Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Ethnic and Religious Conflict in Nigeria: What Lessons for South Africa?

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Ethnic and Religious Conflict in Nigeria: What Lessons for South Africa?

Article excerpt

Senior Lecturer, Department of History Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife, Nigeria (*)


Despite hopes that the institution of democratic rule would facilitate the abatement, even if not the resolution of the several ethnic and other sectarian conflicts in Nigeria, the country has continued to witness high-level ethnic and other anti-state violence. Violent conflicts continue to manifest on at least four fronts: violent ethnic nationalism, resource-based anti-state violence in the Niger Delta, resource-based inter and intra-ethnic conflict, and religion-induced violence. The demand of the various warring groups is the same: a fundamental restructuring of the Nigerian federation to enable a return to true federalism and greater regional control over resources. This demand reflects deep-seated frustration with the practice of Nigerian federalism. South Africa has a lot to learn from the Nigerian situation as it seeks to develop its federal structure. These include the need for the development and practice of true federalism; a careful management of ethnic relations to address the questions of ident ity and nationality; the strengthening of civil society; the initiation of programs of popular economic and political empowerment; and the development of a mechanism for regular dialogue.


The principal hallmark of the last transition to civil rule programme in Nigeria was the absence of any rigorous attempt by the contending parties to address the critical issues confronting the nation and fashion an agenda to address them. Rather, the dominant issue was the "power shift" debate and the marginalisation inquest. Underpinning the marginalisation inquest and power shift debate was the perception that a section of the country, that is the North, has had more than its fair share of hold on national power and leadership. It was thus concluded that it was time to let power "shift" to the south so that other parts of the country could exercise their constitutional right to rule the country. While there are several dimensions to the inquest, the most prominent relates to ethnic and political marginalisation.

Most observers of the Nigerian political process agree that probably the greatest challenge to the development of a national consensus is the vast scale of ethnic and other sectarian differences, and how these differences have been exploited by political leaders at various times. With a population of about 120 million and some 350 distinct ethnic groups, Nigeria is undoubtedly a plural society. Three principal ethnic groups dominate the national scene: the lgbo in the southeast, Yoruba in the south-west, and Hausa/Fulani in the North. The various nationalities that presently constitute the Nigerian federation were brought together to form a single country only in 1914. The amalgamation brought together into one country "nations and peoples who had no reason to think of themselves as members of a common society". (1) Worse, the amalgamation project was targeted not so much at the political unity of the people, but more at the limited objective of merging the separate administrative structures to ensure a more efficient colonial administration. In 1939, again for the purpose of colonial administrative efficiency, the country was divided into three regions each with its own Regional Commissioner and administrative complement. Thenceforth, regionalism was introduced into Nigerian politics and ethno-regionalism assumed a centre-stage in the political process. (2)


The ethnic, religious and social pluralism of the country has been a tool in the hands of the political elite seeking to manipulate the sociopolitical process to its own advantage. Thus, Nigeria's post-colonial history has been dominated by calls for secession or confederation. It has been suggested that these calls have been inspired more by elite self-interest rather than national interest. …

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