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Trends of Migrant Political Organization in Nigeria

Eghosa E. Osaghae


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1After a long period of neglect and apparent abandonment by many scholars, the study of ethnicity in Nigeria and other parts of Africa has been revived, and with as much vigor as that which attended its ascendancy in African studies in the 1960s. The reasons for the reawakening are not surprising: economic depression and consequent migration have forced people back to interest-begotten weapons like ethnicity, in the desperate struggle to survive; democratic processes have resurrected old unsettled issues of nationhood, power sharing and resource allocation, much of which was swept under the carpet by authoritarian regimes, or simply wished away. Civil wars and violent conflicts have heightened ethnic tension and conflicts in several states; and, of course, there is an increasing recourse to the ethnic weapon by major competitors for state power, some of whom openly condemned ethnicity in the past. All these have rekindled the fire of ethnicity, finally blowing off the safety-valve in countries like Côte d’Ivoire and the Benin Republic which were previously considered safe from ethnic poison!

2Researchers have responded well to the new situation, as even those scholars who were for a long time ideologioally opposed to ethnicity as a powerful explanatory variable, have become latter-day converts, and some have acknowledged their previous errors of judgement. As is to be expected, the return of ethnicity, as it were, has brought with it new challenges to the academic study of the subject. Two of such challenges are immediately relevant to the present research. First, the abandonment of the ethnic perspective also meant the abandonment of empirical research on the subject since the few scholars who remained in the field were preoccupied with responding to dismissals of the ethnic perspective at the level of theory (Osaghae, 1990). The result is that the data-base of ethnicity has become seriously dated, most of the empirical studies having been carried out in the 1950s and 1960s. The first challenge, therefore, is to update empirical knowledge of the subject. Following from this, the second challenge is to re-examine conventional wisdom in the light of recent situations. Societies have undergone phenomenal social, economic, and political transformations since the 1960s. In Nigeria, certainly the events and effects of the civil war, structural changes in the federation, deepening crises of political transition, as well as policies of economic and political liberalization, have brought about changes in the terrain of ethnicity. Can conventional wisdom still suffice?

3The subject of this research is well-suited to respond to challenges like these in interesting and dramatic ways. On 1 June, 1993, Barrister O.T. Nnadi emerged as the third Eze Igbo (Serikin Igbo) in Kano State, the first and second Eze Igbo having been installed in 1986 and 1989 respectively. This interesting development is, however, neither unique, nor of recent origin. In virtually all state capitals in the North, there is an Eze Igbo, though they are all simply emulating the Kano example. Even more interesting is the fact that this phenomenon is not restricted to the Igbo. The Yoruba also have an Oba (Seriki Yarubawa) in Kano, the first of whom was crowned and turbanned by the Emir of Kano in December, 1974. Today, virtually all local government capitals in Kano and Jigawa States have a Yoruba Oba, and it would seem that, because the Yoruba case predates that of the Igbo, the latter was influenced by it.

4This growing phenomenon, which is likely to spread to other migrant groups in the country in future, is what I call migrant ethnic empire building. Although the emergent empires exist side by side with conventional ethnic unions, and actually evolved from them, they cannot be accounted for and analyzed adequately within extant theories of associational ethnicity among strangers in urban areas. For one thing, these theories assume impermanenence in the domicility of migrants to the city and, for another, they assume that most associational activities are geared towards developing the ethnic homeland, to which migrants to the city remain attached and ultimately return (cf. Barnes, 1975; Southall, 1988; Trager, 1988; Little, 1969; Guglar and Flanagan, 1978). The emergence of migrant ethnic empires suggests otherwise: that many migrants are no longer bound by temporary domicility, but rather seek to create ethnic homelands away from home. The philosophy and functionality of associational ethnicity along these lines require new frameworks for analysis. Moreover, situated within the context of increasingly entrenched discrimination against non-indigenes in Nigeria, the significance of ethnic empire building for theories of national integration and the inherent suggestion of new forms of positive ethnicity can be better appreciated.

5The study which closely corresponds to our present inquiry is Abner Cohen’s Custom and Politics in Urban Africa: A study of Hausa migrants in Yoruba towns (1969). Indeed, Hausa migrant associations in these towns are examples of early forms of migrant ethnic empire building in Nigeria, something which Cohen ascribes to the tradition of political (feudal) and religious organization among the Hausa. This same tradition into which the Igbo, Yoruba and other groups have been enculturated into in many northern cities, provides one of the remote influences that encouraged the recourse to traditional organization. Cohen analyses the Hausa situation in Yoruba towns in terms of retribalization which he defines as

... a process by which a group from one ethnic category, whose members are involved in a struggle for power and privilege with the members of a group from another ethnic category, within the framework of a formal political system, manipulate some customs, values, myths, symbols, and ceremonials from their cultural tradition in order to articulate an informal political organization which is used as a weapon in that struggle (1969:2).

6It is clear from this that Cohen’s conceptual framework has a much relevance for our present study, especially as his primary concern is with the political dimensions of Hausa migrant empires. Nevertheless, the circumstances of the emergence and existence of the Igbo empire in Kano differ from that of Hausa migrants in both kind and degree. Two such differences may be stated. The Kano Igbo have a diffusionist orientation towards the host community, whereas the migrant Hausa have retained a large measure of exclusivity. Secondly, Igbo empire organization presents a very complex structure which includes town unions, a central or federated umbrella union, as well as a traditional cabinet; while by contrast, the Hausa empire studied by Cohen tended to be monolithic. These differences suggest that apart from being an advance over Cohen’s study, this study promises to extend knowledge of the variety and uses of migrant ethnic empires.

7The monograph is divided into five chapters. Chapter one presents the theoretical and conceptual perspectives within which associational ethnicity is analysed. Although migration is central to most of these perspectives, the major argument in the chapter is that this is not sufficient to explain associational ethnicity in cities. Such ethnicity is best analysed as a function of the urban milieu within which people from different ethnic groups find themselves, the prevalent strategies of ethnic action and, of course, the factor of whether migrants see themselves as temporary sojourners or as permanent settlers. Chapter two traces the remote and immediate roots, changing patterns and orientation of migrant ethnicity and concludes that Kano’s long history as a commercial and Islamic centre has made it a cosmopolitan city of long standing. The chapter also examines the traditional practice of quartering strangers outside the holy city and argues that the eventual creation of sabon gari for Southern Nigerian (Christian) migrants was consistent with this pattern especially as, under colonial rule, the major battle in Kano and other emirates in the North was how to keep the emirates safe for Islam. As is very well known, it was the foisting of one national state and economy on many different polities under colonial rule that facilitated and encouraged mass migrations especially between the North and the South. Chapter three examines the development of associational ethnicity amongst the Igbo in Kano, taking the civil war as the line of demarcation between the attitude of being strangers before the war, and of claiming a right to settle in Kano after the war. It is in the context of these changing attitudes that the evolution of the migrant Igbo ethnic empire headed by the Eze Igbo is analysed in chapter four. In the concluding chapter, an attempt is made at formulating a framework for analyzing settler associational ethnicity as distinct from migrant associational ethnicity.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1994

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