Between the devil and the deep blue sea: the displacement of ethnicity by corruption in Nigeria's electoral politics.

Author:Ehwarieme, William
Position:OTHER PAPERS - Report


Attempts to form nationally integrative political parties at the dawn of electoral politics in Nigeria failed. Instead, a pattern of ethnic politics emerged, exemplified by ethno-regional political parties, ethnic mobilization and ethnic voting such that by the last pre-independence election in 1959, each of the three regions had become the exclusive domains of specific ethnoregional parties. This pattern continued well into the post-colonial era and has been blamed for the country's problems of political leadership, national integration, economic and political development. Correspondingly, a preponderance of scholars have come to see ethnicity as the major determinant of electoral outcomes in Nigeria as, indeed, in much of Africa. Thus, ethnicity is readily seen as the "red devil" (1) of African politics.

However, in recent elections, the dominant People's Democratic Party (PDP) "captured" states that were traditionally the exclusive domains of ethnoregional parties. Also, in at least one state with a long history of ethnic rivalry between a numerically superior and a demographically insignificant group, a candidate from the latter achieved unprecedented electoral success in governorship elections. (2) Yet, graphic and dramatic as these may be, they are only a culmination of a hardly acknowledged trend in the displacement of ethnicity that dates back to the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The demolition of the ethno-regional pattern which acquired a new ferocity in the last ten years, reaching its peak in the 2007 general elections, needs to be empirically demonstrated. This constitutes the first task of this paper. In this connection, it undertakes a historical analysis of electoral politics and outcomes in Nigeria, since the introduction of the elective principle in 1923, to show the old and emerging patterns. The second purpose of this paper is to account for this new trend. In other words, why is ethnicity becoming less relevant and what provides the mechanism for transcending ethnic politics?

Thirdly, the paper attempts to examine the implications of the emerging pattern. It relies on primary material, participant observation and existing scholarly studies.


The introduction of the elective principle in 1923, following provisions of the Richard's Constitution of 1922, marked the beginning of party formation and competitive partisan politics in Nigeria. Since then, the country has been plagued with the problem of conducting elections that are free, fair and peaceful. Disputed election results were implicated in the collapse of the First and Second post-independence Republics in 1966 and 1983, respectively. (3) The Third was aborted when the results of what has been widely adjudged as the freest election in the country was annulled by the military under General Ibrahim Babangida. The Fourth Republic, which has lasted 10 years, the longest in the nation's nearly five decades of independence, has witnessed general elections in 1999, 2003 and 2007 that have been characterized by a progressive worsening of credibility from one election to another.

Competing explanations exist for the problem of Nigeria as well as other African countries with regards to electoral politics. Some scholars have tried to provide a materialist interpretation to the problem, explaining it in terms of intra-ruling class struggles for the use of the state for accumulation. Ethnicity is either seen as a secondary contradiction or ascribed a positive role. (4) The more popular explanations, however, are those which attribute the problem to ethnicity. Even then, several tendencies exist. One of these is what is referred to as "conventional accounts" (5) of the party-ethnicity relationship which view ethnic interests as "intrinsically antagonistic." This is why, for them, "elections become zero-sum game, engendering a spiral of ethnic outbidding that seriously threatens democratic stability." (6)

Another tendency is associated with the "constructivists" who criticize conventional accounts for having underlying flawed primordialist assumptions on the plural ethnic composition of the country and resultant emergence of ethnic-based political parties, accompanying ethnic mobilization and ethnic voting pattern. They reject any intrinsic antipathy between ethnicity and democracy, maintaining instead that the relationship is a strategic and contingent one. Yet, none else seem to have underscored the relevance of ethnicity in African politics the way the constructivists have done in the following representative statement:

