Failures of a weak state are to blame for Nigeria's ethnicity problem

Nigeria has more than 250 ethnic groups and more than 500 languages. Reuter/Akintunde Akinleye

If truth be told, Nigeria has an ethnicity problem. It is evident in high-profile cases of sometimes violent tensions. But perhaps most damagingly, it is also demonstrated in the low-profile everyday mistrust and prejudices with which many Nigerians view fellow citizens of ethnicities other than their own.

The pervasive ethnic stereotyping and myth-making that goes on between ordinary civilians has the capacity to destroy the very fabric of Nigerian society.

Nigeria’s ethnicity problem is at least one of the reasons why Nigeria maintains its bizarre presidential rotation system. Under the unofficial system, the presidency shifts after two terms between the major political regions ––the South East, the South West, and the North.

It is no coincidence that these three regions also broadly coincide with the three major ethnic groups – Igbo (south east), Yoruba (south west), and Hausa (north).

Inspired by the colonial settlement when the country was divided into three administrative regions in 1954 – Northern, Western and Eastern – the rotational system has rarely ever spurred the economic or political development of the incumbent’s region, let alone the entire country. Yet the system is maintained because there would be a bloody revolt if the ethnicity whose turn it was was ever denied presidential power.

Although ethnicity is far from being a uniquely Nigerian phenomenon, it presents a serious challenge to Nigeria’s stability.

If we are to believe Robert Putnam’s thesis on national cohesion, trust is at the very centre of any successfully functioning society. But this trust is something that nation after nation, and country after country, has always had to build. And in Nigeria’s case, an inability to take nation-building seriously has enabled the persistence of the country’s ethnic divisions.

Ethnic divisions persist in countries like Nigeria not because the “cultures” of those countries are predisposed to ethnic strife, but as a result of a weak state. It is a weak state that has, up until now, been incapable of capitalising on policies that enhance and benefit a singular Nigerian national identity.

There is no government

In some academic understandings, the problem countries like Nigeria have with ethnicity is entirely accounted for by the fact that they simply have too many.

Countries like Nigeria, which has more than 250 ethnic groups and more than 500 spoken languages, are tautologically explained to simply be too “culturally” heterogeneous to ever be cohesive. It does not help that often “culture” takes on any and whatever meaning the user wishes to imply.

Yet most societies have always been, and continue to be, composed of multiple ethnic groupings. Those societies where the state has been successful at lessening the political and economic importance of ethnic attachment have been those able to establish a singular national identity through the education system and the dissemination of standardised public goods.

This is a process that the political scientist and anthropologist, James C. Scott, terms “internal colonisation”.

Nigeria’s failure at nation-building explains the maintenance of the country’s bizarre system of rotating presidents. Reuters/Dan Kitwood/Pool

“There is no government”, is a common refrain in Nigeria. What it means is the state literally does not reach or touch large parts of the geographical population. It is the major characteristic of a weak state.

A strong state is able to reach all parts of its geographical domain in the form of formal taxation, the provision of public amenities, and the physical and legal protection of citizens without needing to oppress or suppress challenges from civil society.

The failures of a weak state

States like Nigeria – administratively large and occasionally oppressive – are actually not very well equipped to fulfil the basic functions of a state.

Despite the new government’s laudable goals to improve tax generation, the state is yet to develop effective and efficient mechanisms of formal national tax collection outside of Lagos.

This means most ordinary people pay exorbitant amounts in informal, and often untraceable taxation. For these, formal taxes cannot be linked to any distinct benefit provided by the state. In most parts of the country, state-funded education at all levels is poor if not entirely unavailable. Public hospitals have been gutted and are in a state of disarray.

In far too many cases, the provision of justice goes unfelt by a great many. Where it is made to operate, it is to the abridgement of the legal rights of many citizens.

The failure to build a nation

Sadly, where the Nigerian state does make an impact on the lives of individuals, these benefits are rarely in the provision of public goods available to all without consideration to wealth, gender, or ethnicity. Instead, it is in the provision of narrow economic benefits to individuals with personal links to specific actors in government.

As such, the socioeconomic importance of ethnic ties is maintained, and so is ethnic-based mistrust.

All of this is not merely a narrow matter of the failure of economic and social policy. It is much more. It is the failure to build a nation.

It is the failure to bring the bulk of the population under the protection of a Nigerian state in which they are able to trust regardless of their ethnicity or the ethnicity of their president.

The Conversation

Eniola Anuoluwapo Soyemi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.