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Trends of Migrant Political Organization in Nigeria

Eghosa E. Osaghae

I. Urban Migrants and Associational Ethnicity: Conceptual and theoretical perspectives

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1Associational ethnicity is one of the most studied dimensions of contemporary ethnicity in Africa. Although anthropologists and sociologists interested in how ‘traditional’ structures respond to ‘modernization’ in the process of social change which dates back to the colonial situation, have taken the lead in this area, the subject of associational ethnicity has attracted a wide variety of disciplinary interests. Political scientists, geographers, economists and social historians have studied ethnic associations which, because of their all-encompassing functions, are of interest to the various disciplines. It can, in fact, be argued that the study of associational ethnicity has progressed to a point where only a multi-disciplinary approach can be considered appropriate. The other remarkable thing about the academic study of associational ethnicity is that notwithstanding its popularity, much of it is undertaken within ‘worn-out’ theoretical frameworks which have dated empirical bases. This has limited the robustness of theories on associational ethnicity. Many scholars in the area seem to have come to a ‘nothing else’ position, and are content to engage in what I call a data-fit analysis which involves putting new wine in old bottles, as it were. What this study attempts to do is to throw new light on the subject, to generate new data and seek new categories of explanation. This chapter is devoted to straightening out matters of conceptualization, theory, and methodology.


2Ethnicity exists at the individual (micro), sub-group and group (macro) levels, and can be analysed at these different levels. However, the micro and macro levels are so recursive that analysis of one involves the other, of necessity, and vice versa. The reasons for this have to do with the fact that individual ethnicity is the ‘building block’ of sub-group and group ethnicity (and vice versa) and, also, the fact that at every level, ethnicity hinges on exclusive ethnic identity which, by definition, is a shared identity. Erikson's (1968:22) definition of identity clearly brings out this linkage: identity is ‘a process located in the core of the individual, and yet also in the core of his communal culture, a process which establishes, in fact, the identity of these two identities'. Making a similar linkage, Young (1976:20) asserts that ‘the quest for belonging and self-esteem is pursued through communal group affiliation. Fear, anxiety, and insecurity at the individual level can be reduced within the womb of the ethnic collectivity; at the same time, threats to the security of the group provide a mobilizing imperative for its members’.

3When an individual decides to employ the ethnic strategy, he invokes group identity, implying that every individual ethnic situation has the potential for becoming a sub-group or group situation. In like manner, though more obviously, group ethnicity is possible only when group differences are invoked and, because group identity is an attribute of members of the group, group ethnicity invariably involves sub-group and individual ethnicity. Sub-group and individual ethnicity involve different sub-groups and individuals supporting group action in varying degrees, with some refusing to support it. This character of group, sub-group and individual ethnicity is crucial for the analysis of associational ethnicity which, by definition, hinges on group ethnicity. The point is that, without examining the individual and sub­group dimensions of associational ethnicity, one is not likely to come to grips with how group interests are determined and sustained.

4What is ethnicity? It is a derivative of the ethnic group which may ensue when two or more ethnic group (identities) are involved in a competitive setting. As Burgess (1977:266) puts it, ‘Ethnicity is a synthetic term and cannot be understood, nor has it any meaning, apart from ethnic groups. Ethnic groups are, of course, the sine qua non of ethnicity . . .’ The definition of the ethnic group is, thus, an adjunct of the definition of ethnicity. An ethnic group may be defined as a group whose members differentiate themselves from others on the basis of certain common objective criteria like language, culture and territory, and subjective criteria like the myth of common origin or what Nagata (1976) calls the ‘charter’ myth, which provides the basis for forging a common destiny for people who can lay no claim to actual kinship. Variations exist in the characterization of ethnic groups in different parts of the world (in Africa, for example, language and territory are emphasized), but everywhere, ethnic group identities are the basis on which people differentiate themselves in the struggle for power and resources. As it were, they are the pedestal for ethnic mobilization (Adam and Giliomee, 1979).

5Ethnic groups also vary in size and heterogeneity, and these factors affect their effectiveness in the struggle with others. In terms of size, ethnic categories involving the generalization of ethnic identities to approximate large political or administrative structures like regions and exceptionally large ethnic groups, which are sometimes referred to as ‘nationalities’ to distinguish them from the smaller groups. At the other end are medium-scale and minority groups which, in relation to larger groups in the same polity tend to be disadvantaged and dominated in the struggle for resources. The size and ‘power’ of ethnic groups are, however, relative, not absolute, meaning mat a group is large or small, dominant or dominated, depending on the configuration of groups and the patterns of their relationships in a particular country. The tendency is for ethnic groups to seek large-scale organizations to make the ethnic strategy more effective. This can be done through the formation of pan-ethnic unions or organizations which bring together otherwise disparate groups but which are related by language, cultural or religious similarities, proximity, or even common problems. This tendency, which is widespread in Africa, does not detract from the fact that ethnic groups are primordial groups. Otite (1990:19) describes them as ‘natural groups with ready-made cleavages for man-made conflicts and alliances within a wider state system’.

