Our Destructive Obsession With Tribalism


Dr. Raji Bello


I am writing this piece out of extreme frustration, caused by my countrymen’s incurable obsession with tribal identity. In Nigeria today, tribalism has been elevated to the status of a national culture which dominates national discourse, controls how we think and talk, and determines what we oppose or support. It is promoted by the most educated and powerful among us, embraced by the young and the old, passed from generation to generation, and has even crept into our constitution.

The question is what is responsible for this? Is our history to blame? Are our founding fathers responsible? Is it caused by greed, corruption or competition? Why are other African countries which are as diverse as we are not half as obsessed with their diversity? I can go on and on and I’m sure I’ll hear as many answers to these questions as the people I ask.

The damaging effects of tribalism, I’m sure, are well known. It promotes mediocrity and suppresses merit, encourages corruption by giving much needed cover and immunity for perpetrators, stands in the way of national cohesion and consensus, creates a distraction away from serious national issues and often contributes to communal violence.

In my own understanding, tribalism flourishes in Nigeria mainly because it is an effective TOOL that gives the user an edge in the eternal struggle by the elite and educated classes to gain government patronage (i.e. appointments). After getting the appointment, tribalism is again used as a cover to abuse that office, and then to escape justice after leaving the office. A Nigerian who is aspiring to public office would say things like “my tribe has never been given that post!” or “my tribe is marginalised!” Soon after, the newspapers (always willing accomplices) pick up the mantra and make a lot of noise until he gets the appointment. He then abuses that office and enriches himself while any criticism of him is dismissed as bad belle from opposing tribes and sundry detractors. Finally, any attempt to bring our appointee to justice after leaving office will be labelled (again, with the help of our loud-mouthed newspapers) as a selective persecution of his tribe. As a result, our ex-appointee will get away with a generous plea bargain or even go scot-free.  This cycle of events has been happening before our eyes for decades.

I believe that the people who use tribalism in this way are not necessarily tribal jingoists themselves; they don’t really love their own tribes so much or hate other tribes. They have only perfected how to use tribalism for their personal ends.  But we must ask ourselves, why is it such an effective tool? Why are Nigerians gullible enough to buy into such arguments all the time?  We are frequently deceived by these fake tribal champions who get into government only to line their pockets but each time another trickster turns up we believe him totally. In a sense, we are tribal junkies!

There are many everyday issues in our national life that illustrate our blind obsession with ethnicity. The agitations in the Niger Delta easily come to mind.  Granted there are legitimate issues of poverty and environmental pollution in the Niger Delta but I don’t understand why people portray them as ‘Ijaw’ issues or as ‘Ogoni’ issues. I don’t see what the issues have to do with the tribe of the people living there. In a normal country, these problems will be described in their proper context as issues of poverty and pollution, caused largely by corruption in state and local government administration in those areas, and by unregulated activities of oil companies. However, in Nigeria, they are presented as tribal issues as if rival tribes elsewhere have deliberately inflicted harm on the tribes of the Niger Delta.

A lot of northerners, including some of my very enlightened friends, saw the recent rivalry between Obasanjo and Atiku only in terms of a southerner fighting a northerner and they felt a natural inclination to line up behind Atiku in that epic tribal war, as they saw it. All my explanations that these two people were birds of the same feather and they have conspired against Nigerians for seven years and only fell apart because of a contest for power, fell on deaf ears.

Nigerians always campaign for the freeing of their tribesmen who are in trouble with the law without any regard to whatever offence the person has committed. Accordingly, the Yoruba (including a Nobel laureate) campaigned for the release of OPC leader Gani Adams from jail not minding the fact that he was involved in many violent acts. The Igbo insist that MASSOB leader Ralph Uwazuruike must be released from detention even though he campaigned for the dismemberment of the country; something that even the most democratic countries in the world would not tolerate. But being an Igbo they have to stand up for him. The northerners on the other hand, are still campaigning for the release of Hamza Al-Mustapha and company (I don’t even know the offences these ones have committed). Every tribe simply campaigns for its own, rightly or wrongly. Tribalism is often used to thwart the judicial process. What is purely a criminal offence is deliberately and mischievously given a political or tribal colouration to get the culprit off the hook.

