Tribalism and politics in Nigeria



Tribalism and politics in Nigeria










Tribalism and politics in Nigeria

Nigeria is a country with many ethnic tribes; some are the original inhabitant of the country while others are believed to be freed slaves that were voluntary settled in Nigeria. A good example is the Aborigines who are believed to have been settled in Nigeria after the abolition of the slave trade in the late 19th century. For many years, Nigeria has been a country occupied with desperate people in terms of national identity. By this, we mean tribe and language. Before the colonial era, Nigeria’s coexisted peacefully within their respective tribes. Each tribe had its own political and leadership structure that was unique from the other communities. Most of the tribes in Nigeria were ruled by Monarchs, elders and kings that inherited authority from their fathers. Tribes in the North of Nigeria were mostly of Muslim faith and were ruled according to the principles of the Quran. The southern Nigeria community believed in God while other tribes believed in their own gods. Tribalism begun during the colonial era in Nigeria protectorate and further escalated after independence. Tribalism in this country has lead to a number of civil wars and a change in the political scene within the country. Tribal diversity in a country should be the strong pillar for peace and unity, but this is not the case in many nations that have numerous tribes. Political leaders have for a very long time used tribal linage to rise to power or bring down a competitor basing on which tribe a candidate is from. In Nigeria and Africa at large, tribalism is their biggest undoing in terms of economic and political development.

Nigeria is the most populated country in African with about one sixth of the African population. The country had an estimate of about 170,235,583 people in 2005. The country is home to more than 260 ethnic groups with the Hausa- Fulani from the north being the most numerous tribes in that region. The Nupe, Kanuri, and Tiv also form a significant group in northern Nigeria. The Yoruba tribe forms the largest ethnic group in the southern region of the country. Tribes found in the south of Nigeria more than half are Christians, and the rest are either Muslims or pagans. The Efik, Annang, Ibibio, and Igbo, are also found in southern Nigeria. Nigeria political stage is set by seven ethnical groups as follows: Hausa and Fulani 27%, Yoruba 20%, Igbo (Ibo) 16%, Ijaw 10%, Kanuri 5%, Ibibio 4.5%, Tiv 3.5%. Below is a map showing the distribution of different tribes of Nigeria (Faloya 2005).

Nigerians’ tribes

Nigerians tribes are diverse and only three tribes have achieved ethnicity status, and the rest are manor ethnic groups. The major tribes form the Nigeria culture own their own practices. Nigerians major ethnic groups are the Yoruba, Ibo, and the Hausa Fulani. These three tribes are perceived to be exposed to the world and advance technology. In the Northern part of the country is inhabited by the Hausa Fulani tribe, while in the south the Ibo and the Yoruba shelters. The Hausa and the Fulani are a mixed race of the Yoruba. The Hausas are believed to be descendants of the Sudanese some group them as descendants of the Palestine’s and they are Muslim followers. They are governed by the Islamic law. The Fulanis are traced back are the in 13th century, and followers of the Islamic faith (Faloya 2005). National statistic rate the Ibo tribe as the second largest group in the country. Their origin cannot be traced. Presently they inhabit the rainy forest area within the Niger valley. Nri town is Ibo boson.




British colonialism, political and tribalism in Nigeria

British colonialism transformed indigenous political structures in Nigeria leading to a westernized political structure that was practiced by its colonial masters. This rule generally favored tribes that were devoted to the colonial administrators and never mounted any opposition to new colonial order. This was the beginning of tribalism in Nigeria. Communities formed alliances with foreigners to gain favor over other communities or tribe in the country.

Nigeria was ruled by the British before they obtained their independence in 1960. In 1900, the protectorate of Northern Nigeria was administered by Frederick Lugard as the High Commissioner. He ruled through with a divided method, although his mission fails before he changed to military action. The northern protectorate was divided from the south for easy administration. The Northern tribes such as the Yoruba and the Sultan set up a strong resistance against colonization by British masters than the southerners. Hence the north feels it is their right to rule Nigeria because they fought harder for independence than their southern counterparts. This is what is currently being experienced in Nigeria. In 1998, the then president Olusegun Abosanjo, brokered a deal between the southern and northern tribes to share the presidency sit equally in consecutive terms, and this marked another chapter from tribalism to religious fight within the political scenario in the country. This situation has since the spread of civil war to neighboring countries like Ghana and Ivory Coast. Politics in the region is based on what is taking shape in Nigeria (Faloya 2005).

