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The Roots of Political Instability in an Artificial "Nation-State": The Case of Nigeria.



The Nigerian "nation-state" is an artificial project of European 19th century colonial endeavor in Africa. As a cobbled variety of the state in Europe and North America, its pretence to the concept of state has not spared it from the contradictions of its awkward past. The immediate implication of this failure is the persistence of political instability. In this paper, I argue that as a state , its construction is not only flawed and absurd, it has remained unsuccessful as well. The primary reason for that lies in the respective refusal by both the British and the Caliphate undertakers of the Nigerian colonial state and its post-colonial successor to acknowledge the resilience of the distinct groups and identities that were forced into Nigeria. I also argue here for a new paradigm that locates political conflict and instability in Africa within the dialectic of state-civil society dissonance situated in a a context-specific articulation of three concepts: construction, entrenchment, and transformation. I arg ue further that nation-states are stable or unstable to the extent that they are able to fulfil the tasks of construction, entrenchment, and transformation. That solution to Nigeria's political instability lies in first by unraveling its present constitution, and secondly by the evolution of a new entity which accepts a new dialogue that proposes a challenge beyond formal construction of state apparatuses to an active relationship of entrenchment and transformation.


The much deserved shouts of hurrah which heralded the more relevant intellectual trend of "bringing the state back in" (Skocpol 1979) to the center of the study of contentious politics seems to have eclipsed one outstanding fact. Which is that the field has not completely recovered from the tenets of earlier traditions. This is so especially when Africa is the focus. Everywhere, stateness in Africa is still associated with the modern state as it emerged over the last five centuries in Europe (Sklar 1965; 1981). Each time when the subject is Africa (Young 1976; Badru 1998), little regard is cast on giving scrutiny to three crucial attributes of European and North American states which coincide with three stages of every state building exercise in Western Europe and elsewhere in North America to see if they are applicable to the contemporary entities in Africa which lay claim to the concept of "state" too. The political stability that we see in specific West European and North American states is indicative of the fact that not only were West European and North American states successfully constructed, equally, they were also successfully entrenched and transformed. Successful state building is therefore a function of the success in terms of these three attributes - construction, entrenchment, and transformation. In situations where all three attributes were accomplished successfully, the outcome is political stability. The same is untrue in. the reverse scenario.

This paper rests on the theoretical position above, i.e. that the root cause of Nigeria's political instability lies in the inability of the Nigerian colonial state and its post-colonial successor to entrench and transform themselves in any meaningful way. The three attributes of state building mentioned above cover a range of crucial issues rarely dealt with when scholars discourse the "Nigerian State". The uniqueness of the issues they cover will only become clear with further exposition of their relevance in state building. Furthermore, if states are indeed "critical and direct agents of socio-economic change" (Migdal, Kohli and Shue 1994: 2) there is no getting around the need to address these three attributes here with respect to Nigeria. The afore-stated facts call for a careful definition of these three attributes of state building.

In this paper, state construction is taken to imply the establishment of a system of rule or political administration over a defined geographical territory which gives identity to the individuals and groups who inhabit it. Here, this definition applies to pre-modern, modern and even post-modern situations. In modern times, at least since Westphalia in the mid seventeenth century, entities which emerged through the course of the process defined above have been accorded international recognition as "nation-states" with a notion of sovereignty (Mansbach, Ferguson and Lampert 1976).

However, construction alone is only a necessary but is still an insufficient condition for a politically stable state. Once a state is constructed, it must be entrenched in order for it to acquire the necessary condition for the next logical step to successful state building and in consequence, political stability. That logical step is transformation. This is so because an un-entrenched state is largely disconnected from society. Sadly, some trends in contemporary scholarship popularize the illusion that this state of un-entrenchment or dis-connectedness in African postcolonial states as "strength". The inter-link of civil society to the corporate state is a central nexus in the effectiveness of the state. Put differently, "a state's relative effectiveness [entrenchedness] is a function of the varied forms in which statesociety relations are woven" (Migdal, Kohli and Shue 1994: 3). Viewed in this context, it is easy to see that the Nigerian colonial state and its mutant successor - the Nigerian post-colonial state are both un-entrenched and disconnected from what emerged as civil society in Nigeria and as a result, weak. This subsequent and persistent weakness is also the result of this development. We shall see the reasons for and the direct consequences of this perpetual state of un-entrenchment, dis-connectedness and weakness with respect to the Nigerian colonial state and its post-colonial successor.

