1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Governance (2000 - 2009)

Ethnic Structure, Inequality and Governance of the Public Sector in Nigeria



Nigeria has about 374 ethnic groups that are broadly divided into ethnic “majorities” and ethnic “minorities”. The major ethnic groups are the Hausa-Fulani of the north, the Yoruba of the southwest, and the Igbo of the southeast. These three “hegemonic” ethnic groups constituted 57.8 per cent of the national population in the 1963 census. All the other ethnicities constitute different degrees of “minority” status. The dominance of the national population by the three majority groups was further accentuated by the tripodal regional administrative structure of the 1950s, which gave each majority ethnic group a region. From this demographic and historical starting point, Nigeria has evolved a tripolar ethnic structure, which forms the main context for ethnic mobilization and contestation. This paper investigates the consequences of the demo­graphic and historical legacies for the management of inter-ethnic relations, particularly within the public sector. The paper is divided into three parts.

Part 1 explores the history and geography of the ethno-regional cleavages in Nigeria, and suggests reasons for their endurance. Early colonial rule in Nigeria was based on the implicit concept of one country, many peoples, and very little was done to create unifying institutions and processes for these peoples. The internal geography of colonialism expressed itself as a cultural geography, which emphasized the distinctiveness of peoples, and the indissoluble connection between the “tribesmen”, their territories and their chiefs. Colonial administrative regionalism consolidated the link between ethnic distinctiveness and administrative boundaries: Hausa-Fulani in the north; Igbo in the east and the Yoruba in the west. The ethnic minorities in each region were forced to accommodate themselves the best they could in each region. Four factors that guided the evolution of the Nigerian state from 1900 are examined: the policies and practices of colonial administrations; the attitudes and prejudices of colonial administrators; and the colonial economy. From the 1940s, these three factors were joined by the politics of the emergent regional elites who had the incentive to mobilize along regional and ethnic lines, and in the process further entrenched the cleavages developed under colonial rule.

The long-drawn politico-historical process of regionalism, statism and localism has led to a concentric pattern of seven ethnic and political cleavages in Nigeria: (i) between the North and the South; (ii) between the three majority ethnic groups; (iii) between these wazobia groups on the one hand, and the minority groups on the other; (iv) rivalry between states, sometimes within and sometimes between ethnic groups; (v) interethnic rivalry in a mixed state composed of minority groups of different strengths, or a segment of a majority ethnicity surrounded by minority groups; (vi) intraethnic or subethnic rivalry within each majority ethnic group, sometimes also corresponding to state boundaries and sometimes within a single state; (vii) and finally, interclan and intraclan rivalries, particularly in the southeast and the north-central parts of the country. The most politically significant cleavages on which this report concentrates are the first three.

Part 2 examines the manifestations of the inequalities associated with the cleavages examined in part 1, particularly in the political, bureaucratic and educational apparatuses of the state. It argues that the cleavages coincide with systematic patterns of horizontal inequalities. It was particularly in the sphere of education that regional differences were first manifested under colonialism. And this then had a knock-on effect on the regional formation of human capital, and general economic development. Persisting educational and socioeconomic inequalities between different regions and ethnicities form the context for the observable inequalities in the staffing of governmental institutions in Nigeria. The long-run patterns of overlapping inequalities have come to shape people’s life chances and their political perceptions. They have also had a tremendous impact on the electoral politics of the country and the composition of different cabinets and bureaucracies, giving rise to political conflicts centred on the nature of ethno-regional representation within the public sector. The patterns of ethno-regional representation in various cabinets, parliaments, military juntas, and different levels of the public sector bureaucracy are examined, showing patterns of systematic correspondence between cleavages and horizontal inequalities in these institutions.

Part 3 looks at various efforts aimed at reforming the lopsided nature of representation within the institutions of the Nigerian federation. Particular attention is paid to an attempt to banish ethno-regional differences through the imposition of a unitary system of government, and the reasons for the failure of this policy. Other reform measures examined include the breaking up of the powerful regions into smaller states, the evolution of a quota system for elite recruitment into the educational system, the constitutional provision for affirmative action under the federal character principle, and the building of a federation with a strong centre and a powerful presidency as the antidote to ethno-regional separatism. There was also the reform of the party system and the introduction of majoritarian and consociational rules to moderate divisive tendencies within the political process.

These efforts at reforming ethno-regional representation and relations in Nigeria have had only limited success. While the reforms have fundamentally transformed the Nigerian state, they have yet to solve the problem of ethnic mobilization and conflict. As a consequence, there is still a plethora of grievances from various ethnic groups.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 16 Nov 2006
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8186
    From: UNRISD