Every society is built upon structures shaped by its history, and these structures influence the political evolution of each society. There is no society without a cleavage/divide along regional or religious belief, no matter how homogenous it may appear. Careful analysis of the cleavage structure explains how movements, solidarities/alliances and collective interests are moulded into systems which in turn shape the formation of political parties. Multi-ethnicity and diverse religions in a heterogeneous society such as Nigeria have been instrumental in shaping its political cleavage.
Historically, Nigeria’s political mobilisation was triggered by groups and networks with strong ethnic and regional identity. The founding fathers played along this line to build their base and control the electorate without taking into cognizance, the long term implications in the event of conflicts.
Despite having English as the official language of Nigeria, ethno-linguistic groups stayed in the background directing the affairs of the state. The social relationship between citizens and these ethno-linguistic groups has been both positive and negative. Negative outcomes are easy to spot from the history of Nigeria; the intriguing mix of politicking and ethnic identity woven around religion coupled with the post-election violence from the first republic.
However, some schools of thought believe that political cleavage can create stability and competition in the polity in relation to electoral behaviour. The challenge in the case of Nigeria is deciding the dependent variables upon which political cleavages have been constructed. Is it solely via ethnicity and religion?
The territorial/cultural dimension of political cleavages are dominated by local opposition, regional groups, ethnic minorities opposed to the dominating national elites or groups which govern the state from the centre. When not properly channelled, they create barriers to the process of nation building and in the event of fallout with the centre over their rights; they turn around to wage internal wars against the state, calling for secession.
The pogrom of the Igbos in 1966 which led to a civil war was not without territorial cleavages, and the Nigerian government controlled by dominant ethnic elites remains complicit in the events leading up to the war. Across the country there are still several groups prone to promote territorial cleavages because they are opposed to the way the country is being run.
The debate at this level is centred on structuring the nation from the territorial perspective. The national dimension of the cleavage is dominated by typical conflict over allocation of resources, producing alliances that cut across territories within the nation. The focus is on national building and the emergence of a new state that will cater for the rights and collective aspiration of all people. The present Nigerian state controlled by elites with unquestioned access to the treasury, ensure that they continue to promote all forms of representation through national quota policies.
The effects are movements and protests against the direction of any regime in Nigeria. People are motivated by different interests along networks and groups which begin to build political alliances, oppositions and a paradigm shift.
“To gain any detailed understanding of the process of mobilization and alignment within any single nation, we clearly need information not just about turnout and the division of votes but about the timing of the formation of local party organizations” (Lipset S.M. & Rokan S. 1967).
The process of transformation contains information about how the process and terms related to expression of rights and representations and the tradition of decision making in the polity continue to influence emerging party systems. The emergence of political parties is pivotal to the type of cleavage within the system. These cleavages disappear to be replaced by political parties, but the interests or ideology of individuals’ remains with them. The developing electoral system sets a high threshold of entry barrier for upcoming parties; the established parties hold on to their advantage- the costs, payoffs, alliances and coalitions determine the threshold of representation across the nation. How this works out is connected to pre-existing conditions of hostility and trust in the cleavages that emerged as political parties.
The nation builders and existing political party with footholds over the control of the machinery of the state will be challenged by opposition parties; the option will be to seek an alliance on fronts related to the pre-existing cleavage, either religious/ideological or economic interests. With this comes suffrage for individuals and an emerging pattern in votes. Some parties will remain territorial parties because of their strength in the region of dominance. Several countries have been able to provide alternative party systems for the electorate to make choices at the poll and as such the development and evolution of this alternative is very crucial to the assessment of disruptions created by cleavages.
Citizens of a country must therefore pay more attention to political party formation and how the parties work to gain power by creating political cleavages. What we want as a nation should determine the choice we make, should these cleavages be built solely on ethnicity and religion for the purpose of power or along constructive ideologies which are in the best interest of the country? The call for restructuring the nation cannot be overlooked; Nigeria’s party system of 2012 reflects the cleavage structures of the 1960s till date.
This piece was first published in The Scoop