In state building, the sequel to entrenchment is transformation. Transformation occurs in a state at the very point when a mutual trust between the state and society is established. Transformation is a condition that enables a state to acquire legitimacy in the eyes, minds and psyche of the people or groups who are within the administrative boundaries of the state in question. Once transformation is accomplished, it leads to a situation in which ground rules that govern the interaction between the people or groups as the case may be and state are established and institutionalized in the form of citizenship. In all cases these ground rules are codified as rights and obligations and vested in the institution of citizenship aimed at preventing the state from acting itself out by violating either the sanctity of the individual who is now a citizen, or his freedom and rights to own property for instance. In turn, the citizen acknowledges his obligations to his society and acknowledges the state as a mobilizer of both the entire citizenry and the resources of the land in the name of all and for the good of all. In modern time, Michael Mann (1986: 26) defines the transformation of a state as "the capacity... to penetrate civil society, and implement logistically political decisions throughout the realm" with the approval of the latter.

State entrenchment and transformation, very much like its construction are subject to different processes. [1] Entrenchment and transformation can be achieved by a state through what Morris Fiorina and Theda Skocpol appropriately called civic engagement activities of people within a state. [2] In this case their point of reference is the state in America - the US. Skocpol (1996) had addressed the same proposition earlier in relation to Tocqueville's (1898) account of the same process as he saw it during his study trip across the United States in the 1800s. Entrenchment and transformation in a state can be equally realized through a self-enforcing equilibrium (Weingast 1997) between the people and agents of the state.

Irrespective of how they occur, entrenchment and transformation in a state can never take place in a situation where there is a lack of trust between the state and the people or groups. Once there is mutual trust, both state and people or groups can enter into an exchange relationship - for want of a better concept of give and take. Together, both entrenchment and transformation enable citizens to derive their entitlements as individuals or groups from the state at the same time as the state stabilizes itself by way of penetration into the various realms of their lives. An equilibrium of sorts is reached at the very point where state and people or groups cannot afford to do without one another. It is at that point that the much-talked about stability sets into the polity and the administration of its affairs.

When the concept of state building is taken in its entirety to encompass the three attributes above, there is no doubt that most of the ethnic nationalities in the geographical areas which became Nigeria had established their own respective states before the British imposed the colonial state on them. In fact, states like the types that dotted the European landscape as from around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were already thriving in the areas of the Western Sudan in question. In other words, British colonialism was a different state building phenomenon that interrupted all the existing indigenous states in the Southern portion of the Western Sudan that became Nigeria on the one hand. On the other hand, it equally interrupted the Southward expansion of the pre-eminent Feudalist State in the Northern portion of the region.

Periods and the Central Events that Characterize Them

A clear delineation of the history of the areas that became Nigeria into periods of time is necessary at this point -- see Table 1. To do so will enable us to appreciate that the various state building activities in the areas prior to colonialism and the specific group identity that each specific political unit embodied did not simply disappear upon the imposition of the colonial state. Secondly, it will enable us to pinpoint a number of specific developments in each period, which are central to our account of political instability in Nigeria. We will then be in the best position to understand why and how both the Nigerian colonial state and its post-colonial successor have found it difficult to entrench and transform. Thirdly, we will consequently be able to appreciate ow their failure generates political instability in these two regards.

Early Pre-Colonial Period -- Before the Onset of the 1700s

At this point one can easily appreciate what the scenario looks like at the early pre-colonial period. During the course of this period most of the groups and peoples who settled the areas of the Western Sudan in question had constructed, entrenched, and transformed their own respective states based on different systems of political administration. For instance, the Yoruba, Edo-Bini, Nupe, the Tiv, the Idoma, the Igala, the Ebira, the Birom, the Kanuri, the various Hausa City States of Kano, Zamfara, Katsina, Rano, Gobir, and their likes are known to have established monarchical systems of political administration which were neither despotic nor authoritarian. Also, in the Southeastern portion of this zone of the West African region, there are the Igbo, the Ibibi, the Ijo, the Ogoja, and many others, all of who are known to have established republican-type states that were quite democratic (Green 1947; Afigbo 1972).

There are about 374 such groups, each of which has a distinct language, (Nnoli 1995) culture and political administration. Western scholars refuse to acknowledge the pre-colonial political entities which some of these peoples constructed as states. The unspoken argument is that the scale and intensity of state building in Africa and elsewhere which differed from what obtained in Europe could not result in statehood. Elizabeth Isichie (1973) did a good job outlining what she describes as the patterns of internal migrations and state formation among the Igho people who inhabit the Southeastern portion of what became Nigeria for instance. Isichie's account reveals parallels of what European scholars on states have established about some early European states.

The early pre-colonial period promotes a couple of crucial issues about the 374 groups who inhabit the areas that became Nigeria. First, all the groups are territorialized -- each group lays very strong claims to particular lands or area that it inhabits as its own. Secondly, colonialism did not alter their respective claim to their respective lands in any way. In the absence of clear political arrangements, together, these factors constitute clear historical recipe for conflict in the context of a multinational state experiment in such multi-ethnic entities as were created in Africa by European colonialism.

