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As a matter of longstanding government policy, every Nigerian is either an indigene or a non-indigene of the place where they reside.2  The meaning and practical consequences of this distinction have never been clearly defined in Nigerian law and have been subjects of great controversy since even before independence in 1960.  In general terms, an “indigene” is a person who belongs to the group of people who were the original inhabitants of a particular place and who therefore claim to be its rightful “owners.”3  In practice, the lines between indigene and non-indigene are rigidly drawn along ethnic or cultural lines and there is no real way for a non-indigene to become an indigene, no matter how strongly they identify with the community they live in.4  Nigeria is home to many communities of people who are non-indigenes even though they can trace their connection to the land they occupy back more than a century before Nigeria existed as an independent state.

Over time, the concept of “indigeneity” has come to have an increasingly important impact on the lives of all Nigerians.  State and local governments throughout Nigeria—along with, to a lesser extent, the federal government—have implemented policies that deny many of the rights and opportunities guaranteed to all Nigerians by the country’s constitution to anyone who cannot prove that they are indigenes of the places where they live. 

In many cases the material disadvantages that go along with being classified as a non-indigene have fueled hotly contested controversies over precisely where the lines between indigene and settler should be drawn.  Many non-indigene communities dispute the interpretations of history that label them as second-comers.  Others refuse to accept their second-class status because after generations or even centuries of continuous residence their communities simply cannot “trace their roots” back to wherever they supposedly belong.  In a country plagued by increasing economic scarcity and the rampant looting of government resources that are inadequate to begin with, being a non-indigene can mean exclusion from any real prospect of socio-economic advancement.5  This makes seemingly esoteric disagreements over who should and should not be able to claim indigene status into an issue worth fighting over, and such disputes have lain near the heart of some of Nigeria’s bloodiest episodes of intercommunal violence in recent years. 

[2] Human Rights Watch takes no position as to who the “true indigenes” of any Nigerian state or community are.  Throughout this report, groups or individuals are referred to as “indigenes” or “non-indigenes” not because they are assumed to deserve that status but because the terms reflect the reality of the stations they have been granted or forced to accept by their state or local governments. 

[3] For further discussion of the meaning and origins of the concept of indigeneity in Nigeria, seeDaniel Bach, “Federalism, Indigeneity and Ethnicity in Nigeria,” in Diamond, Bierstecker, Kirk-Greene and Oyediran, eds., Transition Without End: Civil Society Under Babangida (Boulder: Rienner, 1997), pp. 333-350.

[4] In some cases non-indigene families have gained acceptance as indigenes over time by shedding their own cultural identity and assimilating completely into the dominant culture around them.  Some government officials have suggested that it is appropriate to expect this of non-indigenes who wish to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship; seefor examplebelow, Section VII, Plateau state case study.

[5] Nigeria’s per capita GNP peaked during the oil boom of the 1970s and has since plunged to roughly U.S. $390, below the level at independence in 1960, according to World Bank estimates.  At the same time, according to Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, successive Nigerian governments “squandered” more than ₤220 billion (or roughly U.S. $385 billion) through corruption and mismanagement between 1960 and 1999.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>April 2006