Frederick success in the region particularly in Northern Nigeria has been attributed to betrayal from different tribes in the region and indirect rule policy. He used the defected rulers in the North from Fulani and Kanuri tribes to govern the protectorate. The emirs from the Kano tribe were required to modernize their administration and be confirmed to office. Other tribes such as Tiv, saw this as betrayal, and decided to side line the Kano tribe from community affairs. Sultan, Oyo tribe and its king formed an alliance with the colonial master to protect their wealth from other native tribes. This was the beginning of bad blood between the other tribes of Northern Nigeria and the Oyo, Kano and the Sultan.

Lugard was bias in the allocation of resources. He favored the North Muslim region in the expense of the South Christian region. He proposed the movement of the capital city from Lagos, which was a cosmopolitan city with a majority of educated and Westernized Africans that were a cause of constant unrest in the protectorate (Eleke 2005).

Hugh Clifford (1919–25) was Fredrick’s successor. His approaches to governance in the colonial states were opposed from his from his former predecessor Fredrick Lugard. Clifford argued the quickly introduction practical Western experience. He was concern about the Muslim north who would present problems. Clifford emphasized development and encouraging enterprises by all the local citizens but restricting European participation. Clifford was bias and against the north. He ruled out on the extension of powers of the local leaders under the indirect rule. He was against the schooling of the northerners something he encouraged at the south with the construction of a schools, modeled on a European method. The school was mandated to teach basic principles to regulate character. This led to the rejection of Lugard’s proposal to move the capital from Lagos. It was a stronghold of the elite.

From the above observation and discussion, it is evident that tribalism and segregation between the northern and southern tribes begun way back during the colonial era. Although the country attained independency in 1960, these differences are evident in the political structure of the country. During all general elections, voters cast their votes according to their tribes and regional inclination to stand a better chance of getting a bigger share of the national cake. This same scenario is replicated all over Africa (Sklar 2004).

Emergence and fall of Nigerian Nationalism

Nigeria was ruled by the British colonial power, bringing diverse people and regions in an artificial political group. Nationalism became a political factor in Nigeria; it was derived from an older political particularism and pan-Africanism. Its goal was to increase participation in the government process but not self determination that was acquired later. The colonial policy was inconsistencies and reinforced bias on regional animosities, and attempting to introduce Western political and social concepts. In the north, the Islamic legitimacy upheld the authority of the emirs, for the nationalist sentiments to be decidedly anti-Western. In the south, the elite modern nationalists opposed indirect rule because it had entrenched anachronistic ruling class and left no room for the Westernized elite.

Emergence of tribal union took the form of ethnic and kinship organizations. They were primarily urban movements that arose due to rural urban migration. Alienated by the harsh environment in an urban environment and brought together by ties by their ethnic homelands. City dwellers grouped and formed local clubs that later transformed into federations covering whole regions. This was the beginning of all the ethnic and religious found political parties in Nigeria. Major ethnic groups are inclined to a political party. Non political associations were also formed. It was made up of professional and business associations. These professional bodies like the Union of Teachers, provided trained leadership for political groups; lawyers brought together by the Nigerian Law Association, many of whom obtained education in Britain; and the Nigerian Produce Traders’ Association also was part of this association. The indirect rule practiced by the British has played a major role in fronting tribalism in Nigeria political system.

Tribalism in Political Leadership in Nigeria

Tribalism in Nigeria is a crucial issue of concern with respect to the scope of its practice, and the areas which it has affected. In Nigeria, tribalism is at the heart of national matters, whereas presidential hopefuls from certain areas and tribes were seen as jokers, and not fit to lead the country. At first, Nigeria was made of a large group of people who were desperate with regard to tribe and language, and coexisting loosely. Historically, it can be said that the action by the colonial masters in 1914 to join the south and north for easy governance was a positive move that led Nigeria to be born. All went well until in 1960, when the British left; this move led back to the inter-tribal suspicion, which came to the country and has stayed to date. This has been seen in a number of sections of the many ethnic groups that exceed 250 in Nigeria. This led to several coups, massive pogroms and counter coups which brought about the civil war that lasted for 30months, and led to the death of 2milllion people (Mwakikagile 2001).

