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The plurality of ethnic groups or cleavages in Nigeria and the reoccurring tensions among them has a historical learning.  According to Nnoli (1980:5) the term ethnic politics emanated from the concept of ethnicity. To him, the term ethnicity   is “a social phenomenon associated with the interaction among members of different ethnic groups. He traced the emergence of ethnicity in Nigeria to the colonial era and the subsequent introduction to the urban centers, which brought the various ethnic groups in close contact with each other. To him, the urban settings become the determinant of social, economic and political relationships between the various groups, and that the competition for the limited resources created by the colonial administration further fuelled the antagonisms between the different ethnic nationalities. With the colonialist policies of power consolidation and exploitation of the country’s resources, these nations and people were lumped together to become a political entity through the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates in 1914.

Nnoli (1980:8) in line with above further observed that nationalism in Nigeria was originally generated in response to the colonialist power consolidation and exploitation of Nigerians by the nationalist as an effort to break free from the shackles of colonialism. After independence, the struggle for control of the state by the elite, polarize them into different camps and this result in the identification with ethnic background. Consequently ethnic cleavages started taking precedence over nationalist interest resulting in the formation of political parties along ethnic lines.

In the same vein, Lauren, (2012:3) noted that ethnic politics is an offspring of the 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates by then governor general Sir lord Lugard. This, therefore, brought together several ethnic groups amounting to over two hundred and fifty (250) ethnic groups in Nigeria of which 10 account for nearly 80% of the total population. The Northern Hausa Fulani, the Southern Yoruba and the Southeastern Igbo have traditionally been the most political active and dominant.

Consequently, Nigeria has been described as a mere geographical expression as a popular statement attributed to Chief Obafemi Awolowo. This statement is grounded on the fact that Nigeria is made up of several ethnic groups with different languages, historical formation and cultural differences. On this context, Coleman, (1958:45) noted that:

“the artificiality of Nigeria’s boundaries and the sharp    Cultural differences among its peoples point up to the Fact that Nigeria is a British Creation and the concept of a Nigeria nations is the result of the British presence. There are many nations in the world of course, which began as geographical expression”  inhabited by peoples of widely different cultural background, and yet subsequently achieved nationhood under a unified administration imposed either by a dominant group within or by an alien invaders from without.


This therefore gives a clarification of the structure of the Nigeria state characterized by ethnic pluralism. Nigeria is also divided along religious line. Like Coleman noted, the north is predominantly Muslim while the South predominantly Christian. This creates a sharp divide which could be seen as a political threat and a propelling factor that facilitates ethnic squabbles.

Ethnic politics and bias in Nigeria could also be traced to the fallout that took place in NCNC politics for which Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe an Igbo was betrayed and denied a seat in the Western House of Assembly by tribal minded Yoruba NCNC members who were been bought over by the Awolowo-led Action Group (AG) Mbakwe, (1998) this, therefore, forms the thrust of the eastern political crisis of 1953, when Azikiwe had to come back to the East and he was then made the premiere of the Eastern region which resulted in the removal of Eyo Ita from the Seat as premiere of the region. Coleman (1998), also trace the origin of ethnic politics to the Richard constitution of 1946 which divided Nigeria into three regions that are directly associated with the three major ethnic groups – Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani and Igbo. To this end therefore, it is not surprising that the first to the present generation of political parties were formed along ethnic lines.

In fact, several battles for supremacy and consequent disorder that erupted in Nigeria from time past-both pre-colonial and post-colonial Nigeria till date have been based on ethnic disagreement on the control of power. The phenomenon of ethnic or regional politics is still prevalent in the formation of political parties in Nigeria even in this current dispensation. As noted by James Odivwri, (2011) “the 2011 general elections witnessed ethnic and regional politics with demise of Alhaji Umar Musa Yar’Adua led some Northern element to Clamour for power to be shifted back to North and not South as seen in their recalcitrant disposition in kicking against the presidency of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan”.

