Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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It is government vs the constitution in Nigeria's identity conflicts 16 May 2019

Almost 60 years since Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom – and over 100 years since the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates into a single colony – ethnic identity remains a stumbling block to national integration and cohesion. At the root of the ethnic consciousness that pervades the national landscape is the struggle for not just access but also control of political and economic power by both the major and minor ethnic groups.     
Of course, the main tool used in fostering an advantage by one ethnic group over another involves the exclusion of some groups from the political process. For example, during the February 23 presidential and National Assembly elections, there were reports of attempts by hoodlums purportedly conscripted by agents of a political party to suppress the votes that were cast by a particular ethnic group that was predisposed to supporting candidates of the opposition party. Furthermore, the implication of the extraconstitutional concept of rotational presidency adopted by major political parties in Nigeria is that only the major ethnic groups – mainly Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba – will produce candidates who will run for the office of president.

It was classic dog-whistle politics that the All Progressives Congress (APC) played when it told the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal that Atiku Abubakar, the People's Democratic Party's (PDP) candidate in the 2019 presidential election is not a Nigerian. According to the APC, it is immaterial that Abubakar was born in Nigeria and is a former vice president. If it can be proven that he is not a pure-blooded Nigerian, he should be ineligible to contest any election in the country.

Invidious ethnic consciousness, according to some scholars, is a colonial artefact. The mutual suspicion and prejudice among ethnic groups in many parts of Africa today has been traced to the 'divide and rule' policy that was introduced by the colonial masters. This policy entailed depriving various groups within colonies of harmonious coexistence as a means to exert effective control over them.

To be clear, there are other factors that breed ethnic bias, including economic and social disadvantage. But ethnic identity has precipitated so many conflicts in Nigeria, including the civil war. But while the Nigerian Civil War ended 49 years ago, there are still flashpoints of ethnic-based violence across various regions in the country. The most recent inter-ethnic feud was the violent clash last month between Tiv and Jukun in Taraba State.

The conflict, which erupted at different times over the last six decades, has led to the destruction of property, loss of countless lives and displacement of people. The crisis has its origin in the indigene-settler dichotomy, which fosters ethnic citizenship and relegates national citizenship. The Jukun people say they are the original inhabitants of Wukari, a Local Government Area (LGA) in Taraba State. As “indigenes,” they consider the Tiv ethnic group in Wukari as “settlers.” But the Tivs refuse to be second-class citizens and reject any form of marginalization in Taraba State. They go further in their refusal to recognise the Jukuns as indigenes. Part of the threat posed by the Tiv people to the Jukuns is the expanding population of the former in Wukari. In fact, the Tiv people outnumber the Jukuns.

Having rejected the full integration of Tiv people in Wukari, the Jukuns are against advancing land ownership to their Tiv neighbours. There is also the issue of political rights whereby the Jukuns are opposed to having Tiv people participate in the political process by running for office. During the last episode of violent clash that broke out on April 19th, about 22 people were reportedly killed in Wukari.

Unfortunately, neither the parties in this protracted conflict nor the government that has failed to provide protection to the inhabitants of Wukari see the economic ramifications of the monumental losses with regard to human resources and destruction of schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. The reality is that a resolution of the crisis will not include a resettlement, which is both impossible and impractical.

At any rate, the Nigerian state has demonstrated an appalling response to this and other ethnic conflicts in the country. In "Hope Betrayed? A Report on Impunity and State-Sponsored Violence in Nigeria," a book published by the Center for Law Enforcement Education in Nigeria (CLEEN) and the World Organization against Torture (OMCT) in 2002, the two organisations catalogued the role of the Nigerian state in fueling conflicts through several actions and inactions. According to CLEEN and OMCT, time and time again, the government abdicated its preeminent responsibility of protecting the lives and property of its citizens. The impunity means the perpetrators continue to carry out violence without facing justice.

According to Dung Pam Sha, a Professor of Political Economy and Development Studies at the University of Jos, policies such as the quota system, federal character, indigeneity, etc., are some of the ways by which the state fosters ethnic identities by protecting the interest of 'natives' against 'settlers' on one hand, and settlers' against 'natives' on the other hand.

In “Nigeria In Global Governance, Peace and Security,” Sha also draws attention to the damning findings of the 1987 report of Political Bureau, which describes how the state offers discriminatory charges of fees for educational and other social services based on statist or ethno-regional considerations. This discriminatory admission policy still exists in Nigerian public schools. In some parts of the country, non-indigenes are denied investment and other economic opportunities.

Meanwhile, the constitution clearly guarantees freedom from discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion, place of origin, sex and political opinion. The constitution also guarantees residency rights to all Nigerians, including participation in politics in the areas of their residence. Despite these constitutional provisions, the practice of segregation is pervasive.

But there is still hope the constitution, despite all its limitations, can be upheld, considering the action of Governor Nasir el-Rufai who recently abrogated the indigene-settler division in Kaduna State, where ethnic violence has been rife. Nigeria will not make any meaningful progress as long as the state continues to pussyfoot in handling ethno-religious conflicts.