At the end, of Biafra war, General Yakubu Gowon, the then head of state declared no victor or looser in the war, and this gave hope to the ethnic groups in the south who felt discriminated against. A new hope came up that Nigeria would be a nation that was tribalism free, where all people will have equal access to in all areas such as governance, resources, expression and so on. However, things were not that way for in about 40years after the declaration, the presidency remained at the court of a few tribes and region, what is often referred to in Nigeria as the establishment of a political glass ceiling. In governance, the northern tribes are said to discriminate against the southern tribe, and this is evident when the line of presidents of Nigeria is studied as portrayed as under.

General Gowon, a northerner, was overthrown by another northerner, Murtala Muhammed in 1975. Later, under unfortunate circumstances, the mantle fell on General Obasanjo, a South Westerner, who then handed over to Shehu Shagari, another northerner. Muhamadu Buhari, a northerner, forcibly took over from Shagari, but his tenure was short-lived when a fellow northerner, Ibrahim Babangida, took away the helmsmanship from him. Under fire for annulling a supposedly free election that would have put Moshood Abiola, a south westerner in power, Babangida handed over to a south westerner, Ernest Shonekan before General Sani Abacha, another northerner, snatched it away from him. When Abacha mysteriously and suddenly died, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, a northerner, took over and eventually handed back to Obasanjo, a South Westerner. Before leaving office, Obasanjo made sure that the presidency had gone back to another northerner – Umaru Yaradua. Haba!” (Mwakikagile 2001).

This may sound like a chess game between the northern tribes and southwest tribes; but it is not so, it is the true position in Nigeria. As much as the country boasts of many tribes, and regions, presidency is passed back and forth amongst tribes, and this is often done forcibly. The question that is asked may take the form of; why the misrepresentation of regions and tribes? Are the other tribes less intelligent or important as compared to the others? Or are they less ambitious or hard working compare to the other tribes/regions? Do they contribute equally to the growth of the nation? The answers to this question may portray how bad tribalism is in Nigeria.

The truth is that those who nursed presidential ambition, and were not from certain tribes were regarded as a joke or unrealistic. This made people from certain regions/tribes to turn to be political lackeys and harlots whereby they have to join political parties, which are headed, by people from more privileged tribes/regions. Tribalism in Nigeria is not only amongst Nigerians who live in Nigeria, but, unfortunately, even among those in the Diaspora. Studies and experience with many Nigerians in the Diasporas reveals that they have not yet shed the tribal cloak that they left with from the country. A good number of them support the political glass ceiling that supports Nigerians from other tribes. A number promote this as a way or payback for the Biafra war. This is ironical, for it is thought that by the fact that the Nigerians in Diasporas live in multiracial societies, and must have come to understand the benefits of diversity; but this in many cases has not been the case (Asuzu 2005).

Dealing with tribalism in Nigeria

Tribalism is really a political curse on Africa from the pro- colonial structures and political deals that were used to replace the African nationalism with a European nationalism. Tribalism calls as to content that we are Fulani, Yoruba, Ijaw, Hausa, Tiv, Igbo, Ibibio, and the other tribes, but not Nigerians. The same applies to all African states that have tribal identification and outlook (Eleke 2005).

Each tribe under the sun has a distinctive characteristic, which tribesmen hold dearly. This characteristic is what makes a Yoruba tribal, Ijaw separatist and an English colonialist. Tribalism main objective is the migration of people to build empires, not for the betterment of the nation but for tribal interest. These empires are what form political backbone in Africa. They tend to take charge of their own political affairs, and verbalized a political leader. Politicians lean to their tribes for favor and support to outdo other tribes. For the country to attain development, and prosperity the political leadership of the country must take full charge of the country by formulating policies and laws to foster a common ground for the country to make wealth, and explore resources to the full potential (Emeh, 2011).

Yoruba is the largest tribe in Nigeria, with most of the elite people in the country coming from his tribe. When President Olusegun Obasagen took office, his tribes men scrambled for the little resources they could lay hands on, or come across. The president appointed his tribal men to key government positions a move that did not go well with other tribe’s men. The only way to get rid of tribalism in Nigeria is through the in cooperation of all the tribe in key government departments. The government should ensure equal distribution of the country’s resources and revenue (Obiagwu 2008).

