Democratic Consolidation in Nigeria

1 January 2017

This development was heralded as an avenue to usher in democratic stability and good governance. However, contrary to widespread expectations, the post-military regime became an avenue for the explosion of violent ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria. As a matter of fact, since the emergence of democracy in May 1999, not less than one hundred ethnically and religiously instigated conflicts have occurred in Nigeria which resulted in loss of lives and unquantifiable material and psychological damage.

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Drawing from documentary research and findings, this paper probes the persistent spate of ethno-religious crises in Nigeria and its harmful implications on democratic consolidation in Nigeria. It investigates the history, causes and manifestations of ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria and maintains that unbridled lust for power, corruption, religious intolerance and the failure of the government to deliver democratic dividends, have resulted in these conflicts between ethnic and religious groups in the country.

In the light of all these then, can democracy thrive in an atmosphere of crises? Can Nigeria come out of ethno-religious conflicts? If so, what steps can the government take to rein in the menace of these crises? Finally, the paper provides submissions for curbing this social epidemic, which has become a permanent feature of the Nigerian social polity. Keywords: Nigeria, Ethno-religious, Crises, Democracy, Development Introduction Democracy could be said to be a seed: when you sow bountifully, you reap bountifully.

Thus, one of the dividends of democracy, which Nigerians have reaped in abundance since the transfer of power from the military to the civilians on May 29, 1999, is the rising wave of ethno-religious conflicts with devastating and untold consequences on lives and property (Jega, 2007: 116). Nigeria is a very populous nation in Africa with diverse cultural heritage. In fact, the country has a population of over 140 million and over 400 ethnic groups belonging to different religious sects as well (Salawu, 2010: 345).

Since the attainment of independence, Nigeria has remained a multi-ethnic nation, which has been grappling with the problem of ethnicity on the one hand and that of ethno-religious conflicts on the other hand. At the inception of independence, for administrative expediency the various ethnic factions were fused and merged together by the colonialists. Then, the colonial masters left and things started falling apart, the center no longer held.

No ethnic group desired to see the other. Little wonder then that the former Secretary of State at the British Colonial Office (1952-1959), Sir Peter Smitters regretted the action taken by the British to merge diverse ethnic groups into one in Nigeria. According to Ali (2004) cited in Adebayo (2010: 214), he was reported to have lamented that it was extremely dangerous to force diverse radical and social entities into single rigid political structure.

However, that statement was medicine after death; the deed had been done. Indeed, a conglomerate of almost four hundred ethnic groups, each having its distinct history, language, culture and political systems before the colonial rule, all preserved in mitigated forms with the British system of governance super-imposed and named Nigeria really had future implications for unity.

The colonial administration, for administrative convenience, compressed and merged the various ethnic groups in their respective regions, making Hausa/Fulani, Igbo, and Yoruba the major ethnic groups and reinforced the three political/administrative divisions – the north, the east, and the west, under appropriate constitutional arrangement. At independence and post independence era, the status-quo of the colonial era was retained under that infantile freedom, with every group retaining its tradition, language, and culture while sharing the common central institutions in a federal arrangement (Adebayo, 2010: 214).

As a result, these major ethnic groups, because of their opportunistic positions were seen as consistently dominating the political and economic scene before and after the attainment of independence in 1960 and this led to agitations for state creation by the other “minor” ethnic groups who saw themselves as the marginalized groups. However, the more states were created, the more the complaints of marginalization and inequality by the new minorities against the new majorities in each state (Abdullahi and Saka, 2007).

Consequently, the proliferation of ethno-religious and political turbulence in the country is therefore necessitated on the one hand by cultural, communal and religious differences and on the other hand by fear of domination nursed by the minority groups. As if what constitutes the federalism is not satisfied, there have been agitations for reversing back to the old regional autonomy of the different groups for the purpose of determining the pace of their development and control of their respective resources.

These pernicious phenomena of ethnicity and religious intolerance led to the incessant surge of ethno-religious conflicts, which gave birth to the many ethnic militias today like the O’dua People’s Congress (OPC) put in place by the Yoruba in the south-western part of the country to fight for the protection and defence of Yoruba in Nigeria; the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), fighting for the cessation of the Igbo ethnic tribe in Nigeria; the Bakassi Boys; the Egbesu Boys; the Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC), the Igbo Peoples’ congress (IPC); the Arewa People’ Congress (APC) and the Ohaneze Ndigbo among others.

