MRS. WOOD'S CLASSES
INTRODUCTION TO NIGERIA
SOURCES OF SOVEREIGNTY, AUTHORITY, AND POWER
POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC CHANGE
CITIZENS, STATE, AND SOCIETY
THE SOURCES OF PUBLIC AUTHORITY AND POLITICAL POWER
Citizens of all countries have differing opinions about how political power should be distributed and how the government should be structured. However, in Nigeria the differences run far deeper than in many other countries. Even though it has been an independent nation since 1960, neither its leaders nor its citizens agree even on the basics of who should rule and how. This dilemma is known as the “national question” of how the country should be governed, or even if Nigeria should remain as one nation. The issue is magnified by regional disagreements and hostilities and by the tendency to solve problems by military force and authoritarian leaders, not by mutual agreements.
Nigeria’s first constitution was written in 1914, but since then, eight more constitutions have been written, with the last one introduced in 1995 and heavily amended since. Nigerian constitutions represent attempts to establish a basic blueprint for the operation of the government, but none have lasted for any length of time. As a result, constitutionalism, or the acceptance of a constitution as a guiding set of principles, has eluded Nigeria. Military and civilian leaders alike have felt free to disobey and suspend constitutional principles, or to toss out older constitutions for those more to their liking. Without constitutionalism, the “national question” has been much harder to answer.
The fact that Nigeria is a relatively young country, gaining its independence in 1960, means that establishing the government’s legitimacy is a challenging priority. The “national question” is at the heart of the country’s legitimacy problems. Nigeria has strong impulses toward fragmentation, or the tendency to fall apart along ethnic, regional, and/or religious lines. Its history is full of examples of ethnic and religious conflicts, economic exploitation by the elite, and use of military force.
The legitimacy of the Nigerian government is currently at very low ebb, with many citizens having little or no trust in their leaders’ abilities to run an efficient or trustworthy state. Part of the problem lies in the different political impulses originating in contradictory influences from Nigeria’s past. As a British colony, Nigerians learned to rely on the western traditions of rule of law, in which even those that govern are expected to obey and support laws. On the other hand, almost since independence was granted in 1960, Nigerian leaders have used military might to enforce their tentative, personalized authority. These military strong men generally adhered to no discernible rule of law. The corruption associated with General Ibrahim Babangida, who ruled from 1985 to 1993, and General Sani Abacha (1993-1998) alienated citizens even further. Many people questioned why they should pay taxes when their hard-earned money went straight to the generals’ bank accounts. This corruption has tainted civilian rule as well, so that most Nigerians are very skeptical about their government. Yet democratic movements have continued throughout the years, so there is a certain hope beneath the cynicism on the surface.
Nigerian political traditions run deep and long. Kingdoms appeared as early as 800 C.E., and historical influences may be divided into three eras:
THE PRECOLONIAL ERA (800-1860)
Centralized states developed early in the geographic area that is now Nigeria, especially in the northern savanna lands. Transportation and communication were easier than in the southern forested area, and the north also needed government to coordinate its need for irrigation for crops. Influences from this era include:
∑ Trade connections – The Niger River and access to the ocean allowed contact and trade with other civilizations. Also, trade connections were established across the Sahara Desert to North Africa.
∑ Early influence of Islam – Trade with the north put the early Hausa and other groups in contact with Arabic education and Islam, which gradually replaced traditional customs and religions, especially among the elite. Islamic principles, including the rule of religious law (shari’a), governed politics, emphasizing authority and policy-making by the elite. All citizens, especially women, were seen as subordinate to the leaders’ governance.
∑ Kinship-based politics – Especially among the southern people, such as the Tiv, political organization did not go far beyond the village level. Villages were often composed of extended families, and their leaders conducted business through kinship ties. This political organization contrasts greatly with the tendency toward larger states in the north.
