Ethnic Nationalism and the quest for integration in Nigeria: Historical perspective

By Revd Joshua Onwuliri

Nationalism, within the African context, simply refers to an act of political awareness or consciousness of the colonized people. However, Nigerian nationalism by the 1940s was already facing regional and ethnic problems to its goal of promoting a united, pan-Nigerian nationalism. Nigerian nationalism and its movements were geographically significant and important in southern Nigeria while a comparable Nigerian nationalist organization did not arrive in northern Nigeria until the 1940s.This regional division in the development and significance of Nigerian nationalism also had political implications for ethnic divide. Southern Nigeria faced strong ethnic divisions between the Igbo and the Yoruba while northern Nigeria did not have strong internal divisions. This meant northern Nigeria that is demographically dominated by the Hausa was politically stronger due to its greater internal unity than that of southern Nigerian that was internally disunified.
It is no longer plausible to account for the rivalry and disunity among ethnic nationalities in Nigeria strictly in terms of cultural divergence or irrational loyalty to primordial, like what it was in India, Indonesia and Latin America. But the political consciousness that might have enhanced a sense of Nigerian nationality and unity, drawing together the disparate ethnic groups within the borders of the former colony, took the form of ethnic nationalism. This emerged with the politicization of the different cultural and ethnic elements and their mobilization for political objectives, which included regional autonomy in a multi-national state, or even the total break up of Nigeria into one or more independent sovereign nation-states.
This “accentuated centrifugal tendencies in the country and eventually aborted the birth of a truly independent and unified nation-state” In truth, ethnic nationalism in Nigeria continues to work against the integration of the different ethnic nationalities, with dire consequences on the continued existence of the country. During the colonial era, ethnic nationalism showed itself in an aggressive regionalism with the formation of political parties along ethnic and regional lines. For instance, there was (he Northern People’s Congress (NPC), formed by the northern educated elites in 1951. The National Council For Nigeria and the Camcroons (NCNC), formed by national political party, but it was quickly taken over by Nigerians of the Igbo extraction. In the West, there was the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, which quickly metamorphosed into a political party in 1951, by the name of the Action Group, dominated by the Yoruba nation. These regional political parties sought to advance regional and ethnic interests instead of the overall interest of the country. This further exacerbated the ill-will already existing between the different ethnic groups, eventually leading to the Igbo attempt to secede as a separate, sovereign nation, in 1967. Their decision was no doubt assisted by the fact that the territory in which they lived was rich with oil, but the result was civil war, because the politicians representing the other nationalities did not wish to lose Nigeria’s most profitable asset, its oil reserves. The Igbo lost that war, but remain unhappy, complaining that they do not benefit sufficiently from the vast profits resulting from the exploitation of the extensive oil wealth lying beneath what they regard as their ancestral lands. The disunity of the major ethnic groups in the country was very much evident in the events that unfolded between 1948 and the attainment of independence in 1960. During this period, the Igbo-Yoruba ethnic rivalry and the North-South majority-minority ethnic group cleavages became unmistakable. For instance, “the Yoruba-lgbo rivalry was finally played out on the floor of the Western House of Assembly where the AG exploited ethnic sentiments and the pitfalls of the electoral college system to edge out Azikiwe who had won a seat in Lagos and was widely expected to have been elected into the House of Representatives from that constituency.” The North-South hostility reached its peak in the pre-independence era in 1953, when the North refused to go along with the AG-led motion for independence in 1953. The events that followed culminated in the famous bloody Kano riot of 1953, which lasted from May 15 to May 20, 1953. Events surrounding her independence give credence to the claim that the pursuit of self-government lessens the likelihood of achieving cultural and political unity, or national integration. Ethnic-nationalists succeeded in wrestling independence from the colonial master but failed woefully in integrating the country. The relevant questions to ask arc:
Why did the colonial nationalist in Nigeria fail to integrate the different nationalities living within the territory of the country into a cohesive national community? Why did the foremost Nigerian nationalist elites choose to sow the seeds of discord, and not unity in the country, with their choice of ethnic nationalism? Is there any hope of harmonious multi-ethnic integration today?

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