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Historical Background and Context

“We do not want to go to [Lake] Chad and meet strangers catching our fish in the water, and taking them away to leave us with nothing.  We do not want to go to Sokoto and find a carpenter who is a stranger nailing our houses.  I do not want to go to the Sabon-Gari in Kano and find strangers making the body of a lorry, or to go to the market and see butchers who are not Northerners.”
—Alhadji Ahmadu Bello, Premier of Nigeria’s Northern Region, 19656

The Development of Nigerian Federalism

Nigeria is a nation of extraordinary diversity.  It is home to more than 250 different ethnic groups,7 many of which had no meaningful relationship with one another before being shoehorned into the same colony by the British government in 1914.8  Many of the pre-colonial relationships that did exist between Nigeria’s different groups were antagonistic and left scars that have yet to fully heal.9 This is especially true in Nigeria’s central “Middle Belt” region, where numerous Christian minority groups have a historical tradition of resistance to conquest, oppression and frequent slave raids by the more powerful Hausa states to their north.   The country is also divided along religious lines, with the boundaries between Muslim and Christian often overlapping with some of the most important ethnic and cultural divides. 

The continuing importance and volatility of these divisions has been reflected in the frequent episodes of intercommunal violence that have plagued Nigeria since independence.  Most dramatically, violent north-south ethnic tensions helped drive forward the events that ultimately dragged Nigeria into the Biafran civil war—a conflict estimated to have claimed between one and three million lives and that nearly tore the country apart.10  Nigeria has never again come so close to breaking apart, but has been unable to resolve ongoing patterns of intercommunal violence that have sparked hundreds of clashes and claimed thousands of lives.11

Government in Nigeria is divided into three tiers—the federal government, the governments of each of the country’s thirty-six states, and local government councils that govern Nigeria’s 774 Local Government Areas (LGAs).  The Nigerian Constitution provides for all three levels of government to be run by popularly elected administrations, and lists in detail the exclusive and concurrent powers of each.12   In addition to this, Nigeria maintains a parallel system of traditional governance including Chieftaincies and Emirates throughout the country.  Traditional leaders generally represent only their own ethnic communities.  They are recognized by the government, but are not elected in the same manner as government officials; they are selected according to different traditions in different communities. Despite not holding formal positions in the government, they wield considerable political influence, especially at the local level.

Nigerian politics has always revolved around an obsession with the difficult task of forging a nation out of all of Nigeria’s complex diversity while ensuring that no ethnic group, religion or geographical region could ever come to dominate—or be marginalized by—the rest of the country.  Nigeria has had four constitutions since independence, and each of them has been crafted around core provisions designed to strike the finest possible balance in the allocation of political power and government resources.13

Perhaps the most important of these provisions, and almost certainly the most controversial, is the “federal character” principle, which is enshrined in Article 14(3) of the current Nigerian Constitution.14  The federal character principle is meant to ensure that the federal government is broadly inclusive in everything it does, thereby promoting both “national unity” and “loyalty.”15  The 1999 constitution mandated the creation of the “Federal Character Commission” (FCC), which is charged with enforcing compliance with the federal character principle at all levels of government.16  Most importantly, the Commission seeks to ensure that positions in the federal and state civil services and in the military are allocated across Nigeria’s thirty-six states in as strictly equitable a manner as possible.17

Nigeria’s first constitution, promulgated in 1960, sought to ease interregional tension by granting a large measure of autonomy to the country’s then-three regional governments.  In the intervening decades, however, much of that autonomy has been steadily eroded, in large measure because of the centralization of power that took place during Nigeria’s twenty-nine years of military rule.

In addition, the three economically viable regional governments that made up Nigeria at independence have been broken down into the present thirty-six states, most of which have little internal revenue-generating capability and are largely dependent upon oil revenues doled out by the federal government.18 On average, Nigeria’s state and local governments depend on federal government transfers for 70 to 80 percent of their revenues.19 In this context, Nigerian federalism has come to revolve less around the idea of ensuring meaningful autonomy or equitable political representation and more around elaborately constructed rules governing the disbursement of federal largesse to the states and local governments. 

This situation is reflected in microcosm at the state and local level, where many Nigerian citizens view government primarily as an instrument for the distribution of patronage in one form or another.  Indeed, the indigeneity issue has increasing relevance at the most local of levels in large measure because of state government policies regarding the distribution of jobs, scholarships and other resources among the groups recognized as indigenes in different localities within a given state. 

