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Ethnic Conflict In Africa Essays About Love


Today, Africa is laced with some of the most obstinate conflicts, most of them constructed from differences in religious and ethnic identities. Religious and ethnic nationalism has led to conflicts about control of state power, unequal allocation of resources, citizenship issues, state collapse, economic decline and ethno-religious clashes. Nigeria has been pushed hither and thither by recurrent crises of regional or state illegitimacy, often impairing efforts at economic transformation, democratisation, national cohesion and stability (Osaghae and Suberu 2005:4). With this continental background in mind, this research paper seeks to examine the relationship between religion, ethnicity and conflict in Nigeria, focusing mainly on issues in the North of the country. The question is: To what extent are conflicts emerging from ethnic or religious sources? This paper also looks at the notion of Identity and how it explains the crisis of development and complexities in modern Nigeria.


Nigeria is synonymous with deep divisions which cause major political issues to be vigorously and violently contested along the lines of intricate ethnic, religious and regional divisions. Issues that raise the most dust are those regarded essential for the existence and the validity of the state. Opposing and contending assemblages have a tendency to assume an exclusionary winner-take-all approach. These issues include the control of state power, allocation of resources and citizenship. As a result, states with such divisions are disposed to be delicate and unstable because almost by definition, they have very little in common with regard to convergence and harmony which are necessary to reduce the centrifugal forces that rip them apart (Osaghae and Suberu 2005:4).

Therefore, breakdown, breakaway, civil strife, civil war, minority nervousness, and violent clashes, all of which would typically be regarded unusual in normal states are common forces or actual occurrences in divided states (Osaghae and Suberu 2005:4). Because of a complicated network of politically silent identities, coupled with a history of protracted and seemingly stubborn wars and instability, Nigeria is high on the list as one of the most unstable states in Africa. Since its independence, Nigeria has been driven hither and thither by recurrent crises of regional or state illegitimacy, often impairing efforts at democratisation, stability, economic transformation and national cohesion. A peak of the crisis appears to have occurred during the civil war of the 1960s, which began shortly after independence (Okpanachi 2010). Since 1999 when Nigeria transited into civilian rule, the country has witnessed a rapid increase in the number of conflicts. The aim of this study is to examine the relationship between religion, ethnicity and those conflicts in the country. It looks at the notion of Identity in an attempt to explain the crisis of development and the complexities of modern Nigeria.

A high level of corruption and the looting of state resources is another serious and ‘pandemic’ (Dike 2005) problem that makes all forms of conflict and trouble worse in Nigeria. The country is ‘richly endowed with natural resources and high quality human capital’ (Ogbeidi 2012:1), but corruption is one of the main reasons that affect the development of the country in a negative way. The appropriation of state resources by certain hands makes poverty and bitter anger inevitable aspects of daily socio-economic and political routine. In this sense, though corruption is not peculiar to Nigeria, many sources call it the ‘bane of the country’ (Dike 2005; Ogbeidi 2012:21). And of course, corruption is considered to be one of the main causes of ethno-religious conflicts (Nwankwo 2015). Poverty and injustice caused by corruption weaken any sense of mutual tolerance, social solidarity or coexistence, while reawakening social hatred, radicalism and violence. For this reason, corruption is seen as one of the most important issues that has to be resolved in order to cope with ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria.

The identity factor

From a socio-political perspective, ‘identity’ bears a personal and a social meaning. Processes related to identity are ‘located at the core of the individual and yet in the core of his community culture’ (Erikson 1968:57; Okpanachi 2010). Thus, identity can be said to be an individual’s ‘sense of belonging to a group if (it) influences his political behavior’ (Erikson 1968:57; Mary Anderson 2010; Okpanachi 2010). Identity is built into an individual’s physiological ‘givens’ and in social roles (Erikson 1968:57; Okpanachi 2010). Identity is characterised by features such as an ’emotive tie to a group’, ‘love and belief for a group’, ‘pledge to a cause’, and ‘commitments and duties to a group’ with which a person identifies (Smyth and Robinson 2001:7-11; Okpanachi 2010).

General studies in identity underscore the fact that identity implies similarity and contrast at the same time (Jenkins 2004; Okpanachi 2010). ‘For an individual, or for a group, there may be a plurality of identities. Yet, such a plurality is a source of stress and contradiction in both self-representation and social action. This is because identity must be distinguished from role-sets’ (Okpanachi 2010).

According to Castells, notions of identity are present only when social actors co-opt them (Okpanachi 2010; Castells 2010:8). Oftentimes, self-definition of identity overlaps with role expectations, but identities are more stable springs of meaning than those social roles. This is because identities establish the meaning, while social roles shape the functions (Okpanachi 2010; Castells 2010:7). However, identity is not uniform or stable among groups or individuals. Its strength and importance is dynamic and differs from group to group. While identities are somewhat stable, identity consciousness keeps on changing to reflect the fluctuating role of the identities and the swelling magnitudes (Jega 2000:11; Okpanachi 2010). This elasticity of identity avoids coming up with an all new identity for the particular role and circumstance. Social forces, then, strongly affect identity building and formation (Okpanachi 2010).

Recent studies on religious identity have also underscored the positive function of religion in promotion of peace. On the other hand, however, mobilisation of identity has been used to incite political groups to struggle and religious groups to legitimise wars and various modes of brutal and violent acts (Alger 2002:101; Okpanachi 2010).

Politics of ethnic identity in Nigeria

Ethnicity is a social phenomenon that is manifested in interactions among individuals of different ethnic groups within a political system where language and culture are the most prominent attributes. The formation of dialects within languages was one of the ways in which ethnicity – both small-scale and large-scale – became fixed in Nigeria. Although there are over 400 languages in Nigeria, only three are considered important while the rest are considered minor languages. However, the distribution of these languages is directly proportional to both political and socio-economic power, and therefore the language group to which one belongs defines his/her status in the society. Missionaries and local politicians created standard languages and hoped that they would homogenise language and ethnicity, and create more harmonious ethnic identities.

Ethnicity is natural in almost all societies made up of more than one ethnic group. This observation tends to offer the suggestion that the interaction between different ethnic groups within a single political set-up generates ethnic identity. An interaction of this kind can create ‘a common consciousness of being one in relation to other relevant ethnic groups’ (Eriksen 1996:30). That in turn, results in the emergence of in-group and out-group confines which come to be guarded jealously over time. Based on this approach, ethnicity thus becomes a process through which ethnic identities are politicised (Eriksen 1996:30).

Historically, identities have played a significant role in the Nigerian political process during the colonial period and in the post-colonial era. During the colonial period, the administrators allowed the emergence and aggravation of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ syndrome, where Muslims were pitted against Christians, Northerners against the Southerners, Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo against each other, and so on (Adefemi 2003:14; Okpanachi 2010). In this era religious and ethnic differences became prominent factors in instituting and executing socio-economic strategies and applications. Therefore, the differentiating outcomes of colonialism became the forerunner of the socio-economic disequilibrium among the different regions, and then this became an important factor in the stimulation of identity awareness so as to efficiently ‘divide and rule’ (Fearon and Laitin 2003:82; Okpanachi 2010). But, as a counter argument it must be said that internal factors are more determinant than the external ones in creating the cleavages in Nigeria. This is also the case in many other countries.

Ethnicity is seen as the most basic and politically salient identity of Nigerians. This argument is based on the premise that in their competitive and non-competitive contexts, Nigerians tend to define themselves in terms of ethnic affinities as opposed to other identities (Osaghae and Suberu 2005:8). A survey conducted in Nigeria by Lewis and Bratton found that almost half of Nigerians (48.2%) labelled themselves with an ethnic identity compared to 28.4% who labelled themselves with respect to class and 21% who identified with a religious group (Lewis and Bratton 2000:27; Osaghae and Suberu 2005:9). This means that over 66% of Nigerians view themselves as members of an elemental ethnic or religious group. What is even more interesting is the fact that religious and ethnic identities are more salient than class identities (Lewis and Bratton 2000:26; Osaghae and Suberu 2005:9). However, this is not at all that surprising, especially if one considers that ethno-religious formations are the most persistent behavioural units in Nigeria (Nsongola-Ntalaja 2004:404; Osaghae and Suberu 2005:9).

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the fact that ethnicity is the most salient, and the large number of studies conducted on this issue, the total number of ethnic groupings in Nigeria remains unknown (Osaghae and Suberu 2005:9). Some sources put it at 374 (Otite 1990:34; Okpanachi 2010), while some other sources count more than 250 different ethnic identities (Central Intelligence Agency 2016). However, the population percentages of the majority of these groups are small when compared with the seven largest ethnic groups constituting about 88% of the country’s population. These are Hausa and Fulani (29%), Yoruba (21%), Igbo (18%), Ijaw (10%), Kanuri (4%), Ibibio (3,5%), and Tiv (2,5%) (Central Intelligence Agency 2016). This population disproportion when combined with the disparities in the political influence of individual ethnic groups roughly classifies the Nigerian population into two major groupings: the majority and minority ethnic groups. When the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba and the Igbo form the majority, the rest of the ethnic groups are fitted into the minority classification which in itself possesses different degrees of status relative to their size and political influence (Rakov 1990; Paden 2008:4; Okpanachi 2010).

