Africa... States of Independence

Independence day: Becoming Nigerian

When independence was gained in 1960, tribalism was a dominant force and ethnic divisions widespread.

Home to 180 million people, one quarter of the entire African continent’s citizens, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation. The British, who colonised the nation for the first 60 years of the 20th century, ruled over some 250 tribes often by playing one off against the other.

So when independence was gained in October 1960, tribalism was a powerful force.

Nigerians who took over at independence were faced with the challenge of trying to form a sense of Nigerian belonging and identity. Most people could only relate to their ethnic groupings.

These divisions have remained within Nigerian society, intermittently causing outbreaks of deadly violence. Despite Nigeria’s enormous oil reserves, its population is poor, collective victims of rampant corruption.

But can this country fulfill its potential and become the biggest African success story?

Despite there being many different tribes in Nigeria, three major ethnicities have traditionally dominated the country’s politics and resources. At independence the federal constitution divided the country into three principalities, each run by one of the main ethnic groups: The Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the south-west and the Igbo in the south-east.

“I consider myself a Yoruba before I’m a Nigerian. That’s my immediate instant identity. And I think most intellectuals will say the same thing, and politicians. However, here we are together, brought together by the British. Operating the same constitution. A new identity which supervenes the various ethnic nationalities, is born,” Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian Nobel Peace Laureate, says.

But ethnic divisions have never gone away in Nigeria. And as the various groups vied for supremacy in Nigeria’s immediate post-colonial period, the military intervened, just as they had done in other African nations.

“[Independence] came at a time when the whole of Africa, the whole third world, were also changing to another phenomenon, and that is military. In 1952 there was a military coup in Egypt for example, in the 50s then it came to Ghana, and so on, so we came within that environment when the military was the ‘in’-thing,” Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, a former Nigerian military leader, says.

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In January 1966, Nigeria’s first military coup took place. It was cautiously welcomed by a population who hoped it would bring equality among the major ethnic groups. But such hopes were quickly dashed when it became clear that the majority of the coup leaders were of Igbo decent and the casualties mostly Hausa.

“There was this feeling that the coup was ethnically imbalanced. One side of the country was spared, the other side of the country had greater casualties in this, and immediately there was agitation for ‘revenge’,” Babangida says.

“So there were reprisals in the north and certain parts of the south and the first wave of reprisals and second wave and the third wave was more brutal than anything,” Soyinka says.

Thiry-thousand Igbo were killed in fighting with Hausas, and around one million Igbo were internally displaced.

“People were just butchered, there was nothing more than an act of genocide,” Soyinka says. 

The struggle for unity

A Biafran family during the famine resulting from the Biafran war [GALLO/GETTY]

Nigeria was soon embroiled in a bloody civil war. On May 30, 1967, Igbo leader Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, unilaterally declared the independent Republic of Biafra in the south-east of the country.

The oil-rich region of the Niger Delta was within its boundaries. But Nigeria’s other ethnic groups would not let this region go without a fight.

“Those of us who fought the civil war, believe Nigeria is worth dying for in unity, better than living in division and destruction,” Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s former president, says.

The struggle for unity would come at a devastating price. Over one million people would be killed as the war dragged on, and famine took hold in the self-proclaimed state of Biafra.

“Now I thought the war was very immoral and I still think so to today. These were people who had been really really brutalised and dehumanised, and it was bad tactics for them at the time to declare independence. But as far political morality was concerned I felt they had every right,” Soyinka says.

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The war ended in 1970, with the south-east once again part of Nigeria. But divisions persisted and, in some places, remain to this day.

At the crossroads of the Muslim north and the Christian south the British set up a tin mining area around the city of Jos in Plateau State. Migrants from different parts of Nigeria flowed in seeking work. The city became known for its ethnic diversity.

“Jos was in fact a heaven for all those who were even running away from areas of conflict in other parts of Nigeria,” Gyang Pwajok, the director of planning in Jos, says.

By the time of independence though, tin mining was already in decline. Yet these disparate ethnic groups continued to live side by side, competing for ever-fewer resources.

Sectarian violence

Over the last decade sectarian attacks and counter attacks have plagued Jos. The  most recent outbreak of violence occurred in March 2010, when a machete-wielding mob from the Muslim Hausa Fulani ethnic group descended on the Christian village of Dogo Nahawa on the outskirts of the city.

This is just the latest in a series of attacks on both sides of the community. Throughout Jos thousands have died and thousands more have been made homeless.

“So you have a situation where perpetrators become victims and victims become perpetrators, in a situation of that nature you cannot continue to play the blame game and begin to say it’s only this side or that side because certainly no one wants to sit down and watch for him to be annihilated,” Pwajok says.

On the surface, it would seem that religious tensions are to blame for the violence. But, according to some, this is a simplistic explanation.