6In terms of heterogeneity, many groups regarded as single units, especially large-scale ones like Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Akan, Ewe, Kikuyu, Shona, Ndebele and Baganda, are actually amalgams of sub­groups which are differentiated by dialect, subcultural and, in some cases, administrative divisions. This fact, which is often glossed over in analyses of inter-group relations, affects ethnic identity and mobilization in important ways. As explained by the anthropological theory of segmentary opposition, sub-group ethnicity makes ethnic conflicts and alliances fluid. Depending on the issues at stake and the level of mobilized action, the Ijebu, Ekiti, Egba, Awori, Oyo, Ijesha and other Yoruba sub-groups are interlocked in conflict though at other times they rally round a common Yoruba cause (for further elaboration of the theory of segmentary opposition, see Mercier, 1956 and Otite, 1976). Sub-group ethnicity does not, however, follow macro lines like dialect groups. At the most inclusive level, sub-group ethnicity can follow much narrower lines like ward, village, or district boundaries, as well as such ethnic categories as states, provinces or regions. In view of all this, it is always necessary to specify the level of ethnic interest one is interested in analyzing. In particular, the extent of heterogeneity of the group is an important element in analyzing ethnic organization.

7Ethnicity refers to the corpus of relationships among people from different ethnic groups who decide to base the relationships on these differences. These relationships are mostly thought of in terms of conflicts because of the more conspicuous nation- destroying capacity of and problems engendered by ethnicity, but they also involve consensus. Conflict and consensus both arise in the struggle amongst members of these groups for power and resources in the polity. There is a tendency to define ethnicity as a group phenomenon. For example, Otite (1990:60) defines it as ‘the contextual discrimination by members of one group against others ...’ This view is only partially correct because, as we saw earlier on, ethnicity exists at both the micro and macro levels, and this fact should be reflected in its definition. Accordingly, we may define ethnicity as relationships which involve the invocation of ethnic identities amongst actors (individuals or groups) struggling for power and resources in a polity. This definition not only integrates the micro and macro dimensions of ethnicity, but also emphasizes the fact that ethnicity is situational. This situationality is borne out of the fact that ethnic pluralism, by itself, does not produce ethnicity, nor does it make ethnicity natural or automatic. This is contrary to the ‘iron law’ of ethnicity postulated by Steinberg (1981:61), that ‘where there are ethnic differences, there will be ethnic conflict’ which suggests that ethnicity is a natural consequence or given ingredient of life (see also Allport, 1958: Geertz, 1963). A more realistic perspective sees ethnicity as only one of the multiple action categories available to the individual or group. Others include class, gender, religion, region, race and political party identity, any of which the individual or group can draw upon, depending on the perception of the situation. This recognition of multiple identities has been referred to as the social network approach which ‘avoids analysis of attitudes and actions of individuals in terms of specific bounded groups, acknowledging instead that individuals are enmeshed in a web of social relationships that lie within and without several organizational and categorical boundaries’ (Gugler and Flanagan, 1977:80; also Barnes, 1954; Mitchell, 1973, 1974; Boorman and White, 1976).

8So, far from being natural, ethnicity is consciously invoked in situations where the ethnic strategy is adjudged to be more effective than other cleavage-based strategies. Wallerstein (1979) and Glazer and Moynihan (1975) have, amongst others, made the point that the efficacy and resilience of ethnicity can be explained by the fact that (capitalist) states are quick to respond to ethnic demands because of the devastating effects unresolved ethnic issues can have. It is at the level of the individual that the deliberateness of the ethnic strategy is more clearly seen because, at any point in time, the individual has several identities from which to choose in furtherance of his interests. He may decide to employ the ethnic weapon because of his perception of the other actor's strategy or because he wants to maximize his patron-client connections. We must be careful, however, not to overemphasize the inherent assumptions of rationality in the situationality perspective. The idea that ethnicity is always the product of a carefully thought out cost-benefit analysis can indeed be overblown because, as Mckay (1982) reminds us, ethnicity combines primordial and mobilizational impulses and is consequently a product of instrumental and affective bonds. Matters of ethnic pride, culture, including food culture, and traditional loyalties, for example, cannot be analysed in purely instrumentalist terms, and yet they constantly become the basis for political action.

9The recognition that ethnicity is situational and is one of several cleavage-based identities is, however, consistent with the finding from several studies that ethnicity does not exist in a pure form (cf. Nnoli, 1978; 1989; Horowitz, 1985). It tends to be recursive or mutually reinforcing with other cleavages like class, regionalism and religion, which are also employed by individuals and groups in the struggle for power and resources. Because these cleavages are often coterminous with ethnic cleavages, they are present one way or the other in situations of ethnic conflict or consensus. As Kasfir (1972: 56) puts it, ‘The appearance of ethnic competition often masks (or echoes) rivalries involving other social and economic issues’ (also Chazan, 1982, 1983; Steinberg, 1981). Ethnicity and class, in particular, have been found to be one solidary couple as, in fact, many interests which are called ethnic are class interests writ large (Sklar, 1967). This is why analysts are interested in how ethnic interests emerge and whose interests they really are. However, the fact that ethnicity coheres with class or other cleavages does not make it surreal or false as some extreme critics of the ethnic perspective are wont to argue (cf. Mafeje, 1967; Alavi, 1989).

10Another point in clarifying the meaning of ethnicity is that, in terms of the ends it is expected to bring about, it is more of a political than a cultural phenomenon (Cohen, 1969; Bates, 1972). Largely because of the anthropological origins of the study of ethnic groups and ethnicity in Africa, ethnicity was analysed as a cultural phenomenon for a long time, but the employment of the ethnic strategy in competition for power and resources necessitated a shift to the more appropriate political conceptualization. This does not mean that the cultural practices and symbols which inform ethnic differentiation and which, themselves, are sometimes the basis of ethnic conflicts are no longer relevant, but that the uses to which ethnicity is put are mostly political, especially within the context of the nation-state As argued by Cohen (1969:3), cultural dimensions in customs, marriages, funerals, ritual beliefs and practices underlie the resilience of ethnic groups and identities, for ‘it is these very customs that can readily serve as instruments for the development of an informal political organization’.

