Nigeria: Our Ethnic Identity

Ethnic and national identity in Nigeria have attracted wide-ranging debates and driven in several contexts to suit either individual or collective interest; it is a bond that is stronger than religion and the basis for affirmative actions in the country. Nigeria is a country with an estimated population of 170 million, and it is composed of more than 250 ethnic groups. The most populous and influential ethnic groups are the Hausa and Fulani 29%, Yoruba 21%, Igbo 18%, Ijaw 10%, Kanuri 4%, Ibibio 3.5%, Tiv 2.5%. English is the official language as there are over 500 indigenous languages.

Following the 1970’s civil war, there have been several policies and actions at integrating the several ethnic groups with a one Nigerian state identity. In pre-modern Nigeria, the ethnic groups believed they existed as nations and after the amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914; they exist as nations within a nation. Ethnicity is generally regarded as the most basic and politically salient identity in Nigeria; this claim is supported by the fact that both in competitive and non-competitive settings, Nigerians are more likely to define themselves in terms of their ethnic affinities than any other identity ( Eghosa E.Osaghae and Rotimi T. Suberu 2005).

Ethnicity and Identity

According to Ross Poole (1999), the concept of a nation is a hermeneutic: a nation only exists in and through the consciousness of its members. The identity of a nation is shaped by these members who are bonded by a common historical story, culture, traditions and ethnic heritage which create a social construct. It is also the basis on which resources and territories are claimed as well as engaging the future challenges. The identity of an individual or a collective people is a power construct that cannot be overlooked, it does not only guide and influence but also describes the behavioural attitude of a people in several contexts. The identity of an individual is largely a description of who he is and most importantly who he thinks he is in a first instance. It is therefore possible to have multiple and disorderly identity as a result of diverse but related contents and process. To distinguish further, possession of an American passport as a form of identity does not give anyone an American identity, though in other scenarios citing countries like Nigeria, the chances of a constructed narrow identity is very possible. What national identity does not do, is give the individual an ethnic identity which he may readily identify. There are existing approaches to identify typical focus on one or of three different “levels” at which identity may be defined: individual, relational and collective (Sedikides & Brewer, 2001).

The unification of several ethnic groups to be given one national identity with or without economic growth does not override the individual attachment and sentiment to their ethnic group or origin. According to Anthony D Smith, there is a more fundamental divide over those who regard ethnic community as primordial and those who regard it as a malleable instrument. The sequence of  ethnic groups cannot be overlooked in any context, either as a nation existing before a nation or a nation making up a larger nation, it is imperative to ascertain what a nation means to individuals, the concept of  pre-modern ethnicity and nationality may not fit into what the perspective is today. The sociological human approach to diversity requires an understanding of the affinity that exists between individuals and groups not only on biological attributes but the shared cultural norms and values of a common descent. A sense of identity enables individuals to maintain a sense of coherent self – unity over time and space despite the physical, social and psychological changes they experience (Erikson, 1964).

The Nigerian multi-ethnic characteristics cannot be separated from its economic development as well as political and social stability. The characteristics influence the discussion of identity for Nigerians and are constantly linked to several conflicts. . Evolving trends in which national and ethnic identities are shaped by ongoing political engagements and debates subject all to change. Acquiring a national identity could be seen as depriving one of its ethnic identities where there is an absolute rational to subject the latter to the background; to distinguish between both is shaped by politics and precepts.

Sociological Approach

Assimilation: focuses on social processes and outcomes that tend to dissolve ethnic distinctions, leading to the assimilation of one ethnic group by another or by the larger society.  The Nigerian state is consistently portrayed to consist of three major tribes only, as well as the national identity of being a Nigerian on the ethnic groups. The advent of federal character and state of origin were conceived to break down the strong ethnic identity for a Nigerian identity.  Yet the general misconception could be confirmed by a Yoruba woman referring to anyone beyond Benin as Igbo or everyone living in the northern geographical area of Nigeria as Hausas and by extension Muslims. Structural assimilation, which is the entry of an ethnic group into a primary relationship with the members of the dominant ethnic group which could occur through inter marriage,  good ethnic relationship could be fostered through full participation of all members in community engagements.

Stratification: focuses on addressing the origin and consequences of inequalities of various kinds among ethnic groups.  Beyond recognising the dominant ethnic groups in a country, which may be numerically minority of the population, minority ethnic groups are recognised and they may be numerically majorities. It is assumed the ethnic groups are in conflict over state resources which cannot be divorced from power, educational opportunity and nepotism. The stratification approach focuses on the inequality and institutionalised discrimination which does not grant equal access to all. Observation of why an ethnic group creates a hyper segregation when overwhelming majority resides only in a consolidated neighbourhood or area. The use of state of origin is an institutionalised policy which by and large creates inequality between Nigerians; it is quite interesting to note that the state of origin is largely connected with the ethnic identity and class. The Nigerian state may never explore this because of the desire of the three dominant ethnic groups to control the state resources and political structure.

Ethnic group resources: focuses and encompasses the process, such as mobilization and solidarity, by which members of ethnic groups attempt to use their ethnicity to compete successfully with others.  This is applicable from the economical perspective, ethnic groups dominate a particular trade and they create entry barriers for any one from another ethnic group.  More than often, members of an ethnic group build an ethnic solidarity on the basis on which members are mobilized to advance a course which they may not all believe in but seen as collective ethnic action. The economic development of ethnic groups transforming into interest groups is a contributing factor in this approach. The relative success of ethnic groups in tandem with the cultural traits influence what their interests are.  In recent years, the economic resources, advantages and opportunities groups attain are aligned to ethnicity for their members.

Social Constructionist: focuses on the recognition that ethnic boundaries are malleable and is concerned with the ways by which such boundaries are created, maintained and transformed.  Ethnic boundaries can be shifted for a purpose or defining act especially where similar interests are shared. The voting pattern for the incumbent president along the south geographical area of Nigeria in the 2011 elections is an example of a voting alliance on the presidential election by different ethnic groups but the different voting patterns for state elections. Therefore the distinguished ethnic traits must be sort not only in historical patterns but contemporary patterns; ethnic fluidity in Nigeria is based on a variety of criteria.

The debate…….

The focus in Nigeria should not be on ethnic groups but ethnic group relations, very few countries around the world are ethnically homogenous, even when they claim to be, Nigeria is not an exception.  To have a rooted identity based on ethnicity cannot be taken away from any individual, it is a fundamental right that should not be trampled upon and rather the forced national identity should be revisited. The fear of any ethnic group wanting to secede should not be an obstacle to discussing our future and identity. The Biafra war did not change the ethnic identity of the Igbos, neither has it addressed the concerns of the ethnic group as a whole. Ethnic identity in itself is not a curse, we have not managed our ethnic relations for our collective good.

Cancelling the state of origin would not stop groups from identifying themselves by their ethnic identity within a state, should the state of origin have to go then the federal character must go. As much as we crave for the state of origin to abolished, there must be no rush to act based on emotions.  Would a state of residennce suggested, address the institutionalised policies which already discriminate based on ethnic identity? If we all become residents of various states of the country, payment of tax would surely be up for debate. Would it not be in our best interest to practise true federalism or confederate?

My desire for a better Nigeria is not up for debate, however my identity by my ethnic group is one that cannot be taken away from me. Within the Nigerian state, I am seen firstly as a Yoruba, addressed as one, taken into consideration if I decide to marry from another ethnic group and identified by my name without a physical appearance.

The future of Nigeria lies in our true identity.

The contents of the article are excerpts from my PhD research on Ethnic Identity with focus on Nigeria except the debate paragraph

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