“I am one of those who consistently says this is not the case, yes if we have a crisis that is of a religious nature I believe by now we would have arrested it, but we have so many religious leaders, Muslims and Christians, who are willing to work to prevent this crisis. But that we have worked and the crisis still erupts each time means that we have to look beyond religion. When you look in the wrong direction and religion is blamed for everything, I say it is like escaping the reality,” Ignatius A Kaigama, the archbishop of Jos, says.

The reality is far more complex. Since independence, Nigeria has grown from three provinces to 36 states, with the intention of distributing the nation’s resources more fairly between the different ethnicities.

But in Plateau State, a distinction has grown between those whose ancestral origins were in the state and those who moved there later. This, coupled with ethnic and religious differences, has made Jos especially vulnerable to brutal conflict.

The city was once lauded for its integrated population. But it is now largely divided between Muslim and Christian neighbourhoods.

“It is dangerous in the sense that now when people are seggregated, when there is a conflict people know we direct our attack to this environment, to that environment and this is really becoming a problem,” Khalid Aliyu Abubakar, one of Jos’s imams, says.

The archbishop thinks that something has to be done by the government to create a sense of belonging and a patriotic feeling.

“That national spirit that national pride I’m a Nigerian first and foremost, no, I am this tribe I am this religion before I am a Nigerian, this has to change. Even what is happening in Jos now, if you don’t tackle it well and try to proactively prevent it, it will escalate and before you know it it has assumed in national dimension,” he says.

Potential for prosperity

Despite the oil-rich Niger delta region 90 per cent of Nigerians still live in poverty [EPA]

Four years before Nigeria gained independence from Britain, oil was discovered.

The potential for prosperity was clear. Between the oil boom of 1970 and 2007 the Nigerian government’s coffers have been enriched by almost $1.2tn in today’s money. But much of the profit has been squandered.

The country has consistently ranked one of the most corrupt in the world, and 90 per cent of the population continues to live on less than $2 a day.

In Nigeria stories of politicians and businessmen siphoning off the country’s resources are widespread. It is estimated that over $380bn have been stolen or wasted by Nigerian governments since independence.

For the majority of these five decades, military governments, unaccountable to the electorate, have held power.

Under General Ibrahim Badamisi Babangida, known as IBB, who ruled the country for eight years from 1985, corruption is said to have reached unprecedented levels. The World Bank estimates that in one year alone $2.1bn in petroleum sales were diverted to unknown accounts.

“No one can prove that to you, if you ask for proof, you will not get it,” Babangida says.

But in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, proof of the effects of corruption is there for all to see. In a city of close to 17 million, two-thirds of the population live in slums.

In Makoko, a community built on the waterways of Lagos, locals survive without even the most basic resources.

“People in the community have no money to establish a school or a hospital. Because you have to be educated to become a doctor. The government wouldn’t be able to look after them. We can’t rely on the government of Nigeria. I think probably the community is starting to organise to help themselves. That is what we have started doing now,” Noah Shemede, a teacher, says.

Ethnic harmony

Signs painted on the fronts of the houses indicate that the residents are members of the Igbo tribe [EPA]

Yet, despite the economic extremes, and the cosmopolitan population, Lagos is, by and large, a harmonious city.

Although predominantly Yoruba, almost all of Nigeria’s ethnic groups are represented here. And like the nation itself, Lagos is divided almost equally between Christian and Muslims. 
“The people of Lagos are interwoven. Amongst some families in Lagos you find Chiristians and Muslims. If you decide now to fight, go to war between Christian and Muslim you would have to kill a member of your own family. That’s why in Lagos there’s perfect understanding between Christians and Muslims. So we cannot discriminate against ourselves,” Abdul Hafeez Abou, a Yoruba tribal chief, says.

Lagos is an energetic, exciting and vibrant. It is fast becoming a 24-hour city. In fact, many people refer to it as the New York of Africa and that is despite some of the serious problems here, for example the lack of power, the lack of running water, and the increasing cost of living it is still a city on the move.

Many people from other African states came to work here. But it is not just immigrants who are fueling the country’s economy. There is some evidence of a reversal of Nigeria’s brain drain. Fifteen million citizens left the country during the 1980s and 1990s due to a lack of opportunities. But some are now returning.

“Here the spirit of people is just great. You can’t beat it. Having lived in the UK for 20 years just to be at home is great. I’ve fortunately got great stuff going on with work. And you can contribute back, you can help them in life, help them with education, you can make an impact, more than you can in the West,” Tola Akarele, an entrepreneur, says.

“We can change our own country and continent. If you fix Nigeria, you fix Africa. That’s a fact,” Chike Nwagbogu, a businessman, says.

With upcoming elections in 2011 Nigerians are hoping that 50 years after independence, the political will exists to make the most of the country’s enormous potential.

“Sometimes civil society goes to sleep for a long time and wakes up and realises that the world has really moved beyond when it went to sleep. And then it becomes angry. And things happen and sometimes hopefully, it happens in a systemic organised way. Right now civil society is waking up and one is observing and participating with cautious optimism,” Soyinka says.

This film was first published in 2010.