11We are now in a position to consider the concept of associational ethnicity. It clearly belongs to the macro-ethnicity category though, as we indicated earlier on, macro-ethnicity cannot be separated from micro-ethnicity. We may begin with a consideration of Paden's (1970:244) view that ethnicity is ‘a non-associational form of social grouping’ because ‘members do not affiliate or disaffiliate at will'. In other words, Paden, like Shils (1957) and Geertz (1963), sees ethnic, identity as natural, as a given fact of life. Although this is substantially true, ethnic identity does not automatically become the basis for an individual's relationship with other people, as analyzed earlier. Ethnicity, in contradistinction to ethnic group and ethnic identity is not natural nor given; it is activated in some situations, and not in others, in furtherance of individual or group interests. At the level of group interest, ethnicity may take an associational form expressed by formally or informally organized interest groups. This is the sense in which we talk of associational ethnicity in this study.

12Simply put, associational ethnicity is organization-based ethnicity. It derives from the ethnic group or category, but does not have to be located in the ethnic territory — in fact, most ethnic associations are located away from home, usually in urban areas, where, in the face of competition from members of other groups, constitutive ethnic interests are articulated. The archetype of associational ethnicity in Africa is the famous ‘tribal union’, whose origins date back to the phenomenal migration of people from different groups to the cities in the colonial period. Barnes (1975:79) refers to ethnic unions as ‘primary associations’ which ‘define shared ethnicity in terms of those features that have applicability to the area of origin and not to criteria arising out of the new residence’. This means that although new, usually categoric ethnic identities emerge in cities; the basis of such identities remains the primordial groups which share elements like language and culture in common.

  • 1 These associations may be differentiated along gender lines, age lines, class lines and sometimes, (...)

13Before considering the nature and variety of associational ethnicity in some detail, it is necessary to situate the phenomenon within an appropriate analytical framework. If associational ethnicity thrives on organization, then it can best be analyzed within the interest group framework of ethnicity, as Glazer and Moynihan (1975), Enloe (1973), Bates (1972, 1983) and others have done. Indeed, ethnic associations are interest groups which may be formal or informal and seek to protect and further the interests of members of the group in competition with other groups over the determination of public policy. This is not the same thing as saying that the ethnic group as a whole is in competition which is the sense in which Cohen (1969:4) defines the ethnic group. Rather, it is saying that ethnic unions are specifically interest groups whose interests may or may not be reflective of the interests of the group as a whole. Members of one ethnic group may form several associations which pursue opposing interests.1

14The interest group approach to ethnicity has been criticized on a number of grounds. Brass (1985:80-81) argues, for example, that: ‘Treating ethnic groups as just another type of interest group ... is an analytical error, for it ignores the cultural matters that are important to all ethnic groups and that distinguish such groups from other types of interest associations’. This criticism itself seems to ignore the fact that what makes an ethnic association ethnic is the fact that it expresses certain cultural exclusivity. Cohen (1967), for example, analyses associational ethnicity in terms of retribalization, which involves, amongst others, cultural revivalism. None the less, the point about not treating ethnic associations as just another type of interest group is a valid one. Another criticism is that the notion of interest groups suggests a value consensus within groups, whereas what pass as constitutive interests are actually the interests of a few, usually the dominant elite in the group. One way of getting around this problem is not to assume any objectivity in the appearance of any supposedly ‘ethnic’ interests. The researcher has to examine how the interests emerged, what the alternative interests were, and whose interests they really are. A survey of ethnic associations in Ibadan undertaken by this author in 1989/90 showed that some ethnic unions became divided along class lines because it became difficult to reconcile opposing interests (Osaghae, 1990). The criticisms we have considered here do not really reject the interest group framework for analyzing ethnicity. Rather, they sensitize the analyst to avoid unqualified applications and assumptions and in that way they strengthen the applicability of the perspective.

  • 2 Invariably most ethnic unions establish close links with home. In fact, in some cases, unions that (...)

15Ethnic associations have, since their emergence in the colonial period, increased in number and variety and become more sophisticated organizations. This is despite official hostility towards them in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Congo and Kenya and which has sometimes led to their proscription. We shall look at the hows and whys of ethnic unions in the next section, but as a way of anchoring our understanding of these unions, we shall close this section by analyzing their variety and examining their categories. The general point mat needs to be made first is that most ethnic unions emerged, and continue to be based in cities though, in furtherance of their urban-rural linkages, some unions have established branches in the home areas, while others have decided to locate their headquarters at home.2

16Ethnic associations may be differentiated on the basis of size of membership and scale of organization. Size and scale are a function of the level at which interests are articulated in the ethnic group. The most all-inclusive ethnic associations are those which are organized on a pan-ethnic basis, those approximating what we earlier termed ethnic categories which, in some cases, are regional, not purely ethnic. Typically, pan-ethnic associations are organized on a nationwide basis with branches in major cities, and they seek to unite the interests of the various subgroups. The Ibo State Union (before it, the Ibo Federal Union), Egbe Omo Oduduwa, and Jamiyyar Mutanen Arewa in pre-1966 Nigeria, the All-Ewe movement in Ghana and Togo in the 1960s and the Bakongo Union in Congo provide good examples of such large-scale all-inclusive ethnic associations. All other ethnic associations are medium or small scale. Medium-scale associations are organized at the subregional level which could also involve a fusion of more particularistic sub-sub group interests. For example, Ekiti Parapo, an umbrella association of members of the Yoruba Ekiti subgroup brings together the Ekiti from Ado, Ijero and other areas. Small-scale associations are those organized along the lines of sub-subgroup divisions — hometown, district, village, ward, or groups of families. In one town, there may be more than one of such small-scale associations for a village or ward and, where there are enough members, they may be organized on the basis of neighbourhoods in town. In Ibadan, for example, Igbo town unions are organized according to neighbourhoods.