Mid Pre-Colonial Period -- 1700s-1823

During the mid pre-colonial period a remarkable trend of events commenced in the Northern Savannah belt of the Western Sudan. In the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a number of Fulani Islamic clerics embarked on successive jihads to spread Islam by the force of arms in the region. Thus, Islam introduced a unique dimension to state building in the region. Unlike the indigenous religions that were practiced by the groups who inhabit the areas, Islam is unique in character. It charged its adherents with the obligation to employ war and violence as an instrument of its propagation. This unique feature lent it as a tool into the hands of individuals with state building ambitions. One such individual is a Fulani cleric named Usman Dan Fodio who declared himself Sarkin Muslimi or Commander of the Faithful in 1804. Like Hammurabi of Mesopotamia, he wrapped himself "in a divine calling" (Tilly 1992: 1), raised an army mounted on horse back and composed mostly of his fellow Fulani and embarked on a g rand conquest.

Within six years, he had over-ran all the ancient Hausa city-states of Daura, Kano, Katsina, Gobir, and Rano, etc. He even went beyond Hausaland into Nupeland and other parts of the Middle Belt areas of the region. He then went on to found the Fulani Caliphate Empire which became a militarily strong, centralized and theocratic state with its capital in the city of Sokoto (Smith 1964). The Caliphate State was not only centralized, it was also feudal and highly absolutist. It was a unique and foreign feature not only in the Savannah but indeed "the rest of tropical Africa" (Flint 1969: 250). In fact, it extended as far as the areas of the West African sub-region that became the countries of Ghana and Cameroon. The advent of the Sokoto Caliphate State introduced another unique feature to the areas in question. That feature is a standing army. Prior to that time, and characteristic of every human society elsewhere (Andreski 1968), conflicts between political units in the areas were fought by armies which "were c omposed of people who played productive roles in the civilian economy, as farmers, hunters, and so on, and played warrior or military roles only" (Segal and Segal 1983: 237) when the need arose.

The Caliphate Empire disrupted the existing state of affaires in the region. It was therefore the central development that characterized the mid pre-colonial period. The Caliphate positioned itself to become a threat to the Yoruba states particularly the Oyo Empire. Ilorin, the northern most part of Yorubaland was annexed in 1823-4.

The Late Pre-Colonial Period -- 1823-Late 1800s

At the onset of the late pre-colonial period, the armies of Yorubaland effectively checked the Caliphate's further expansion Southward. And the so-called "ancient prophesy, that the Fulani would dip the Holy Koran in the sea" (Bello 1960: 16) was thwarted. For reasons that have to do with the peculiar geography of the South, the Caliphate's army of horse-mounted Calvary could not operate effectively in the forest region of the South. And more over, the Yoruba states were quite determined to maintain and defend their sovereign status against the invaders from the arid Savannah.

However, as at this period, many Yoruba had embraced Islam, but not as subjects of the Caliphate. The Caliphate Empire was unable to entrench and transform itself uniformly in all the areas it had extended itself. This was due to the principal reason that some of the groups that fell under its sway refused to accord it the legitimacy necessary for entrenchment and transformation. In fact, the Kanuri people of Satiru remained restive right until the beginning of the early colonial period in 1903. But then, the Caliphate was largely successful in the entire Hausaland. This success is indicative of its effective entrenchment and transformation amongst the Hausa. Some researchers (Paden 1973, 1986; Diamond 1988) have wrongly attributed this success to Islam and the authoritarian nature of the Caliphate State. By so-doing, such researchers lend themselves to the criticism of providing a simplistic explanation for a complex phenomenon through the submission of symptoms in place of rigorous diagnosis. Contrarily, a nd in the actual fact, the Caliphate was able to entrench and transform itself in Hausaland for the reasons that both the Fulani and the Hausa found what I call for lack of a better definition, a common covenant in the language and culture of the latter. [3] The Fulani acted unlike conquerors. They adopted the language and culture of the Hausa who they had conquered and even intermarried with them. Thus, the usual historical mistrust and tension that exist between conquerors and their subjects, which could pose obstacles to state transformation and entrenchment were absent in this case. In fact, the two groups subsequently became one and are known as the Hausa-Fulani. At the close of the late pre-colonial period the Hausa-Fulani constituted the predominant group in the Caliphate State in both political terms and numerically.

The Early Colonial Period -- Before 1914

The early colonial period was marked by the commencement of punitive expeditionary activities by British adventurers against the ethno-national groups in the area beginning from the coastal areas of the South. These punitive activities were followed by the imposition of the colonial state in the mid 1800s and the subsequent creation of the artificial country known as and called Nigeria in 1900 (Nwankwo and Ifejika (1968). The first three intervening variables that triggered a host of alterations in the areas during this period were the punitive British expeditionary activities, the imposition of the colonial state and the subsequent creation of an artificial entity called Nigeria. During the period under review, these three variables came together to halt the further expansion of the Caliphate State, sack the existing indigenous political units in those areas of the Middle Belt region where the Caliphate was yet to conquer, as well as in the entire Southern areas. The advent of the colonial state entailed a number of implications for the Caliphate Empire, its rulers and their subjects, and each of the other groups in the Middle Belt, and of course the Southern groups who did not come under the domination of Caliphate rule.

