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Federations Magazine Article
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Nigeria’s federal framework dampens ethnic conflicts

By Isawa Elaigwu
Diversity is often seen as detrimental to nationbuilding.
Yet diversity can also lead to much greater
accommodation in a multinational state. In Nigeria,
federalism has been adopted as a mechanism for
accommodating diversity and managing potential
An extraordinarily heterogeneous society, Nigeria has a
population of about 140 million according to the 2006 census,
more than 400 linguistic groups and some
300 ethnic groups. Under British colonial
rule from 1914 to 1960, Nigeria used English
as the single common language. The most
important aspects of diversity in Nigeria are
language, ethnic identity, religion, majority/
minority cleavages and regionalism or
It is not uncommon to hear 10 different languages within a
radius of 20 kilometres, as you can in Plateau State. Language is
a key indicator of ethnic group. Often, ethnic identity coincides
with residential territory. At times, administrative boundaries
overlap with regional boundaries, within which there is a dominant
ethnic group, such as the Hausa/Fulani in the North, the
Yorubas in the West and the Ibos in the Eastern region. However,
in each region, there are also numerous minority groups, with
their own specific identities.
There are three basic religions in Nigeria – African traditional
religion, Christianity and Islam. While Islam was introduced in
Nigeria by Arabs along their northern trading routes,
Christianity came with European missionaries from the South.
Little contact under British rule
While diversity in Nigeria has been a source
of administrative concern, the nature of colonial
administration, which regionalized
Nigeria in 1939, meant that Nigerian groups
coexisted but had little contact with one
another. The 1946 Richards Constitution
brought Nigerian leaders together in the
Legislative Council (1947) for the first time.
Yet, by 1951, as the British colonial umbrella was gradually folding,
nationalists began to compete to inherit political power
from the British, withdrawing to their familiar ethnic and ethnoregional
bases to organize for the struggle. Thus, between 1951
and 1959, major ethnic groups in many regions were mobilizing
against other regions. Finally, suspicion and fear among
Nigeria’s groups led to the adoption of federalism in 1954 in
order to manage the conflict. Still, the colonial authority found
it necessary to set up the Willink Commission to investigate the
fears of minority ethnic groups in the regions, and opted to allay
them by including a human rights clause in the Independence
Constitution of 1960.
Nigeria’s federal framework
dampens ethnic conflicts
ni g eria
Diversity has also spawned
clan-based militias
Isawa Elaigwu is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the
University of Jos, Nigeria. He was director general and chief executive
of the National Council on Intergovernmental Relations, Abuja,
Nigeria. He is currently president of the Institute of Governance and
Social Research, Jos, and is the author of The Politics of Federalism in
Nigeria and Federalism: The Nigerian Experience.
Former militia leader Mujahid Dokubo-Asari attempted
to run for governor of Rivers state while in prison on a
charge of treason. On June 14, 2007, he was released by
Nigeria’s new president, Umaru Yar’Adua, who is seeking
to bring peace to the Niger Delta region.

ticular when Zamfara state extended Sharia law to include
criminal matters in 2000. Twelve northern states quickly followed
in adopting Sharia. The violence resulting from the
introduction of the Sharia in Kaduna State triggered reciprocal
killings in the southeastern part of Nigeria. The Sharia fire did
not spill over to other states because of Nigeria’s federal structure
and the autonomy of component units.
Struggle over resources
Another source of conflict is resource distribution. Most of the
proceeds from petroleum and gas, upon which Nigeria
depends, come from a predominately minority area, the Niger
Delta, which includes Delta, Edo, Akwa Ibom, Cross River,
Rivers and Bayelsa States. Feeling cheated and neglected over
the years, these states accused the central government of using
their resources to develop other areas and threatened to take
control of them. They had walked out of the National Political
Reform Conference in 2005 because the conference had
rejected a sharing formula of 25 per cent of oil revenues by derivation.
The federal government has tried to deal with the
problem of neglect by establishing the Niger-Delta
Development Commission, devoted to the development of the
area. However, former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s master
plan was met with skepticism. The Yar’Adua/Jonathan administration
is currently trying to resolve the issue.
A final instance of diversity is the emergence of ethnic militias.
After May 1999, when the military dictators handed over
power to civilians, latent subnationalism exploded into violence.