The inherent uncertainty of electoral competition and institutional legacies of colonial and post-colonial governance combine to underscore the salience of ethnicity as a source of strategic coordination over political outcomes and the heavy reliance of organizationally and programmatically weak political parties on it as a cost-effective instrument of electoral mobilization. (7) The Nigerian situation corresponds largely with this constructivist conception. Through the elective principle, the colonial government conceded that three unofficial representatives from Lagos and one from Calabar should be elected by residents of those towns with minimum incomes of one hundred pounds per annum. This led to the formation of the first political party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) by Herbert Macaulay and his associates on June 24, 1923. (8) The Lagos Youth Movement (NYM) followed in 1934 and was renamed Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) in 1936. Others were the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroun (later renamed, National Council of Nigerian Citizens) (NCNC); Northern People's Congress (NPC); and the Action Group (AG) in 1944, 1946 and 1951, respectively. The Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) was to be formed by Mallam Aminu Kano as a splinter group from the NPC.

Significantly, none of the first two parties, the NNDP (even though its activities were confined to Lagos) and NYM, could be described as ethnic parties. The same goes for the NCNC in its early stage. It was the division of the provinces in Nigeria into three regions- Northern, Eastern and Western- in 1939 and the subsequent introduction of regionalism following constitutional developments in the 1940s and 1950s that encouraged the formation of the NPC and AG as essentially ethno-regional election machines and transformed the NCNC into one. (9) Thus, the NPC became synonymous with the Hausa-Fulani domination and control of Northern region and the AG and NCNC, with Yoruba and Ibo, were in control of Western and Eastern regions, respectively.

One effect of this was that except for elections into regional and federal legislatures, where they had to compete among themselves in their respective constituencies, members from the numerous minority ethnic groups within each region could not aspire to any elective executive positions no matter how qualified they were such positions. For example, in the Western region, no non-Yoruba occupied the position of Governor or Premier until 1963 when the minorities were constituted into the Midwest region. It was only then that some of the erstwhile minorities, the Bini, Urhobo and Ibos west of the Niger, now turned majorities in the new region, and shared the regional capital, Governor and Premier among themselves respectively to celebrate their freedom from Yoruba domination. Ironically, they established their dominance, albeit, to a lesser extent over the minorities of the minorities--the Itsekiri, Isoko, Ijaw and Ukwuani in present day Delta State and the Akoko-Edo, Etsako, Ishan and Ora of what is now Edo State. The Northern and Eastern minorities had similar experiences. (10)

Another effect of the ethno-regional character of electoral politics was that when parties "trespassed" into the political space of other parties, by providing an alternative platform for minorities and other opposition elements in other regions, considerable tension was created. Finally, this pattern of politics made it impossible for clear winners to emerge in elections involving candidates from the major ethno-regional groups such as parliamentary or presidential elections, leading to considerable violence and the formation of governments being made possible only as a result of unstable alliances and accords as happened in 1959, 1964/65 and 1979. The collapse of the First and Second Republics have been linked in part to controversies, conflicts and crises arising from such regional and federal elections and resultant unworkable post- election arrangements. (11)


Within the 13 years of military rule which followed the demise of the First Republic on January 15, 1966, a number of measures were put in place. Some of these were specifically targeted at eliminating, or at least ameliorating. the negative effects of the debilitating ethno-regional pattern of electoral politics; others, though intended for other purposes, nonetheless, had some palliative effects.

First, the exigencies of the civil war and particularly for purposes of undercutting the secessionist Biafra, the General Yakubu Gowon-led Federal Military Government (FMG) abolished the four-regional structure in 1967; Nigeria was reconstituted into a 12-state federation in which the eastern minorities were excised from the dominant Ibo majority to become South Eastern and Rivers States. In the North, the Middle Belt minorities were reconfigured into Benue-Plateau State while in the West Lagos State was carved out from the rest of the Yoruba which came to be known as Western region. Subsequent restructuring was to further fragment the states into 19, 21 and 36 in 1976, 1987 and 1996, respectively. (12)

Second, stringent conditions were enshrined in the 1979 Constitution to regulate party formation and organization as well as a 1977 Electoral Decree...

To continue reading