There are many views on Nigeria’s relationship with its constituent tribes. For some, the 1914 amalgamation spelt doom – an arranged marriage between strangers. For others, it was the 1960 election that fuelled beliefs that the British favoured the North. And yet for another set of people, the lead up to, and the culmination in, the Biafran war was the darkest episode in Nigeria’s history – one that has entrenched distrust amongst its tribes.
Even beyond the Hausas, Yorubas and Igbos, minority ethnic groups – especially those in the Niger Delta – regularly complain that natural resources in their regions have been used to develop the country while they remain impoverished. Northern middle-belt minorities have long argued that the Fulanis have absorbed their identity while posing a constant security threat. The problems persist.
Nevertheless, one perspective of Nigerian tribalism is that these tensions remain alive today because policies geared at tackling marginalisation have not been very successful. This is what we shall consider.
Digging Deeper into Tribalism
This backdrop exemplifies some of the triggers that have influenced the heightened ethnic episodes that Nigeria currently experiences, but as with most things, the issue is even more complicated.
Aside from historical fact and government policy, there remains a purer form of tribalism that is grounded in prejudice; stemming from strongly held views about ‘other tribes’ and a dislike for people who come from different cultures, religions or speak different languages. This form of prejudice, though not as eagerly addressed by policy, becomes problematic once coupled with unsuccessful governmental policies and history. This prejudice is most commonly expressed amongst families that cannot stomach the thought of their well-formed Yoruba daughter – Sade, getting married to the young gentleman from Nnewi - Emeka. Granted, this is also a sociological issue, but, such prejudices are fuelled when situated in broader contexts.
Therefore, as long as government policies or politicians stoke this distrust, such tribalism can only fester. One can quickly see how the broader narrative of Nigerian tribalism is influenced by well-entrenched beliefs, and this attitude is reflected in daily interactions.
Going Against the Grain
That being said, to think, as some have suggested, that Nigerians are incapable of living in harmony, may not be entirely accurate. This is because Nigerians have demonstrated on occasion, their ability to see themselves as one nation.
At the lowering of the British Union Jack in 1960, Nigeria’s ‘green, white, green’ symbolised a rallying point that led many, even if for brief moments, to disregard tribes and bask in pride at Nigeria’s achievement and promise of greatness. This is not to paint an entirely rosy picture. The inability to actualise this pledge, due to tribalism and sometimes, sheer inefficiency, has contributed to the sorry state of Nigerian unity. But, in those moments, the dream lived on.
Another moment was when the Dream team, on the shoulders of that lanky Kanu Nwankwo, sealed Olympic Gold in 1996. Songs of “…when Nigeria beat Brazil… Bebeto come dey cry…” were sung with as much passion in Kaduna as they were in Anambra. We did not collectively marginalise the star player as an Igbo man, because in that moment of achievement – we were one, and he was Nigerian, he was ours. His tribe did not disappear, but tribalism was absent in the celebration of success.
The argument can, therefore, be made that on a basic level, there is something other than irredeemable hate between tribes in Nigeria.
So what fuels tribalism?
Tribalism is instead stoked by frustrations from behaviour or policies that marginalise. Take two popular sets of policies as examples. Firstly, federal allocation policies which deprive oil producing states significant returns from oil developed in their communities and secondly, poorly implemented Federal Character quotas that ignore merit. These are policies that can be easily capitalised upon through politicking to fuel distrust and hate between tribes. Unfortunately, the march against these policies is usually taken to extremes (like secession) instead of being geared toward engagement and improvement. But then, what do you expect when people are convinced that they are marginalised, and their efforts to improve the status quo are futile? Cue, Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Take again, for instance, Nigeria's Civil War. Before it broke out, the Federal Government was challenged to tackle the Igbo pogroms, but the response was lethargic. When engagement was pursued to birth the Aburi Accord, failure to implement it eventually led to war. The lip-service by the Federal Government before the war is very similar to the non-response to similar agitations in the Niger Delta, the Northern Middle-Belt and the re-emergence of the Biafran movement. Little wonder, the same agitations recur.
One Important Question
But are the extremist agitations ever truly reasonable? This is an important consideration, as the extent of tribalism in Nigeria is, as with many countries, based on frustrations over basic discrimination. With our current Federal structure, it is difficult to fully ascribe marginalisation, or lack of opportunity, to any one tribe that controls the centre. It is more of a coalition of tribes because people must work together.
At times, the evidence even shows that leaders from our tribes have not always been the saviours we imagine. Inefficient as the FG may be, local leaders cause defects in our roads and schools. It is not as if Yoruba states are being governed by Efik men or vice versa.
If we are to build Nigerian nationalism, we must look at history, policies and our day to day interactions. It must be a combination of factors looking at the federal character principle, government responses to marginalisation and even family prejudices. Otherwise, there is very little hope for the future of any real Nigerian Nationalism.