The recent appointment of the Acting Inspector General of Police is another case in point. The Igbo caused an uproar based on their claim that an Igbo man has been sidelined, only for us to hear later that the man who was appointed (Okiro) was also of Igbo origin! Around the same time the Acting IG was appointed, a relatively young Igbo man was appointed to head the Federal Road Safety Commission and Igbo men were still heading the Immigration Service and Central Bank, and Igbo women were heading NAFDAC and Bureau for Public Enterprises and lately, the Federal Civil Service. In spite of all this, prominent Igbo journalists and commentators were alleging marginalisation. The failed warlord Odumegwu Ojukwu even made a renewed call for self-determination.

There have been frequent tribe-based succession battles in many Federal Government agencies in recent years. These include military and paramilitary organisations, universities, teaching hospitals and many others. The transition from one chief executive to another is always plagued by bitter ethnic battles launched by the aspirants to the vacant post.  At the end of the day, a mediocre chief executive from the winning tribe is installed and the organisation inevitably goes into a downward spiral much to the disappointment of even his own tribal sponsors. It seems at the moment, no government department in Nigeria can change its chief executive without controversy.

The arrest of some former governors by the EFCC did not escape the attention of the tribal jingoists either. They are calling them selective arrests because not all tribes are represented among the accused! I wonder how the EFCC can ensure a fair representation of tribes among suspected criminals. Our obsession with tribe knows no bounds indeed.

After the recent appointment of ministers, some tribe-obsessed Nigerians did not fail to notice that all the ‘juicy’ ministries went to tribes other than their own. It is only in Nigeria that highly educated commentators make such silly analyses and they go unchallenged. In another country, they will surely be asked to shut up. The (unfortunate) constitutional provision that there should be a minister from every state has sparked off mini tribal wars in many states. I consider this provision unnecessary because every state is already represented in the National Assembly and since government runs in perpetuity, a state that is not represented in one cabinet will be represented in the next one. The provision means that the Nigerian cabinet will always be very large (France, for example, has just 15 ministers). Tribal champions in various states were up in arms trying to get their own tribesman to represent their states in the new cabinet. In Benue it is Tiv vs. Idoma, in Plateau it is indigenes vs. settlers, in Kogi it is Igala vs. Egbira vs. Okun Yoruba and in Borno it is Kanuri vs. everyone else. The situation was particularly heated in Kaduna State where the people of Southern Kaduna threatened fire and brimstone unless one of them is made a minister. This is a part of Kaduna State that has produced two ministers in the Obasanjo government, and whose indigenes are occupying the posts of deputy governor and secretary to the government of the state, and have produced the ex-Chief of Army Staff and probably the current one. This is certainly not a part of Nigeria that can claim it is ‘marginalised’. In any case, the blame lies entirely with the President for subcontracting his crucial personal duty of forming a cabinet to local political godfathers and middlemen. The process of ministerial appointments is guaranteed to get even messier in future.

The tragedy with the Nigerian situation is that it is the highly educated people, those who really should know better, that propagate tribalism. Highly rated newspaper journalists write articles defending their tribal interests and running down other groups. A lot of them write that they don’t even believe in Nigeria. They refer to their own tribes in lofty and bombastic terms, calling them ‘races’ or ‘ethnic nationalities’. Grandiose terms like ‘Yoruba race’ and ‘Ijaw ethnic nationality’ are commonplace these days and are uttered by professors, PhD holders, retired judges, so-called elder statesmen and prominent journalists. At a rival constitutional conference called by opposition groups in Lagos during the Obasanjo administration, the invitees were ‘ethnic nationalities’. I can’t foresee any good outcome coming from a conference whose organisers (including ‘elder statesman’ Anthony Enahoro) see Nigeria only in term of its tribal groupings. People with such primordial thinking, no matter how prominent they are, cannot be relevant in building a modern country.

The constant reference to tribal animosities in the press is affecting the youth and is ensuring that a legacy of hate and suspicion is passed down the generations. That is why a young graduate from, say, Ondo State will have sleepless nights if the NYSC posts him to Yobe State and so will a graduate from Katsina state who is posted to Ekiti State. Sometimes even when the graduate himself is calm, his parents will have the sleepless nights on his behalf! Contrary to expectations, it usually turns out to be a pleasant experience at the end of the service year.

I have lived in Ghana for over a year and I have never heard a discussion of tribal issues from my colleagues or read it in a newspaper article. Throughout my stay, I cannot say for sure which tribes my Ghanaian colleagues belonged to. It was simply not an issue. In such countries, educated people are ashamed of making references to tribal differences. This allows the society to focus on real issues like education, health, transport, security etc. I look forward to having a coalition of like-minded Nigerians who are against tribalism (not just detribalised, as we say in Nigeria) in order to give some hope to our country.

Dr. Raji Bello,

University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital,