By Dr Raji Bello
Last Tuesday, I listened to a panel on AIT’s morning programme discussing the increasing weaponization of ethnic and religious identity in Nigeria, particularly during the current election cycle. The discussants were particularly alarmed by the developments surrounding the governorship election in Lagos state, which has witnessed threats, intimidation and violence against voters of a particular ethnic group. The politicisation of ethnic and religious identity in this election cycle is, of course, not limited to Lagos.
Religious identity was a major issue for the APC presidential ticket and some governorship tickets like that of Kaduna state. Religion was a major issue in the Taraba governorship contest, and the issue of indigene vs settler reared its head during the Kano governorship election. There is even a Facebook group which is committed to getting candidates with pure Hausa blood elected into the governorship posts in the Northwest states. Nigeria may be on a slippery slope towards eventual implosion.
What I have noticed about the AIT discussion is the same thing that I have observed about other similar discussions – they are limited to expressions of sadness followed by appeals to Nigerians to change their behaviour. There is very little discussion on why Nigerians do what they do and if there are any enablers for those tendencies. In my personal reflections, I have tried to answer these questions.
Most negative human tendencies have things which enable them, and rooting out the enablers is an important part of the measures for suppressing these tendencies. Anyone who is familiar with Islamic theology, for example, knows that there is little tolerance for things which are deemed to be enablers of vices. The prohibition of the consumption of alcohol is an example; alcohol intoxication is regarded as an enabler for many vices, which has necessitated a full prohibition of it.
Likewise, the encounter, in isolation, of two eligible and unmarried members of the opposite sex is regarded as an enabler for sexual vices. In the secular world as well, drinking and driving are prohibited in many countries because it is an enabler of fatal road accidents. Relationships between academic instructors and students are prohibited or restricted in many American institutions because they could be enablers for abusive relationships and conflicts of interest.
If Nigerians have come to the conclusion that toxic identity politics is harmful to the corporate well-being of the country, they must find the enablers for such politics and uproot them. Issuing passionate appeals is bound to be ineffective because human beings do not always respond to reason or appeals to stop a negative behaviour, especially when there are things which incentivise such behaviour. In my view, there are two enablers for the weaponization of identity in Nigeria:
1. There is no punishment for it. There are either no laws against toxic identity politics and incitement against ethnic and religious groups in Nigeria or they are never enforced. The result is that offenders almost always get away with their actions. This lack of accountability is a powerful enabler for similar behaviour by the same individuals or others.
2. There is a reward for it under our federal system. Our current constitution provides for semi-autonomous federating units (states) which are loosely coterminous with ethnic and religious identities – for example, Imo State is Igbo and Christian, Katsina is Muslim and Hausa-Fulani, Niger is Nupe, Gbagyi and Hausa, Ogun is Yoruba etc. The federal system has also granted these federating units the power to elect their own leaders (governors and LGA chairmen), unlike in unitary states where these leaders are often appointed by the central government.
Since elections are competitive and every state is identified with certain ethnic and religious identities, the possession of these identities by any individual becomes an advantage towards winning elections. This is why Nigerians have learnt to hold on to these identities and even to flaunt them. Being a Tiv is a huge advantage in Benue state, just like being a Kanuri is in Borno state. It’s not hard to imagine that when electoral competition becomes very stiff, these identities will be weaponised. There is no way to stop Nigerians from engaging in toxic identity politics as long as these two enablers are in place.
Our country was founded on the basis that it has diverse and irreconcilable ethnic and religious communities. Our founding fathers wanted it that way, and they chose a federal system which they thought was best suited to manage our diversity (although most of the major federal states in the world are not so diverse internally). While countries like Ghana took off with the mantra of unity in diversity and did everything to build a united nation, our founding fathers did not even pretend that the country was united. Each of them had regional priorities higher than Nigeria’s unity.
We started with three federating units and have now grown to thirty-six plus the FCT, and the more we created states and LGAs, the more identity fault lines we created. The country is now balkanised into 37 identity enclaves (states), and 774 LGAs and each citizen is marooned inside their own enclave and is entitled to few formal privileges in others – even neighbouring ones.
In the First Republic, this divisive effect of federalism wasn’t up to what we have now because the federating units were much bigger, and they functioned as unitary states internally. The former Northern Region, for example, had thirteen or so provinces whose administrators were appointed rather than elected, and a northerner from one province could be posted to work in any of the other provinces. The provincial boundaries did not keep northerners away from each other, and as a result, the people of the region saw themselves as one because they were indeed one in practice.