17In comparison with others, the large-scale ethnic associations have proven to be most effective, and mis explains why those Young (1976) calls ethnic ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘brokers’ work hard at extending the frontiers of ethnic solidarity. As explained by Gugler and Flanagan (1977:88):

The relatively small size of a union severely limits its capability to act as a pressure group. Ethnic unions that want to lobby for rural interests or ... for the interest urban dwellers hold in the development of their home areas, need to reach higher administrative echelons man those accessible to the clamour of a small organization. Hence they are induced to combine and establish formal organizations at higher levels of integration.

18Although they differ in their modes of organization and efficacy, what ethnic associations of different scales and sizes have in common is that the ethnic identity of reference is usually the product of a reductive process:

Several writers have noted the link in Africa between the urban environment and new forms of ethnicity. A reductive process takes place in the town; the intricate ethnic mosaic of the countryside becomes simplified to a manageable number of ethnic categories. A sense of membership in a group significantly expanded in scale from the clan and lineage system of the very localized rural ‘tribal’ community develops (Anderson et al., 1967:30).

19What is responsible for this reductive process is the fact that people from the small groups or the countryside find themselves in too few numbers to organize any serious association. There is, consequently, a great deal of teaming up involved which for some people, may entail a redefinition of ethnic identity.

20Ethnic associations can also be differentiated on the basis of then-declared objectives and actual operation. Some of them are specifically political, being either affiliates of political parties, or parties themselves. They do not, however, have to be so closely associated to political parties to be political — they may be involved in leadership selection in other ways, articulate group interests and seek to influence the policy process to these ends (cf. Banton, 1957; Epstein, 1958). Some associations operate simply as cultural groups, being primarily interested in projecting the group's cultural practices in festivals and art. Associations in this category serve as rallying centres for ethnic awareness and solidarity and seek to preserve the groups’ customs and traditions (cf. Smock, 1971). Still others have social and economic objectives being ‘friendship’ clubs or ‘esusu-(savings) groups, with emphasis on the direct benefits to be derived from membership. In practice, however, these distinctions become blurred as most associations tend, more or less, to have political, economic, social, and cultural roles. In particular, because they serve as mobilization constituencies for politicians and governments, they all play political roles, even when they are expressly non-political. Finally, ethnic associations differ in whether they are formally or informally organized. Informal associations tend to be ad hoc, coming alive only when members are in trouble or there is a major political crisis or when the ethnic group as a whole is threatened one way or another. The small number of people from a particular ethnic area or the unwillingness of most of them to form an association are some of the reasons for informal organizations. In most cases, it is those informal associations which have overcome initial handicaps that become formal associations. Formal associations are not organized simply on the basis of actual or contrived kinship; they have impersonal rules of membership, a code of conduct and clearly defined objectives and modes of organization, all of which are usually embodied in a constitution! Some of these formal associations are registered with government, though many of those so registered define themselves as social clubs. In general, formal associations tend to be more active and successful ethnic brokers than informal ones.


21Associational ethnicity is neither natural or compulsory. Although people from the same clan, village, town, ethnic group or category tend to have an affinity that makes them come together in relation to other people, not every group or everyone is interested in forming or belonging to ethnic unions. Even at the height of the popularity of the famous ‘tribal unions’, in the 1950s and 1960s, some studies indicated low and lukewarm membership (cf. Osaghae, 1986). Ethnic associations emerge under specific conditions to serve particular needs of the members forming them. They are, therefore, not traditional, in spite of the traditional colouring that has been given to some of them. According to Eleazu (1977:99), in ethnic association, ‘ethnic loyalties and identities are reinforced, correct customs, observances and behaviour are emphasized as a means of creating in-group cohesion ... (the associations) are not traditional but modern organizations, a response to a conflictual situation ....

22Why and how did ethnic associations emerge and why have thy survived and even increased in importance? What are their functions and why do they sustain membership? Are their functions restricted to serving ethnic interests?

23One of the earliest and most popular perspectives on associational ethnicity is the adaptive mechanism perspective. According to this perspective, ethnic unions emerge in urban areas in response to the needs of newcomers to the city who are trying to adapt to a new, often strange and alienating environment (cf. Little, 1957; Mayer, 1961). Typically, the first set of urban migrants from a town or ethnic area organize the union to protect their identity and help one another adapt properly. Subsequendy, new migrants, some of whom are encouraged by old migrants, find the union of great assistance in settling down. This perspective was developed from the functionalist tradition in the anthropological study of adaptation to social change (cf. Balandier, 1970). For a long time, it was the prevalent explanation of associational ethnicity, but some studies have since come to the conclusion that the perspective exaggerates the individual's need for adaptation within the association. Barnes’ (1975:83) critique reflects this:

Despite the fact that the first year or two in the city is known to be a difficult period when job and house-finding assistance is necessary, it appears that newcomers are not attempting to solve adjustment problems by joining associations. Instead, they are meeting their needs with the help of more diffuse networks of kinsmen and friends. The fact that primary associations expect members to pay dues and contribute to periodic welfare funds accounts in part for the lack of support from the newly arrived who have not yet gained a sense of economic well-being.