This might probably be the feeling of Elaigwu (2005: 12) when he writes …the violent protests in the Niger-Delta over perceived injustice in resource distribution; the Itsekiri-Ijaw violence in the Delta; the resumption of the Ife-Modakeke communal violence; the menace of Odu’a Peoples’ Congress (OPC) and the accompanying violence in Lagos and Shagamu areas; the formation of the Arewa Peoples’ Congress (APC) and the Igbo Peoples’ Congress (IPC); the MASSOB feeble attempt to resuscitate Biafra; the Sharia crisis and the demands for a confederation; the South-South demand for the control of its resources; and all the recent interethnic/religious conflicts in various states across the country are all part of the bubbles of the Nigerian federation.

They are based on the historical structures of mutual fears and suspicions among Nigerian groups in a competitive process. They reflect dissatisfaction of Nigerian groups with the state of the federation. With the emergence of all these ethnic militias and the deep divide between the various ethnic groups, religious intolerance became more violent and bloody with more devastating results using the ethnic militias as the executing platforms of ethno-religious agenda. Federalism thought to be an approach to national unity, resulted to anarchy in the country.

A number of steps were taken to at least mend the disunity and disarray prevalent then and promote unity among the various ethnic groups. These included the establishment of federal institutions in some states of the federation, promotion of national cultural and sporting activities, and, more significantly, the National Youth Service Programme (NYSC), just to mention a few (Adebayo, 2010). Although these steps yielded pockets of successes in achieving national unity, the “unholy” marriage of convenience of the ethnic groups still begs for irrevocable divorce. While the ethnic rivalry held sway, religious pluralism, which culminated in many crises, shook the country to its very roots.

The pernicious effect of this trend is not entirely surprising given the fact that religion is so sensitive to Nigerians that many are not only ready to defend it at all costs, but are ready to die for it. Hence, religious pluralism which resulted in religious intolerance was fused with ethnic rivalry, producing the recurrent spate of ethno-religious crises. And because of the violent nature of ethno-religious conflicts, which often take the form of riots, sabotage, assassinations, lynching and maiming, kidnappings, armed struggles, guerilla warfare and secession in Nigeria, they undoubtedly pose dangerous threats to democracy in Nigeria and Africa as a whole.

Yes, as Jega (2007: 116) truthfully stated, the genetically engineered seeds of democracy planted by our colonial masters and further successive military regimes have grown to mature crops for harvest. Instead of democracy yielding peace, stability and security to lives and property, it seems to have yielded a return, full circle spate of ethno-religious conflicts and violent eruptions. Thus, the discussion of ethno-religious conflicts in whatever context becomes all the more necessary given the fact that there is a phenomenal recurrence of these conflicts around the nation thereby increasing its threat level to democratic consolidation in Nigeria.

It is against this backdrop that this paper attempts to probe the history, manifestations and implications of ethno-religious crises in Nigeria since the dawn of democratic dispensation. Causes of Ethno-Religious Crises in Nigeria According to Awolowo (1990: 35), the notion of Nigeria as “a mere geographic expression” was engendered by the forceful packaging by colonial authoritarian fiat of unwilling communities of diverse origin and culture under the same polity. Consequently, relations and political behavior of the peoples are characterized by mutual suspicion and invidious hatred since they are strange bed-fellows, who were only coerced into the nation-state via amalgamation. Until 1960, Nigeria was a British colony.

Like most colonies, it was not constructed for internal coherence, but rather for the administrative convenience of the British (Shively, 1997: 39). Over 400 different languages and dialects are spoken within its borders, and there is also an important religious split, as the north is primarily Muslim and the south is predominantly Christian, making her not only at ethno-religious crossroads but also at linguistic crossroads. As diverse as these ethnic groups are, they are also not accommodative of each other’s religion and professions of faith. This state of intolerance has added up to fuel the spate of crises in Nigeria. It should be noted that religion has always been the platform for frontal expressions of ethnic aggressions and conflict.

Hence, ethnocentric politics, sectional solidarity and primordial interests became prominent features in the nation’s political practice. Sectional and individual virtues and interest rather than collective virtues and national unity are advanced and exalted. Thus, communal orientation precluded any attachment to the state and the syndrome of the ‘son of the soil’ took preference over merit and competence in the choice of policies and leaders. Although as Obasanjo and Mabogunje (1992: 4) aptly observed, colonialism provided scaffolding of holding the different communities together, not much change was achieved in altering communal mentality and predilection.