The Northern Region alone has now evolved into 19 federal states and hundreds of LGAs, each with a rigid boundary which separates it physically and functionally from other federating units. This has made intercommunal relations to be worse than they were in the old Northern Region. The late former SGF Alhaji Gidado Idris, who was from Zaria, was once a divisional officer in Benue, Adamawa and Sardauna Provinces, but his grandchildren cannot work for the Benue State Government in today’s Nigeria. They may even struggle to gain admission into state-owned schools in Benue State.
Mr Selcan Miner, a former secretary to the government of Benue-Plateau State, was once an administrative officer in Sokoto Province, and he still has fond memories of his stay there, particularly his close relationship with Sultan Abubakar III. But in the present day, the government of Sokoto State may not grant privileges to Mr Miner’s grandchildren because they are not “indigenes” of the state.
The late chief of the Mbula people in Adamawa state Joram Fwa, who was a US-trained educationist, was the pioneer principal of Ramat Technical College in Maiduguri under the then Northeastern State. He was entrusted with the assignment of establishing the college and was made its pioneer head. The college has since grown to become Ramat Polytechnic and belongs to the Borno State Government. I will not be surprised if, in the present day, the application of Mr Fwa’s grandchildren for entry into the polytechnic is turned down on the grounds that they are not from Borno state. I have used the examples of these three Northern elders to illustrate what we have done to ourselves over the years through our so-called federal system.
Not too long ago in the 1990s, the governor of Lagos state was a military officer named Buba Marwa, a native of Adamawa State. He was appointed under the military government’s unitary style, and he was well-received in the state because the people knew that that was the system in operation then. At a different time before that, a native of Lagos State, Bode George, was appointed the governor of Ondo State. From all indications, Marwa had performed well in Lagos in terms of infrastructure and crime fighting.
If we do a cost-benefit analysis of the process of appointing Marwa as governor and that of the re-election of Governor Sanwo-Olu in 2023, we would see that the former didn’t cost any significant amount of money and didn’t involve any fracture in relations between major ethnic communities in Lagos while the latter had cost the federal government a lot of money in election expenses and has led to flaring of inter-ethnic animosity, intimidation and violence. In the end, both governors are capable of doing a lot of good for Lagos, the difference in the nature of their appointment notwithstanding. This is why we need to ask ourselves if we really need to have elected governors and LGA chairmen as provided in our current federal constitution or we could simply have them appointed and monitored by the central government.
In the late 1960s and 70s, the governor of Kano State was Audu Bako, a police commissioner and native of present-day Kebbi State. He was appointed by the government of General Yakubu Gowon, and from all historical indications, Kano State has had it so good under him. His appointment didn’t cause any inter-communal upheaval in Kano, and there was no violence. Compare that to the re-election of Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje in 2019 or the election of Abba Kabir Yusuf in 2023, which were both marked by communal tension and violence. Why should we keep using this costly option of election and risk so much when Kano can have good appointed governors just like Audu Bako and Sani Bello? Only a small number of democracies around the world have elected sub-national chief executives as we have, and countries which don’t have them are not deemed to be less democratic than us.
Sometimes Nigerians view unitary systems negatively because they equate them with military governments, but there is nothing that stops us from having a unitary democracy like many countries in the world. The appointed governors and LGA chairmen under this system are going to be civilians, maybe even members of the ruling party at the centre, just like in the system in Ghana, whose 16 regions are all governed by appointed regional ministers who, at the same time, are elected members of the national parliament.
The other fear that Nigerians have about a unitary president becoming too powerful is also misplaced. Ghana’s presidents are not regarded as dictators, and opposition presidential candidates have even won elections there. In any case, parliament is always there as a check on the powers of the president. Unitary systems are cheap, can minimise toxic identity politics, guarantee harmony in the pursuit of developmental priorities and provide better coordination in fighting insecurity. It’s a better system to have than our current federal system, with its unaccountable and politically autonomous governors whose elections are now driving our ethnic and religious communities further apart and threatening the stability of our country.
Whoever brought this American-style federal constitution and gave it to our African tribal groups to implement has not served us well. It’s time we found the courage to abandon the farce. What Nigeria requires is a unitary democratic system with an element of rotational leadership at the centre to ensure its various groups of inclusion.
Dr Raji Bello wrote from Yola, Adamawa State.
Thank you Dr. However, I will be very curious to know how possible is it for Nigeria to switch to the unitary system of government. Do we really have the driving factors to ignite the actualisation of this!?