Leadership Dynamics in Nigeria
By Prof. B.E. Nwaneri
Balance of power is a widely used concept in international relations, one whose importance
in the understanding of the political dynamics in multi-ethnic states has been undervalued
due to the limitations in the interpretations of its meanings.
The basic theme of the balance of power theory is that the international system is
anarchical in the absence of a common government and goals. The management of this
anarchy is based on the power relations among states. However, within the state system which is presumed to be non-anarchical, the integrated society is managed by a strong
consensus, hence, there is no need to balance power.
The underlining principle of the balance of power concept is that, the pursuit of power is the
common denominator to which all foreign policy can be reduced, and the notion that any
preponderant power will always be a menace to the interest and security of other states.
The concept of Balance of power could be applied to Nigeria’s internal politics, because
Nigeria is a state of nationalities but not a nation of individuals. In which case, balancing for
survival within the state's internal system is as important as the balancing between states in
the international system. The Nigerian state system is in crisis because the northern group
of nationalities - under the leadership of the Hausa-Fulani nation - enjoys an over-balance
of political power, which it has used to threaten the security of other nations and
nationalities within the system. The result is the wide gap between fact and value, based on
the assumption that what is good for the North is good for Nigeria.
Balance of power implies an objective arrangement in which there is relatively widespread
satisfaction with the distribution of power, so that no one actor or a group of actors can hold
others to ransom "with impunity". As a policy guide, it prescribes that structures should be
put into place that can reverse or deter any actor from seeking to enjoy over-balanced
The need to balance power could lead to war, but this is not to say that balance of power is
the cause of wars. The cause of wars can be found in the fundamental issues which the
balance of power seeks to remove. This includes: the need to prevent the establishment of
a universal hegemony; to preserve the constituent elements of the system and the system
itself; the need to ensure stability and mutual security in the international system; and to
strengthen peace by deterring a policy of expansion by any aggressor.
The traditional methods and techniques of maintaining or restoring the balance were: the
policy of divide and rule (working to diminish the weight of the heavier side); territorial
compensations after a war; creation of buffer states; the formation of alliances; spheres of
influence; intervention; diplomatic bargaining; legal and peaceful settlement of disputes;
reduction of armaments; armament's competition; and war itself.
PRE-COLONIAL EXISTENCE OF BALANCE OF POWER IN WEST AFRICA
Balance of power is not necessarily a new phenomenon in the relationship between the
many nationalities that were members of the West African political constellation, some of
which later constituted the modern Nigerian state. This balance of power struggle exists
independently of internal class problems.
Before the arrival of the British colonial government, the geographical area was made up of
many nationalities, among which between 250-350 were later brought together to
constitute the current Nigerian state. The area was naturally going through the process of
enlarged communities and people moved across ethnic boundaries to maximise threats. The
Fulanis were involved in balance of power struggles with the Hausas; the Hausa-Fulani were
involved in balance of power struggles with the Yorubas, the Kanuri, and numerous
nationalities in the Middle Belt area. The Yorubas were involved in similar struggles with the
Dahomeys (now Republic of Benin), Benin and Nupe nationalities. The Igbos too were
engaged in a balance of power tussle against Benin, Igala and some other nationalities.
None of the actors was able to enjoy over- balanced power, and there was no consciousness
to bring about a Nigerian nation-state. Fulani expansion was arrested militarily in the north-
east by the Kanuri of Bornu, and in the south-west by the Yoruba; while in the south-east,
impenetrable terrain barred the Fulani-mounted cavalry. The balance of power changed in
character, intensity and scope when the British metropolitan powers disturbed the local
balancing system and imposed an Hausa-Fulani hegemony on the remaining nationalities.
The pre-colonial balancing system was seen to be fair because there was no outside
interference - what each actor was able to gain or lose was influenced by its power and its
diplomatic skills at making alliances. Robert S. Smith who carried out a study of interaction
among this pre-colonial social units in West Africa observed that:
"In large parts of West Africa, before partition of the region among European powers,
international relations in peace and war were carried on in a more or less recognisable
fashion, and, to go a little further, in a coherent and rational manner which showed itself
improvements in sociality."
The British unification process took the form of consolidating all the nationalities into one
state system which it divided into three regions suspended over two societies. The Northern
region is predominantly Arabic with little African culture but almost no European influence.
