Ethnic structure, inequality and governance of the public sector in Nigeria

Type Book
Title Ethnic structure, inequality and governance of the public sector in Nigeria
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2006
Publisher United Nations Research Institute for Social Development
Nigeria has about 374 ethnic groups that are broadly divided into ethnic “majorities” and ethnic
“minorities”. The major ethnic groups are the Hausa-Fulani of the north, the Yoruba of the
southwest, and the Igbo of the southeast. These three “hegemonic” ethnic groups constituted
57.8 per cent of the national population in the 1963 census. All the other ethnicities constitute
different degrees of “minority” status. The dominance of the national population by the three
majority groups was further accentuated by the tripodal regional administrative structure of the
1950s, which gave each majority ethnic group a region. From this demographic and historical
starting point, Nigeria has evolved a tripolar ethnic structure, which forms the main context for
ethnic mobilization and contestation. This paper investigates the consequences of the demographic
and historical legacies for the management of inter-ethnic relations, particularly within
the public sector. The paper is divided into three parts.
Part 1 explores the history and geography of the ethno-regional cleavages in Nigeria, and suggests
reasons for their endurance. Early colonial rule in Nigeria was based on the implicit concept of
one country, many peoples, and very little was done to create unifying institutions and processes
for these peoples. The internal geography of colonialism expressed itself as a cultural geography,
which emphasized the distinctiveness of peoples, and the indissoluble connection between the
“tribesmen”, their territories and their chiefs. Colonial administrative regionalism consolidated
the link between ethnic distinctiveness and administrative boundaries: Hausa-Fulani in the north;
Igbo in the east and the Yoruba in the west. The ethnic minorities in each region were forced to
accommodate themselves the best they could in each region. Four factors that guided the
evolution of the Nigerian state from 1900 are examined: the policies and practices of colonial
administrations; the attitudes and prejudices of colonial administrators; and the colonial economy.
From the 1940s, these three factors were joined by the politics of the emergent regional elites who
had the incentive to mobilize along regional and ethnic lines, and in the process further
entrenched the cleavages developed under colonial rule.
The long-drawn politico-historical process of regionalism, statism and localism has led to a
concentric pattern of seven ethnic and political cleavages in Nigeria: (i) between the North and
the South; (ii) between the three majority ethnic groups; (iii) between these wazobia groups on
the one hand, and the minority groups on the other; (iv) rivalry between states, sometimes
within and sometimes between ethnic groups; (v) interethnic rivalry in a mixed state composed
of minority groups of different strengths, or a segment of a majority ethnicity surrounded by
minority groups; (vi) intraethnic or subethnic rivalry within each majority ethnic group,
sometimes also corresponding to state boundaries and sometimes within a single state; (vii) and
finally, interclan and intraclan rivalries, particularly in the southeast and the north-central parts
of the country. The most politically significant cleavages on which this report concentrates are
the first three.
Part 2 examines the manifestations of the inequalities associated with the cleavages examined in
part 1, particularly in the political, bureaucratic and educational apparatuses of the state. It
argues that the cleavages coincide with systematic patterns of horizontal inequalities. It was
particularly in the sphere of education that regional differences were first manifested under
colonialism. And this then had a knock-on effect on the regional formation of human capital,
and general economic development. Persisting educational and socioeconomic inequalities
between different regions and ethnicities form the context for the observable inequalities in the
staffing of governmental institutions in Nigeria. The long-run patterns of overlapping
inequalities have come to shape people’s life chances and their political perceptions. They have
also had a tremendous impact on the electoral politics of the country and the composition of
different cabinets and bureaucracies, giving rise to political conflicts centred on the nature of
ethno-regional representation within the public sector. The patterns of ethno-regional
representation in various cabinets, parliaments, military juntas, and different levels of the
public sector bureaucracy are examined, showing patterns of systematic correspondence
between cleavages and horizontal inequalities in these institutions.
Part 3 looks at various efforts aimed at reforming the lopsided nature of representation within
the institutions of the Nigerian federation. Particular attention is paid to an attempt to banish
ethno-regional differences through the imposition of a unitary system of government, and the
reasons for the failure of this policy. Other reform measures examined include the breaking up
of the powerful regions into smaller states, the evolution of a quota system for elite recruitment
into the educational system, the constitutional provision for affirmative action under the federal
character principle, and the building of a federation with a strong centre and a powerful
presidency as the antidote to ethno-regional separatism. There was also the reform of the party
system and the introduction of majoritarian and consociational rules to moderate divisive
tendencies within the political process.
These efforts at reforming ethno-regional representation and relations in Nigeria have had only
limited success. While the reforms have fundamentally transformed the Nigerian state, they
have yet to solve the problem of ethnic mobilization and conflict. As a consequence, there is still
a plethora of grievances from various ethnic groups.
Abdul Raufu Mustapha is University Lecturer in African Politics and Kirk-Greene Fellow in
African Studies, African Studies Centre, St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He teaches
on the Development Studies degree at Queen Elizabeth House.

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