Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Ethnic Conflict and the Nigerian Dilemma

I never cease to be amused whenever some ignorant armchair critic comes along and blames Africa's problems on the genetic shortcomings of its inhabitants. It is almost always the case that the critic knows hardly anything worth a damn about the history of the continent, has never actually stepped foot on African soil, and has had little exposure to Africa beyond the usual diet of disaster stories that are the staple of Western news broadcasts. This almost complete state of ignorance is never held to be an obstacle to informed commentary by those who reside in it, however.

The real key to Africa's problems, as I have often reiterated, is ethnicity. Hardly any of Africa's states are drawn along ethnic lines, and the ethnic tensions that have resulted as various groups struggled for power after the Europeans pulled out have led to coups, wars and other manifestations of instability that seem mysterious only to those who fail to realize that there are actual differences between Africans in their histories, traditions and ways of life. To take the example with which I am most familiar, Nigeria, that creation of Frederick Lugard's imagination, arbitrarily divides the Yoruba within its borders from those in Benin and Togo, while the border between Niger and Nigeria splits the Hausa-Fulani along another artificial line. Focusing on Nigeria itself, the sheer ethnic variation within the nation's borders is hard for people from other parts of the world to fathom: neither Europe nor Asia have anything like it, not even the Indian subcontinent, which at least has Hinduism, and the Urdu/Hindu tongue, as nominally unifying forces for the majority of its inhabitants.

What makes Nigeria's difficulties worse is that there is no one group that clearly outnumbers the rest; instead there are three groups with a rough parity of numbers - the Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo - meaning that there is no possibility that a stable equilibrium will be reached, as whenever any two groups gang up to seize power at the expense of the third, eventually one of the two becomes so disaffected by its share of the spoils that it either defects to ally itself with the previously excluded third, or is itself kicked out and replaced by the third party. In such an environment any act of self-aggrandizement by a member of one's own group at the public expense is easily rationalized away as "scoring one for the team", the (not entirely unreasonable) thinking being "If one of our guys hadn't done the looting, one of the other group's members surely would have." These ethnic tensions are made yet worse by the virtually even split in religious adherence between Islam and Christianity.

It was Obafemi Awolowo, the Yoruba statesman, who, borrowing Metternich's words, stated in 1947 that Nigeria was "a mere geographical expression" rather than a nation to which any substantial number of people felt they owed their primary allegiance. What Awolowo said so many years ago still holds true today, and not just for Nigeria but for the great majority of states south of the Sahara. When people note exceptional cases like Botswana, whose relative stability and prosperity is a notable exception to the norm in sub-Saharan Africa, they nearly always fail to appreciate that Botswana also has something most African states lack - ethnic homogeneity, with approximately 90% of its inhabitants being of Tswana heritage; it is obviously easier to concentrate on national development when your time isn't fully taken up with ethnic rivalry.

My feeling is that Nigeria, and the rest of the arbitrary congeries slapped together in Africa by colonial rulers and labeled "nations", will never be able to get its act together while it remains whole. There has to be a redrawing of the borders in Africa, and only once this has occurred can the prospects for peace and prosperity on that continent truly brighten. Indeed, it is fair to say that those borders already are being redrawn as of this moment, the only problem being that the redrawing is occurring through warfare rather than by peaceful means. Ignorant speculations about Africa's problems that ignore the history of the place and the realities on the ground in favor of "biological" theorizing unsupported by anything by way of hard genetic evidence are unworthy of serious consideration, and deserve to be relegated to the fringes they currently occupy.

POSTSCRIPT: A very short history of ethnic conflict in Nigeria can be found on this IRIN web special on the country.