The two southern regions are predominantly African societies with strong European
William Graf, who also carried out a study of interaction among the nations and nationalities
in the Nigerian state, observed that:
"…harmony, co-operation and unity have manifestly not characterised social and political life
in post-independent Nigeria.. whenever the Nigerian political system has most dramatically
experienced breakdowns - constitutional crisis, political immobilism, coups d’etat, civil war,
etc. - this has always occurred within a context of inter-ethnic controversy..."
The accuracy of this observation is supported by the fact that almost all the major crisis that
has fundamentally affected the security of the Nigerian state can be traced to her balance of
power problems. These include the delay in Nigerian independence in order to persuade the
north from seceding from the federation; the treasonable felony charges against Chief
Awolowo and his colleagues, their detentions without charge and later, their imprisonment.
The Akintola crisis in the old Western Region, the January and July 1966 military coups, the
creation of the first 12 states, and the civil war are not unconnected with Nigeria’s balance
of power problems. The declaration of the ‘Delta Peoples Republic’; the violent disturbances
in the Middle Belt areas in 1920, 1939, 1945, 1948, 1960 and 1964; the Major Gideon Orkar
attempted coup; the Ogoni crisis featuring the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa; and the June 12
crisis (of which the alleged Diya coup attempt is an extension) all revolve around the
country’s balance of power problems.
However, in order to conform to the assumptions of the balance of power concept - that
"there could be no balance of power struggle within a state system" - the crises within the
Nigerian state are either normally associated with problems of class, religion, lack of
democracy, military rule, corruption, ethnicity, tribalism, inadequate education and poor
infrastructure. But, it could not be a balance of power problem - because the balance of
power theory does not prescribe it as possible. The balance of power concept as it is
interpreted does not recognise the existence of a balance of power struggle within the
original Indian state. But it later recognised its existence between the three independent
Indian states after it had been broken up because of the same balance of power crisis which
has now taken a nuclear dimension between the original India and Pakistan states. The
concept also did not recognise the existence of balance of power in the former Soviet Union
until it was broken up into fifteen independent states.
How realistic and how objective is this approach? The litmus test seems to be that balance
of power between social and political units could only be recognised, no matter how it was
achieved, if they exist as independent juridical states and not if they are separated
organically - this is the ideal nation state. The European idea of a nation-state is a product
of its history. Yet, judging by the standard of the European experience - either in United
Kingdom, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland or Russia - on which this concept is based, this
is simply a fallacy. Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Scotland are each trying to answer the
same question: how to balance power and how to reconcile different loyalties and identities
within a single state. This co-exist with the class problems in those societies. The case of
the Kurds, the Yorubas or the Hausas, whose nations extend beyond one state border, has
proved that the most important bond of a social and political unit is the organic rather than
the legalistic bonds.
In constructing the new Nigerian state, the British did not seek to remove the cause of the
pre-colonial balance of power crisis - the struggle to prevent over balance of power. That
was never their mission. Instead, they conquered the smaller nationalities on behalf of the
larger ones, and later imposed the authority of one of the larger nations on other members
of the union. This action on its own created a problem of legitimacy, which further increased
the scope and the intensity of the internal balance of power struggle- crisis became a
permanent feature of the new system. The British embarked on policies which enhanced the
disparities among the different nationalities. This includes the engineering of an unbalanced
structure, and different administrative and educational systems. The effect of the latter,
says Professor Awa, "helped to create a cleavage between the North and the South in
intellectual and psychological orientation." By creating the three regions, the British
weakened the power of the centre and the bonds of tribalism - which was, at the time, the
fundamental units of social bonding and political activities among most of the political unitsand allocated the power to the Hausa-Fulani, the Yorubas and Ibos. The Yoruba gained
greater awareness as a nation through this process that also marked the beginning of Ibo
nationalism. The Hausa-Fulani took advantage of the situation and created a northern
awareness, by merging the ruling class of the Hausa-Fulani, Kanuri, Nupe and the Tivs into
one Northern power elite. This had the disadvantage of decreasing the number of actors,
but increasing the intensity, the stake and the resources for perpetrating the balance of
Sir Hugh Clifford, a former Governor who was aware of the extent of the damage that had
been done to Nigeria’s unity - at a time when the possibility of dividing Nigeria into two
separate countries was contemplated - had expressed his concern at the correctness of
creating the Nigerian state when he said:
"Assuming that the impossible were feasible - that this collection of self-contained and
mutually independent Native States (separated from one another, as many of them are, by
great distances, by differences of history and traditions, and by ethnological, racial, tribal,
political, social and religious barriers) were indeed capable of being welded into a single
homogeneous nation - a deadly blow would thereby be struck at the very root of national
self-government in Nigeria, which secures to each separate people the right to maintain its
identity, its individuality and its nationality, its own chosen form of government; and the
peculiar political and social institutions which have been evolved for it by the wisdom and by
the accumulated experience of generations of its forebears".