∑ Complex political identities – Unfortunately for those trying to understand Nigeria’s political traditions, the contrast between centralized state and local governance is far from clear-cut. Even in the south, some centralized kingdoms merged (such as Oyo and Ife), and many small trading-states emerged in the north.
∑ Democratic impulses – One reason why the people of Nigeria today still value democracy despite their recent experiences is that the tradition goes back a long way. Among the Yoruba and Igbo especially, the principle of accountability was well accepted during the pre-colonial period. Rulers were expected to seek advice and to govern in the interest of the people. If they did not, they were often removed from their positions. Leaders were also seen as representatives of the people, and they were responsible for the good of the community, not just their own welfare.
THE COLONIAL ERA (1860-1960)
Colonialism came much later to Africa than to many other parts of the world, but its impact was no less important. In contrast to Mexico that gained independence in 1821, Nigeria only broke with its colonial past in 1960. As a result, Nigeria has had much less time to develop a national identity and political stability. Ironically, even though they brought the rule of law with them, the British also planted influences that worked against the democratic patterns set in place in Nigeria during the pre-colonial period.
∑ The interventionist state – The colonialists trained the chiefs to operate their governments in order to reach economic goals. Whereas in Britain individual rights and free market capitalism check the government’s power, no such checks existed in Nigeria. This practice set in place the expectation that citizens should passively accept the actions of their rulers.
∑ Individualism – Capitalism and western political thought emphasizes the importance of the individual, a value that generally works well in Britain and the United States. However, in Nigeria it released a tendency for chiefs to think about the personal benefits of governance, rather than the good of the whole community.
∑ Christianity – The British brought their religion with them, and it spread throughout the south and west, the areas where their influence was the strongest. Since Islam already was well entrenched in the north, the introduction of Christianity created a split between Christian and Muslim dominated areas.
∑ Intensification of ethnic politics – During the colonial era, ethnic identities both broadened and intensified into three groups: the Hausa-Fulani, Igbo, and Yaruba. This process occurred partly because the British pitted the groups against one another in order to manage the colony by giving rewards (such as education and lower-level bureaucratic jobs) to some and not to others. Another factor was the anti-colonial movement that emerged during the 20th century. Independence leaders appealed to ethnic identities in order to gain followers and convince the British to decolonize.
THE ERA SINCE INDEPENDENCE (1960 to the present)
In the first years after independence, Nigeria struggled to make the parliamentary style of government work, and then settled into military dictatorships by 1966, interspersed with attempts to establish a civilian-led democracy. Traditions established during this era include:
∑ Parliamentary-style government replaced by a presidential system – From 1960 to 1979 Nigeria followed the British parliamentary style government. However, the ethnic divisions soon made it difficult to identify a majority party or allow a prime minister to have the necessary authority. In 1979 they switched to a presidential system with a popularly elected president, and a separate legislature and independent judiciary. However, the latter two branches have never effectively checked the power of the president.
∑ Intensification of ethnic conflict – After independence the Hausa-Fulani of the north dominated the parliamentary government by nature of their larger population. To ensure a majority, they formed a coalition with the Igbo of the southeast, which in turn caused resistance to grow among the Yaruba of the west. Rivalries among the groups caused them to turn to military tactics to gain power, and in 1966 a group of Igbo military officers seized power and established military rule.
∑ Military rule – The first military ruler, Agiyi Ironsi, justified his authority by announcing his intention to end violence and stop political corruption. He was killed in a coup by a second general, but the coup sparked the Igbo to fight to secede their land – called Biafra – from the new country of Nigeria. The Biafran Civil War raged on from 1967 until 1970, creating more violence and ethnic-based conflict. Although the country remained together, it did so only under military rule.
∑ Personalized rule/corruption - During colonial rule, native leaders lost touch with the old communal traditions that encouraged them to govern in the interest of the people. Individualism translated into rule for personal gain, and the military regimes of the modern era generally have been characterized by greed and corruption.