The Hausa-Fulani and other smaller ethnic groups that inhabit the north of the country are Muslims while the Igbo and the other smaller groups residing in the South are primarily Christians. Groups lying in the middle comprise a mixture of Christians and Muslims while the Yoruba found in the Southwest are almost half Muslim and half Christian. This Muslim North and Christian South cleavage enhances ethnic fractionalisations in Nigeria, especially in Northern Nigeria where Islamic identity plays a dominant role (Paden 2007:8; Okpanachi 2010). It is clear that nearly the entire Northern half of the country consists of states with Sharia law.

Of course, exceptions should not be overlooked for both parts of the country. There is a considerable population of Muslims in the South, especially in the Southwest, and a sizeable number amongst the Benin in Edo State. Even in the Southeast, amongst the Igbo, there has been a rising number of Muslims, causing the governors of some Igbo-speaking states to introduce state programmes for Muslims. The same goes for Christians in the North, where the considerable number of Christians cannot be disregarded in any analysis of religious groupings in Nigeria.

Lewis (2007:6) attributes the historical prominence of Islam during the formation of Northern states in the early 19th century to the continued prominence of Emirs and religious authorities in framing identities in Northern Nigeria. Lewis argues that a number of principles of ethnicity are used by political leaders and others to frame their arguments as to how things should be accomplished. First, ethnic identity is the most important and consistent basis of social identity in the country. Second, ethnicity is seen as a way for collective action. Finally, ethnicity is presumed to be a destabilising factor with far-reaching impacts on democracy. These principles breed a number of outcomes. Because political competition is played along lines of ethnicity, the resultant ‘democratic’ but authoritarian government ostensibly has an ethnic character (Lewis 2007:2).

Lewis states that civilian governments supposedly promote the creation of an ethnic politicisation and political schism. On the other hand, non-democratic regimes like military rules are usually repercussions from the side of the political elite. In most cases, therefore, mechanisms of political governance are formed on the basis of ethnicity via custom-made patronage systems (Lewis 2007:2). For instance, in Nigeria the ethnic factor is seen when political parties are formed and during elections. The Northern People’s Congress (NPC) was formed in the first Republic and it was a Hausa-Fulani party. Similarly, the Igbos belonged to the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC) while the Yoruba prided themselves as members of the Action Group (AG) (Cohen 1968). These parties later transformed into The National Party of Nigeria (NPN), the Nigerian People Party (NPP) and the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) during the second republic (Edoh 2001:87). The third Republic, attributed to the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC), was disbanded by annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections due to ethnic reasoning when it became clear that the Northern political hegemony risked being lost forever. Thus, here it is possible to detect that stimulation of ethnic awareness easily turns into a conflict in order to get more from scarce societal resources. And this situation provokes political tensions and cleavages among the ethnic groups. Nigeria is not the only country in the world where such things are experienced.

In recent times, socio-economic and political changes have taken place and transformed the delineations of identities and politics in Nigeria. To begin with, patterns of group mobilisations have shifted. In the traditional models of Nigerian ethnic politics, emphasis was on competition among the country’s three largest groups – the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba and the Igbo. The minority groups comprising over 250 smaller ethnic groups have often been regarded as inconsequential in political contests. However, since 1999, Nigeria’s political arena has been changing following political action by groups in the Niger Delta and the ‘middle-belt’ communities who have increasingly become vocal in national politics and economy (Soludo 2007). Ethnic solidarity has also faced opposition from religious mobilisations by the Muslims and the Christians especially in the Muslim North.

Since the restoration of democratic rule, ethnic identity and mobilisation in the Nigerian political landscape has often resulted in political instability. Between 1999 and 2013, more than 11 000 deaths have occurred as a result of more than five hundred incidents of communal violence. Ethnic violence has been witnessed in almost all regions in the country but with particular frequency in the Niger Delta, the Muslim North and Northwest, and along the middle-belt (Uzodike and Whetho 2011:220). The level of insecurity witnessed during the post-military period is considerably higher than that experienced during the three decades of military rule that ended in 1999. It is often assumed that there exist stable identities in Nigeria and consistent group motives in the approach to ethnic politics (Rotberg 2002:88). However, the upsurge of ethnicity in Nigeria in recent years leads researchers to re-examine identity formation.

Religious identity

Nigeria is the most crowded African country with a population of about 182 million by 2015 (World Population Prospects 2015:21). A majority of the scientific academic sources accept that the half of the population is Christian, the other half Muslim. However, there is uncertainty about the exact percentages, hence various sources give different figures. In a report published by Pew Research Center in 2010 the numbers from different sources are compared in the report’s Appendix B. If we mention them chronologically for instance, the 1963 Census certified 36% Christian, 48% Muslim and 16% other. However, the Demographic and Health Survey gave 53% Christian, 45% Muslim and 2% other in 2008. Similarly, Afrobarometer found 56% Christian, 43% Muslim and 1% other, also in 2008. And finally, Pew Forum declared 46% for Christians, 52% for Muslims and 1% for others in 2009 (Pew Research Center 2010). Whatever the exact percentages are, it is clear that Nigeria is a country with very large Christian and Muslim populations. This situation makes this country a potential fault line between the two different identities and even civilisations. In this sense, Nigeria, with the largest Christian plus Muslim population in the world, can be defined as a ‘cleft country’ and then a ‘test case’ of Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations thesis (Paden 2007; Olojo 2014:7).

Although the general presumption is that ethnic identity is a more prominent and stable source of identity in Nigeria, some researchers have demonstrated that religion was more significant than ethnicity as a source of identity and conflict in Nigeria (Ruby and Shah 2007; Pew Research Center 2010; Green 2011). In fact, in the Hausa-Fulani North, religious identity is more pronounced than ethnic identity and only serves to stimulate ethnicity (Osaghae and Suberu 2005:10). Therefore, of the two major ethnic groupings in the country, the Yoruba are more likely to identify themselves with their ethnic group than are the Northern Hausa-Fulani (Lewis and Bratton 2000:20; Osaghae and Suberu 2005:11).

Nigeria has three major religious identities: Christian, Islam and traditional religions (Omorogbe and Omohan 2005:557; Osaghae and Suberu 2005:11). Traditional religions are the most politically inactive of the three groups, ‘numbering several hundreds of ethnic groups and sub-groups, villages, clans and kin groups; and, involving the worship of different gods and goddesses’ (Osaghae and Suberu 2005:11). On the other hand, Christian and Muslim identities have continued to be the backbone of religious disparity and conflict (Lewis and Bratton 2000:5; Osaghae and Suberu 2005:11). This differentiation underlies the North-South cleavage.

It is worth noting that, within the wide Christian and Muslim categories, there lie many sub-cleavages and intra-group conflicts that have either been active politically in the past or have a potential of being salient in the future. Among the Christians, sub-cleavages include the Protestants (Anglican 10%, Baptist 8%, Methodist 5%, and Lutheran 5%), the Catholics 15%, the Evangelical Church of West Africa 2%, Jehovah’s Witnesses 5% and a myriad of other local (Aladura, Cherubim and Seraphim, Celestial Church of Christ 20%) and Pentecostal churches 30% (Osaghae and Suberu 2005:11).

The Pentecostal churches form the fundamental division of Christianity in Nigeria which has experienced rapid growth in numbers of followers in the last few years with the majority of adherents, especially the youths, joining the church from the older and more traditional denominations. The church has played an important role in civil society in anti-military struggles and democratisation. This has been made possible through umbrella bodies such as the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), and the Catholic Bishops Conference (Osaghae and Suberu 2005:11). However, politicisation of Christianity has been reliant on moves by the Muslims and the interventions of the government. Still, Protestant-Catholic cleavages have continued to play an important role in elections among the Igbo communities living in the Southeast of Nigeria (Osaghae and Suberu 2005:11).

Muslims also belong to a number of sub-cleavages that include Ahmadiyya 12%, Sanusiyya 5%, Tijanniyya 3%, and Quadriyya 8% which have in turn been in conflicts. And as among the Christians, the Muslims also have umbrella bodies which aim at propagating different understandings of Islam. Notable among these organisations is the Jamaatu Nasril Islam (JNI) which was established by Sardauna of Sokoto in 1961. Following events in Iran during the Islamic revolution of 1979, radical fundamentalist activities increased among Muslim youths. These conditions resulted in the formation of fundamentalist Muslim factions such as the Maitatsine, the Isala movement, the Shiites, the Talibans and most recently the Boko Haram (Fayemi 2011) which demanded the establishment of a purist Islam based on Sharia law, the abolition of unorthodox innovations, and the creation of an Islamic theocracy (Osaghae and Suberu 2005:11). These relatively new sentiments that depend on a unique and radical interpretation of Islam provoke conflicts with the traditional and/or more moderate understandings.

