The Issue of Discrimination, Ethnicity and National Integration in Nigeria

By Roy Chikwem

There has been much said and written about Nigeria, her people and culture. However, little is known to the outside world about the issue of ethnicity, tribalism, discrimination and national integration in Nigeria. Nigeria is comprised of more than 250 ethnic groups.  However, the following are the largest and most politically influential: Hausa and Fulani 29%, Yoruba 21%, Igbo 18%, Ijaw 10%, Kanuri 4%, Ibibio 3.5%, Tiv 2.5% and other smaller ethnic groups account for the remaining 12 percent of the population. Amongst these groups, the Hausa and Fulani are found in the North and they are mostly Muslims. They have dominated the political scenes at the center more than any other ethnic group. The Igbo’s found along the southeast are predominately Christians whilst the Yoruba’s are mixture of Muslims and Christians. However, these groups are similar in nature, thus melting all the boundaries to become a huge group. Most Nigerians speak more than one language. The country's official language, English, is widely spoken especially among educated people. Apart from English, 300 native Nigerian languages are also spoken, out of which some are being threatened with extinction.

Nigeria achieved its independence from Great Britain in October 1960, like most other countries colonized in Africa. It existed as a political and legal entity but not as an effective and efficient body. There was no sense of unity, community and common character. It was a state encompassing many ethnic nations, each claiming their own separate heritage, traditions, values, language and culture. At the beginning, people of Nigeria found it difficult to identify themselves as Nigerians. Ethnic loyalty took precedence over national identity. The nation's people identified themselves primarily as Hausa-Fulani, Igbo, or Yoruba, for example. Their identity as Nigerians lay in the shadow of their tribal and parochial allegiances. Historical hostilities and rivalries among many of the peoples agglomerated within Nigeria accounted for some of the conflicted sense of common national identity. Almost five decades after independence, Nigerians are yet to experience full national integration because of anti-ethnicity laws and tribal allegiances. Nigeria is divided into 36 states and each state is composed of similar ethnic groups co-existing together. The northern, western and eastern states of Nigeria are composed of the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo people respectively.

The Nigerian constitution regrettably does not provide adequate provision for pro-ethnicity laws and national integration. The issue of “state of origin” remains a policy that creates no sense of unity, community and common character. The state of origin policy simply means that regardless of a Nigerian citizen’s state of birth, that citizen cannot claim to be an indigene of that state but can only be an indigene of the ancestral place and state of his/her parents. Many Nigerians have lived in their state of birth or have relocated to other states in Nigeria for decades but they are still being treated as second-hand citizens and they have been refused indigeneship. Indigeneship in almost all states of Nigeria means access to benefits such as state employment, better healthcare, free education and rights to vote and rights to be voted for. It is absolutely bizarre to imagine that Nigerian citizens are denied their constitutional, political, social and economic rights because they reside in one segment of the country other than where their ancestors originate from. The State of Lagos is literally composed of 65% of non-indigenes, who have contributed to the growth and development of the state. The Igbo’s, Hausa’s and several other ethnic groups have huge investments in Lagos state. They have lived in Lagos for decades but they are classified as non-indigenes without any chance of earning indigeneship status.

This anti-ethnicity, discriminatory and disintegrating policy called state of origin even goes deeper into the family structure. Irrespective of the fact that most Nigerians inter-marry among ethnic lines and states, they cannot claim indigeneship of their spouse’s state of origin. In most cases, couples may have been married for decades but they are still regarded as non-indigenes. During the Nigerian Biafra civil war of 1967 – 1970 and civil unrest of the post-June 12 elections of 1993, many non-indigenes were violently attacked and most non-indigenes were forced to return to their respective states of origin. Many people found it difficult because they had never been to their state of origin and the entire socio-cultural environment was just new to them.  Some wives and husbands had to part ways and return to their state of origin in the case of the Nigerian Biafra civil war. Igbo men married to Yoruba or Hausa women via-versa had to abandon their spouses and children because of the fear of being mobbed or killed by indigenes. When the non-indigenes returned after the civil war, their properties including houses, businesses, bank accounts and investments had been ceased by indigenes of the state. Many non-indigenes had to start all over and some have never been able to recover. Students were unable to return to the various universities due to the disrupted academic calendar. Friends, families and neighbors’ became enemies. Wives and husbands became strangers to one and other. Many wives and husbands had re-married people from their own tribes and state of origin. Some state governments unofficially converted their indigenous language as the official language. In the case of the post-June 12 elections, many indigenes of the Yoruba states almost staved to death because the food from the northern part of the country were disrupted by the Hausa-Fulani’s (mostly farmers) who had to fled to their state of origins. The entire retail and wholesale sector of the Yoruba states was also grounded because the Igbo’s (mostly traders and transporters) had also returned to their state of origins. Billions of Naira was lost and many lives were destroyed during these periods.

