donald Horowitz (1985) has indicated, democratic institutions can be ingeniously tailored to serve ethnic minority interests not only through consociational arrangements, but also through electoral rules and institutional incentives that consciously encourage, or even compel, politicians to obtain support from disadvantaged communities or from groups other than their own.

34There can be little doubt that if effectively anchored on an authentic federalist political order and power-sharing regime, democracy in Nigeria can provide a framework in which all groups, whether big or small, ”can express their identity, exercise control over their lives and resources and share the rewards and burdens of our common Nigerian identity with equity,” as claimed by Professor Claude Ake and other leaders of the minority, oil-producing Ogba community in Rivers State (The Guardian, 17 August 1993:14).

The Need for a Cohesive Ethnic Minority Advocacy Infrastructure

35In the final analysis, it is unlikely that any meaningful reforms in state-ethnic minority relations will take place without concerted agitational, mobilizational and associational pressures by ethnic minority leaders and communities. The key lesson of Saro-Wiwa’s internationally acclaimed, if internally repressed, Ogoni campaign is the critical role which ethnic minority activists and associations can play in pressing the claims of their vulnerable communities before the court of domestic and international opinion. By his dogged advocacy of the Ogoni cause, Saro-Wiwa, backed by MOSOP, succeeded in mobilizing official and unofficial, as well as domestic and international, support for ethnic minority rights in the country. Indeed, the Ogoni case has become the paradigm of ethnic minority agitation in the Nigerian federation today.

36Unfortunately, however, the Ogoni movement has been isolated from, or has even found itself in conflict with, other ethnic minority communities in the federation. This relative isolation is symptomatic of the basic lack of unity, and the sometimes debilitating conflict and competition, among Nigeria’s minority communities.

37In the words of two perceptive observers:

.... far from being a united faction, the oil producing minorities are further divided among themselves over the sharing of their own cut of the national cake. Their strategy has been to mobilize the middle-class, the workers and peasantry along the lines of communal consciousness and solidarity against ’outsiders’ even when the outsider is a neighbouring village or town.... It is the lack of unity and the ambivalence of this faction which opposes majority nationality hegemony, and then collaborates with it, that has provided the leverage for continued majority hegemony (Soremekun and Obi, 1993:224).

38Indeed, such is the level of hostility among oil-bearing minority communities in the Rivers State, for instance, that the chairman of the Rivers State Council of Chiefs and the Amayanabo of Okrika, Chief P.U. Ogan, has called on the Federal Government to ban MOSOP (The Guardian, 1 March 1994:5). Similarly while Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP had denounced OMPADEC as ”a failure and a disgrace,” and as riddled with corrupt contract awards (The Guardian, 7 March 1994:3), other ethnic minority groups have applauded the activities of the Commission. In Northern Nigeria, one of the bloodiest and most protracted instances of ethnic conflict involves two minority communities in the Middle-Belt, namely the Tiv and the Jukun.

39Quite obviously, the challenge for Nigeria’s ethnic minority communities is to transcend their differences, forge a common agenda and fashion a cohesive advocacy infrastructure. This would provide a formidable basis both for mobilizing broad national constituencies behind human, minority and environmental rights, and for challenging and redressing the excesses and inequities of the defective and increasingly repressive ”federal” state in Nigeria. Moreover, such a cohesive ethnic minority advocacy infrastructure could provide a powerful sociological impetus for the establishment, and effective functioning, of a federal ministry of minority affairs, which could serve as an important institutional resource for coordinating and consummating redressive reforms in state-ethnic minority relations in Nigeria.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1996

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