Decentralism of the government services and offices to reach all the tribes of the country. This move will create more offices and in co-operate more tribes in the governance of the country. Tribalism thrives because of selfish interest by politicians and tribal elders to enrich their community and people (Asuzu 2005).

No tribe is superior to other tribes; this is what the community should be told to foster a common understand and unity among the different tribes of the country. The country can only deal with tribalism by overcoming all the post colonial hangovers. Tribal kingpin think that since attaining independence it’s their time to loot public property and share it with their tribes men. It is 50 years after independence; the country has nothing to show. Poverty level is on the increase, and civil war is the order on the day. Thanks to tribalism in Nigeria. A democratic political system is what will shape a unified nationalism in Nigeria with the country’s population having to sing one song.

Tribalism is ramped in Nigeria; a leader is imposed on the Keno tribe, by their tribal, political party. It is only fair for the political-out fit to allow the people choose their own preferred candidate rather than an imposed candidate. A free and democratic political system will set the country free from tribalism (Emeh, 2011).

Politics and ethnicity

Looking back at the Nigerian history, it can only be concluded that their fore fathers did not carry out the same acts of tribalism. They lived in harmony together with other communities, which were, of different ethnic tribes. It is evident from the relationship that the nupe, jukun and the igala shared during the Elizabethan period and as a result of this, 40 percent of the Anambah trace their origin from the igala community. However, this was not to stay long as the modern political patterns were to break the same ethnic relationships all over Nigeria and divide the people of Nigeria into tribalistic groups. This was because the current political situations is about materialism and does not promote the service for humanity. All that the politicians do is to look for issues that divide the ethnic groups rather than issues that would unite them (Obiezu 2008).

In Nigeria, the tactics used by the politicians has been that of divide and rule. In this case what it means by divide and rule was that tribalism was used to gain power. Tribalism has become one of the lethal weapons in politics and to a greater extent the greatest factor that is to determine ones success. Politicians form tribal alliances so as to be able to lure votes from certain communities rather than the whole nation as one. These political alliances are the heart of tribalism as most of them are between few ethnic groups creating a rift between them and other ethnic groups. As a result of this, Nigeria has failed to become one nation and thus a divided nation. Ethnic relationships have been sources of embarrassments in Nigeria as Nigeria has failed to address the same (Time, 1968). Some of these embarrassments are not easily forgotten such as that of the molestation of their vice president by young supporters of the people democratic party led by Muyiwa Collins.

As much as political upheavals that are related with ethnicity are used to reshape their victims’ view of the whole world for instance, Germany in which the pre and post war Germans differ a lot that has not been the case in Nigeria. Their former civil war that was followed with ethnic massacres all failed to change the views of Nigerians and the whole world and instead painted a gloomy image of Nigeria. The fact that it harbors the highest number of educated Africans did not cause any difference as it is now faced with a very difficult test of ethnicity. Comparing Nigeria with other African counterparts, it is obvious that they are far much more ahead than Nigeria. For example, South Africa, though the blacks in that country have different political views, it may be stated that their views are bound together by black national consciousness. It is clearly depicted in their last two general elections whereby they had presidents elected, not from the largest tribe the Zulu. Other nations such as Togo, Ghana and Benin also enjoy the same reverence as South Africa. Most of these nations have different ethnic groups that have lived for so many years with peace and have never resulted to butchering of one another. Tribalism has now become a national issue in Nigeria and should be tackled immediately in order to avoid more harm. As long as they continue this way, tribalism in Nigeria is bound to persist and even intensify to greater heights that would be hysterical (Obiagwu 2008).

Politics in Nigeria is the same as the colonial authority that found it during the colonial era. In 1960, after the country attained independence it was perceived by Nigerian’s that it was the end of an authoritarian rule in Nigeria, but that was not the case. The guards had change, but not the systems. There is no difference in the colonial system between the current political scenarios in the country and what the British government practiced in the country. The current political parties and all leaders use split and rule policy to govern the country. This approach has been widely copied by most of the neighboring countries for personal interest. Recently, we witnessed the situation that took part Ivory Coast during the general election that took place early this year. The incumbent president was stripped off his victory and forced to flee back to his ethnical and political supporters to protect him from his competitors. Leaders should take political responsibility and not hide behind ethnic groups.