24Other scholars conclude that the low membership of these unions does not support the adjustment theory, suggesting that social adjustment may be sought elsewhere. In fact, Barnes found from her Lagos study that properly adapted migrants were the most ardent supporters of ethnic associations. Another problem is that the perspective does not account for the other political, economic, and social functions of these unions, which, in most cases, prove to be more important to individuals. The point was made long ago, concerning membership of social groups thus:

No amount of veneration for the psychological functions of a social group for the capacity of the group to gratify cravings for security and recognition will offset the fact that, however important these functions may be in any individual's life, he does not join the group essentially for them. He joins the group if and when its larger institutional or intellectual functions have relevance to his own. (Nisbet, 1962:61)

25A final inadequacy of the adaptive mechanism perspective is that it is best applied only to new migrants or, more specifically, first generation migrants. It is weak in explaining the associational ethnicity of settler-migrants, except that it continues to be assumed that every stranger, young or old, first or fifth generation, remains a stranger in the city.

26Another popular perspective on associational ethnicity hinges on the welfare or socio-economic and political functions ethnic unions perform. According to this perspective, ethnic unions emerge to meet needs and provide public goods and services which the colonial and post-colonial governments could not provide, and they attract members on the basis of these provisions (cf. Little, 1965; Ekeh, 1983). The needs and social goods provided by ethnic associations are dual in nature: they are directed towards the needs of the urban dwellers on the one hand, and towards the needs of the home area on the other. The functionality of ethnic unions for urban dwellers are numerous: they provide ‘connections’ necessary for employment, contracts and admission into educational institutions a la patron-client ties; they make financial contributions to members and provide succour in times of need, like funerals, marriages and other ceremonies requiring money and emotional stability; they offer short and long-term loans to members on terms by far more conducive than those of banks and other financial institutions — in fact, some of them function as ‘savings’ (esusu) clubs; they provide friendship and social networks which otherwise language barriers and discrimination by the host community may constrain. Studies have found that it is these benefits and connections, rather than purely ethnic affinity that attracts membership. In Nigeria today, several ethnic unions function as social clubs and have little ‘ethnicity’ in their organization.

27Ethnic unions also function to provide public and social goods which government is unable to provide or provides inadequately.- By their very nature, these goods are directed at the ethnic group as a whole and at the development of the ethnic home area. This is the sense in which these associations have been regarded as community development associations. The functions of these associations in this regard include awarding educational scholarships, establishing schools, health centres/hospitals, post offices and recreational facilities like parks and town halls, as well as constructing roads. The efforts of ethnic unions in these endeavours are complemented by those of wealthy sons of the land and those in influential government positions for whom the creed is ‘what else is development other than helping your own home town?’ (Southall, 1988). Ethnic associations also engage in resuscitating ‘lost’ cultural practices, for which purpose some of them have commissioned studies of their histories and cultures. This nostalgia may be attributed to the tendency of people who have stayed long away from home to insist on doing things the way they should be done, as a reassurance that they have not been derooted, as it were. Today, in Nigeria, especially in Yorubaland, ethnic associations celebrate ethnic ‘national’ days which are marked with rallies, cultural displays and launchings of development projects. Similar practices have a longer history with Igbo associations (Gugler, 1971). Ethnic associations also serve to articulate group interests through making representations to government, in the form of petitions, sending of delegations or public protests.

28For example, Aronson's (1970) study of 47 Ijebu-Yoruba associations snowed that, in a period of 15 years, they sent 33 petitions to government. At elections and other times of intensive political mobilization, these associations provide the basis for political participation for many of their members who support group positions (Rouch, 1956; Fraenkel, 1964; Wallerstein, 1966). In the process of performing these political functions, ethnic associations help to define the status of groups and their members (Eisenstadt, 1956; Meillassoux, 1968). In the period of nationalism, Sklar (1963:65) reports that ethnic associations ‘were among the principal centres of enlightenment and political ferment', which explains why the nationalist movement became, at one point, a process of ethnic struggle for supremacy. One other significant element in the political functioning of ethnic associations is that they serve as communication channels, providing political cognitive maps for rural folk, thereby linking urban and rural political inclinations (Hodgkin, 1956). Today, however, the political roles of ethnic unions nave been severely’ limited because many governments officially discourage ethnic political participation (cf. Kasfir, 1976).

29The welfare school of associational ethnicity provides a useful explanation for why ethnic associations are formed, and why they are attractive to urban dwellers. There is need however, to be careful in treating associations in purely instrumentalist terms. In other words, it would be wrong to argue that the only reason individuals join ethnic associations is because of their needs which these groups attend to. There is abundant evidence, for example, that urban dwellers who have stayed for long periods away from home are motivated by the desire to be reintegrated into the group and not by what they can reap materially. What is required therefore, is for the materialist explanations to be fairly balanced with the non-materialist ones.

30A third perspective of associational ethnicity attributes the emergence and importance of ethnic associations to the absence of a direct relationship between the individual and the state, specifically between migrants and their host systems and, consequently, the need to have associations which mediate this relationship and protect the interests of the migrants. Although ethnic associations are not the only mediatory mechanisms (there are, in addition, trade unions, professional associations and other organized bodies), they have been found to be very effective especially in matters which require redress or some form of compensation. It is for this reason that ethnic associations are no longer the exclusive preserve of migrant-settlers. In most towns and cities in Nigeria today, indigenous groups have also formed ethnic associations for the purpose of mediating between members of the groups and the state and, of course, other ethnic groups. Our focus is, however, on migrants, and the assumption in this perspective seems to be that migrants from the same ethnic areas have common problems especially where, as is quite often the case, they are concentrated in particular localities or neighbourhoods or are further differentiated from others by reinforcing cleavages like class and religion (cf. Zolberg, 1964, 1966 for neighbourhood ethnicity).