There is considerable evidence from the behavioural irregularities which characterise the
social, economic and political direction of events in the Nigerian state, that its unbalanced
structure is the most critical factor to the country's inability to compound and synthesise its
enormous resources into effective economic, military and governmental mechanism to
further its national interest.
Nigeria has a balance of power problem, fronted by the three nations - the Hausa-Fulani,
the Yorubas and the Ibos - whose particular configurations form the basic structural
framework within which all other interest groups in the federation are forced to operate.
However, power is over-balanced to the advantage of the Hausa-Fulani who lead the
northern group of nationalities.
My thesis is not that the Nigerian state, like any other developing country, is immune from
problems such as corruption, poor education, lack of infrastructure, ethnicity, tribalism,
military rule, class divide and manipulation by the elites. Far from that. My argument is that
in terms of intensity and scope, its balance of power problem is the one single factor that
contributes most to the economic and political instability in the state. It is the superstructure engendered by this factor that compounds the normal problems facing Nigeria. It
is this problem that renders everything we touch putrid and poisonous, and is the only
reason why the state is not making progress. If we do not address this problem, but
pretend to be marching forward, we would be negating all our positive inputs by sheer
In order to fully appreciate the influence of the balance of power problem over the other ills
facing the Nigerian, it may be necessary to point out that the super-structure created by the
overbalanced power thrives on corruption and nepotism. Because the system lacks
ownership, corruption at the centre is seen as a way to empower each nation and
nationality involved in the struggle for power. And for the nationalities in power, it is also a
means to reduce the influence of real and potential enemies. Outside the context of balance
of power conflict, what they are doing may amount to corruption or nepotism, however, in
the context in which their actions are carried out, the attitude which they display, is
comparable with the way states tend to justify the resources spent on wars as reasonable
because ‘national interest’ is involved.
However, at the local levels - nations, nationalities and tribes - where a different type of
corruption occurs (the sort associated with the process of development), there are heavy
penalties. The difference in attitude is caused by a lack of ownership of the centre, which is
not the case at the local level. The resources at the centre have no legitimate owner, but
the sub-systems do. There is competition at the local level with no intention to destroy
existing resources; but there is conflict at the centre, giving rise to a destructive attitude
and a lack of prudent management. How does one account for the tendency of northern
nationalities - who control the power at the centre - to hire Indian and Pakistani teachers to
the detriment of fellow Nigerian teachers from the south, who may be more qualified than
most of the foreign teachers?
The military and the security establishment - now in the service of the ‘north’ - is required
to maintain the status quo. It cannot be reformed nor reoriented until it is no-longer
required to perform this duty. There cannot be a genuine democracy in Nigeria until the
military is reformed and reoriented. The impoverishment of the peoples of Nigeria - through
a deliberate destruction of the country’s infrastructure and educational institutions - and the
political decision not to make the best use of abundant human resources will not stop, since
it is an element of power in the balance of power struggle. Because, Islam is the ideology of
the Hausa-Fulani nationalism, the continuing tendency of using religion to enhance the
differences between northern and southern Nigerians will persist until the balance of power
crisis is resolved. It will be difficult to have a sense of Nigerian nationalism when power is
over-balanced to the advantage of some nationalities; or to resolve the class problem when
the need for nations and nationalities to survive forces the extreme-right and the extremeleft into unholy alliances.
ASSUMPTIONS OF THE BALANCE OF POWER THEORY
The attitude of the actors and regulatory characteristics within the Nigerian state system
agrees with the central assumption of the balance of power concept which says that "threats
will be resisted". It agrees with the assumption that "international politics focuses on power,
interests, and rationality". It also agrees with the assumption that "the interpretation of a
reasonable decision is influenced by the objective of the leader". But, both individual
leadership and leadership by national groups within the state system. The internal balancing
process also recognises that the "world is characterised by international anarchy. Interests
are bound to conflict, and the use of force is always an option for heads of state".