For the groups that had fallen under the sway of the Caliphate State earlier, the advent of the colonial state simply reaffirmed their subject status especially when the Caliphate rulers went into an alliance with the colonial state as indirect rulers. Earlier before the advent of the colonial state, the peoples of the North who were under the rule of the Caliphate State had all lost the political basis of their citizenship to the absolutism of the Caliphate State and its Fulani rulers who taxed them mercilessly. For the Caliphate rulers however, their defeat by the British following the fall of Sultan Mohammadu Atahiru in the battle of 1903 finally brought home the "advantages of conquest as a derivative principle of domination" (Young 1994: 94). Thus began a dual pattern of subjugation in the north of what became Nigeria. Neither the Caliphate rulers nor their subjects felt out of place in the new arrangement. In fact, the former interpreted the British as "instrument of destiny" (Bello 1960: 19). Indeed, they "were used to conquerors" (Bello 1960:19). Thus, both the Caliphate rulers and their subjects were in a comfort zone with the colonial state. And in that zone lay the grounds for interaction and exchange between them, the colonial state and its British undertakers.

For the various Southern groups, the advent of the colonial state implied the reverse. It meant the complete destruction of both the political bases of their citizenship and the democratic trappings that accompany it. The idea of relinquishing their political rights as citizens of their respective indigenous states to become the subjects of an oppressive colonial state was not only alien to the Southern peoples. It never sank down well with them either. Unlike the subjects of the Caliphate State in the North, the Southern groups could not for instance, reconcile themselves to the idea of arbitrary taxation and forced labor both of which were staples of the colonial state. At the end of the early colonial period, every man, woman, and child, North and South had been reduced to the common status of a subject to the colonial state.

It is worth mentioning at this point that the enthusiasm with which the Southern groups embraced Western education and culture beginning from this period is symbolic of the soul-searching that they underwent as a result of the defeat they suffered in the hands of the British punitive expeditioners. They acted like the French after their defeat in the Franco-German war of 1870 (Brubaker 1996). Their enthusiastic resort to embrace Western education and culture was therefore, in the bid to acquire what they felt they lacked which made them unable to forestall their conquest by British expeditionary forces. Not being used to conquerors, they felt that there was something in Western education and culture that gave the British a military and political leverage. In other words, their embrace of Western education and culture is neither an end in itself nor is it indicative of self-hate. It was a means to seek an end, to reassert their political independence and citizenship, both of which were snatched from them at t he time they were conquered by the punitive expeditioners and their armies, once again. That quest has continued till this day.

The Colonial Period -- 1914-1960

As the early colonial period yielded for the colonial period, the Caliphate authorities were very comfortable in their alliance with the colonial state. All the patrimonial and appropriatory structures of the Caliphate State were left intact -- the Shari'a court system, tax collection system, hereditary status and positions and their likes. In fact, all of those structures were propped up as the Native Administration system which though notorious, corrupt, repressive and insensitive still responded quite well to Lugard's Indirect Rule system. As I mentioned earlier, the subject status of the Northern peoples assumed a second layer. But being "used to conquerors," it never made much difference to them anyway.

The situation was dramatically different among the Southern ethno-nationalities. For, there was no absolutist state or ruler(s) to serve as bridgehead that the colonial state could anchor itself onto and be in the position to strike out a similar alliance with the various ethno-national groups of the South as it did in the North with the aid of the Caliphate State and its Hausa-Fulani undertakers. Not even the Oba (Kings) in Yorubaland, (Awolowo 1960), talk less of the Warrant Chiefs who were appointed in the most arbitrary and shameful fashion in Igboland, Ibibiland, Ijoland, Ogojaland and other areas of the South by the British colonial administrators under their obnoxious Indirect Rule System which worked quite well in the North thanks to the Caliphate State's feudalist structures of political administration could provide such a bridgehead in the South for the colonial state. In the South, indigenous cultures which anchored and protected the exercise of fundamental political rights of citizenship proved v ery toxic to the colonial state's attempt to "infuse... the principles and practices on which local government in the North was based" (Afigbo 1972: XI).

Thus, by and large, the Southern groups stoutly withheld their legitimacy from the new political structures that emerged as a result of the imposition of the colonial state. As a consequence, it became impossible for patrimonial and appropriatory rule to prevail in any meaningful form in the South amongst the various ethno-national groups that inhabit the area. The existing cultures in the South were simply too infertile for such a phenomenon. For instance, as late as 1929 attempts by the colonial state to extend direct taxation to woman in the South resulted to a prolonged and successful women's uprising in Owerri Province in the Igbo heartland in which the homes and possessions of the Warrant Chiefs were sacked and destroyed. In Yorubaland also, in 1949, the women of Abeokuta, in Egbaland, under the dedicated leadership of Mrs. Funmilayo Kuti compelled the A lake (King) of Egbaland to abdicate. Their grievance was over "the imposition of quotas of food to be sold to the [colonial] government and attempted government control of what foodstuffs should be sold [and the taxation of Yoruba women by the colonial state which they found] foreign, unfair, and excessive" (Johnson-Odim and Mba, 1997: 66 and 67).