The Origins of the Indigeneity Issue in Nigeria

The British colonial authorities were the first to articulate a formal distinction between indigene and non-indigene communities.20  However, the idea that “host” communities are entitled to maintain a certain distance between themselves and migrant communities was not a colonial invention.  Many Nigerians have long believed that some sort of distinction between indigenes and non-indigenes is necessary in at least some cases, primarily as a way for smaller communities to preserve their culture and traditions—and in some cases their land—against the pressures of migration from other parts of the country. 

Most concretely, many Nigerian communities use the distinction between indigenes and non-indigenes as a way of demarcating the boundaries between people who are eligible to hold chieftaincy titles in a particular place, and participate in traditional institutions of governance more generally, and those who are not.  Indigeneity also serves as a way for communities to keep land within the hands of their own group—a goal that is controversial but important to many Nigerians whose ethnic identity is tied to a small geographic area.  In a broader and more amorphous sense, indigeneity reflects the communities’ efforts to keep track of who their members are by placing an emphasis on the historical memory of individuals’ familial connection to a particular place.

In some cases non-indigene communities are the result of patterns of migration that began with colonialism, often by people in search of jobs, land or other economic opportunity made possible by Nigeria’s unification into a single territory.  In other cases non-indigene communities predate the colonial period by a century or more but are believed to be the descendants of people who arrived as “settlers” on land that was already inhabited by the ancestors of today’s indigenes. 

The issue of indigeneity began to take on increased importance not long after Nigeria’s independence, with regional policies that discriminated against the indigenes of other regions in areas as diverse as employment and the acquisition of land.21  The federal government effectively legitimized that discrimination by doing nothing to oppose it, a policy that Nigeria’s first attorney general characterized as “a temporary concession to expediency.”22  That concession has turned out to be not temporary at all, and discrimination against non-indigenes throughout Nigeria has grown steadily more severe over the intervening years.

The number of people who are not recognized as indigenes of the places where they reside has increased steadily since Nigeria won its independence, and millions of Nigerians now make their homes in communities or states that label them as non-indigenes.  In 1960, most Nigerians could expect to be treated as indigenes anywhere within one of Nigeria’s three large regions.  One result of the gradual proliferation of states and local government areas since independence is that Nigerians today are indigenes only of states that cover much smaller slivers of the national territory—and are strangers everywhere else.23  In addition, with each new round of state creation Nigerians who had lived their whole lives as indigenes of their place of residence have found themselves transformed into “strangers” literally overnight because their ancestral roots lay in land that had been cut away to form part of a new state.  And perhaps worst of all, with the passage of time an increasing number of Nigerians are finding it impossible to prove that they are indigenes of any place at all.

The Extent of the Problem in Today’s Nigeria

The unique diversity of Nigeria’s population presents real and complicated problems, and the growing importance of the indigeneity issue is partly a reflection of government’s inability to manage those problems.  Many of Nigeria’s smaller ethnic groups face a real possibility of becoming numerical minorities in their own communities and need some reassurance that they will be able to protect their cultural autonomy, maintain their community’s connection to its land, and restrict participation in their traditional institutions of governance.  Without some way to do all of this, as one former local government chairman in the Plateau State capital of Jos put it, many communities would fear that “if they are overwhelmed in numbers they may lose control of their lives.”24 

Throughout most of Nigeria’s post-independence history, the federal government sought to allay these concerns—and fears of marginalization in a broader sense—by creating new states and local government areas within whose confines relatively small minorities could enjoy a position of political dominance.25  In recent years, however, federal authorities have refused to entertain new demands for the creation of new states or LGAs, largely because of fears that doing so could lead to a potentially limitless proliferation of tiny and unviable administrations.26 This has helped to elevate the importance of indigene status as an alternative source of autonomy. It also partially explains the hostile reaction many indigene communities have to suggestions that all distinctions between themselves and the “settler” communities around them should be abolished.

The consequences of being a non-indigene have grown far beyond anything related to the preservation of cultural autonomy or traditional leadership institutions, however.  Increasingly, as one Jos-based academic put it, “what is at stake is who has the power to dictate the pattern of development, politics and everything else.”27    

In part, this trend reflects the fact that many Nigerians see politics as a zero-sum game, where any benefit to one equally harms the other.  As a prominent member of Jos’s non-indigene Igbo community told Human Rights Watch, “the problem with this country is that if you don’t have one of your own people in a position of authority, you get nothing.”28  Seen in this light, pervasive discrimination against non-indigenes is just one consequence of the fact that many Nigerians take it for granted that living in a place governed by people who are ethnically or religiously different from themselves means exclusion from any kind of government largesse.