Nonetheless, the persistent military incursion into government and politics did much harm for the body polity as national issues was mostly tribalized and primordial virtues extolled. These regimes had primordial outlook and sub-national mentality under which the northern part of the country was favoured brazenly, on one hand, and the southern part was deliberately dealt with in terms of appointments, contracts, location of government establishments, political oppression and repression as well as provision of social services and infrastructures. As a result, ethnic sectarianism has left a trail of destructive violence and even threatened the territorial integrity of Nigeria (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2001).

Indeed, after long years of authoritarian rule, when the military clique and their civilian collaborators privatized the Nigerian state (Ukiwo, 2003), politicians in the emergent Fourth Republic were all too anxious to claim control of the state and its oil wealth as well. This thus led to an unbridled competition for political relevance and spheres of interests among politicians, especially in the context of the division of the country into geopolitical zones, states and local governments and the fact that distribution of benefits among the political class depended on the ability of each member of the ruling class to deliver his constituency.

This lust for power has led to the neglect of the needs of the masses and the demand for peaceful co-existence. Instead, the rulers continue to enrich their pockets through corrupt dirty means and seek for elongation of tenures for selfish gains. In the circumstance, ethnicity, religion and other sectarian identities are exploited, resulting in avoidable violent conflicts among component units of the country. The persistence of mass poverty and increasing income inequality, largely as a result of the transformation of the fortunes of politicians and their allies from jobless neighbors to emergency billionaires in less than two years after capturing power, have deepened popular alienation. It has also called into question the legitimacy since 1999.

Consequently, some of the easiest things to do in contemporary Nigeria are to mobilize an assassin, vigilante, ethnic-cum-religious militia, rioter, crowd or rented pro-government demonstrator. The result could only be imagined. The power lust of the political cliche is one of the perceived causes of ethno-religious crises in Nigeria. Another reason responsible for ethno-religious crises in Nigeria is the wrong interpretation by those who claim authority to the understanding of the holy books. If not so, one wonders why people act contrary to the teaching of the holy books (whether the Quran or the Bible) in matters pertaining to peaceful co-existence, unity and sanctity of life, and property.

As it is a serious disease for someone who does not have a full grasp of the interpretation of any of the holy books to claim authority to knowledge, many of the so called ‘religious leaders’ use their shallow knowledge to put up interpretations to suit their selfish ends banking on the ignorance of their followers. Lamenting on the wide gap between the teaching and practice of religion among its adherents, Adebayo (2003) cited in Adebayo (2010: 219) identified some factors responsible for using religion as instrument of polarization, among which is leadership tussle, which also culminated in the proliferation of many denominations in the country.

Also, sectarian jingoism, as well as excessive patriotism to one’s religious sect, which consequently transformed to fanaticism, is another major factor contributing to this social menace. Salawu (2010) also noted that the failure of the Nigerian leaders to establish good governments, forge national integration and promote what can be called real economic progress, through deliberate and articulated policies, has led to mass poverty and unemployment. This has resulted into communal, ethnic, religious and class conflicts that have now characterized the Nigerian nation. Poverty and unemployment have therefore served as nursery bed for many ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria because the country now has a reservoir of poor people who warmongers as mercenary fighters.

What this means theoretically is that poverty and unemployment increase the number of people who are prepared to kill or be killed for a given course at token benefit. This explains why all ethno-religious crises that ever occurred in Nigeria have a large turnout of people (including the under-aged) as fighters. Lastly and very importantly, and not the least, the ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria also have some historical antecedent (Salawu, 2010). This is because many governmental actions during the colonial rule and after independence encouraged, to a large extent, the sowing of the seeds of ethno-religious conflicts that are found to be rampant in the Nigerian nation today.

Over the years, many events in Nigeria have led to the politicization of mistrust, intolerance, violence and acrimonious relations between the mainly Moslem north and the Christian south of Nigeria. To this extent, there has been an unfortunate insertion of ethno-religious discrimination and incompatibility in the structures of the Nigerian State since the colonial period. The political events of the January 15, 1966 coup and the July 1966 counter-coup further entrenched ethno-religious configuration in Nigeria. This is because the killings and counter-killing that followed the coups which took ethnic and religious colorations as the Muslim dominated tribes in the north were set against the Christian-dominated tribes of the southern region.

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