Some crucial developments that occurred during this period include the alliance that the colonial state struck with the remnants of the Caliphate rulers. Based on that alliance, the latter sustained the view that their empire was still intact and with high prospects of continuing its Southward expansion. This was so in spite of the absence of an army under their command and control. They believed that the alliance between them and the colonial state implied the protection of their interests by the latter. It was in the course of this period that most Southern cities and urban centers became cradles of nationalism and anti-colonial activism. But if conventional wisdom were to hold true, older cities in the North ought to have served this end. That the reverse was the case is not only symbolic in this essay, it underscores an earlier point that unlike in the North, the colonial state could not find the grounds for any meaningful interaction and exchange with the Southern groups who sustained their resistance to it. Another development that took place in the course of this period is that the colonial state was unable to find or create a basis to facilitate any meaningful interaction and exchange with the Southern groups who sustained their resistance to it through riots and other acts of open insubordination and subsequently by way of nationalism. The only other means through which it could sustain its dominance over them was through the continued reliance on the instruments of colonial coercion, i.e. the army and police. The result was that it remained unentrenched and untransformed down in the South. And the manifest consequence of that failure remained political instability in the land.

Contrary to the speculative assertion by one like Adiele Afigbo, the failure of Britain's Indirect Rule System and policies in the South is not indicative of the poor indigenous political organization of the Southern groups. Nor is it indicative of their failure as he claims, "to modify their indigenous system enough to meet the needs of the changed times" (Afigbo 1972: xii). Ordinarily, a system of political administration like the Indirect Rule which replaced the erstwhile forced labor policy with the policy of direct taxation which its formulators claimed was inspired by what they insist is their laudable desire to generate much-needed funds for 'local development' ought to have been a huge success. The fact that it still failed in spite of all of that is indicative of the absence of a basis of interaction and exchange between the Southern groups and the colonial state whose British agents formulated and implemented it as an administrative policy. For us in this essay, the deductive inference from that fai lure is that neither Entrenchment nor transformation can take place in a state in the absence of a basis of interaction and exchange between the state and the people(s) who fall under its political and administrative control.

The Post-Colonial Period -- 1960-Present

The post-colonial period presents the scenarios as they have been configured in the five previous periods. The most crucial of all such scenarios is that the subject status, which was imposed on the peoples of the areas in question by the colonial state during the early colonial period, was carried over to the post-colonial period. It has remained like that ever since. The various ethno-national groups in the South felt that the exit of the British and the end of defacto colonial rule will afford them the chance to entrench and transform the post-colonial state into a Western-type of modem state. The Caliphate rulers on the other hand felt that they could revive their sultanic and despotic state using the inherited trappings of the post-colonial state to extend their political sway beyond the North and over the rest of the land. In each case, the assumption of the respective actors was that their aforestated desire could be realized on the basis of what emerged in terms of central developments from the early colonial and colonial periods, i.e. a de facto state and country created and imposed on the groups by the British, their imperfections and absurdities not withstanding, a preserved Caliphate State that still functioned in the most despotic and repressive manner in those areas where it held sway prior to and during colonial rule. Both sides have been wrong.

Expectedly, the post-colonial period is characterized by some central developments too. One central development that took place during this period which spurned a web of other developments in course of time is the withdrawal of the British in 1960 as de facto managers of the colonial state and their craftily implemented transfer of that stewardship to the Caliphate elements who formed the central government in the name of their party, the Northern People's Congress. Following that, the Caliphate managers of the post-colonial state embarked on attempts to reassert their patrimonial type of rule, this time, over the entire land through the deployment of every instrument of post-colonial state power. These attempts re-ignited old rivalries against the Caliphate elements particularly in the West amongst the Yoruba and in Tivland in the Middle Belt. That re-ignition accounts for much of the political instability that characterized the so-called First Republic which lasted from October 1,1960, January 15, 1966.

The January 15, 1966 coup d'etat by young Southern army officers is one crucial development in the aforementioned web of developments that spurned from the withdrawal of the British during this period. In spite of the gross misinterpretations of that coup, every thing about it indicates that it was meant to check the Caliphate's attempts to reassert itself all over the land (Madiebo 1980; Ademoyega 1981; Badru 1998) which re-ignited old rivalries between the Caliphate and the Yoruba on the one hand, and the Tiv on the other. But unfortunately, its partial success led to the last three significant developments that took place during this period: The counter coup of July 1966 by junior officers from the North, and the Nigeria-Biafra war. [4] Both of the aforementioned central events came together to lead to the third significant development during the postcolonial period -- the Caliphate securing command and control of a modem army. Consequently, this third development led to the continuing Caliphate hegemony o ver the entire land. Less the four years -- 1979-1983, during which the Caliphate hegemony over the land presented a de facto civilian persona, it has manifested itself as a succession of military regimes since July 1966.