Ethno-religious conflicts

The fact that an average Nigerian is very religious was observed by some sources (Oluduro 2010:209; Ekundayo 2013:29). Religion plays a critical role in Nigerian society and has expressed itself as a potent force in the geopolitical development of the country. This force which has been used to unite Nigerians is the same force that has led to numerous conflicts in the country. Nigeria has been engulfed in numerous religious crises and/or conflicts between 1980 and 19941 (Warner 2012:38).

Due to their tendency to spread into other areas after an early stage in one area, ethno-religious conflicts have gained notoriety as the most violent crises in Nigeria. Most of these conflicts occur in the middle-belt and along the culturally borderline states of the predominantly Muslim North, and also take place between Hausa-Fulani groups and non-Muslim ethnic groups in the South (Osaghae and Suberu 2005:19). In conflicts of this nature occurring along the convergence of ethnic and religious lines, it is often very difficult to tell the differences between religious and ethnic crises because the dividing line between them is slimmer than thin. Examples of such ethno-religious conflicts are the Kafanchan-Kaduna crisis that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, the Kaduna Sharia riots of 2000 and the Jos riots of 20012 (Osaghae and Suberu 2005:19). Several hundred lives were lost during the Kaduna crisis of 2000 and the Jos insurrection of 2001. The crises caused violent ripple effects that spread beyond Kaduna and Jos (Enukora 2005:633).

Other recent ethno-religious conflicts include the July 1999 conflict among the Oro cultists in Sagamu in Ogun state who claimed that the Hausa women had come outside when the cultists were outside with their gnome. The result were arguments that finally turned into a full-scale crisis. Many Yoruba and Hausa people were killed before a dusk to dawn curfew was imposed on the Sagamu town. Even as the infamy was being put under check in Sagamu, reprisal attacks continued in Kano, in Hausa city, leading to deaths and destruction of property worth billions of Naira (Kura 2010:33-34).

Another ethno-religious conflict that had far reaching impacts on the people of Nigeria was the October 2000 Lagos-Kano (Idi-Araba/Oko-Oba) conflict which was caused by a misperception between the Hausa inhabitants and the Yoruba living in Lagos over the use of a convenience by a man from Hausa. The mayhem resulted in the death of many Yoruba. As a consequence, the O’dua People Congress (a Yoruba militia) was formed and worsened the situation as the violence later spread southwards to Kano (Enukora 2005:633; Kura 2010:34).

Worse still, in September 2001, ethnic friction between the Tivs and the Iunkuns in the Plateau state reached fever pitch following what came to be referred to as ‘mistaken identity’. ‘What this means is that some Tivs took some nineteen soldiers to be Iunkuns in fake army uniform. The Tiv youths captured them and slaughtered them one by one’ (Kura 2010:34-35). And then the Nigerian army embarked on devastating reprisal attacks in Saki-Biam. According to some controversial numbers at least a hundred people died in the army attacks (Human Rights Watch 2001). Violence spread to Jos plateau especially after a Christian was appointed as a Local Council Chairman. By the time the menace was brought to a standstill, over 160 lives had been lost (Kura 2010:35).

A case of the North: Boko Haram

Between 1999 and 2013, numerous conflicts have been witnessed in Nigeria. The most important among them is the Boko Haram crisis which is on-going. This group has started a bloody campaign to impose a sui-generis Islamic regime based on Sharia in the Muslim North of the country. Actually, it is hard to argue that Boko Haram is a religious or ethnic conflict. In the former case, it targets more Muslims than Christians. In the latter, it is mostly an ethnic Northern conflict. For this reason, though Boko Haram uses a religious discourse, it may be more appropriate to call it simply a terrorist organisation.

With regard to the numerous conflicts and the Boko Haram menace in particular, the country’s stability is under constant threat. Boko Haram has introduced into Nigeria’s political and social life a level of insurgency never witnessed before. The insurgency became violent in 2008 even before the country could heal from previous ethno-religious conflicts (Shehu 2011:3).

Boko Haram was founded in 2002 by Muhammad Yusuf. It is formally identified by its members as ‘Jama’at ahlis Sunnah lid Da’wat wal Jihad’, which means ‘people committed to the propagation of the Prophet’s teachings and jihad’. The name of the group ‘Boko Haram’ is loosely translated from the Hausa language to mean ‘western education is sinful’. This meaning is extended to mean any western culture is prohibited. It is for this reason that followers of this outfit advocate for a government based on Sharia as opposed to a democratic one. It is possible to count Wahhabism, Salafism and Islamic fundamentalism as the basic items of the Boko Haram’s ideology. The group which was founded in 2002 in Maiduguri did not become militant until 2009 when its leader was captured and killed by the Nigerian army. Since then, the group has engaged in gun battles, arson, bombing and stabbing, in promoting their ideology (Warner 2012:40). Moreover, Boko Haram has captured a territory in and around Borno state in the Northeast part of Nigeria in 2014. However, the territorial control of the group has been removed by the Nigerian army in 2015.

Boko Haram can be examined in various ways. Firstly, it refers to a long history characteristic of Northern Nigeria and the continued radical Islamic movements. Secondly, the group has its foundations in the socio-economic marginalisation of the country’s northern population. Thirdly, Boko Haram is understood as seeking revenge especially in response to unacceptable behaviour of the law enforcers. The fourth understanding is based on the perception that Boko Haram is utilised by the elites from the North to express their grievances over lack of interest demonstrated by the central government. Finally, the group can be understood as developing as an offshoot of the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and probably Al-Shabaab (Warner 2012:39).

It is important to note that apart from the group targeting national events, markets and churches, they are sometimes engaged in sporadic bombings in major towns in Northern Nigeria including Kaduna, Saria, Jos, Kano, Maiduguri, and in Damaturi. During such instances, the fighters kill indiscriminately – Muslims and Christians alike. Despite everything, the group leaders have often stated that they are still fighting for justice and the Islamisation of Nigeria (Roach 2012:4). The group has declared its allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), as has been done by a series of terrorist groups from various parts of the world. In this context, Boko Haram can be seen as yet another reflection of the religious looking international terror campaigns now sweeping the globe scene.

Inter-religious conflicts

Inter-religious conflicts in Nigeria form part of the dynamics of identity politics. Political elites in Nigeria have always sought to reap advantages from the multidimensional identities, more so during electioneering periods, and this has resulted in conflicts and instability. This politicisation of religious identities during contests for political office often lacks any sustaining unifying ideology. Somehow, politics in Nigeria are fashioned on the appeasement of religious motives. As a consequence, religion attains the level of deification that is difficult to challenge or overpower. In their quest to assume power and state resources, the elites constantly modify patterns of political domination. In this perpetually changing pattern of domination, fears and anxieties are bred that motivate an upsurge in struggle and intolerance (Ibrahim and Kazah-Toure 2003:18; Okpanachi 2010).

Since the return of civilian rule in 1999 following a protracted period of military rule, Nigeria has continued to experience recurring ethno-religious conflicts. Although some of these struggles are low-intensity contestations and rancorous wars of words, other have degenerated into bloody sectarian fights. Thousands of Nigerians have been left dead, wounded and homeless over the years due to constant religious strife pitting people of different religions against each other (Okpanachi 2010).

The main forms of inter-religious conflicts in Nigeria are between the Muslims and the Christians. The conflicts are sometimes so intense that they have turned into wars in different parts of the country, and they range from the Kano revolt (1980), Bulunktu Bisarre (1982), Kastina crises (1999), Samfara conflict, Kaduna revolt, Bauchi crises and Sokoto (1999). More recent examples are the Jos crises and the current conflict by Boko Haram against Christians and moderate Muslims. These are only a few examples of inter-religious conflicts in Nigeria, since not a year passes without three to four incidences of inter-religious conflicts.

Inter-religious conflicts are brought about by a number of factors. One of these causes is the clashing interests of those in authority. The ruling class has applied a number of processes to express their dissatisfaction with exclusion from important decision-making processes of the country. The methods employed include religious violence and military coups d’état. A majority of the religious conflicts in Northern Nigeria are reported to be due to the large number of rich Southerners who reside there. Many Northern elites are hurt by the business inventiveness of the Southerners and employ religious calls to incite people to destroy property belonging to non-natives. The results are wars fought under the pretence of being religious (Falola 1998).

Major causes of ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria

Unlike other forms of social conflicts, ethno-religious conflict entails different ethnic groups that belong to different religions. It is essential to advert that both religious and ethnic causal agents have always acted together in the majority of social conflicts in Nigeria. At different levels and times in the past, the Nigerian people have complained of religious and ethnic discrimination. Most ask for religious and ethnic rights within their state. Another cause of the conflicts has been the state’s use of religion and ethnicity in political discourse or action. Therefore, it is clear that accusations and allegations of neglect, oppression and domination are the major causes that fuel ethno-religious conflicts (Ikelegbe 2001:14; Kura 2010:35-36; Salawu 2010:348).