In many parts of Nigeria, however, the issue of indigeneity has seemed to create new kinds of parochialism where none had existed before; many states discriminate against one another’s non-indigene residents even though there are no meaningful ethnic or cultural differences between them, and even though both populations may once have been part of the same state.29   

Many Nigerians also see the increasing importance of the indigene/settler divide as resulting from the increasing levels of poverty and deprivation brought on by decades of poor governance and rampant corruption, along with environmental factors such as an increasing scarcity of land caused by population growth and desertification.  Government at all levels has failed miserably to provide for the needs of ordinary citizens, and state and local governments have sought to placate restive local opinion by reserving the increasingly scarce benefits of citizenship for their indigene “sons of the soil.”30 

When one state ratchets up the level of discrimination it metes out to non-indigenes, it serves in a perverse way to justify similar policies in other states.  One Plateau State government official told Human Rights Watch that the policies put in place by the state to discriminate against its non-indigene populations were justified because “We have few opportunities for the children of the soil and the government is there to meet their needs.  If they go to other states nobody will take care of them there.”31  Such reasoning is not necessarily accepted by non-indigenes who bear the brunt of discriminatory policies.  One Yoruba man living in Kano, for example, described the architects of Kano State’s discriminatory policies against non-indigenes such as himself as “illiterates who have never traveled to any other place and seen how their own people are getting on [as non-indigenes] there.”32

Discrimination against non-indigenes is also seen as being part of a high-stakes competition against other groups for political influence and resources at the national level.  One conflict analyst at the government-run Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution in Abuja argued to Human Rights Watch that a primary rationale behind state policies that set discriminatory school fees for non-indigene students lay in an effort to frustrate their academic opportunities so as to ultimately “block them from political participation.”  He went on to say that “it helps my people make progress relative to yours because you will not get an education if you cannot afford it.  So it contributes to strengthening the position of indigene people.”33  Putting it a different way, one Nigerian academic argued that discrimination and conflict related to the issue of indigeneity is usually linked to “a fear of unequal development” relative to other parts of Nigeria.34

Whatever the reasons, the idea that non-indigenes have no right to demand the benefits of full citizenship is now so deeply ingrained in Nigerian political thinking that many Nigerians take it for granted.  One federal government official in Abuja told Human Rights Watch, “I don’t have any problem with the idea of moving to another place and being discriminated against, because I know that if these people move to my home the same thing will happen to them.”35  And one member of parliament from the southwest of the country confessed that he even found it difficult not to discriminate against his own non-indigene constituents:

I received a letter from a church in my area—the pastor wanted me to help him obtain a scholarship to pursue further pastoral studies.  He’s not of my ethnic group, and my first thought was, “he is not even an indigene of my constituency.”  And yet this guy was right to contact me—he lives in my constituency and he probably even voted for me.36

Some non-indigenes accept this situation as the “natural order of things,” but many others do not.  Many non-indigenes reported to Human Rights Watch that they feel as though they contribute a great deal to the communities they live in and do not see why they should be pushed to what they describe as the margins of society.  Non-indigenes often contribute substantially to their local economies, work without job security as teachers and public servants where such positions cannot be filled with qualified indigenes, vote as constituents of the places they live and work in, and in general feel that they do all that is asked of them as citizens, but get little or nothing in return.  As one non-indigene university professor living in Plateau State put it, “We non-indigenes believe that we should benefit from the cake that we have helped to bake.”37  

Where non-indigenes have been vocal in denouncing discriminatory policies, state and local governments have typically reacted with hostility or dismissal.38  In a refrain that is heard time and time again in Nigerian political discourse, disgruntled non-indigenes are told to “trace their roots” and go back to their place of “origin” if they are unhappy with their treatment.  In some cases, indigene political leaders have accused “unruly” non-indigene populations of conspiring to invade and take over land that does not belong to them, for the sole purpose of “dominating” those around them.  Prior to the outbreak of ethnic violence in Plateau State in 2001, the non-indigene whose appointment to an influential federal position within the state helped spark the unrest received numerous threatening messages including one that read “trace your roots before it is too late.”39   