Substantive Argument

Several explanations have been advanced to account for Nigeria's political instability. There is the claim that the British failed to prepare Nigeria sufficiently for democracy (Mackintosh 1966). The absence of the necessary economic base to cater for the populace, as well as the absence of a significant number of influential middle class individuals who could constitute a moderating force in national politics have both been adduced (Ipuk 1995; Akintunde 1967) as yet another explanation. Some analysts locate the explanations in the ethnic competition that resulted from socioeconomic and political modernization (Melson and Wolpe 1971; Young 1976). There are other analysts who put the blame on a flawed federal structure (Kirk-Green 1971), a contradicted constitutional arrangement that was incapable of withstanding political strain (Whitaker 1981) or an imbalance in education and economic development (Sklar 1965; Dudley). Richard Sklar (1963, 1965, 1971, 1981) attributes the problem to "tribalism and regionalism ,... [and] the process of class formation" (Diamond 1988: 16). Other analysts who base their own explanations on class like Sklar claim that the problem is a manifestation of the contradictions which stem from both colonial and neocolonial capitalism (Williams 1976; Nnoli 1978; Falola and Ihonvbere 1985; Badru 1998). Larry Diamond (1988: 17) traces the problem to a combination of factors that include ethnicity, class formation, an expanding state and electoral democracy that requires mass political mobilization of people.

In each of the cases above, political instability is seen only in terms of the lack of a stable central government during the post independence period. But a cursory look at the Nigerian situation will indicate that to do so does not present the complete picture of political instability in Nigeria. If we take the fact that most of the groups that make up Nigeria -- especially in the South, hardly accorded legitimacy to the colonial state into account, it will not be misplaced to argue that Nigeria's political instability predates its political independence from Britain in 1960. This assertion is underscored by the fact that in the light of its inability to entrench and transform itself, through and through, the Nigerian colonial state simply sustained itself by way of brute military force and police coercion. Thus, the works cited above do not provide adequate explanations for understanding political instability in Nigeria for three principal reasons. First, some of them do not recognize the need to make the state central in their attempt to explain political behavior and development in Nigeria (Skocpol 1979, 1982, 1984). Secondly, those of them that do are hamstrung by the fact that they succumbed to the temptation of treating the Nigerian colonial state and its post-colonial mutant as the equals of the modem European State. Thirdly, they all comprehend the artificial entity called Nigeria as a given. By so doing, they all tend to either ignore, and wish away the various age-old ethno-national groups, which were forcefully cobbled together into it or adjudge their existence as a curse.

Marxists and other class analysts are especially guilty of this mistake. The price that Nigerian Marxist political activists have paid for making such a mistake is evident in their inability to pose any meaningful challenge to the Nigerian postcolonial state. Try as they have, they have been unable and cannot mobilize groups whose definite identities they either fail to recognize or depict as anachronistic. The obvious fact about those identities is that they have continued to show so much resilience which indicates that they cannot simply be wished away. Evident in the attempts by Western analysts to explain Nigeria's political instability is their limited understanding of or refusal to acknowledge the pre-colonial history of the groups that constitute the artificial "nation-state" called Nigeria. Unfortunately too, attempts by African scholars in this regard have portrayed the same lack of understanding or refusal to acknowledge.

Political instability in Nigeria is not simply the result of the military, or of colonialism per se. Instead it is rooted in the fact that the Nigerian postcolonial state, although constructed to some degree, has remained unentrenched and un-transformed. The same fact applied to its colonial predecessor. A properly entrenched state that is well-transformed will consequently be politically stable. In any situation where the reverse is the case, the end result will definitely be political instability. What is simplistically seen as political instability in Nigeria is actually the manifestations of the schism between the colonial state and its post-colonial mutant and the various distinct ethno-national groups in Nigeria.

The entrenchment and transformation of a state cannot take place in the absence of meaningful and symbiotically rewarding interaction and exchange between state and individuals -- in this case, ethno-national groups. It is almost like what obtains in a dyadic situation (Shaw and Costanzo 1970). Individuals and groups do not interact meaningfully with a high-handed state that they cannot trust. In that case, the cost for the state will be the lack of entrenchment and transformation. And the ultimate manifestation in the polity will be political instability.