31Such common problems may range from the poor state of roads and neglect of the neighbourhood by government, to religious persecution or to genocide, and they often necessitate the formation of ethnic associations or the strengthening of existing ones. Mediatory functions in this regard are not, however, restricted to urban settlements; these associations have also mediated between rural homelands and government at various levels. The emergence of ethnic associations as intermediaries between the host community/government has deep historical and sociological roots. Historically, the ethnic groups organized around traditional authorities have acted as intermediaries between state power and local interests since colonial rule (Graf, 1988; Vaughan, 1991). Sociologically, the group conception of citizenship (the ‘functional’ as opposed to the ‘plebiscitarían’ principle of citizenship) which defines the individual's access and opportunities in the political system in terms of the group to which he belongs or, put differently, the use of ascriptive rather than achieved criteria, has bolstered the importance of ethnic associations in individual lives (Osaghae, 1990, 1994). In all this, the assumption is that the individual will remain committed to the association only for as long as he sees it representing his interests. Such crass instrumentality we have said, is rare to find, Even at that, this perspective does not deal adequately with the question of whether or not the interests pursued by ethnic associations are the same as those of the individual. Quite often these interests are difficult to reconcile because of their class dimensions.

32Yet a fourth perspective explains ethnic associations in terms of a desire on the part of members forming it, to develop their home town.

33The fact that their hometown lacks basic infrastructures and facilities which neighbouring towns have or that it is ‘backward’ relative to others or, even, a desire to make their home town a model of rural development efforts are some of the motives for the formation of ethnic associations of this genre. The names of these town unions are reflective of these goals: ‘improvement’ union, ‘development’ union, ‘progressive’ union, etc. Indeed, Udo (1983:169) points out that ‘monetary contributions from urban-based clan unions have been an important source of money for rural development’. It is difficult, in practice, to sustain ethnic associations on the basis of developing the home town alone. This is why most development associations generate ancillary goals in course of time, and these are geared towards meeting some of the personal needs of members in the cities.

34The foregoing perspectives cannot be said to be contending. The explanations they offer for the emergence and sustenance of associational ethnicity complement one another because they share some concerns in common. The framework for all of them is basically structural-functionalist; the assumption being that ethnic associations exist because they perform some functions required by ethnic collectivities. All the perspectives also reject assimilation as a model of urban ethnicity, emphasizing instead, the fact that members are always ready to protect ethnic identities and interests. There are a few other more concrete elements that the perspectives share. First, they emphasize the fact that membership of ethnic associations, popular as it may be, is not automatic or compulsory, no matter the psychological or material benefits of belonging to them. Several factors are considered by the individual in regard to membership. These may include the importance he attaches to preserving kinship ties, the length of time he has stayed in the city, the benefits he perceives he can derive from membership and his commitment to the development of his hometown.

35Secondly, they all agree that although associational ethnicity is largely an urban phenomenon, it involves continuous urban-rural (and, increasingly, urban-urban) linkages. Indeed, one of the most notable characteristics of urban dwellers in Africa is that they maintain contacts with their rural homelands for a variety of reasons, and that many of them regard themselves as temporary sojourners in the cities (cf. Gugler and Flanagan, 1977). For some urban dwellers, especially those who have stayed away from home for a long time, membership of ethnic associations is one way of keeping in touch with home. Others are interested in developing the home town so that they can spend holidays there or have a comfortable place to stay after retirement. In fact, Barnes (1975) found from her study of associational ethnicity in Kano that unemployed men and retired workers who planned to settle permanently in Lagos did not belong to ethnic associations. Thirdly, the perspectives, with the probable exception of the intermediary or mediatory perspective, assume that urban dwellers who form ethnic associations are temporary sojourners who would ultimately return home. This assumption is informed by the finding, popularized by earlier studies of migrant ethnicity, that urban migrants stay for relatively short periods in the cities and that very few of them would want to settle permanently in the town. For example, Mitchell (1954) found from his study of Luanshya in Zambia that migrants staved for an average of eight years only; in Kampala, Uganda, the period of stay was even shorter (Parkin, 1969; Elkan, 1960); while in Lagos, Nigeria, migrants stayed for longer periods, sometimes up to 16 years (Olusanya, 1967; Aronson, 1970). Some students of migration have described long-term or permanent settlement as circulation rather than migration, reserving the latter to describe short-term movements (Chapman and Prothero, 1983; Zelinsky, 1971).

36The temporary nature of migrant stay in the cities was true of several generations of migrants, especially those in the colonial period, and has remained true of several migrants today, but it obscures the fact that a significant number of migrants settle permanently or semi-permanently in the city. As pointed out earlier, these relatively permanent setders are the moving force behind ethnic associations. The fact that these associations continue to survive even after several members return home is eloquent testimony of their ‘stabilizing’ role. In recent times, notwithstanding the entrenched systems of discrimination against non-indigenes in Nigeria, the number of permanent setders has been on the increase. The character of urban migrants has changed in other significant ways with implications for associational ethnicity. A good proportion of urban migrants today comprises those who were born and bred in the city and have had little or no contact with the home town. The associational ethnicity preferred by many such migrants emphasizes the benefits in the city more than developing the hometown. The necessity for ethnic identity forces them to advocate cultural revivalism in matters like dress, marriage and traditional observance. This probably explains the resurgence of cultural observances in many ethnic associations today. Another difference in the pattern of migration today is that an increasing amount of migration is now urban-urban and is no longer simply rural-urban.

