Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Nigerian history: where do cleavages come from?

If history provides a needed frame of reference for understanding politics, this recent CNN report will be very helpful.

What you should have been taught about Nigeria
In 1914 Nigeria’s colonial master, Great Britain, set off a chain of events that would lay the foundation for the secessionist conflict known as the Biafran War. The conflict lasted from 1967 to 1970 and reportedly killed 1 million of the Igbo ethnic group, which had attempted to break away from the country. The Biafran War, though omitted in most history textbooks, is an important chapter in the story of Nigeria’s internal division.

Before the advent of colonialism, Nigeria was not a nation-state as we know it now. It was a collection of independent native groups not states]—more than 300 in total. The largest groups were the Igbos, who populated 60 to 65 percent of the southeast region; the Hausas, who populated 60 percent of the north, and the Yorubas, who made up 70 percent of the west. Each group was separated by distance and had its own distinct and proud political traditions, culture, language, and religion.

Ignoring the value of these distinctions, Britain “unified” the country in 1914, joining the Northern Protectorate (the Hausas) and the South (the Yorubas and Igbos) as one nation: Nigeria.

Of all the three groups, the Hausas were most adaptable to Britain’s administrative strategy, because they had always operated a feudal system that deposited all political power and religious authority in one person: the Sultan…

Conversely, the Igbos and Yorubas had more participatory and democratic systems of government in which citizens had a say in political and economic decisions. They were also, unlike the [mostly Muslim] Hausas, more open to Christian missionaries and Western education. This accelerated industry and ambition in the south—especially among the Igbos—to become the first set of civil servants for the British government…

Education and wealth soon joined the list of differences between the regions. Politically they remained sharply divided…

In 1956, oil was discovered in the southeastern region, and economic potential suddenly added fresh questions to the already brewing flashpoints between the regions. Who would control the oil? Who would benefit most from it?…

Nigeria gained its independence in October 1960; four years later an election was disputed amid accusations of fraud. The foremost party in the north—the Northern Peoples’ Congress—emerged victorious…

On Jan. 15, 1966, a group of majors—mostly Igbos from the east… attempted to overthrow the elected government in a coup, citing electoral fraud… The coup was broadly seen as a move by the Igbos to dominate the country, an accusation intensified in the context of their other perceived advantages…

Seven months later, Col. Ojukwu [the military governor of the eastern region] declared the eastern region, to be called Biafra, an independent nation. On July 6, 1967, the Biafran War commenced.

What followed was three years of armed conflict that shocked the world… Nigeria blockaded all transportation routes into Biafra, starving millions and leaving children malnourished…

The Biafran War is conspicuously absent from the curriculum of the country’s educational system…

Yet a particular group—the Igbos—have not forgotten this history. How could they? They remain politically marginalized… There is no federal infrastructure—such as highways and roads that would aid in the transport of goods and people—in the east as there is in the other regions…

This has fueled the echoing of secessionist calls…

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