Much of the interaction activities between state and individuals in society occur by way of civic engagements by voluntary associations. And such engagements would normally take place in the realms of religion, politics and culture. In the North, the colonial state allowed the Caliphate to retain the Islamic religion and its reliance on it for political legitimacy. Also, the North was allowed to retain the Hausa language, the Islamic culture and style of political administration. [5] Contrarily, in the South, indigenous religions were labeled "pagan" or "heathen" and then suppressed. Indigenous cultures, languages, and systems of political administration met the same fate after being labeled "primitive" and "subversive". In fact, the colonial state was so insecure and paranoid that it traded the necessity to engage the Southern groups for its security. Amongst each of the various Southern groups there existed several indigenous civic and voluntary associations which functioned in ways similar to those that Sk ocpol (1998) identified in the US in her Civic Engagement Project. Amongst some Igbo units for instance, there were such civic associations as the Okonko Society, the Ekwe Society, the Ekumeku Society, the Ozo Title Holders Society, etc. In Yorubaland there were the Ogboni Fraternity, the Agbekoya Society, the Afenifere, etc. They were all decimated in very violent ways by the Nigerian colonial state, which preferred to rely on force in its engagement with the groups. The result is that it lost the opportunity to entrench and transform and pave the path for political stability in the land. This tradition of reliance on the use of unbridled violence to engage the civil society has been continuously sustained by the post-colonial state with the same outcome. The likes of such civic associations as labor unions, ethnic/parochial interest/pressure groups that blossom in the West and North America are systematically targeted for suppression and destruction in Nigeria. Hence the absence of real indicators of entren chment and transformation in the likes of citizenship and the various rights and obligations that accompany it. For instance, in Nigeria today, military service as a citizenship obligation does not exist. Nor does the protection of the life and limb of the individual and even his obligation to pay tax.

Discussion and Conclusion

The litmus test for a successful and comprehensive state building is political stability. Thus, if we assume that the indigenous pre-Caliphate and pre-colonial political units in the entire areas of what became Nigeria were politically stable, they were the only successfully built states in the areas ever since. Following those, the other near successful state building efforts that ever took place in the areas were the Caliphate in Hausaland and to some extent its conquest by the British. The reason being that the former did not unravel. And its conquest by the British in 1903 was taken to be the will of fate.

By extrapolation, the question of state building in the entirety of the areas that became Nigeria is still up in the air. In the actual sense of it the Nigerian State is yet to be constructed. Attempts to do so have largely been experimental and unsuccessful. And they have come by way of numerous efforts by either the British under the aegis of the colonial state or the Caliphate officials under the aegis of the Nigerian post-colonial state to carve Nigeria into all sorts of units: Northern and Southern Protectorates, Northern, Western, and Eastern Regions, twelve, nineteen, twenty-one and the present thirty-two states. They all have been unsuccessful for the following reasons. One, they all were aimed at wiping out the resilient ethno-national identities of the various groups. Secondly, they all have never taken such groups and their specific identities into consideration. Thirdly, the ethno-national groups and their identities have remained resilient. Fourthly, state construction efforts by both the British in the colonial period and the Caliphate officials during the post-colonial period do not have an answer for the de facto occupation of specific territorial areas by the various groups which they all regard as and call home. When taken together with the inability of both the Nigerian colonial and post-colonial states to entrench and transform, their inability to successfully construct is at the root of persistent political instability in the land.

Having said all of these, I dare to reaffirm that the question of state building in Nigeria is still up in the air. Like its colonial predecessor, the Nigerian postcolonial state can neither entrench nor transform itself. It cannot ensure political stability in the land either. The principal reason is that it will not recognize the age-old identities embodied in the ethno-national groups. To do so will increase the threat and insecurity that its present Hausa-Fulani undertakers assume they are faced with.

Some Prescriptions for a Solution

In view of the various obstacles to past efforts at state building in Nigeria so far, future state building activities ought to revolve around the idea of a true confederation of nationalities. There are four options through which the complexities of such a con-federal arrangement can be worked out. Option One: The sustenance of the status-quo ante through the tinkering that characterizes permanent "transition programs" to civil rule. But since this option cannot resolve the question of persistent political instability in any meaningful way in Nigeria, it might as well be regarded as a zero or non-option. Option Two: A resolve by the current Caliphate managers of the Nigerian post-colonial state to convene a truly Sovereign National Conference of Ethno-National Groups to address the question of constructing a truly con-federal state. However, chances are that their age-old faith in militarism and conquest cannot permit them to do this. Option Three: The ensuing political instability could compel the restive e thno-national groups in the South to raise an alternative army and engage the Caliphate-controlled military machine in a war. [6] Such an action will be aimed at forcing it to convene such a Conference. Option Four: The Southern groups could win such a war to declare a Federation of Southern Nigeria States, which may negotiate a confederation some day in the future with the Caliphate.


(1.) States have been known to rise through negotiation or acts of war.

(2.) The proposition by the two aforementioned authors is outlined in a forthcoming work that they jointly edited. It is entitled Civic Engagement in American Democracy.

(3.) Islam's most enduring role in the Western Sudan came by way of creating the milieu for the Hausa and Fulani peoples to develop such a covenant between them. It has been unable to repeat the same role elsewhere in the region amongst its adherents. It's a challenge to conventional logic and reason that Yoruba Muslims do not have any bond whatsoever with Northern Muslims. Instead, they have continued to retain very strong political and cultural affiliations with their non-Muslim kit and kin.