As at 2011, even the political parties on context like APGA is seen as Igbo party, ACN as a re-incarnation of AG which is Yoruba based, CPC and ANPP now (APC) are seen as the party of the Hausa-Fulani affiliation. It was only PDP that to some extent has national outlook but the insistence on certain part of the country to produce the 2011 presidency was another flaw if not for the emergence of APC as a political game changer in the 2015 general elections. The foregoing shows how deep ethnicity has eaten deep into the Nigeria political landscape dating Independence till date.

In effect, the consequence of the above submission on ethnic politics shows that it emanated, generated and sustained ethnic prejudice, negative stereotype, mutual distrust, antagonism, contempt and aggressive inter-group competition for wealth and power (Nnoli, 1978:5). It is against this background that the federal character principle was introduced to counteract this ugly phenomenon that has been bedeviling the polity.

On federal character principle in Nigeria, the account of scholars likes Afigbo (1989), Ekeh (1989), Gboyega, (1989), Uroh (2000) on its Origin are similar. Afigbo (1989) was however more specific, when he posits that “the term federal character is one of the inventions of the constitutional Drafting committee (CDC) Inaugurated by the late General Murtala Muhamed on 18th October, 1975”. Other scholars merely traced the origin of the federal character to the 1979 constitution of the federal Republic of Nigeria.

According to Ezeibe (2012) “federal character principle involves a deliberate plan to construct means of ensuring the proper distribution of amenities and governmental projects in a country”. To him, the federal character is introduced where there are observed differences in culture, tradition, and inequality either in human, natural or both. Therefore, federal character is a palliative principle aimed at uniting once existed autonomous sub – nationalities through quota system for purposes of equality of opportunities and peaceful co-existence.

Obiyan (1998) noted that the federal character principle was introduced in recognition of plural nature of the country in recruitment, distribution of administrative and political offices and power as well as the resources of the country which in essence is to allow the competition and conduct of public institution and affairs to reflect the country’s diversity. It is also designed to mitigate, if not obviate, the bellicose political struggle that characterized the Nigeria’s political systems.

Sequel to the above, such attempts made towards Solving the ethnic problems which arise principally from the hostility that derives from competition between ethnically different peoples for wealth and power via federal character were neither curative nor preventive but rather palliative (Nnoli 1980:8). Above fifty – five years ago after Nigeria gained independence, the Nigeria diverse social structure in terms of heterogeneity has not changed significantly. The diversity nature as manifesting in ethnic politics has made identification with the “nation” a difficult task.

A consequence of this is that many of the Citizens may never develop a proper sense of duty to the service of the Nigeria nation due to hostile relations arising from aggressive competition between ethnically different peoples for power and wealth (Nnoli, 1979:5-6). This kind of ethnic group relation signifies a negative dimension and which may mean much for the Nigeria political system (Agbodike, 1998:192). Therefore, a discussion of the effects of ethnic politics on federal character in Nigeria is or seems to be highly desirable. It even becomes necessary given the cry of political marginalization coming from various ethnic groups in this democratic dispensation. In all political activities in Nigeria, the factor of ethnicity is reflected. It is particularly obvious in areas like voting, distribution of political offices, employment and government general patronage of citizens.

It is against this background that this paper discusses the effect of ethnic politics on federal character in Nigeria.



There has been a public outcry for the increasing effect of ethnic politics in Nigeria.  This is because ethnic politics has been seen as the bane to smooth survival and effective functioning of the Nigeria political system. Ethnic politics is believed to be major puzzles that are obstructing the practice and functionality of the federal character principles which arise from the plural nature of the Nigerian society.

This is because in all political activities in Nigeria the factor of ethnicity is reflected. It is  particularly obvious in areas like voting, distribution of political offices, employment and government general patronage of citizens. It is one of the greatest challenges of the contemporary Nigeria society, as it undermines good governance, distorts public policy, leads to misallocation of resources and harms the effective operation of the federal character principles (Nnoli , 1978 ).

Some scholars have tried to provide explanations as to why ethnic politics has persisted in Nigeria despite all measures put in place to address it. For instance, the constitution drafting committee (CDC) (1977) argued that ethnic politics continues to rear its ugly head because of inter ethnic rivalry for the domination of government by one ethnic or combination of ethnic groups to the exclusion of others. Duchacek, (1970) pointed out that asymmetric power relationship between and among the disparate component unity of the federation leading to accusations and counter accusation as who is dominating whom?  For instance, the southern part of the federation is really aggrieved what it called political domination by the northern part of the federation.