Nigeria, like many other countries in the world, lacks a consensus on how necessary changes and reforms are effected. This is caused by the fact that different religious and ethnic groups have varying benefits in which case some groups will have their interests met while others will not. This means that tension occurs when individuals who feel that they are deprived attempt to increase their stake of power or wealth or to alter the central beliefs, values, norms and philosophies. In Nigeria therefore, there appears to exist a contentious interaction of politics, ethnicity and religions, which has resulted in an increased sense of belonging and militancy. It is important to note that the general outcome of this is the intensification of numerous ethno-religious struggles in Nigeria. And this intensification can be seen as the main source of ongoing discrimination, subordination and domination in this country (Kura 2010:36).

From one perspective, the ‘failure’ of the Nigerian political elite to enact good governments, promote national integration and foster good economic progress via thoughtful and pronounced policies has resulted in massive unemployment. This has in turn led to the rise of communal, ethnic and religious conflicts that are characteristic of the Nigerian politics. Since poverty and unemployment have acted as the mainstay for various ethno-religious conflicts in the country, an accumulation of pauperised people can end up acting as paid militants. This could be the reason why any conflict in Nigeria is usually characterised by a large number of fighters (Kura 2010:36; Mu’asu 2011:19-20).

There is a correlation between ethno-religious conflicts and low standards of democracy due to protracted military interferences in politics. This appears to legalise the application of coercion and violence as tools for social change and for the achievement of anticipated desires and objectives (Kura 2010:37). Based on this understanding, it is common in Nigeria to observe that as a consequence or an after-effect of a military period, the application of both force and intimidation as a means of settling a misunderstanding has become very frequent. When this is coupled with easy acquisition of illegal fire arms, violence erupts more quickly and there is more difficulty in negotiating peaceful settlements.

The absence of vehicles of social control that were characteristic of traditional African societies, such as kinship, religious and political systems concerned with the well-being of the community, has led to the escalation of ethno-religious conflicts. The failure of these institutions is partly to blame for the ethnic and communal conflicts witnessed in Nigeria today. Broken families and the inability to make ends meet in many homes have led to an increase in the level of immorality while at the same time providing a reservoir of youths who readily take up arms to execute ethno-religious conflicts at a fee.


This study in one sense has tried to look at the emergence of identities and their impact on the conflicts in the most crowded African country, Nigeria. From social and political perspectives, ‘identity’ has a personal and social meaning. Identity can be defined as distinct qualities, characteristics and beliefs of an individual or a group of people. And it is an individual’s sense of belonging to a group which often has an impact on his/her political behaviour (Erikson 1968:57; Mary Anderson 2010).

Identity has been a significant aspect of the Nigerian political process, during the colonial period and in the post-colonial era. Ethnicity is a social phenomenon that is related to interactions among individuals of different ethnic groups within a political system where language and culture are the most prominent attributes. Both ethnicity and religiosity have emerged as the most basic and politically salient identities of the Nigerians.

In Nigeria, structures of political control are formed on the basis of ethnicity and religiosity via a custom-made patronage system. These identities have been a constant source of conflict and cleavage in the country. Since the restoration of democratic rule, ethnic identity and mobilisation in the Nigerian political landscape has often resulted in political instability and constant conflicts. A number of uprisings and concomitant mayhem have been reported since 1999 and have resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and the destruction of property. In recent times, for instance, the militarisation of Boko Haram has undermined Nigeria’s stability and placed the country under constant threat.

Despite some exceptions, such as the Yoruba being made up of both Christian and Muslim segments, ethnic identities generally overlap with religious identities in Nigeria. For that reason, it is difficult to distinguish ethnic conflicts from religious ones in this country. However, it can be said that ethnic differences in Nigeria would not have been such a prominent cause of conflict if they had not overlapped with the religious identities, or vice versa. In other words, in many instances, religion provides a mobilisation frame for conflict and this effect is amplified when religious and ethnic cleavages run parallel. And there is no doubt that inter-religious conflicts in Nigeria form part of the dynamics of identity politics. As stated above, while some sources (Lewis and Bratton 2000) reveal the importance of ethnicity as a causal factor of cleavages, others (Ruby and Shah 2007; Pew Research Center 2010; Green 2011) underline religious identities as a more determinant element in the perception of difference. The diversity in the scientific findings and literature was probably caused by researchers focusing on different groups in Nigeria. Basically this means that for some groups ethnicity is more binding, while in others religion plays a dominant role in group identification and a sense of belonging. Since this paper has been mostly concentrated on conflicts in the North, the religious factor might be highlighted – due to the decisive religious cleavages in this region.

Of course, there is much ethno-religious conflict in Nigeria, not only in the North and in the Delta, but also in the Middle Belt. However, the importance of the conflict in the North comes from its global origin. It is apparent that this conflict is a manifestation in Nigeria of religiously oriented global-scale violence. There are similarities between Boko Haram and other radical Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Al-Nusra and the IS in terms of discourse and praxis. This makes the conflict in the North more interesting for the rest of the world and this is the main reason for the emphasis on the subject in this paper.

It is generally accepted that the inefficacy of politicians in Nigeria at the points of good governance, national consolidation and economic development has caused political cleavages, social disintegration and massive unemployment (Kura 2010:36; Mu’asu 2011:19-20; Ogbeidi 2012:21). This, together with the absence of social control mechanisms and a high level of corruption, has stimulated ethno-religious conflicts.

Finally, the nation-state model is in danger in Nigeria, as in many other so-called nation-states. Of course, globalisation feeds this process, but the main reason is related to inherent features of the model. The majority of modern states consist of different groups and usually one of them tries to rule the system while provoking the objections of others. Consequently, the ethnic, religious and maybe ideological groups compete for dominance and this weakens the basis of any achieved unity. This is then seen as the inevitable character of heterogeneous nation-states (Gordon Anderson 2010; í‡ancı and Åžen 2010:290).


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  1. One of them was the Maitatsine revolt in 1980. Maitatsine’s original name was Mohammed Marwa and he was a religious preacher willing to impose his sui-generis religious ideology. ‘Maitatsine’, in Hausa language means ‘the one who damns’. His militants, who were called as ‘Yan Tatsine’, attacked other religious groups in 1980. And later the Nigerian army was involved in the dispute and throughout the fights approximately 5000 people were killed. Maitatsine also lost his life in the revolt.
  2. In each of those conflicts, sides were keeping distinct religious plus ethnic identities. And therefore none of these crises could easily be classified as solely religious or ethnic. For example in the Kafanchan-Kaduna crisis in 1987, a conflict occurred between Christian and Muslim students from different ethnic groups, and the violence spread to some other regions. Extreme leaders from both sides played effective roles to motivate the young people to take part in this ethno-religious conflict.

Emmy Godwin Irobi

May, 2005


Nigeria and South Africa could be likened to the Biblical Aaron and Moses, who were endowed with the responsibility to bring Africa out from the bondage of despair, decline and underdevelopment. As regional powers, history has imposed on them the enormous task of finding solutions to some of the most pressing African concerns.

African countries today face greater challenges to peace and stability than ever before. The countries of sub-Saharan Africa, including Sierra-Leone, Ivory Coast, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are a volatile mix of insecurity, instability, corrupt political institutions and poverty. Alarmingly, most of these countries lack the political will to maintain previous peace agreements, and thus have fallen prey to continuous armed ethnic conflict. (Monty Marshall, 2003) This is partly due to ineffective conflict management.

The conflicts in these countries are mostly between ethnic groups, not between states. If not checked, ethnic conflicts are contagious and can spread quickly across borders like cancer cells. Ted Gurr and Monty Marshall have written that most African conflicts are caused by the combination of poverty and weak states and institutions. (Peace and Conflict, 2001:11-13; 2003)

This paper is meant as a contribution towards the ongoing search for new means of managing ethnic conflicts in Africa. Using Nigeria and South Africa as case studies, it compares the management of ethnic conflicts in both countries and shows the difficulties in managing deep-rooted and complex conflicts. The governments of Nigeria and South Africa have taken bold constitutional steps to reduce tension, but the continuing ethnic and religious conflicts raise questions about the effectiveness of these mechanisms.

This study proposes, among other things, that ethnic conflict has been at the heart of both countries' development problems. Politicised ethnicity has been detrimental to national unity and socio-economic well-being. It is important to note that most of these ethnic conflicts were caused by colonialism, which compounded inter-ethnic conflict by capitalising on the isolation of ethnic groups. The divide-and-conquer method was used to pit ethnicities against each other, thus keeping the people from rising up against the colonisers. Distribution of economic resources was often skewed to favour a particular group, pushing marginalized groups to use their ethnicity to mobilise for equality. These are the seeds of conflict.