Political parties in Nigeria are all inclined towards a certain ethnical group or religious groups. A good example is the Niger Progressive party. This political party was mainly for the tribes in the north who wanted to have a great allocation of government resources because they are home to numerous multinational oil companies in the region. The northern and southern ethnic tribes are, on a quest to outwit each other. Each region intends to choose one of its own to the presidency, for him, or she to guide them against the other region tribes. This mean trend has been replicated in other countries far from Nigeria. In Kenya, a country situated in East Africa, has the same population element as Nigeria. These country boosts of a high ethnical diversity as Nigeria, its political nature, resemble that of Nigeria. Political parties are formed from ethical groupings. A good example if FORD KENYA, a political party inclined to the Luhya community, Western Province in Kenya (Obiezu 2008).

As a result of tribalism in politics, corruption has been seen to be the best beneficiary from these trends. It has thrived to its peak and this can clearly be seen by recent world rankings in which Nigeria was among the top corrupt nations in the world. This has completely tarnished the image of Nigeria and not forgetting the whole of the African continent as most European states consider Africans to be corrupt. In Nigeria the whole idea of corruption is attributed to tribalism since favoring of kinsmen is the theme of the day. Oil on the other hand has even worsened the situations. It is evident that the tribes that are situated on oil reach areas are the tribes that practice tribalism to the fullest and are the most corrupt communities (Time, 1968). It has in turn infected the whole nation making it a corruption nation. Oil has also affected the politics of the country as leaders want to control the oil rich areas and thus encourage tribalism in order to achieve the same goals.

Nigeria adopted a new constitution in 1999. Their laws state that a president can only be in office for a two four year term. They aborted a rotational system of the presidency which was to be between the north and the southern region. This political situation was a compromise between political parties to promote peace and harmony in the country that was marked with regular civil and ethnical conflict. This kind of political compromise is what was witnessed in Sudan in 2005, with the signing of the peace agreement in Kenya between the Khartoum government and the southern Sudan Progressive Liberation Movement (SPLM). This type of governance also calls for equitable resource allocation between the different regions of the country. The political situation in Sudan is exactly what Nigeria underwent through immediately after independence. The Igbo and the Yoruba tribes went to war with the other tribes, so that they can create their own country. The same applies to the steady political and civil unrest that is attributed to religious sentiments in the country leading war between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. This is what is being witnessed in Sudan. The northern part of Sudan is occupied by Muslim majority while, in the south; it is occupied by Christian majority. Each group wants to stamp its authority in the country, which calls for, comprise between the two groups to live in harmony (Sklar 2004).


Nigeria’s main problem is tribalism. The country has not achieved full sovereignty and self order from the time it got independence in 1960. Tribal interest and political instability in the country are the greatest undoing for this nation. Just like the European nations have attained full economic and political instability by uniting and abolishing all tribes and language affiliation it is essential that Nigeria has to do the same. For Nigeria and other African countries to realize their full economic potential, these countries must recognize that the different tribes are equal partners in the country, and need to be treated equally. Leaders that take up public responsibility for challenges that face the country are the right leaders for Nigeria and not leaders who only think of themselves. It is therefore critical for Nigeria to settle their issues as first as possible as it is among the leading nations in Africa. Some nations will be looking up to such a nation for inspiration and this will only be done if they achieved sorting out there issues.




Sklar, R. (2004). Title Nigerian Political Parties: Power in an Emergent African Nation. California; Publisher Africa World Press,

Obiezu, E. (2008). Towards a Politics of Compassion: Socio-Political Dimensions of Christian Responses to Suffering. Denver; Author House,

Obiagwu, C. (2008). Adventures of Ojemba: the chronicle of Igbo people, Michigan; Publisher Hamilton Books,

Asuzu, O. (2005). The Politics of Being Nigerian, Lagos;,

Mwakikagile, G. (2001). Ethnic politics in Kenya and Nigeria, Abuja; Nova Publishers,

Eleke, U. (2005). The impact of tribalism on Nigerian politics, Texas; East Texas State University,

Faloya, T. (2005), Nigerian history, politics and affairs: the collected essays of Adiele Afigbo

Classic authors and texts on Africa. Lagos; Africa World Press,

Emeh O. ( August 2011). Dealing with tribalism in Nigerian politics, The Daily Trust (Abuja), Retrieved on Monday, June 28th 2011 from

TIME (August 1968). On tribalism as the Black Man’s Burden, Time Magazine (New York), Retrived on June 28th 2011 from,9171,838606,00.html



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