Those who hold these attitudes often justify them with the notion that most non-indigenes are mere transients with no real stake in the places where they live.  One state government official in Plateau State, articulating this popular belief, claimed that discrimination against non-indigenes in his state has no harmful impact because, “At the end of the day, when the non-indigene is through with his business here, he goes back to settle where he comes from.  That is the reality of it.”40  This is in fact true of some non-indigenes, but it is transparently false with regard to many others.  With the passage of time, more and more non-indigenes have put down roots where they live, and no longer identify with any other place as “home.”  As one non-indigene Igbo lawyer in Kaduna put it:

My father moved [from southeastern Nigeria] to Plateau State when he was thirteen.  I was born there and have lived all of my life in the North.  When I say I am going home I go to Plateau State.  I did my national service in Kano and have been working for twenty years in Kaduna.  So where do you want me to go?  To a part of the country with which I am not at all acquainted, an area where I don’t know the culture and my children do not speak the language?41

[6] House of Chiefs Debates, 19 March 1965, p. 55 (mimeo).  Quoted in Isaac O. Albert, “The Socio-Cultural Politics of Ethnic and Religious Conflicts,” in Ernest E. Uwazie, Isaac O. Albert and Godfrey N. Uzoigwe, eds., Inter-Ethnic and Religious Conflict Resolution in Nigeria (New York: Lexington Books, 1999), pp. 73.

[7] No definitive and generally accepted tally of the number of different ethnic groups in Nigeria has ever been compiled, in part because of disagreements over how the lines between different groups should be drawn.  The figure of 250 is commonly used as a reasonable minimum estimate of the number of groups that actually exist.

[8] The territories that make up what are now northern and southern Nigeria were administered by the British as two separate territories until 1914, when they were combined largely for the sake of administrative convenience and efficiency. 

[9] For more discussion of the continuing relevance of this history, see below,Section VII, Plateau and Kaduna state case studies.

[10] In 1966, a coup d’état led by Igbo officers from southeastern Nigeria ended with the murder of many northern military and political leaders, including two of northern Nigeria’s most prominent political figures, then-Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and Northern Region Premier Alhadji Ahmadu Bello.  These events triggered riots throughout northern Nigeria in which Igbo civilians were massacred and their communities burned to the ground.  The riots continued for weeks and many Igbos streamed back “home” en masse to the southeast as refugees.  The coup was quickly reversed, and all of these events ultimately led Igbo military leaders to declare the Eastern Region’s independence from the rest of Nigeria, triggering a thirty-month civil war.  For more discussion of the Biafran War and the events leading up to it, see, for example,Eghosa E. Osaghae, Crippled Giant: Nigeria Since Independence (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), pp. 56-68.

[11] For further discussion of the problem of intercommunal violence in Nigeria, see below,Section VI.

[12] SeeConstitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Second Schedule.

[13] These were promulgated in 1960, 1963, 1979 and 1999.  For a fuller discussion of the historical development of Nigerian federalism, see Rotimi Suberu, Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2001).

[14] The term “federal character” was first used in 1975 by then-head of state Murtala Mohammed in an address to the committee charged with drafting a new constitution for Nigeria.  It was ultimately inserted into the 1979 constitution, but is given more central importance by the (current) 1999 constitution, which refers to it not as a “principle” but as a “doctrine.”  For detailed discussion of the origins and growing importance of federal character in Nigeria, seeDaniel Bach, “Inching Towards a Country Without a State: Prebendalism, Violence and State Betrayal in Nigeria,” in Clapham C, Herbst J and G Mills, eds., Africa's Big States (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2005). 

[15] Article 14(3) states that “[t]he composition of the Government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity, and also to command national loyalty, thereby ensuring that there shall be no predominance of persons from a few states or from a few ethnic or other sectional groups in that Government or in any of its agencies.”

[16] The Federal Character Commission was first created under the Abacha Administration in 1996, and was retained under the 1999 Constitution.  SeeConstitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Third Schedule.

[17] Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Third Schedule, Part I(C).  The FCC has proposed minutely detailed guidelines that have yet to be codified or enforced but give some insight into how detailed its micromanagement of the principle’s application can be.  Among other things, the FCC proposed in 1996 that “on the basis of strict interstate equality, the indigenes of each of the thirty-six states should account for only 2.75 percent in the federal public service… To allow for flexibility, however, the norm of interstate equality should be modified such that indigenes of each state would be required to constitute not less than 2.5 percent and not more than 3 percent of officers in the federal bureaucracy.”  See Suberu, Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria, p. 114. 