There are some common conflict patterns. They include:

  1. The demand for ethnic and cultural autonomy,
  2. Competing demands for land, money and power, and
  3. Conflicts taking place between rival ethnic groups.

Theoretical Approaches to Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflict

Ethnic groups are defined as a community of people who share cultural and linguistic characteristics including history, tradition, myth, and origin. Scholars have been trying to develop a theoretical approach to ethnicity and ethnic conflict for a long time. Some, like Donald Horowitz, Ted Gurr, Donald Rothschild and Edward Azar, agree that the ethnic conflicts experienced today-- especially in Africa -- are deep rooted. These conflicts over race, religion, language and identity have become so complex that they are difficult to resolve or manage. Ethnicity has a strong influence on one's status in a community. Ethnic conflicts are therefore often caused by an attempt to secure more power or access more resources. The opinion of this study is that conflict in Africa is synonymous with inequality. Wherever such inequality manifests among groups, conflict is inevitable. Hence the question, how can we effectively manage ethnic conflict in Africa to avoid further human losses? Is there a blueprint for conflict management?

Causes of Ethnic Conflict

Economic factors have been identified as one of the major causes of conflict in Africa. Theorists believe that competition for scarce resources is a common factor in almost all ethnic conflicts in Africa. In multi-ethnic societies like Nigeria and South Africa, ethnic communities violently compete for property, rights, jobs, education, language, social amenities and good health care facilities. In his study, Okwudiba Nnoli (1980) produced empirical examples linking socio-economic factors to ethnic conflict in Nigeria. According to J.S. Furnival, cited in Nnoli (1980:72-3), "the working of economic forces makes for tension between groups with competing interests."

In the case of South Africa, Gerhard Mare confirms that ethnicity and ethnic conflict appear to be a response to the uneven development in South Africa, which caused ethnic groups (Xhosas, Zulus and even Afrikaners) to mobilise to compete for resources along ethnic lines. It follows that multi-ethnic countries are likely to experience distributional conflicts.

Another major cause of ethnic conflict is psychology, especially the fear and insecurity of ethnic groups during transition. It has been opined that extremists build upon these fears to polarise the society. Additionally, memories of past traumas magnify these anxieties. These interactions produce a toxic brew of distrust and suspicion that leads to ethnic violence. The fear of white Afrikaners in South Africa on the eve of democratic elections was a good case in point.

Gurr's (1970) relative deprivation theory offers an explanation based on an ethnic groups' access to power and economic resources. This is closely related to Horowitz, (1985) who wrote that group worth is based on the results of economic and political competitions.

According to Lake and Rothschild, (1996) ethnic conflict is a sign of a weak state or a state embroiled in ancient loyalties. In this case, states act with bias to favour a particular ethnic group or region, and behaviours such as preferential treatment fuel ethnic conflicts. Therefore, in critical or difficult political situations, the effectiveness of governance is dependent on its ability to address social issues and human needs.

Recently, scholars have come out with different approaches to conceptualising ethnicity. Faced with the proliferation of separatist conflicts in North America, the inadequacies underlying modernisation theory are being exposed. The notion that modernity would result in smooth transition from gemeinschaf (community) to gessellschaft (association), with gradual dissolution of ethnic affiliations, simply did not work. Ethnicity has persisted in North America, Africa and elsewhere. This failure simply means ethnicity will remain, and that the stability of African states is threatened not by ethnicity per se, but the failure of national institutions to recognise and accommodate ethnic differences and interests. According to this argument, the lesson for ethnic conflict management is that governments should not discriminate against groups or they will create conflict.

The second theory is from the primordial school and stresses the uniqueness and the overriding importance of ethnic identity. From their point of view, ethnicity is a biological and fixed characteristic of individuals and communities. (Geertz, 1963)

The third theoretical approach is the Instrumentalist argument. (Barth.1969, Glazer and Moynihan, 1975) In Africa where poverty and deprivation are becoming endemic, mostly as a result of distributive injustice, ethnicity remains an effective means of survival and mobilization. Ethnic groups that form for economic reasons, easily disband after achieving their objectives. This corresponds with Benedict Anderson's (1991:5-7) argument that ethnicity is "a construct" rather than a constant.

Additionally, scholars' attention has also shifted to the nature of ethnic conflict and violence because the post Cold War era has been marked by the resurgence of ethnic conflict and even genocide in some societies like Rwanda, Bosnia, and Zaire.

An important theory on conflict and conflict management is John Burton's (1979, 1997) human needs theory. This approach to ethnic conflict explains that ethnic groups fight because they are denied not only their biological needs, but also psychological needs that relate to growth and development. These include peoples' need for identity, security, recognition, participation, and autonomy. This theory provides a plausible explanation of ethnic conflicts in Africa, where such needs are not easily met by undemocratic regimes.

This paper focuses on John Burton's theory to explain ethnic conflict in Nigeria and South Africa, because it provided cogent reasons for the conflicts in the case studies. (Burton 1979) The human needs theory was introduced to debunk the other theories that attribute causes of conflict to the innately aggressive nature of human beings. (John Burton 1990) The importance of this theory to ethnic conflict management in Africa is that it moves beyond theories that blame African conflicts on a primordial past. Instead, it points to ineffective institutions unable to satisfy the basic human needs of their citizens. Wherever such non-negotiable needs are not met, conflict is inevitable. Obviously, the problem of ethnicity in Africa largely depends on the level of state effectiveness, accountability, and transparency in handling the demands of diversity. The focus on the human needs theory in this study does not mean the neglect of other theories, which I consider to be equally useful.

It is necessary to emphasize that proper analysis of ethnic conflicts is very important in order to avoid prescribing a wrong medicine for the ailment. Failure to find solutions to Africa's ethnic problem will have devastating social and economic consequences on a continent that is already worn out by conflict, poverty and disease.

According to theorists, conflict management means constructive handling of differences. It is an art of designing appropriate institutions to guide inevitable conflict into peaceful channels. The importance of conflict management cannot be overemphasised. It is when leaders and states fail to address important issues and basic needs that violence brews. Nowhere is conflict management and peaceful resolution of conflict more important than in Africa. African leaders should take a second look at their behaviour and policy choices. Emphasis here should be on discouraging corruption, embracing transparency and good governance.


This study has undertaken detailed analysis of most of the ethnic conflicts that have recently bedevilled Nigeria and South Africa. However, this paper does not claim to have the solution to the threat posed by ethnic conflict in Africa; it is a humble contribution to the discourse. This analysis began by examining the following questions:

  • Sources of ethnic conflicts,
  • The participants and issues at stake,
  • The policy and institutions used to manage the conflicts,
  • The success of the policy and institutions and
  • The need for alternative mechanisms for managing such complex conflicts.

In this analysis, two inter-disciplinary methods have been chosen to understand the dynamics of ethnic conflicts in Nigeria and South Africa:

  1. It is believed that a comparison of patterns of ethnic conflict management may offer a better understanding of the complexities and available mechanisms to ensure ethnic harmony and peace. A comparative study of Nigeria and South Africa focuses on identifying ethno-political problem spots and subsequently assessing the similarity or differences in approach to conflict management and effectiveness in securing ethnic coexistence.
  2. Secondly, the historical methodology is pertinent in light of the fact that the problems of today have a long history that requires looking at contemporary developments in Nigeria and South Africa through the lens of the past.

This paper assumes that the great political and economical inequalities that exist in both countries have contributed to ethnic prejudice. This however calls for thorough analysis of political and economic policies behind governmental measures to redress inequality and poverty.


This study is structured around two main hypotheses.

  • First, conflict is inevitable in any society where people are denied their basic human needs for identity, equality, recognition, security, dignity and participation. It is also likely wherever the performance of a government is believed to be against the national interest and where government policy is biased in favour of a certain ethnic group.
  • Second, South Africa has been a more successful "melting pot" than Nigeria because ethnic conflict is more likely to be managed in a country with reasonable economic growth.

Contextual Comparison of Nigeria and South Africa

There are good reasons why I have chosen Nigeria and South Africa as case studies. Though countries apart, they are regional giants. They wield great economic, political and military power in sub-Saharan Africa. The two countries are equally blessed with a mosaic of ethnicities and races, an asset to national and economic development.

In the case of South Africa, the country's over 40 million people have long been polarized along racial lines. The country is made up of whites, indigenous Africans, coloreds, and Indians. The blacks form the majority of the population with about 30 million people, the whites 5 million, and the coloreds and Indians share 3 million. In South Africa, class is determined by race, with blacks at the bottom of the ladder. In the past, indigenous Africans were forced to live in impoverished and segregated ethnic "homelands" under the apartheid regime. The country has about 11 linguistic groups, but English is the official language.