In line with the above, Sunday tribune, 7th (August, 1994:7-4) reported that domination of Nigerian political space by northern potentates which were rationalized on various grounds as put forward by Elaigwu, (1997:147).

…There was a relatively delicate division of power between the north and south. The north’s control of political power was counterbalance by the south’s monopoly of economic power in this country, we may go further to suggest that the January coup of 1967 titled the delicate balance between the North and the South it concentrated both political and economic power in the South, the North felt its sense of security threatened   and reacted accordingly.

Also, Sani Kotangora, speaking as a Northern potentate was of the view that:

The south is not content with monopolizing economic power and dominance of federal civil service but has been thirsting for the choicest slice of the nation’s politics of the presidency (Newslink, May 15, 1990:6).

Odofin cited in Omachi (2008) equally observed that the high premium placed on power for the purpose of rent-seeking rather than service to the people by different sections of the country in squabbling over federal positions due to the fact that those who controls the centre control’s the lion’s share of the nation’s oil based revenue is the reason that ethnic politics continues to manifest. The foregoing makes Nigeria to remain  a nation afflicted with a  feeling of anxiety, hatred ,  antagonism, competitive relation rather than co-operative, socio-economic and political discrimination, mass corruption and waste, abuse of public office amounting to lopsided appointment at the federal government and suspicions of one ethnic group towards another.

Sequel, to the above problems associated with ethnic politics, many scholars of thought and successive government of both past and present have made several attempts at proffer solutions on how best to eliminate this ugly reality remained futile. In Nigeria, for instance, the federal character commission in Nigeria was established by section 125 (1) of the 1999 constitutions with antecedents traced to 1996 through Decree No: 34 of 1996 (the enabling act). The purpose  of the commission was to give effect to section 14 (3) and (4) of the 1996 constitution which provides: The composition of the government of the federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity and also common national loyalty thereby ensuring there shall be no predominance of   persons from a few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional group in that government or any of its agencies has been undermined by this phenomenon.

There are two ways to situate the problematique of the study. First, the character of the ruling class which undermine the federal character principles because of the high premium place on power for the purpose of rent seeking rather than service to the nation which informed the struggles by different sections of the country over federal positions with a view to controlling the lion’s share of the nation’s oil-based revenue.

Second, the character of identity politics in the struggle for recognition among & between the various ethnic groups which amount to the lopsided appointment at the federal government.

It is against this background that the study poses the following research questions:

  • Does the character of the ruling class undermine federal character principles in Nigeria?
  • Does the character of identity politics account for the lopsided appointment at the government?


Despite several attempts and recommendations made to solve the problem of ethnic politics, it still remains a thorny issue in Nigeria. Thus, this work becomes necessary as it could contribute its own quota in the search for ethnic harmony and effective functioning of the federal character principle in Nigeria. Therefore, the objectives of this study are two-fold: the broad objective of this study aimed at examining effect of ethnic politics on federal character in Nigeria, between 1999-2015. While the specific objectives aims:

  • To explain how the character of the ruling class undermine federal character in Nigeria.
  • To explain how the character of identity politics account for the lopsided appointment at the federal government.


The issue of ethnic politics has attracted the attention of scholars and not in the least the general public who knows about it. It is a well known fact that most Nigerians have discussed the issue of ethnic politics and its implication on federal character but confused, myopic and sectional views have prevented any type of meaningful agreement on the approach to solving the problems.

This work is useful in many ways theoretically; it would identify ethnic politics as a phenomenon which militates against the efficient and effective operation of the federal character principle in Nigeria. Its specific significance will be in relation to the findings to be made on research based on the research questions.

Practically, it shall be of immense benefit to political gladiators and politicians especially policy makers that are saddled with the task of devising appropriate institutional mechanisms for the smooth and harmonious co existence among diverse ethnic nationalities that habit the state.

It will also provide the basis to scholars for further research into the processes and techniques for fairly representation of the various ethnic elements that make up Nigeria and Africa in general.



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