(4.) The centrality of the war as a development during the post-colonial period is in terms of how it was prosecuted by the Caliphate-dominated military dictatorship of Gen. Yakubu Gowon. The course of the war and its pattern of prosecution were largely determined by a clandestine "War Council" based in the Northern city of Kaduna, (Tyoden 1987) which was completely independent of both the Supreme Military Council, SMC and the Federal Executive Council which were based in the Southern city of Lagos -- the presumed capital of Nigeria. The Caliphate perceived and prosecuted that war as the last phase of Dan Fodio'sjihad which kicked off in 1804 only to be interrupted by the British in 1903.

(5.) So much so that the Hausa language was promoted in the Nigerian Army as its official language.

(6.) In view of the implicit respect that the Caliphate has for military victory and its flip side of conquest, this option might be the only viable one that can cut the ice.

(*.) E.C. Ejiogu is a doctoral student at the Center for Research on Military Organization, Department of Sociology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, U.S.A. He is a contributor to the Encyclopedia of slated for publication next year by Academic Press, a subsidiary of Harcourt Brace & Co. His current research interests include the colonial and post-colonial African States, their militaries, and the issues of identity and citizenship in Africa. E-mail:



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Table 1

Table of Periods and Central Events

I. Early Pre-Colonial Period -- Before the 1700s

The various ethno-national groups who settled the areas of the Western Sudan in question had constructed, entrenched and transformed their respective states which are based on different systems of political administration: e.g. Yoruba, Nupe, Tiv, Bini, Hausa city-states established monarchical systems which were neither despotic nor authoritarian; the Igbo are known to have established republican states which were quite democratic; etc.

II. Mid Pre-Colonial Period -- 1700s-1823

Islam was introduced in the Savannah zone of the areas in question through Fulani clerics. Usman Dan Fodio's jihad kicked off in 1804 followed by his establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate Empire. The expansion of the Caliphate to encompass much of the North and Middle Belt. In 1823-4, Northern most portion of Yorubaland came under Caliphate threat leading to the subsequent fall of Ilorin.

III. Late Pre-Colonial Period -- 1823-Late 1800s

The Caliphate and the Yaruba states engage one another in a serious impasse. The Caliphate's Southward expansion was effectively checked by a combination of factors: Yoruba resistance and the geographical terrain of the rain forest belt which made it impossible for an army of mounted Calvary to operate. Many Yoruba embraced Islam but not as conquered subjects of the Caliphate. Some Northern and Middle Belt groups that fell under the sway of the Caliphate refuse to accord it the necessary legitimacy. And it could neither entrench nor transform itself uniformly and adequately in all the areas that it controlled.

IV. Early Colonial Period -- Before 1914

The British embarked on their violent "pacification" of the entire areas encompassed by the Niger and Benue Rivers beginning from the coastal areas using their expeditionary forces. The colonial state was imposed on the areas, which became an artificial entity known as "Nigeria". The peoples of the non-Caliphate areas lost their citizenship to alien invaders for the very first time. Caliphate army was routed and Sultan Attahiru was killed on the plains on the outskirts of Bornu in the last battle with British forces in 1903. Caliphate officers interpret colonial conquest as an act of fate. They accepted an alliance with the colonial state. But Southern groups felt otherwise. Thus, they sustained their resistance to alien rule.

V. The Colonial Period -- 1914-1960

The colonial state continued to protect itself from the peoples with its ruthless army. That army was eventually transformed into the Nigerian Army. Colonial state sustains its alliance with the Caliphate Empire whose officials became convinced that less an army, their Empire was still in tact. Southern peoples sustain their resistance to the colonial state by way of nationalism. The refused to accord it the necessary legitimacy and it remained unentrenched and untransformed in the South. It continued its reliance on its military forces to sustain itself in power.

VI The Post-Colonial Period -- 1960-Present

Most of the Southern groups felt that the exit of the British was the opportunity they were looking for to settle down to construct a Western-type modern state based on the structures that the British left behind. But the Caliphate inheritors of the post-colonial state hadn't lost their ambition to extend their rule all over the land. However, they still lacked the command of the colonial army. These entailed an open crisis soon after the end of defacto colonial rule in 1960. Worried by how the Caliphate was already using the trappings of the post-colonial state to extend its rule all over the land, young Southern officers in the army staged a coup aimed at checking the Caliphate and to create the basis for a modern Western-type state. The coup's partial success led to a counter coup by low-rank Northern officers. The Caliphate is now in control of a modern army. Caliphate hegemony over the entire land ensues. The Igbo began an open resistance that led to the Nigeria-Biafra war. The post-colonial state remain s unentrenched and untransformed, and political instability continues.
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Author:EJIOGU, E.C.
Publication:International Journal of Comparative Sociology
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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