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Ethnic Minority Conflicts and Governance in Nigeria

Rotimi T. Suberu


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1On 10 November 1995, the Nigerian military government provoked considerable internal alienation and revulsion, as well as international condemnation and sanctions, when it hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists for their alleged roles in the gruesome killings of four ”moderate” Ogoni leaders in May 1994. The executions of Saro-Wiwa and his associates were poignantly ironic and pathetic not only because they were carried out in spite of vigorous international pleas for clemency for the Ogoni activists, but also because they took place against a background of what appeared to be growing public and official recognition of the legitimacy and urgency of Saro-Wiwa’s campaign for ethnic and environmental rights.

2For instance, early in 1995, the Shell Petroleum Development Company had announced a major independent environmental survey in the Niger Delta. Designated the Niger Delta Environmental Survey (NDES), the survey is designed to assess ecological and socioeconomic problems in the Delta area, and encourage all stakeholders in the region, especially the oil companies, to address the environmental and developmental problems identified in the course of the survey (The Guardian, 6 November 1995:9). Similarly, in his national independence anniversary speech on 1 October 1995, the Head of State, General Sani Abacha, announced a series of measures that sought to address the country’s unresolved ethnic minority problems. These measures included: the allocation of 13 percent of mineral revenues on a ”derivation” basis as a way of compensating all ecologically endangered mineral-producing communities; the division of the country into six geoethnic zones in order to facilitate equitable inter-ethnic power-sharing; the establishment of a ”Federal Character” commission to monitor, enhance and enforce the implementation of the ”federal character” principle in public institutions; and a proposed devolution of some federal powers to state and local governments in order to ensure that the ”competition for political power at the federal level may become less intensive, less attractive or acrimonious” (Vanguard, 3 October 1995:10).

3What is more, during the same October 1995, the military administrator of Kaduna State, Colonel Ja’afaru Isa, announced the creation of four chiefdoms (Atyap, Gwong, Bajju and Ninzam) in response to ”complaints of domination and marginalisation” and the struggle for ”self-determination, ... equity and justice” by the southern Zaria communities, including the Katafs who now belong to the Atyap chiefdom. The creation of these chiefdoms coincided with the release from prison of Zamani Lekwot and other ethnic activists jailed for their roles in the 1992 Zangon Katab disturbances (Vanguard, 30 October 1995:9; Tell, 6 November 1995:22).

4In essence, the executions of the Ogoni activists provided an anticlimax to these seemingly progressive moves towards the peaceable amelioration and resolution of the nation’s ethnic minority conflicts. Despite the sense of shock and outrage that they evoked or provoked, however, the executions also underscore some of the analyses and prognoses developed in this study.

5In the first place, the executions demonstrate the inherent limitations of authoritarian military rule in ethnically divided societies. Characteristically, authoritarian regimes seek to repress or suppress ethnic challenges to the centralized state, instead of striving to mediate such opposition through political reconciliation and related accommodative mechanisms. Thus, whatever redistributive or reorganizational administrative measures a military regime may be constrained to implement in order to mitigate ethnic minority tensions, such a regime is unlikely to provide the broad and stable institutional and political framework necessary for a sustained and ordered protection and promotion of ethnic minority rights. Only a regime that is based on the rule of law and democratic accountability and self-governance can ensure adequate security for minorities.

6Secondly, the executions underscore the potential critical role of the judicial process in the management of ethnic minority issues. The conviction and executions of the Ogoni activists were enormously abetted by a flawed judicial procedure which violated basic national and international standards of due process, the rule of law, human rights and human dignity. Among the egregious irregularities that characterized the trial of the Ogoni activists can be numbered the following: the military government’s bypassing of the regular court system in appointing the three-member Ogoni Civil Disturbances Tribunal, under Justice Ibrahim Auta, which convicted Saro-Wiwa and his associates; the government’s subsequent role as both prosecutor and arbitrator in the Ogoni trial; the absence of any opportunity of judicial appeal for the Ogoni activists; the Ogoni tribunal’s apparent reliance on purely circumstantial evidence and perjured testimony in sealing the fate of the ethnic activists; and the official obstruction and frustration of the activists’ legal defence team, culminating in the team’s subsequent withdrawal from the proceedings of the tribunal.

7Thus, in the wake of the conviction and summary executions of the Ogoni activists, the Kaduna State branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) denounced ”the injustice in using carefully packaged and heavily funded tribunals in which senior members of the Bench and Bar were used as willing tools of the military in the subversion of the judicial process” (The Guardian, 30 November 1995:28). Quite obviously, a basic precondition for ethnic minority justice in Nigeria is the restoration of the institutional integrity and autonomy of the judiciary, which institution has been severely degraded and subverted under successive military governments.

8Thirdly, the executions of the Ogoni activists, coming in the wake of the reprieve for Zamani Lekwot and other Kataf tribesmen, may reinforce invidious resentments among the minority communities themselves. Indeed, reflecting the ascendance of the North in national politics generally, and the disproportionate representation of ”Middle-Belt” elements in the military power structure in particular, northern minorities have historically fared better in the Nigerian federation than southern minorities. In reinforcing this historic pattern of differential marginalization, the contradictory resolution or denouement of the Zango Katab and Ogoni disturbances may inhibit the development of a sense of solidarity between northern and southern minorities. Such intra-minority distrust is bound to be self-defeating, however, since both groups of minorities not only share a common position of discriminatory subordination vis-a-vis the ethnic majority groups, but also have a critical stake in uniting collectively to fight this marginalization.

9Finally, the Ogoni executions underscore the tragic limitations and contradictions of the contemporary Nigerian practice of federalism. The death sentences on Saro-Wiwa and his associates, to use the words of Claude Ake, epitomized ”the moral and political degeneration” of the Nigerian federation and ”its shrinking political viability” (Jell, 11 December 1995:6). Among the oil-producing minorities, in particular, the Nigerian federal state is bound to be seen increasingly as a fraudulent, oppressive and illegitimate political association. If they have a choice in the matter, these minorities would most probably opt for the dissolution or confederalisation, rather than continuation, of the Nigerian federation. Yet, in spite of its profound inequities and pathologies, the Nigerian federation can be reformed and ”reinvented” in the pursuit of greater inter-ethnic equity, reciprocity and security. If this study can encourage and enrich the ongoing national debates on the reform of Nigerian federal governance, then its purpose would have been served.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1996

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