In fact, one of the most important characteristics of the internal balancing system in Nigeria
is its recognition of the strategic importance of the use of force, and the need to struggle to
control the instrument of coercion - such as the military and the security forces. Speaking
on the strategic importance of controlling the military and how the north managed to
achieved its own control of the military, Alhaji Maitama Sule, at a book lunch on 22
December 1992, commented:
".... When the first Iraqi coup occurred and the prime minister was killed and tied to a
vehicle and driven on the streets of Baghdad, Sardauna reasoned that it was important that
we contain this type of development right now by 'fixing' our boys in the military in case we
found ourselves in a like situation […] Today, we are reaping the fruits of that foresight. [No
matter what] anybody would want to say about the military involvement in government, if
you don’t have your man at the helm of affairs, you would have been dealt with or you
would have been killed…"
A basic principle of balance of power is the distinction between anarchy in the international
political system (which lacks ownership, a central government), and the power and
authority to resolve conflicts - the lack of consensus exacerbates struggle while a balance of
power ensures survival. Within states however, balance of power advocates argue that
conflicts take place in an integrated society kept together by a strong consensus and the
normally unchallenged power of a central government. The underlining factor is in equating
the state with a nation, which implies that authority is ‘hierarchically ordered’ with the
central government commanding the loyalty of other nations, nationalities, ethnic groups
and tribes within the state system.
The problem with this distinction is that in most third world states, many states are
composed of nations and nationalities that are lumped together without a solidarity base.
Sub-national groups owe allegiance to, and act on behalf of, interests other than the
national interest. They display more of the unity of an ‘integrated society’ while within their
nations and nationalities, than they do to the central government. In the absence of a
consensus or representative government at the centre - or one that transcends the
differences between national groups - the government that is in power is often considered
not to be representative of the national group and illegitimate. Because of this problem of
illegitimacy, there is often no "strong consensus" among the national groups on state
policies. Neither is there an integrated society within the state. Due to the recursive and
hierarchical nature of systems, most features of the international system - including the lack
of ownership question - are similar to those of multi-ethnic state systems. The only
difference is in the magnitude and the levels of recursion.
Observing that most states are not composed of nation-states, Walker Connon outlines that
a survey of the 132 entities generally considered to be states as of 1971, produced the
* Only 12 states (9.1%) can justifiably be described as nation-states;
A total of 25 states (18.9%) contain a nation or potential nation, accounting
for more than 90% of the state’s total population but also containing an
Another 25 (18.9%) contain a nation or potential nation accounting for
between 75% and 89% of the population;
In 31 (23.5%), the largest ethnic element accounts for 50% to 74% of the
In 39 (29.5%), the largest nation or potential nation accounts for less than
half of the population.
Many crises have proved in the past that states are not unitary: the Ibo nation once sought
independence from Nigeria; East Bengalis seek independence from Pakistan; the Kurds seek
independence from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey; South Sudan seeks autonomy from Sudan,
while the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia among others have broken up into different
states because of their internal balance of power crisis. The state is too often not seen as an
important protector of its citizens. The southern Sudanese national group went to war with
its central government over policies considered harmful to its security. The experience in Sri
Lanka, Spain, and the United Kingdom has shown that the state no longer enjoys a
monopoly over the use of force.
The concept of balance of power also contends that the interest of the elite has to be
synonymous with the interest of the state. That is, if a leadership is confronted with a
choice between aligning so as to benefit the state, and endangering its hold on power, it will
avoid the latter.
This too is relevant to the Nigerian state. However, one must differentiate between the
actions taken to preserve the elite’s hold on to power, and the actions taken to preserve the
nation and nationalities’ hold unto power. For example, during the 1966 political crisis, Chief
Akintola, Premier of the Western Region chose to arm the Yoruba nation in order to
preserve his hold on power. In the same vein, the Northern elite choose not to educate their
masses in order to preserve their hold on power. This is where Col. Umar's assertions about
the poverty among the ordinary people in the North becomes relevant. But, he may be
wrong. One can only hope that he is not trying to be mischievous by insinuating that Nigeria
has no balance of power crisis. Indeed, the issues raised above may be an indication of a
class problem rather than a balance of power problem. While it could be argued that the
elite may not be using the Northern hold on power wisely, I will argue that neither the
masses in the southern or the northern societies have yet risen against them. Majority of
the leadership of the current struggle are derived from the elite of the southern region. The
second point I would like to make is that the way and manner in which the northern power
elite’s uses their power notwithstanding, the extra political power (structural power) they
enjoy over the southern society power elite’s is derived from their being members of the
In the past, the northern elite has also deposed some of its leaders, who were perceived either by act of omission or commission or both - as working against its national interest.