With about 120 million people, Nigeria is Africa's most populous country. It is home to 250 linguistic groups, but English is also Nigeria's chosen official language. Although most of the ethnic groups are very tiny, three ethnic groups constitute somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the population. The Hausa-Fulani ethnic groups count for 30 percent of the population, the Yorubas about 20 per cent and the Igbos about 18 percent. These three major ethnic groups are differentiated not only by region, but also by religion and life-style.

Nigeria and South Africa are both stratified societies. However, only in South Africa was the white race dominant over the African majority. As we shall discover from this study, institutionalized racism, discrimination, language, history and culture reinforced the distance between South Africa and Nigeria. Both countries were shaped by assumptions and definitions imposed by the British rulers. British imperial rule in both countries provided identities, languages and symbols for ethnic and racial groups. Colonial racism was responsible for creating ethnic divisions and encouraging regionalism and separatism, which further separated the races and ethnic groups.

In South Africa, for example, the colonists' policies deepened the differences between Zulus and Xhosas, Ndebele and Vendas, Tswana and Qwaqwa, etc. Also, those of mixed race were segregated from the white groups through culture, residence, occupation and status. These differences benefited the elite by fomenting conflict. (See Horowitz, 1985; Mare, Gerhard, 1993)

The case of Nigeria is similar, with the exception of the racial groupings. There are no significant populations of colored people or whites in Nigeria. Instead, there are indigenous ethnic groups who were encouraged to segregate by the colonialists. The divide-and-rule strategy was evident in the design that distanced ethnic groups from each other in separate areas called "Sabongari", in northern Nigeria and "Abakpa" in the eastern part of the country. This arrangement resulted in violent conflict when the various ethnic groups were forced to compete for scarce resources.

In both countries, the process of modernization is adding tension to already divided societies. As in most of the third world countries, major rifts in society such as these present formidable problems for governments attempting to maintain or establish ethnic harmony and foster economic development.

The South African conflict involved the Zulus and the Xhosas, African National Congress supporters in the KwaZulu-Natal homeland. Few physical conflicts occurred between the dominant minority white groups and the black majority ethnic groups. This was partly because of the government strategy of segregation, which distanced black homelands from white cities. However, there was a high level of violent conflict between black ethnic groups in the homelands. In Natal alone, well-over 1,147 people were killed during the first months of 1992 ( The New York Times, 18 November 1992: A6 ).

The conflict in Nigeria, especially from the year 1967 to 1970, was somewhat different from that in South Africa. In Nigeria, ethnic identities are so mixed that no region or state is immune to the infection. The main conflicts involved Hausa-Fulani and the Eastern Ibos and the Yoruba and Hausa, the minorities of the oil producing states of the south.

Both Nigeria and South Africa are among the richest in the continent in terms of natural resources. Nigeria can boast of its oil, coal, tin, bauxite and gold. South Africa is rich in gold, diamonds and other strategic minerals. Unfortunately, the majority of South Africans did not benefit from these riches because of racism and apartheid. That however does not rule out the presence of a strong and diversified private business sector and a substantial middle class that does include some blacks. Though South Africa's economy is not very healthy, they still have a highly developed financial system, a fairly efficient telecommunication infrastructure, power, a reliable water supply, roads, and a system of public administration, which is afflicted by patronage and corruption, but still delivering to the citizens.

In Nigeria, the majority of the population, especially the people from the Niger Delta oil-producing areas in the South, has yet to feel the impact of oil revenues because of corruption, discrimination and economic mismanagement. After independence, the Nigerian government interfered heavily in all spheres of economic life at great cost to the private sector and economic growth in general. Additionally, ethnicity, centralized government, and a corrupt ruling elite overshadow life in Nigeria. The incessant power failures in Nigerian cities and lack of good drinking water, telecommunication systems and reliable roads are complicating life in Africa's most populous and wealthy nation. Hence the questions, where is Nigeria's oil income? Where is Nigerian leadership?

Both Nigeria and South Africa, having concluded a difficult transition to democratic rule are at a crossroads. Both countries bear the responsibility to steer the continent away from the repression of authoritarian governments towards a path of social and economic development and good governance. Interestingly, the two countries are also driven by a similar political strategies to manage conflict through national reconciliation, consensus building and economic development. The dual processes of transition and transformation need nothing less than a vibrant economy in which the basic needs of citizens are taken care of. They also require a state and society with a sense of shared destiny where racial and ethnic identities are harnessed positively as a uniting force rather than divisive factor or an impediment to nation building. In South Africa, the potential for disaster may have been averted by the wisdom of Nelson Mandela. However, what will become of current president Thabo Mbeki's government is still unknown. Now, all eyes are on Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and his party to show some degree of capability too.

In South Africa's transition process, Mandela's charisma helped the African national Congress (ANC) to pursue the path of negotiation, accommodation and confidence building for managing the ethnic diversity problem, though some South African whites still complain of dominant party favoritism following ANC's second election victory of 1999. However, in Nigeria the ruling Peoples Democratic Party's (PDP) shortcomings are evident in Nigeria's democratic transition process. The South African people defied the pattern of their past and broke all the rules of social theory to forge a powerful spirit of unity from a shattered nation. (Waldmeir and M. Holman, 1994) But in Nigeria, the politicians are still putting out the growing flames of ethnic conflicts and religious violence. This is partly due to the government's lack of will and partly due to the military, which has been a stumbling block in the transition to democracy for some time. Nigeria's dictators often dressed in ethnic costumes and exploited the opportunism of the politicians and thus were able to use ethnicity to manipulate the transition process and silence their opponents. The human right groups that fought against General Babangida's and Abacha's regimes were not prepared for electoral politics. Hence, Nigeria marches towards democratization with a feeble civil society, fearing future military takeovers.

Comparatively, civil society in South Africa is believed to be far more supportive of democracy than in Nigeria. The South African society accommodates non-governmental organizations, civil associations, and human rights groups. They play a very important role linking the formal bureaucratic activities with the interests of the people. Contrastingly, what has emerged in Nigeria during the transition period are militant ethnic associations, like the Oodua Peoples Movement for the Yorubas, the Arewa Group for the Hausa-Fulanis, and the Movement For Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra (MOSOB) for the Igbos. Unlike a genuine civil society, these militant organizations act like political thugs, rarely supportive of democratic principles.

Historical Antecedents to the Problem of Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria and South Africa

Nigeria and South Africa both have disturbing histories of colonialism and white repression, which generated hatred and conflict among different ethnic groups. The task of addressing these seeds of conflict planted by the British has been a complex one.

After weakening the African kingdoms and reordering societies, the colonial powers failed in nation building and providing for the people's basic needs. Hence, poverty increased and with it, conflict over scarce resources. South Africa became a United Republic in 1910. Less than four years later, Nigeria's Southern and Northern protectorates were also being merged into a nation. In South Africa, the creation of the republic followed the 1902 peace agreement reached with the Boers after the gruesome Anglo-Boer War. Meanwhile, the merging of separate colonies into the country of Nigeria was forcefully done without the people's consent. This was a major seed of conflict that is still troubling Nigeria today.

First Case: South Africa

In South Africa, racism made it impossible for the indigenous Africans to enjoy the fruits of modernization. The white rulers who saw them as only a "thorn in their flesh" constantly discriminated against the Zulus, Xhosas and other black ethnic groups. The period between 1910 and 1947 exposed how economic racism consolidated the structures of white domination and black disenfranchisement and exploitation. This was done through racist legislation against the black majority. These laws forced Africans to evacuate the major cities and move to remote settlements in an impoverished part of the country. In 1912, African elites rebelled by forming the African National Congress (ANC), which was meant to represent and defend black African rights.

The black South Africans were deprived of their rights to own land through the enactment of the 1913 Black Land Act. This legislation prevented blacks from producing food for themselves and from making money through agriculture. The government also regulated the job market, reserving skilled work for whites alone and denying black African workers the right to organize and form trade unions. Finally, the Pass Laws prevented blacks from moving freely between the homelands and the cities, thereby paving the ground for the introduction of apartheid.

It must be emphasized here that policies of segregation or discrimination foment conflict. But blinded by color, the South African government was oblivious of the future consequences of their choices. The brutal suppression of early black workers' strikes in 1922 indicated that the whites were bent on solidifying the boundary between them and the indigenous Africans.

Significant to the history of ethnic conflict in South Africa was the victory of the right-wing racist National Party (NP) in 1948 and the introduction of apartheid. The victory of the Afrikaner Nationalist Party consolidated white interests in the political and economic arena. The NP strengthened the discriminatory laws and championed the belief that Africans were inferior both biologically and culturally to whites and incapable of running their own affairs. The apartheid system served as a divide-and-rule strategy that limited black mobility and participation in socio-economic activities in the country, placing them at a structural disadvantage.

Subsequent NP governments did not consider the basic needs of the African population when they created the homelands under the pretext of preserving national authority. (Leroy Vail 1989) According to Mzala (1988:77), the separate administration plan for the homelands was aimed at "retribalization within the colonial framework of South Africa. It was an attempt to exclude the black majority from having a role in the administration of their own country."

