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  • The Challenge of Ethnic ConflictThe Travails of Federalism in Nigeria
  • Rotimi T. Suberu (bio)

The need to establish a stable system of federal democracy has dominated the history of constitutional discourse and design in Nigeria since the winning of independence from Britain and the inauguration of the First Republic in 1960. Throughout the period of military government that began in 1966 and ended with the establishment of the Second Republic (1979-83), and right on up to current efforts to reintroduce civilian rule, Nigeria has searched for a federal arrangement that can accommodate its combustible ethnic, regional, and religious divisions. This search has been complicated by the instability and vulnerability of competitive civilian politics, the political hegemony of centralizing military elites, the perverse distributive pressures inherent in the country's oil-based economy, and growing disagreement among key elites regarding the design of key federal institutions.

Nigeria's several hundred ethnolinguistic groups were formally consolidated into a single country in 1914 following a protracted and uneven process of British colonial conquest and incorporation. The largest of these groups are the Muslim Hausa-Fulani, the predominantly Christian Igbo, and the religiously bicommunal Yoruba; together they comprise approximately two-thirds of Nigeria's estimated population of 88.5 million. The rest of this population is made up of more than two hundred "ethnic minorities," ranging in size from several thousand to a few million and comprising adherents of Christianity, Islam, and traditional indigenous religions.

Although these diverse peoples had been interacting with one another [End Page 39] in various ways since long before the colonial era, the sheer artificiality of the British-drawn boundaries, the relatively centralized ethnic structure (with just three groups predominating), and the uneven modernization and differential administration of the country under colonial rule engendered strong regionalist pressures for the replacement of the unitary (albeit decentralized) colonial administration with full-fledged federalism. This transition finally occurred in 1954 with the inauguration of a triregional federal framework, which secured autonomy and hegemony for the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo nationalities in the Northern, Western, and Eastern regions respectively.

The problem with this federal structure lay not only in its inequitable incorporation of minority communities into a set of regional bastions dominated by large ethnic groups, but also in the overwhelming size of the Northern region, which included nearly three-quarters of the country's territory and over half of its population. The creation of the Midwest region in 1963, while giving satisfaction to ethnic-minority aspirations in the old Western region, left the country's minority problem substantially unresolved and intensified the overall imbalance in the structure of the Federation.

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Nigeria: Ethnic Groups and Four Regions From Crawford Young, The Politics of Cultural Pluralism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976). Reprinted with permission.

[End Page 40]

This imbalance played a large role in bringing about the collapse of the First Republic and the imposition of military rule in January 1966. Also contributing to that turn of events were the ethnoregional polarization of party competition, the increasingly vicious struggle for political advantage among regions, and, in particular, the politically motivated sacking of the Western regional government by the federal administration in 1962 and its turbulent aftermath.

Although bedeviled by severe tensions that culminated in the horrific Biafran civil war of 1967-70, the period of military rule that followed the collapse of the First Republic did succeed in transforming the country into a federation of 12 (later 19) states. This multistate federalism in turn helped to secure support for a united Nigeria from ethnic-minority communities in the secessionist Eastern region, to dilute the hegemony of the north, to distribute elements of the larger ethnic groups across more states, to furnish local administrative outlets for the huge oil windfalls of the 1970s, and, in general, to contain the disintegrative tendencies inherent in Nigeria's cultural diversity.

In designing the Second Republic, military leaders and their civilian advisors predictably sought to reinforce the integrative effects of the multistate structure. This was to be accomplished via the promulgation of a highly centralized federal constitution. Among other things, the new constitution would establish a uniform system...


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