Leaders such as Shagari, Babangida, and Abacha are prime examples. The pro-democracy
organisations may claim credit for deposing General Babangida, but the truth may be that
the northern power brokers actually sacrificed him for disobeying their instructions not to
organise the June 12 election, an action which touched on the North's hold on power.
Loyalty to national group is stronger than loyalty to individuals.
They are even able to separate the power tussle within the northern society from the
Nigerian balance of power tussle- Alhaji Tafawa Balewa and General Gowon, both Christians
from ethnic minorities, came to power without any resistance from the northern
establishment because they were able to protect the interest of the caucus. Lt. General
Murtala Muhammed was able to depose Gen. Gowon in the same manner in which Lt.
General Buhari took over from Alhaji Shagari. Neither incident led to an internal crisis since
the interest of the north was not affected. Interestingly, General Aguiyi Ironsi (representing
the Ibo nation) - who dared to end the Hausa-Fulani hegemony - was deposed with untold
ruthlessness just because the interest of the north was threatened.
The concept of balance of power assumes that states will seek to expand their power to
provide themselves with the maximum security to ensure survival. However, the reality as it
is applicable to the Nigerian state, is that a premium is placed, not on expanding the power
of the state, but on the survival of a specific national group.
Nigeria has enough human and material resources. But this is under-developed due to the
country's internal balance of power crisis. Earlier on, an example was given of the Northern
elite's unwillingness to place a premium on educating their masses in order to ensure a
continued hold onto power. The British once also adopted this strategy of selective and
limited education in the north when they came to the conclusion that their policy of mass
education in the south was responsible for the latter (especially the Yoruba nation)
subsequently constituting a threat to national security. However, this strategy has only
served to affect the ability of the north to compete with the southern group of nationalities.
Despite the disadvantage of this strategy, the northern power elite’s did not seek to educate
its masses. Instead, in reaction, the North has embarked on a deliberate strategy to slow
down the educational advancement of the Southern society. Today, the educational system
in Nigeria is decaying, not because the northern nationalist-led Nigerian government cannot
afford to fund it, but because it is not in their national and personal interest to do so.
Citing another example may help to clarify this point: the only ‘rational’ reason why the
scientific know-how of the Ibo nation has not been utilised to contribute to the technological
development of the Nigerian state - and why the management skills of the Yorubas have not
been fully utilised in the interest of the country - is that this could help empower the two
nations and therefore endanger the ability of the north to hold onto the power of the state.
A case in point is the attempt to embark on the development of nuclear energy in Nigeria.
Three sites were chosen for the project: University of Ife, to represent the Yoruba nation;
University of Nigeria (Enugu), to represent the Ibo nation and Ahmadu Bello University, to
represent the Hausa/Fulani nation. Even though the Yorubas and the Ibos are the more
educated regions - and the entire northern group of nationalities can hardly boast of a
nuclear scientist - the northern site was generously funded, whereas, the Yoruba and the
Ibo sites were neglected. The obvious result is that the Nigerian state is not making
progress in this area.
The Balance of power concept also assumes that "the primary concern of states, when
seeking alignment, is to prevent any other state or group of states from achieving
preponderance which could threaten their security". However, the reality is that both
internal and external threats influence alliance needs. The Nigerian system is peculiar in
that it does not seem to be concerned with whether Libya or South Africa develops nuclear
weapons which could make them more powerful than herself. Neither does she care if her
economy suffers as a result of retarding educational policies. It appears that the "leadership
of the North" prefers to appease Col Gaddafi of Libya, President Biya of Cameroon and the
French state, (which it considered as a secondary threat) in order to balance power against
the internal threat (which is considered to be the more dangerous threat).
The decision of the northern-led Nigerian government to seek the support of the
Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) - and to recently join another Islamic grouping - is
not necessarily in the interest of the state. Again, it is more in the interest of preserving the
hold on power. It is also interesting that Professor Bolaji Akinyemi - a Yoruba who was the
foreign minister at the time when Nigeria joined the OIC - was not consulted and knew
nothing about it until it became public knowledge. Mr Tom Ikimi is another southerner who
was foreign minister when Nigeria joined the group of eight Islamic states.