The homelands or "Bantustans" (Ivan Evans.1997) were designed to distance the Africans from the fruits of economic development in the country and made them sources of cheap labor for white owned industries. These Bantustans like KwaZulu-Natal, KwaNdebele, Bophuthatswana, and Lebowa where mainly characterized by poverty, overpopulation, underdevelopment and frustration (David Chanaiwa, 1993:258-9). Institutionalized racism and apartheid took control of black people's lives causing great hardships, poverty, despair and disease in the homelands. Because bad policy choices and denial of people's basic needs are seeds of conflict, the government of South Africa witnessed as a result, organized strikes by members of the banned African Nationalist Congress (ANC), and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) with the support of the Union of Democratic Party (UDF). Violence also increased between 1976 and 1980 in the mostly black townships of Johannesburg and Soweto, where youth and school children were trying to make the townships ungovernable (see John Kane-Berman, 1993: 29-31). The brutal police repression and closure of schools forced many youths to flee the townships and join the militant wing of the banned ANC where they continued the liberation struggle.

Apartheid made the lives of blacks very difficult in the face of increasing scarcity in the homelands. The little that trickled in was hotly competed for and in most cases became a means of building patronages for the elites. Scholars believed that the Zulu traditional ruler, Chief Mongosuthu Buthelezi and his Inkatha Freedom Movement represent a good example of how resources were misused for patronage networks in his KwaZulu homeland (Mzala, 1987; Gerhard Mare`. 1993). Distribution of the resources in this homeland was skewed to favor those loyal to the chief, while marginalizing members of other ethnic groups who lived in the area. According to Mare` (1993:41) this strategy, "aims to hide the class interests of the cultural entrepreneurs, to paper over horizontal stratification such as those of class and gender, through a kind of ethnic popularism; and to advance the class interests of the mobilizers." Inkatha being a cultural group as well as a political party, controlled the middle class businessmen and professionals. (See Mare` and Hamilton, 1987: 59-60) Chief Buthelezi did not hide his intention to control economic and political power in the homeland. He invoked ethnic markers (Gerhard Mare 1993:14-15) like language, common descent, culture and tradition to create boundaries between the Inkatha and the other ethnic groups.

The behavior of Chief Buthelezi was not acceptable to the ANC who disliked the chief's cooperation with apartheid leadership and his growing ambition to usurp the leadership of the African National Congress by claiming to be the leader of black opinion in South Africa. Chief Buthelezi was once a member of the youth wing of the ANC before his overt ambition to carve out a Zulu nation, KwaZulu-Nat,l caused him to be sacked from the party. (See Gerhard Mare, 1993) Additionally, the chief's policy was in opposition to the ANC armed struggle against black disenfranchisement and apartheid rule in South Africa.

Inkatha s activities and its close cooperation with the apartheid government divided the black opposition against the apartheid regime, thus strengthening the government and its oppressive policies. Chief Buthelezi and his movement were used as puppets by the apartheid state in its war against the liberation movements. Chief Buthelezi's attempt to influence the city dwellers, (Gerhard Mare , 2000:66) some of whom were not adhering to his rhetoric, escalated the ethnic conflict which engulfed many black townships in South Africa in the early 1980s through the later part of the 90s. By penetrating and influencing the activities of ethnic associations and clubs in the townships, Inkatha and Chief Buthelezi created conflict as blacks started to view their competition for scarce resources like jobs, social amenities and education, from the ethnic prism.

The immediate causes of the conflict could be linked to the high rate of poverty, unemployment and politicization of every bit of life in the homelands. It is pertinent to add that these social conditions often helped the ethnic entrepreneurs to mobilize certain groups against the other group. The conflicts commonly called "black on black conflicts" were given ethnic connotation by rhetoric coming from the Inkatha camp. This conflict created rigid boundaries between the Zulus and the Xhosas and intensified the human carnage and destruction in the townships.

It must be conceded that the various South African governments since 1983 have tried to find a solution to the violence, but their efforts were cosmetic because they were biased towards the Inkatha and the white Afrikaners. Furthermore, allegations by Nelson Mandela and the ANC that the South African government was giving logistical and armed support to the Inkatha sapped trust from whatever efforts the government was making to separate the warring groups. The government that oppresses its majority could not boast of effective institutions of conflict management and as a result, conflict escalated. The ethnic conflict that ensued claimed many lives and destroyed properties until 1990 when the process of democratization began.

It took the boldness and wisdom of President F.W. de Klerk in 1990s to introduce reforms, which led to a democratic republic (see Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley, 1993) where blacks and other minorities could participate equally. This change of heart from De Klerk led to the release of political prisoners like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, as well as the legitimization of the African National Congress. It also later paved way for a democratic election in South Africa in 1994, which the ANC won under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

Second Case: Nigeria

The history of ethnicity and ethnic conflicts in Nigeria also traces back to the colonial transgressions that forced the ethnic groups of the northern and southern provinces to become an entity called Nigeria in 1914. Since the various ethnic groups living in these provinces were not consulted regarding the merger, this British colonial policy was autocratic and undemocratic, and thus led to conflict. It denied the people's basic needs of participation, equality and social well-being.

An administration that endorses segregation for its people does not have the unity of the country at heart. Rather the separate governments introduced in the North and the South were designed to strengthen the colonial grip on Nigerian society and weaken the people's potentials for resistance. This era of provincial development, though relatively peaceful, also led to growing ethnocentrism.

The introduction of "indirect rule" in Nigeria by Lord Fredrick Lugard, the chief administrator, was not the appropriate mechanism for managing tribal animosities in the colony. The system not only reinforced ethnic divisions, "it has complicated the task of welding diverse elements into a Nigerian nation" (Coleman, 1958:194 as cited in Nnoli, Okwudiba 1980:113). This strategy of governance distanced ethnic groups from each other. Lugard gave power to the traditional rulers who corruptly used it in the villages to amass wealth, land and establish patronage networks, which, in the long run, encouraged tribalism and nepotism.

The segregation of the Nigerian colony was also reinforced by the colonial laws that limited the mobility (Afigbo, A.E.,1989; Okonjo,I.M., 1974) of Christian Southerners to the Muslim North, created a separate settlement for non-indigenous citizens in the North, and even limited the purchase of land outside one's own region. Prejudice and hatred became rife in the provinces as different ethnic groups started looking at each other suspiciously in all spheres of contact. Unequal and differential treatment of ethnic groups was responsible for the intense competition in Nigerian society. It created disparity in educational achievement and widened the political and economic gaps between northern and southern Nigeria.

During this period, there was significant scarcity of all goods, "evident in the economic social and political areas of life. It affected employment, education, political participation and the provision of social services to the population." (Nnoli, 1980 :87) The lack of such "basic needs" always gives elites the ability to mobilize groups for intense competition, employing ethnocentrism to achieve their goals. In 1947, a colonial constitution divided Nigeria into three political regions: East, West and North. The North, which was predominately Hausa-Fulani, was the largest and eventually the most populous region. The Igbos dominated the East and Yorubas the West. With the three major ethnic groups in dominance, the minority groups (Osaghae, Eghosa 1991; Rotimi Subaru, 1996) rebelled and Nigerians started fighting for ethnic dominance as the nation marched towards independence.

The creation of the three ethnic regions did not take into account the needs of the ethnic minority groups for autonomy and self-determination. Instead, they were lost within the majority. This development was based on the "bogus theory of regionalism?That one should be loyal to and protect the interest of one's region to the exclusion of the others." (Osaghae, Eghosa, 1989:443)

The years between 1952 and 1966 brought change in the political culture of the country, transforming the three regions into three political entities. Thus, the struggle for independence was reduced to the quest for ethnic dominance. At this time, ethnic and sub-ethnic loyalties threatened the survival of both East and West, while the North was divided religiously between Christianity and Islam. It was a period of politicized ethnicity and competition for resources, which worsened the relationships between ethnic groups. There was a high degree of corruption, nepotism and tribalism. The national interest was put aside while politicians used public money to build and maintain patronage networks. Since independence, the situation in Nigeria has been fraught with ethnic politics whereby the elite from different ethnic groups schemed to attract as many federal resources to their regions as possible, neglecting issues that could have united the country.

The anarchy, competition, and insecurity led to the demise of the first republic. Military intervention culminated in the gruesome ethnic war from 1967 to 1970, when the mistreated Igbos of eastern Nigeria (Biafrans) threatened to secede from the federation. The Igbos' grievances were caused by the denial of their basic human needs ( Burton, 1992) of equality, citizenship, autonomy and freedom. Wherever such basic needs are denied, conflict often follows as aggrieved groups use violent means to fight for their human rights.

