Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Displacement of Ethnicity by Corruption in Nigeria's Electoral Politics

By Ehwarieme, William | Journal of Third World Studies, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Displacement of Ethnicity by Corruption in Nigeria's Electoral Politics

Ehwarieme, William, Journal of Third World Studies


Attempts to form nationally integrative political parties at the dawn of electoral politics in Nigeria failed. Instead, a pattern of ethnic politics emerged, exemplified by ethno-regional political parties, ethnic mobilization and ethnic voting such that by the last pre-independence election in 1959, each of the three regions had become the exclusive domains of specific ethnoregional parties. This pattern continued well into the post-colonial era and has been blamed for the country's problems of political leadership, national integration, economic and political development. Correspondingly, a preponderance of scholars have come to see ethnicity as the major determinant of electoral outcomes in Nigeria as, indeed, in much of Africa. Thus, ethnicity is readily seen as the "red devil" (1) of African politics.

However, in recent elections, the dominant People's Democratic Party (PDP) "captured" states that were traditionally the exclusive domains of ethnoregional parties. Also, in at least one state with a long history of ethnic rivalry between a numerically superior and a demographically insignificant group, a candidate from the latter achieved unprecedented electoral success in governorship elections. (2) Yet, graphic and dramatic as these may be, they are only a culmination of a hardly acknowledged trend in the displacement of ethnicity that dates back to the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The demolition of the ethno-regional pattern which acquired a new ferocity in the last ten years, reaching its peak in the 2007 general elections, needs to be empirically demonstrated. This constitutes the first task of this paper. In this connection, it undertakes a historical analysis of electoral politics and outcomes in Nigeria, since the introduction of the elective principle in 1923, to show the old and emerging patterns. The second purpose of this paper is to account for this new trend. In other words, why is ethnicity becoming less relevant and what provides the mechanism for transcending ethnic politics?

Thirdly, the paper attempts to examine the implications of the emerging pattern. It relies on primary material, participant observation and existing scholarly studies.


The introduction of the elective principle in 1923, following provisions of the Richard's Constitution of 1922, marked the beginning of party formation and competitive partisan politics in Nigeria. Since then, the country has been plagued with the problem of conducting elections that are free, fair and peaceful. Disputed election results were implicated in the collapse of the First and Second post-independence Republics in 1966 and 1983, respectively. (3) The Third was aborted when the results of what has been widely adjudged as the freest election in the country was annulled by the military under General Ibrahim Babangida. The Fourth Republic, which has lasted 10 years, the longest in the nation's nearly five decades of independence, has witnessed general elections in 1999, 2003 and 2007 that have been characterized by a progressive worsening of credibility from one election to another.

Competing explanations exist for the problem of Nigeria as well as other African countries with regards to electoral politics. Some scholars have tried to provide a materialist interpretation to the problem, explaining it in terms of intra-ruling class struggles for the use of the state for accumulation. Ethnicity is either seen as a secondary contradiction or ascribed a positive role. (4) The more popular explanations, however, are those which attribute the problem to ethnicity. Even then, several tendencies exist. One of these is what is referred to as "conventional accounts" (5) of the party-ethnicity relationship which view ethnic interests as "intrinsically antagonistic." This is why, for them, "elections become zero-sum game, engendering a spiral of ethnic outbidding that seriously threatens democratic stability.

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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Displacement of Ethnicity by Corruption in Nigeria's Electoral Politics


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