37These changes in the attributes of migrants as well as the swelling number of permanent and semi-permanent settlers have brought changes in the patterns of associational ethnicity which extant perspectives are rather weak in accounting for. There is, in particular, the variety of associational ethnicity which is becoming common amongst settler migrants in northern Nigerian cities, and tends to take on an all-inclusive organizational character. Depending on the traditional structures of the ethnic group(s) involved and sometimes the political organization of the host community, this variety can be fully traditional or completely detraditionalized. It is the traditional type which I refer to as the migrant ethnic empire. Another weakness of extant perspectives in the light of what we now know from comparative studies of ethnic associations, is that they failed to recognize the important role played by distance in the organization of these associations. For example, ethnic associations in cities close to the ethnic homelands do not seem to enjoy the same level of support from members as do those in distant cities. Also, ethnic associations in proximate cities tend to be particularistic, in part because of the larger numbers of migrants, while those in distant cities tend to be all-inclusive and large-scale. Finally, ethnic associations in proximated cities do not place as much emphasis on cultural identity and exclusiveness as do those in distant cities. In fact, in the case of migrant ethnic empires with which this study is concerned, cultural assertiveness in distant cities has been expressed in terms of building traditional structures akin to (old) kingdoms.


38We shall begin this section by briefly looking at the subject of migrants and migrations which are at the heart of our considerations in this study. The point in doing this is that although the concepts of migration and migrants are fairly easy to define, there are several dimensions to their study which makes it necessary to clarify the migrants referred to in this study. Geographers and sociologists who have studied migration most, classify migrants as people who relocate their domicile temporarily or permanently within the same country for economic, social and political reasons. In other words, migration is an internal process which may be contrasted with immigration which involves relocation across national boundaries. Conventional wisdom focuses on rural-urban migration, but this does not exhaust the range of migrations, as there are, in addition, rural-rural, urban-urban and urban-rural migrations (Amin, 1974). Urban-rural migrations are not as popular as the others, but they occur and often involve long-term urban settlers relocating to their villages upon retirement or in times of immiseration (Brown, 1980). Rural-rural migrations, which are usually agricultural, have been found to be the most prevalent form of migration in West Africa (Addo, 1972; Udo, 1975). Urban-urban migrations have also became quite popular as was pointed out earlier on. The migrations relevant to this study are those of the rural-urban and urban-urban genre.

39The methodology of migration studies has concentrated on the ‘causes’ and ‘consequences’ of migration (Amin, 1974:84ff; Udo, 1983). The latter are located within the processes of urbanization, and are related to inter-ethnic relations as well as political, economic and social competitions which are determined by the opportunities offered by the city. Industries, commercial enterprises, educational institutions, ministries and other government agencies, military establishments, and health facilities, to mention a few, are concentrated in urban centres, and this makes them the hub of inter-ethnic relations (Cohen, 1974). Studies of the causes of migration are legion (cf. Mabogunje, 1968; Adepoju, 1974; Caldwell, 1969; Gugler, 1969; Udo, 1970; Green, 1974; Imoagene, 1967a; 1967b; 1968; 1974). The most popular perspectives attribute migration to economic factors. For example, Amin (1974:66) asserts that ‘modern migrations are periodical migrations of labour, not of people'. Others talk of the migration of skilled and unskilled workers, seeking employment or better employment, of merchants seeking new and better investment opportunities, and so on. A special category of labour migrants is that of migrant farmers whose movements are controlled by cash crop production and cropping seasons. Other social, ‘sociopsychological’ and political reasons have also been given for migration, and they revolve round the better developed opportunities and amenities (pipe-borne water, electricity, telephones, etc.) in urban areas which make living more convenient and comfortable. One area that has remained relatively understudied in migration studies, however, is why migrants decide to settle permanently or semi-permanently in the towns. The reasons for this may not be too different from why they migrated in the first place, but it is necessary to focus specifically on this aspect which is becoming more popular than the old pattern of temporary migrations.

40For our purposes in this study, the primary concern is with the consequences of migration, though, any attempt to distinguish causes from consequences can, at best, only be analytical. For us, migration is not simply an economic process of labour movement; it is a movement of people from villages and other towns to cities, some temporarily and others permanently, though our focus is on those who relocate permanently or semi-permanently. Coming closer to Nigeria which is our primary focus, Amin (1974:78ff) makes a case for recognizing certain peculiarities which distinguish migrations here from migrations elsewhere in Africa. These peculiarities, which are mainly political, derive from the entrenched system of regionalism which defines the patterns, attitudes and tendencies of migrants and their host communities. As each region struggled to be self-sufficient, migrant settlers suffered structural discrimination which engendered peculiar associational ethnicity, part of which gave birth to what we call migrant ethnic empires. The federal structure of the comity provided sufficient counterbalance to discriminatory practices which would otherwise have discouraged migrant settlers. In other words, from the very beginning, the fact of an inter-change or ‘exchange’ of migrations amongst the regions (later states) as part of the same federation encouraged settlement by migrants who believed they had a right to live in any part of the country and feel at home. This political framework is the point of departure for analysing migrant social formations in Nigeria. Finally, Amin (1974:78ff) classifies migrations in Nigeria into four: (1) migration of skilled and unskilled labour (as well as merchants) from the south (principally Igbo) to the north — Udo (1983:161) notes that this was the dominant form of migration till the late 1950s; (2) ‘colonization’ of the mines in the middle belt and the cocoa belt in the West and the migrations of workers; (3) migrations associated with urbanization in each of the former three regions; and (4) flows of seasonal labour, including migration to Fernando Po in Equatorial Guinea and Western Cameroon. Our study is concerned with the consequences of migrations in category (1). Green (1974) has also classified migrations in Nigeria into two historical phases, migrations of colonization and migrations of urbanization. This distinction is particularly useful because it helps us to understand that whereas migration of colonization tended to be temporary, that of urbanization is more settled and less temporary (also see Kuper, 1965). As we have indicated, our concern is with the more settled forms of migration.