The state of origin policy has done more harm than good for the people of Nigeria. In politics, the state of origin policy has made it impossible for Nigerian citizens to be voted for in an election to fill a position that is other than their state of origin. A Kano state indigene cannot run for a governorship position of Imo State, even if he or she had resided for fifty years in that state or was born in Imo state. The entire concept is so abnormal because for example, a non-indigene can vote in any election in any state to fill political positions but in the same token, that non-indigene cannot stand as a candidate in that state. However, there have been exceptional cases, where non-indigenes under a “compromised Agreement” with indigenes, have been allowed to stand as candidates in less or non-meaningful political positions. The state of origin policy has encouraged further division in Nigerian politics; hence 70% of political parties are created based on ethnic allegiances. For example, Alliance for Democracy (AD) is composed of Yoruba people and they had controlled the southwest states; ANPP is composed of the Hausa-Fulani people and they control the northern states and the APGA is composed of Igbo people and they control some grassroots section of the eastern states. The only political party in Nigeria that has been able to successfully bring together all ethnic groups into their organization is the People Democratic Party (PDP) and they are the ruling political party in Nigeria.

Even the tertiary institutions including the universities, polytechnics, college of education allocate admission based on state of origin policy also known as “Catchment Area”. The federal government adopted the quota system for admission into all its universities. Student placement is simply shared thus 45% on merit, 35% for applicants for area where the institution is situated, 20% for educationally disadvantaged States. This alone erodes the cohesiveness purpose of adequate educational opportunities stated in the Nigerian Constitution.  

Non-indigenes have found it difficult to find employment in the civil service of a state where they do not originate from. In Lagos state, indigenes seriously opposed the appointment of Cybil Nwaka who hails from Delta state as a Judge of Lagos High Court despite the fact that the Judge lived all her life in Lagos and worked for no other state but Lagos. Top ministerial and government jobs are appointed based on the state of origin policy. The federal government tries to appoint one minister per state and they also try to allocate government jobs as such. The Nigerian Military uses the same technique in recruiting new-intakes because of the fear of one ethnic group taking over power forcefully through a coup. This practice is counter productive because it is discriminatory and it antithetical to the government’s responsibility of securing rights of residence to every Nigerian. The practice is against the right of freedom of movement.

The following practice has managed to stay under the radar, which is the discrimination of foreign women and men married to Nigerians. Section 26 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution, which confers citizenship by registration, does not apply to foreign men married to Nigerian women, it only applies to foreign women married to Nigerian men. This constitutes a violation of the fundamental rights of a Nigerian wife of a non-Nigerian to family life and freedom of association and to non-discrimination. The law and practice of conferment of citizenship by registration as it stands amounts to racial discrimination against foreign men married to Nigerian women. Although, the Nigerian society is patriarchal so the rights and citizenship of children born into such marriages poses no problems if the father is Nigerian, whereas if the father is foreigner whist the mother is Nigerian, the child might face indigeneship problems although he is Nigerian by virtue of section 25(1) of the constitution. The issue is a subject of litigation in SUIT NO: FHC/L/CS/547/2003 between Mrs. Vayola Sears & Anor vs. Attorney-General of the Federation. The law suit is before Justice Mustapha, Court 2 of the Federal High Court of Lagos. In 2002, the National Association of Seadogs (NAS) International a.k.a Pyrates Confraternity (PC) – An International Charitable and Humanitarian Organization - presented the “National Integration - Anti-Ethnicism Bill, 2002” to the Nigerian National Assembly. But the draft bill did not make the desired progress but it was re-presented to the National Political Reform Conference (NPRC) for consideration.

Despite the increase of well-educated people “Igbo’s” in the eastern part of Nigeria, the Osu Caste system is still being practiced. The Osu Caste system has evolved out of the cultural practices in the Igbo-land and it is an endogamous status group which places culturally defined limits upon the individual members in terms of mobility and interactions and his nature as a person. Serious relationship of love or intermarriage between the lower caste and the rest of the community is usually and highly forbidden. Osus that are interested in political office do not get the necessary support from the community except when they are appointed by the government. The Osu Caste system obviously negates freedom from every form of discrimination.

Within certain cultural groups in Nigeria, the maltreatment of widows is so widespread and encouraged by traditional institutions. Family in-laws and the community subject widows to physical and emotional abuses such as being made to sit on the floor; being confined from a month to one year; being forced to have sex with family members; having their hair literally scraped off with razors or broken bottles; not being allowed to bathe; being made to routinely weep in public; being forced to drink the water used to wash their husband’s corpse; crowned by the loss of inheritance rights and eviction. The government has failed to stop these harmful widowhood practices.

National Integration is the healthy way of responding to this situation in a modern society where there are waves of migration moving back and forth like in Nigeria. The approach today to the phenomenon of migration is integration. By building and designing the process of integration, you allow people to maintain their identity, their roots, their language, their tradition and at the same time you challenge them to be part of the larger community, to be integrated into the common culture, which is the duty of everyone who wants to be part of a given society that they chose to live in. It is obviously time for Nigerian law-makers to amend the Nigerian Constitution.

Roy Chikwem is a member of Amnesty International, American Civil Liberties Union and Junior Chambers International. He wrote from New Castle, Delaware, USA. \n This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.