[18] See Suberu, Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria, p. 48.  As is true of other oil producing states in Africa, the development of Nigeria’s oil industry has led to the decline of other formerly productive sectors of the economy including agriculture and manufacturing, leaving government at all levels largely dependent upon oil revenues.  Even aside from this, smaller states maintain elaborate state government bureaucracies notwithstanding populations and resource bases that have grown smaller as the states have fragmented and multiplied.

[19] See Suberu, Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria, p. 48.  The one notable exception is Lagos State, whose government generates a considerable portion of its revenues internally.  Ibid.

[20] The Native Authority Law of 1954 defined a non-indigene or “stranger” as “any Native who is not a member of the native community living in the area of its authority.”  SeeDaniel Bach, “Indigeneity,Ethnicity and Federalism,”in Transition Without End: Nigerian Politics and Civil Society Under Babangida (London: Lynne Rienner, 1997), p. 338.  Related colonial policies such as the rigid enforcement of residential segregation between “natives” and “settlers” are often explained as a deliberate attempt to discourage intercommunal integration and thereby reduce the possibilities for broad-based opposition to colonial rule.  For a broader discussion of the political uses and implications of similar sets of issues, seeMahmood Mamdani, Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

[21] See, for example, Brennan Kraxberger, “Strangers, Indigenes and Settlers: Contested Geographies of Citizenship in Nigeria,” Space and Polity, vol. 9 no. 1 (April 2005), p. 19, arguing that “[t]he Northern Region’s policy of the North for northerners established the general pattern of statism that has troubled Nigeria since.”

[22] SeeBach, “Indigeneity, Ethnicity and Federalism,” p. 338.

[23] In addition to the breakup of Nigeria’s original three regions into thirty-six states since 1960, the number of local government administrations has gone from 301 to 774 since 1976 alone.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview, Jos, November 19, 2005.

[25] For a detailed discussion of the politics behind Nigeria’s history of state and local government creation, seeSuberu, Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria, Chapter 4.

[26] Nigeria has not had any new states or local government areas since 1996, when six new states and 179 new LGAs were created.  A committee constituted by the Abacha administration in the run-up to that exercise claimed that it received a total of seventy-two requests for new states and 2,369 requests for new local government areas.  See Suberu, Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria, pp. 102-108. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has stated that new rounds of state and LGA creation would amount to “an endless joke which will continue to reduce the viability of our federalism.”  Cited in Suberu, Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria, p. 110. 

[27] Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Dung Pam Sha, Jos, November 18, 2005.

[28] Human Rights Watch interview, Jos, November 21, 2005.

[29] For a brief discussion of an example of this phenomenon following the creation of Osun from part of Oyo state in 1991, seeKraxberger, Strangers, Indigenes and Settlers, p. 9.  There were waves of dismissals throughout Nigeria following the creation of other new states and LGAs in 1991 as well.  See Suberu, Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria, pp. 109.

[30] See below, Section V.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview, Jos, November 20, 2005.

[32] Human Rights Watch interview, Kano, November 30, 2005.

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with Ochinya Ojiji, Institute of Peace and Conflict Resolution, Abuja, November 1, 2005.

[34] Human Rights Watch interview with Etannabi Alemika, Jos, November 17, 2005.

[35] Human Rights Watch interview, Abuja, November 2, 2005.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview, Abuja, October 31, 2005.

[37] Human Rights Watch interview, Jos, November 22, 2005.

[38] In various parts of Nigeria, debates over indigeneity and its consequences have played out in the press, in political campaigns, and in other public fora.  For a discussion of how non-indigene communities in Plateau and Delta states have protested their designation as non-indigenes and resulting discrimination, see below, Section VII.

[39] Human Rights Watch, “Revenge in the Name of Religion: The Cycle of Violence in Plateau and Kano States,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 17, no. 8(A), May 2005, p. 5.  For more discussion of these issues in the contexts of Plateau and Kaduna states, see below,Section VII.

[40] Human Rights Watch interview, Jos, November 23, 2005.

[41] Human Rights Watch interview, Kaduna, November 2, 2005.

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