41Migrant ethnic empires may be defined as a peculiar and advanced form of associational ethnicity in which relatively permanent migrants usually in distant cities from their homelands decide to pursue their constitutive interests through the (re)creation of centralized political authority. Unlike conventional ethnic unions, migrant ethnic empires involve ‘traditional’ loyalties and ties which have a ‘king’ or ‘chief’ at the centre. Such emergent empires bring together migrants from related sub-groups to forge a new unity based on cultural and customary practices. Usually, the empire emerges from highly centralized ‘normal’ ethnic associations, which suggests that it may have evolved to meet certain needs which ordinary associations are not in a position to meet. Whether this is the case or not will be examined in the light of the Igbo ethnic empire, which this study is concerned with.

42The concept of migrant ethnic empires may be new, but the phenomenon is not. Cohen's (1969) pioneering study of the Hausa ‘retribalized’ organization in Sabo, Ibadan, established to further their trading interests, remains to date, the only major study of this phenomenon. This may be due to the fact that the migrant empire building did not become popular or widespread. The settlement of the Hausa in Ibadan was a classical example. The Hausa are traditionally organized in highly centralized political systems built on Islamic theocracy (cf. Adamu, 1978), and their location in Sabo, which is virtually another ‘town’ within Ibadan, was conducive to the recreation of traditional systems of authority. Cohen accounts for the resurgence of traditional forms of organization amongst the Hausa in terms of retribalization, as opposed to detribalization, which are both consequences of sociocultural changes in urban areas. While detribalization involves ethnic groups losing cultural distinctiveness, possibly through assimilation into other cultures which do not have traditional correlates, retribalization involves an ethnic group not only retaining, but also exaggerating its cultural identity and exclusivity in the urban context. In specific relation to what I refer to as a migrant ethnic empire, retribalization refers to:

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 (Cohen, 1969).

43Hausa retribalization in Ibadan or, indeed any retribalization process for that matter, Cohen explains, is not the result of conservatism towards elements of traditional culture, but ‘because their ethnicity articulates a Hausa political organization which is used as a weapon in the struggle to keep the Hausa in control of the trade’. From this insight, two elements of migrant empire ethnicity can be clearly seen. First, the empires are founded because they provide appropriate organizational weapons for furthering the interests of members of the ethnic group which, in the Hausa case, is to protect their control of trade. The implication of this is that empire ethnicity which takes the form of political organization is not simply a matter of cultural realism, but of politics. Second, empire ethnicity which expresses itself in political associations may have traditional antecedents, but the new traditionality is not hinged on existing structures in the home area, partly because the ethnic group of reference in the city tends to be more encompassing than that of the home area. For example, the Hausa community in Sabo comprises people from different Hausa communities in northern Nigeria, including a few non-Hausa elements who, in the context of Sabo, ‘become’ Hausa. A similar situation exists in Kano where migrants from Cross River, Akwa Ibom and Rivers states have identified themselves with the Igbo who have developed the most advanced structures for protecting the interests, especially safety of lives and property, among the non-indigenous communities.

44The question raised by the existence of migrant ethnic empires is: Why has there been a resurgence in traditional centralized political organizations? Could it be, as suggested earlier, that conventional ethnic associations have become inadequate to meet certain needs? The case of the Igbo and Yoruba empires in Kano, which evolved from highly centralized ethnic associations necessitates this question. From the examples of the Ibadan Hausa and Kano Igbo and Yoruba, it can be deduced that the decision to build an empire comes from the belief that within the contexts of particular urban environments, this is an effective weapon consistent with the prevalent forms of political organization in the city. In regard to the latter, Cohen (1969) has concluded that migrant ethnic empires are more likely in traditional towns than in industrial towns which facilitate detribalization rather than retribalization, though Gans (1979) has pointed out that ethnicity becomes symbolic in industrialized cities. Ibadan and most cities in northern Nigeria are traditional cities whose traditional rulers have a large measure of control. The fact that migrant groups in these cities have locational exclusivity also encourages empire-building, especially where, as is quite often the case in traditional cities, quarters and wards are administered by chiefs. Such traditional political organizations may encourage empire-building amongst groups without previous histories of centralized political organization, though, those with established traditions of centralized political organization are more likely to do so.

45These preliminary considerations do not exhaust the explanations for the emergence of migrant ethnic empires, and it is likely that, from one case to another, the constellation of forces would vary. But their origins invariably determine their functions, as it is believed the Igbo case in Kano will show.


1 These associations may be differentiated along gender lines, age lines, class lines and sometimes, neighbourhood lines, where the numbers of migrants are sufficiently large and scattered.

2 Invariably most ethnic unions establish close links with home. In fact, in some cases, unions that are not registered with the home office are not recognized.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1994

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