The O’dua Peoples’ Congress, the Arewa Peoples’
Congress, the Ibo Peoples’ Congress, The Bakassi Boys, the
Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State Biafra,
the Egbesu and the Ijaw Youth Congress – were all subnational
militia groups that challenged the state with violence. As the
Nigeria Police Force grew less effective in maintaining law and
order, subnational militia groups grew stronger. Their goals, as
they – and certainly not others – saw them were to:
• Protect their identity, culture and values.
• Demand what they considered an appropriate share of
• Respond aggressively to actions regarded as unfair.
• Act as a vigilante group to protect lives and property.
• Defend the land of their ancestors against strangers.
In the Niger Delta, some leaders created militias as military
wings of political groups. After the 2003 elections, these politicians
lost control over their militias. Violence spread among
young people, who challenged state control. The Niger Delta
imbroglio continues. It is to be hoped that new measures by
President Yar’Adua can resolve the issue.
Federalism tries to establish legal and other forms of compromise
among diverse interests. In Nigeria, the federal
framework has enabled leaders to compartmentalize conflicts
over ethnicity and regionalism, thus reducing – though not
eliminating – conflicts. It has made it possible for Nigerians to
cope with religious conflicts and to contain aggressive subnationalism.
Diversity can enrich the process of nation-building,
and, in troubled times, provide the promise of renewed intergroup
relations, as the pendulum continues to swing between
federalism and centralism.
But various regional politicians and groups continued to be
alarmed. The South feared the tyranny of the Northern groups
who represented 54 per cent of the population. On the other
hand, the North feared the Southern tyranny of skills, as the
region was more advanced in Western education and therefore
had more jobs in the developing government and business
sectors. Such suspicions and resentments significantly affected
a number of political developments, particularly the census
exercises of 1962-1963, the federal elections of 1964, and the
Western regional elections of 1965, and ultimately led to the
military coup of 1966 and the aborted secessionist bid of the
Eastern Region – the Biafran War – between 1967 and 1970.
An unbalanced federation
As the leader of a military coup in 1966, Major-General Johnson
Aguiyi-Ironsi’s government inherited the ongoing problems of
an unbalanced federation, in which the regions were more
powerful than the centre. It therefore opted to alter the structure
of the federation, creating 12 states out of the existing four
regions in 1967. This grew to 19 states in 1976, 21 states in 1987, 30
states in 1991 and 36 states in 1996. The revised federal structure
provided a useful medium for the central government to compartmentalize
conflict areas among the old regions and to
reduce their intensity. But, as new states emerged, erstwhile
minorities became new majorities, often more vicious than the
old. Ethnicity and regionalism did not die with the creation of
states, and often standing issues crept back through other avenues,
such as recruitment into public office and resource
The issue of language often rose to the surface. In the
Second Republic, from 1979-1983, the House of Representatives
found, as had the Constituent Assembly of 1978-1979, that it
was convenient to continue to use English as the official language.
In addition, however, it approved the use of the Hausa,
Ibo, and Yoruba languages, a move that was sharply opposed
by representatives of minorities who saw it as “cultural slavery.”
This controversy subsided with the adoption of English as the
official language at federal and state levels.
Religious conflict emerges
Religion had not been a serious source of conflict until the late
1970s. At the Constitution Drafting Committee in 1976 and 1977,
and during the Constituent Assembly sessions of 1978 and 1979,
the Sharia law debate opened sectarian schisms. Suddenly,
religion took a front seat in political discourse. The attempt by
Muslims to extend Sharia beyond personal and inheritance
matters, and to establish a federal Sharia Court of Appeal, was
resisted by Christians. As a compromise, Sharia and customary
courts were to be introduced only in states that so desired.
At the federal level, the Court of Appeal was to have three
judges learned in Sharia and customary law sitting with common-
law judges. Such a compromise would have been more
difficult in a unitary system.
Yet in 1986, the news of Nigeria’s joining the Organization of
Islamic Conference (OIC ) stirred up another religious crisis,
especially between Christians and Muslims. While reassurances
were given, there was no withdrawal from OIC . Between
1980 and 2005, there were over 45 violent religious conflicts in
which lives and property were lost, conflict intensified in par.