My conclusion is that- the attitude of Nigerians including the Nigerian power elite’s, and the
basic regulatory characteristics of the balancing system within the Nigerian state shows that
the competing nations and nationalities within the state system attach more importance to
the need to expand their power to provide themselves with the maximum security that
would ensure their survival, more than they attach to the need to expand the power of the
Nigerian state to provide it with maximum security that would ensure its survival. There are
variations in the degree of loyalty and style, but all the major nations and nationalities
wishes for domination. It would seem as if, the remaining in power of a national group,
rather than the survival of the state, is the more important issue for the leadership.
WHAT IS NIGERIA ?
Nigeria is a state system, a major political sub-division of the globe that could be
conceptualised in quantitative terms - a territorial unit consisting of 88.5m inhabitants, and
covering 913,072 square kilometres. It is located in West Africa, between 2 and 14 degrees
east of the meridian, and latitude 4 degrees north of the equator.
The Nigerian state boundaries were not determined by a process of evolution, nor by a
process of negotiation by social and political units. The state system emerged during the
colonial times as one with recognised boundaries only because it had been consolidated into
a prototype structure. There was no consideration for ethnological differences. The power
relation between the European powers was the single most determining factor for the
creation of boundaries. Because of this historical factor, the state system that was formed
did not organically identify with the people and vice-versa. Hence, it is difficult to talk of a
Nigerian national character.
Reflecting on the nature of the new state, Sir Arthur Richard (Lord Milverton), former
governor-general of Nigeria once observed:
"It is only the accident of British suzerainty which has made Nigeria one country. It is far
from being one country or one nation, socially or even economically. Socially and politically,
there are deep differences between the major tribal groups (nations and nationalities). They
do not speak the same language and they have highly divergent customs and ways of life
and they represent different stages of culture."
The state is the intermediary between individuals and the international order system. The
nations and nationalities are the intermediaries between individuals and the state in the
state order system; but regional awareness provides a forum for nations and nationalities to
present a joint front to the state. While the tribe is the intermediary between individuals and
the state in the nation and nationalities order system, the clan is the intermediary between
individuals and the tribe in the tribe order system.
"A nation system is a social group which shares a common ideology, common institutions
and customs, a sense of homogeneity and the notion of shared blood." A nation may
comprise part of a state or extended beyond the borders of a single state. A nation is not
the same with a state unless in a situation where a nation has its own state - a territorial
political unit whose borders coincided or nearly coincided with the territorial distribution of a
nation. This is known as a nation- state. By the above definition of a nation, Nigeria is not
one by any standard. In reality, the country's three largest ethnic groups - the Hausa, the
Yoruba, and the Ibo - are indeed nations. The Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani nations, for
example, extended beyond the Nigerian border.
The tendency to equate nationalism - a mass emotion, and the most powerful political force
operative in the world - with a feeling of loyalty to the relatively new artificial states, has led
scholars to assume that the relationship of nationalism to state integration is functional and
supportive rather than dysfunctional and defeatist. Yet, the reality is that the greatest
problem that the modern states are confronted with is that the intuitive bond felt towards
an informal - and sometimes, unstructured but organic - sub-unit of social bonding, is far
more profound and potent than the ties that bind them to the formal and legalistic state".
The change of loyalty or allegiance to the new state can prove much more difficult where
there is an over-balance of power among the nations and nationalities in the new state.
People prefer to stay where they feel secure than to join an enlarged community where they
feel insecure. This is the problem with Nigeria today.
Max Weber defines an ethnic group as "those human groups that entertain a subjective
belief in the common descent ... this belief must be important for the propagation of group
formation. Conversely, it does not matter whether or not an objective blood relationship
Ethnicity is a pre-national formative stage at which people know first what they are not
before they know who they are. If Nigeria is considered a state, then the Yoruba, Ibo and
Hausa-Fulani groups must be considered nations. For the purpose of Nigerian politics, all
nations and ethnic groups are referred to as nationalities.
According to Elman Service, tribes are "peoples characterised by relatively low density and
small population, marginal subsistence economies such as hunting, gathering, fishing, dry
farming, pastoralism and the absence of a centralised and cohesive political authority. It is
communal ties based on kinship rather than territorial contiguity". On the other hand, an
ethnic group is a "group of people linked both by nationality and race". It differs from the
kinship group precisely by being a presumed identity - these bonds are usually
unconsciously accepted by members of the group, but outsiders observe the homogeneity.
