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Nigeria has failed to marry its rich cultural diversity and democracy. Can it be done?

Okaiben family performs Ekassa dance during the coronation ceremony of the newly crowned 40th Monarch of the Benin kingdom Oba Ewuare II in Benin City, midwest Nigeria, on October 20, 2016
Nigeria’s cultural diversity can enhance democracy. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

Democracy in Nigeria has been characterised by election rigging, rotation of the same set of candidates for various electoral positions and subversion of the rule of law. Thuggery, god-fatherism, imposition of candidates by political parties, internal party rivalry and general apathy by voters are other features.

Some have adopted the view that the British colonial administration in Nigeria interrupted the country’s cultural evolution through premature amalgamation. This resulted in the marriage of strange bed mates. In this vein scholars mention the divide-and-rule policy of the British colonial administration as the beginning of the animosity and divisions among different cultural groups in the country.

Other observers have traced the challenge of democracy to the eagerness of the minority political elites in Nigeria to exploit cultural differences to further their political agenda. To these scholars, the Nigerian elite often trumpets religion, for example, to discredit opponents and win elections.

The above notions are instructive.

But, in my view the crisis facing democracy in Nigeria is not so much in the cultural plurality of the country as in the unwillingness of political elites to create the space capable of dealing with both social complexity and cultural pluralism.

In order words, the problem of Nigeria’s democratic experiment lies in the lack of a constitutional machinery. There have been repeated calls for reforms to the 1999 constitution. Ideas include accommodating the interests of different cultural groups. Changes should also institute the space for public participation and debates. Both are encapsulated in the principle of popular rule.

Cultural plurality

Nigeria is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. This heterogeneity rests on ethnic, religious, linguistic and historic differences.

Nigeria is made up of over 200 million people. It has 300 ethnic groups, over 520 languages, several dialects and religions.

This unique demographic composition has continued to create problems of cohabitation. An example is the Nigeria Civil War (1967-1970) which had its origin in ethnic and religious politics. The conflict claimed an estimated 100,000 military casualties while between 500,000 and two million Biafran civilians died of starvation.

The First Republic (1 October, 1960 to 15 January, 1966) was a watershed in Nigeria’s democratic practice. An attempt to unify the country failed. The result was election violence and eventually a military coup. Both created a constitutional crisis and deep-seated hostility.

The counter-coup of 28 July 1966 was spurred by what some military establishments from the North tagged a retaliation of the initial “Igbo coup”. It further tore the fabric of ethnic unity in Nigeria.

It was not surprising that the retaliatory coup and the anti-Igbo pogrom that followed in the North, meant that the centre could no longer hold. This led to the bitter civil war, the consequences of which are still with Nigerians today. The nationalist agitations by a segment of the Igbo ethnic group represented by the Indigenous People of Biafra and the trial of its leader, Nnamdi Kanu are evidence.

In effect, the fear of domination of one ethnic group or section by another has persistently undermined efforts at democratic consolidation in Nigeria.

Efforts to deal with the problem

The country has made concerted efforts to address the challenges of nation building and democratic sustainability. These have included:

  • constitutional reforms. The country has held numerous constitutional conferences all of which have failed.

  • zoning formula. This has involved political parties allocating their elective positions and offices to different sections of the country.

  • rotational presidency. There is an informal agreement between different nationalities that the presidential office will be occupied within specified periods and terms.

  • federal character principle: this is a quota system that accrues to each region of the country in terms of offices at federal establishments.

  • political restructuring. This refers to the effort being made to enable the federal government to shed some of its powers. It also represents devolution of powers from the centre to the regions.

There is also local government reforms, state creation exercises, bureaucratic reforms and National Youth Service Corps Scheme.

But these institutional efforts to unify Nigeria’s multicultural dilemma have failed.

I think this is because none have attempted to address what I consider to be the biggest threat to democracy in the country – the mixture of ethnicity and religion.

Ethnicity and religion

Almost all social, political and economic relations in Nigeria revolve around two identity formations: the two dominant religious groups in the country – Islam and Christianity.

This unique composition has the Hausa-Fulani to the North who are predominantly Muslims, and the Igbo/Yoruba to the South, who are predominantly Christians.

The geographical arrangement keeps presenting itself in Nigeria’s democratic experiment. This is particularly true in relation to the presidential office which has been occupied much longer by the Hausa-Fulani Muslims to the North.

There is a heavy concentration of power embedded in the presidency. This has enabled the ethnic group occupying the position to allocate more resources to its regions.

Similarly, the ethnic militia agitations and the pressures for secession by some ethnic groups are all in relation to the dominance of the power at the centre by the North.

Looking to the future

It is clear that Nigeria has failed to harness the rich tapestry of its cultural varieties within a constitutional democracy. Consequently, the rich differences in the country’s cultural orientations, which ought to promote the principle of constitutional democracy, have had the opposite effect.

In my view democracy can work to the benefit of Nigeria. Ordinary people should demand that ways are created for them to participate in decisions that affect them, regardless of their ethnic or religious identity. This should be the case in spite of the intervening centrifugal forces of ethnic pluralism and cultural diversity.

For its part, the country’s leadership should minimise the politicisation of ethnicity and religion. And it should replace nepotism and sectionalism with meritocracy.

The excessive powers vested in the federal government should also be decentralised. This would enable different regions to regain autonomy, thus spreading the putative benefits of federalism.

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