∑ Federalism – In an attempt to mollify ethnic tensions yet still remain one country, Nigerian leaders set up a federalist system, with some powers being delegated to state and local governments. Although this system may eventually prove to be beneficial, under military regimes it did not work. Theoretically, power was shared. However, military presidents did not allow the sub-governments to function with any separate sovereignty. Instead, the state remained unitary, with all power centered in the capital city of Abuja.
∑ Economic dependence on oil – In many ways, Nigeria’s good fortune has been a liability in its quest for political and economic stability. Its rich oil reserves have proved to be too tempting for most of the military rulers to resist, and corruption has meant that oil money only enriched the elite. Abundant oil also has caused other sectors of the economy to be ignored, so that Nigeria’s economic survival is based almost exclusively on oil. When the international oil markets fall, so does Nigeria’s economy.
All-important historic traditions have shaped a complex modern political culture characterized by ethnic diversity and conflict, corruption, and a politically active military. However, it also includes a democratic tradition and the desire to reinstate leadership that is responsible to the people. Characteristics of the political culture include:
∑ Patron-clientelism (prebendalism) – Nigeria is the third example that we have seen of a political culture characterized by patron-clientelism. Just as in China and Mexico, clientelism, the practice of exchanging political and economic favors among patrons and clients, is almost always accompanied by corruption. The patron (or political leader) builds loyalty among his clients (or lesser elites) by granting them favors that are denied to others. For example, in Nigeria, in exchange for their support, a president may grant to his clients a portion of the oil revenues. This practice invites corruption, and it usually means that the larger society is hurt because only a few people benefit from the favors. In Nigeria, patrons are generally linked to clients by ethnicity and religion.
∑ State control/undeveloped civil society – Civil society refers to the sectors of a country that lie outside government control. In Nigeria, the state controls almost all aspects of life – economic pursuits, individual actions, religious activities, and political participation. This characteristic reinforces clientelism and restricts the viability of democratic reform.
∑ Tension between modernity and tradition – Nigeria’s colonial past has encouraged it to become a strong, modern nation, but it also has restricted its ability to reach that goal. For many years, Nigeria’s status as a colony kept her in a subservient economic position. Once independence was gained, modernity was difficult to attain because of ethnic-based military conflicts and personalized, corrupt leadership practices. The independence movement itself encouraged Nigerians to reestablish contact with their pre-colonial roots that emphasize communal accountability. Values established in the pre-colonial era conflict with those established in the colonial era, creating the basis for the serious problems that Nigeria faces today.
∑ Religious conflict – Islam began to influence northern Nigeria as early as the eleventh century, at first coexisting with native religions, and finally supplanting them. Christianity arrived much later, but spread rapidly through the efforts of missionaries. These two religions have intensified ethnic conflict, and they also have fed political issues. For example, Muslims generally support shari’a, or religious law, as a valid part of political authority. Christians, of course, disagree. As a result, an ongoing debate about the role of shari’a in the Nigerian state has sparked religious conflict.
∑ Geographic influences – Nigeria is located in West Africa, bordered on the south by the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. Its population of 130 million is greater than all the other fourteen countries of West Africa combined, partly because of its size and the lure of employment in its cities and in the oil industry. Nigeria’s ethnic groups may be divided into six geographic zones:
1. Northwest - Dominated by two groups that combined as the Hausa-Fulani people, the area is predominately Muslim.
2. Northeast – This area is home to many smaller groups, such as the Kanuri, which are also primarily Muslim.
3. Middle Belt – This area also contains many smaller ethnic groups, and it also is characterized by a mix of both Muslims and Christians.
4. Southwest – The large ethnic group called Yaruba dominate this area. The Yaruba are about 40% Muslim, 40 % Christian, and about 20% devoted to native religions.
5. Southeast – This area is inhabited by the Igbo, who are primarily Roman Catholic, but with a growing number of Protestant Christians.
6. The Southern Zone – This area includes the delta of the huge Niger River, and its people belong to various small minority groups.