The Yoruba nation, for example, is made up of tribes such as Ekiti, Egba, Ijebu, Ife, Owo,
Ijesha, Oyo, Ibadan etc. The historical tribal struggle (tribalism) between the Egba and
Ijebu tribes or between Ekiti and Ibadan has a different characteristic and must not be
confused with struggles between the nationalities.
This essay assumes that, since Nigeria is a collection of nations and nationalities, it cannot
be a nation or a nation-state. What we can hope for in the future is a national-state. It also
assumes that there can be nations within a state but there can be no state within a state. In
the same logic, there can be no ethnic group within a nation, but tribes. And any unit that
has more than one tribe, no matter how small its population, is an ethnic group.
In this essay, tribe is used in the context of hierarchy of social bonding and political actions,
and not in the context of racial slur or degradation of any social unit. What will determine a
tribe is not necessarily its population or its wealth, it is the component of the social
structure which it represents in a system. For example, the Ekiti unit in Yoruba nation is
regarded as a tribe because it is the next system in political and social grouping to the
Yoruba nation system itself. Yet, Ekiti is greater in number more than many ethnic units in
the Middle Belt area and more than the Ogoni ethnic unit, who, because of its oil wealth, is
richer than the Hausa-Fulani nation- who has the population, the military power, the land,
the history and most important, the ‘political will’ to govern and lead the other nationalities.
The ‘nationality’ group conflicts in the Nigerian system can be divided into four categories:
Racial domination: The Fulani race is perceived to be an Arab race which came to
dominate the African race. This school of thought claims that the origin of the
domineering attitude of the Northerners can be traced back to the Fulani colonial
adventure which pre-date the arrival of the British. The British only found a willing
partner whom it handed power over to, for mutual benefits, before it was forced out
Regional domination of the smaller nationalities by the Hausa-Fulani, the
Yorubas and the Ibos -’the big three’;
Ethno-nationalism (nation): There are three power categories in Nigeria and
in each of the regions. In the northern areas of influence, the Hausa-Fulani
(the most powerful) is in grade ‘A’, while the Kanuri, Nupe, and Tiv, are in
grade ‘B’. The remaining smaller ethnic groups are in grade ‘C’. The HausaFulani then allied with the grade ‘B’ powers in the north as a bases for
dominating a heterogeneous Nigerian state system;
There is tribal domination within some nations and nationalities.
The annulment of the June 12 election may be the catalyst for raising awareness for the
ongoing crisis, but it is not sufficient to cause it. It was possible to annul the June 12
election because of the structural imbalance of the Nigerian state system which preserves
the supremacy of the North.
Any solution that does not address this fundamental issue - which is to redress the
overbalance of power in the Nigerian Federation - will only complicate the problem. Chief
Abiola no doubt remains a great influence on the ongoing crisis, and his death will not be
enough to end the crisis. The opposition may be weak, but once barriers - which in a sense
consist of peoples’ ignorance of the nature of the problem and what is possible - are torn
down, they are not easily set up again.
Our immediate preoccupation must be how to assemble a Government of National Unity.
The primary role of this Government will be to facilitate a Sovereign National Conference
that would include all the nations and nationalities that are members of the Nigerian state.
The primary objective of this body will be to review the state of the Union with the intention
of bringing the state back to equilibrium. This will no doubt require the replacement of the
current state structure with a new structure that can cope with the reality of the nature of
the Nigerian state. The basic formula for this structure is ‘unity in diversity’. Because of the
nature of our country, our own concept of democracy must not start with ‘one person one
vote’, it must start with ethnic equity and social justice.
Mr Taiwo Akinola is the current Secretary of The Movement for National
Reformation (Europe Branch).
For further readings, see the following:
Ayoob, Mohammed ; The Security Problems of the Third World; WORLD POLITICS
JOURNAL, 43, January 1991, pp257-283
Connor, Walker; A Nation is a Nation; ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES, vol 1, No 4;
October 1978, pp 377-400
Graf, William D.; The Nigerian State; Politcal Economy, State, Class and Political
System in the post-colonial Era, Heinemann, London 1988
Ikime, Obaro (Editor) Background to Nigerian Nationalism, Heinemann, Nigeria, 1980
Sule, Maitama. Keynote Address at the Launching of Power of Knowledge on
December 22, 1992 at the Durban Hotel in Kaduna
Wight, Martin. The Theory of International Politics, the Balance of Power in