While the politicians tried to cope with the colonial legacy that lumped incompatible ethnic groups together into one country, the military elites staged coups, making a mockery of democracy in Africa's most populous and promising country. The corruption, ineptitude and confusion that marked the military era plunged Nigeria into economic problems, poverty, and ethno-religious conflicts until the 1990s. In Nigeria, where politics still follow ethnic lines, there is always disagreement about the rules of the game. The military intervened because they viewed the civilian leaders as inept and indecisive. However, the southerners distrusted the military regime because they felt it was trying to maintain a Hausa-Fulani hegemony in Nigeria. On June 12, 1993, Chief Moshood Abiola, a Yoruba from southwestern Nigeria, won Nigeria's presidential election, but his presidency was annulled by the military regime. In retaliation, southern Nigerians began to form militant organizations to protest unfair treatment and demand a democratically-elected government. During the authoritarian rule of General Sani Abacha, a Muslim from the North, Southerners increasingly feared political marginalization and demanded an end to the Hausa-Fulani domination of the political arena. This development signified the weakness of the government and their lack of effective mechanisms to manage ethnic conflict in Nigeria.

Adding to the ethno-religious conflict in Nigeria, was the Yorubas' boycott of the 1994 constitutional conference arranged by General Abacha's regime. The conference was meant to resolve the national debate over ethnicity. Inspired by the pan-Yoruba militant groups, the Afenifere and the Oduduwa Peoples Congress (OPC) in southwestern Nigeria threatened secession and intensified violent protests across the country.

Ethnic conflicts in Nigeria continued through the democratic transition. Olusegun Obasanjo, a civilian, has been president for several years. However, conflict continues to escalate, as various ethnic groups demand a political restructuring. The federal structure has developed deep cracks and demands urgent action to mend it. But what is most worrisome is the religious dimension of ethnic competition for power and oil wealth in Nigeria. The multiple ethno-religious conflicts in the northern cities of Kano, Kaduna, Jos and Zamfara spring from the introduction of Muslim Sharia courts, and the South's demands for autonomy. The continuing conflict is an indication that Nigeria lacks effective mechanisms to manage ethnic conflicts.

Comparitive Conflict Management Approaches

In view of the intensity of the ethnic conflicts that have rocked Nigeria and South Africa, both countries have worked to develop constitutionally backed institutions for conflict management.

In South Africa, after a difficult and courageous political negotiation between the country's various interest groups, the state has prevented further violence by developing multiple democratic approaches to create a foundation for peace and security. The architects of the new South African constitution crafted an impressive document aimed to heal the wounds of the past and establish a society based on social justice, fundamental human rights and rule of law. The constitution guarantees freedom of association, languages and religion and includes a bill of rights.

Secondly, the government has created affirmative action packages for disadvantaged groups, which emphasise "management of diversity." They are meant, among other things, to address the structural racism created by the apartheid state.

Thirdly, the structure of the South African government was constitutionally changed to make way for a government of national unity. Power-sharing mechanisms were included in the constitution to prevent the ethnic or racial domination of any group. The composition of the new government confirms a trend towards accommodation and tolerance, which also helped to legitimise the government.

Fourthly, the constitution dismantled the homelands. This act signified the end of apartheid. As mentioned above, the conditions in the black reservations were inhuman. Poverty was endemic and social amenities and jobs were scarce. The neglect of the homelands and townships made the people vulnerable to ethnic entrepreneurs and warlords who were fighting for power and economic resources. Following the dismantling of the ethnic homelands, the constitution provided for the creation of nine provinces in place of the former four provinces that existed during apartheid. This decision aimed to distribute power between sub-national units. The provinces enjoy relative autonomy, thus helping to de-escalate conflict.

The fifth step taken towards peaceful conflict management was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) chaired by Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu, which helped to heal the wounds inflicted by the apartheid system. It also helped to inculcate a commitment to accountability and transparency into South African public life.

The sixth step the ANC government took was meant to address the roots of economic inequalities. The ANC introduced an ambitious plan of action called the "Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). The RDP was aimed at encouraging disadvantaged groups, especially blacks, to participate equally with others in business.

To manage her complex ethnic problem, Nigeria, like South Africa, has developed mechanisms for ethnic conflict management. Constitutionally, Nigeria opted for federalism and secularism to manage ethnic and regional misunderstanding Like South Africa, a bill of rights was included in the 1999 constitution, which was intended to allay the fears of ethnic minorities in the South.

Past Nigerian dictators had been under enormous pressure from minority groups for a more fair distribution of power. From 1967 to 1999, thirty-six states were created in Nigeria, which cut across ethnic and religious lines. This move was meant to further allay the ethnic groups' fears of being dominated by the three major linguistic groups, the Hausa-Fulani, the Igbo and the Yoruba.

However, the viability of these new states is unclear, with the exception of the oil-producing states in the South. Some of these states have recently become conduits for the personal enrichment of the elites at the expense of alleviating poverty and creating job opportunities for the rest of the population.

There have been reports of disparities in the distribution of the oil resources in Nigeria for many years. This contentious issue has fuelled most of the recent ethnic conflicts in the country. Though the constitution provided for a new system of resource allocation, ethnic groups from the oil and mineral producing areas see the new system as inadequate, arguing they are not receiving enough money for their own regional development. These are the dynamics behind the Ogoni crisis and the recent sporadic ethnic violence in the oil producing Niger Delta states. I would argue that unless this issue is resolved, by a national conference, the economic base of the country will be jeopardised.


In sum, these two cases give evidence that suggests some important links between conflict management, and the resultant state and quality of relations between rival ethnic groups. Firstly, the preservation of ethnic peace (or its breakdown) is dependent upon the type and effectiveness of the available conflict management mechanisms and also the respective government's policy choices and decisions. Secondly, the use of constitutional conflict management tools has the potential to create lasting peace. This was more evident in South Africa, where the government created the foundation for a thriving civil society, accountability and government transparency. In Nigeria however, the undemocratic 1999 federal constitution lacks the support of the citizens. The constitution was drafted by military dictators and handed over to the people. It has not gone far enough to resolve the problems of ethnicity that have dogged the country since independence. Civil liberty groups are currently campaigning for a new constitution.

In both countries, ethnic conflicts arose as a result of the denial of the basic human needs of access, identity, autonomy, security and equality, compounded by the autocratic roles played by the government and the military. Furthermore, the violent conflicts in KwaZulu Natal, Johanesburg, Lagos, Kano, and the Niger Delta resulted in a more distorted pattern of governance, which led to further denial of basic needs to the masses. Conflict management is more effective if a government is devoid of corruption. In tune with John Burton's theory, this is the only way to satisfy people's basic needs.

The role of good political leadership cannot be overemphasized. The leadership scale awards Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk high marks. Both leaders were able to forget the past and move towards the path of peace and democracy. Nigeria, however, has been less fortunate in its leadership. Ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria have continued because Nigerian elites are corrupt and split along lines of religion and ethnicity. This has resulted in ethnic rivalry, suspicion and hostility among leaders. Without a bold and articulate leadership, conflict management or prevention will always be a mirage.

The relative economic growth and development witnessed in South Africa after its transformation has helped the country alleviate poverty and manage ethnic grievances. This success has challenged Nigeria to try and transform ethnic politics into mutually beneficial relationships. To do this, Nigeria must withdraw from its old and ineffective approaches and develop new institutions and mechanisms that can address poverty, revenue allocation, and other national issues peacefully.

This paper has pointed out the importance of civil society in ethnic conflict management. The vibrancy of civil society in South Africa contributed to its peaceful democratic transition. In Nigeria, most of the civil society has been crushed. During the military dictatorship, most grassroots organizations were threatened and forced to go into hiding or become militant. The civil society that does exist in Nigeria has played an important role in conflict management. They used public meetings and debates to raise awareness about the need for ethnic harmony and the consequences of unchecked ethnic animosity. The next step is for the civil society to try and cooperate with the state in designing conflict management strategies as well as monitoring the efficiency of the institutions in place.

The lessons of this study are that ethnic conflict is a negative sum game that benefits no one. The advocates for racial and ethnic peace in Nigeria and South Africa have outnumbered those who want to feed from the spoils of conflict. The recent decrease in violent conflict and both countries' transitions to democracy attest to this. To achieve a lasting peace, Nigeria and South Africa should challenge the actions of ethnic leaders who have used violent ethnic conflict for personal gain.

The lessons learned from both South Africa and Nigeria may begin to convince policy makers and politicians that strategies of discrimination and racism are not in the interest of peace and democracy. Furthermore, effective conflict management institutions reassure foreign investors, thus boosting the economy. Finally, peace would help both countries solidify their leadership positions in the African Union and the New African Partnership for Development (NEPAD).

The democratic transformation process in both countries is not yet complete. The significance of ethnic conflict management in Africa is underlined by the continent's underdevelopment and weak economic growth. This points to the need for a change in the continent's approach to conflict management. Peace in Africa is not the absence of war, but the provision of the people's basic human needs.


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