The history of divisive ethnic identities shows that the time has come for Nigeria to acknowledge its role in enforcing these identities

The Nigerian state, like other African countries, is caught in an affiliation crisis. This is expressed in struggles for identity, which sometimes damage people from “other” religions and ethnic groups. Such battles have even led to the state having to be dissolved.

In our work we follow the story of how this came about. We use frameworks from three philosophers and historians. To trace the first phase – what we call the invented phase from 1885 to 1914 – we use a frame by historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. We describe the second phase as the imaginary phase. To do this, we rely on a framework by the political historian Benedict Anderson. Finally, we consider the formation of identities of “native settlers” as set out by political philosophers such as Mahmood Mamdani. They describe the colonial structure of a dominant majority and minority based on race, ethnicity and religion.

In our work we claim that the first phase of adversarial identity formation in Nigeria was “invented” by foreigners. The second phase grew out of the “imaginations” of colonial anointed African leaders. And the last phase was mainly made and designed by the Africans themselves.

We conclude that Africans must take responsibility for their own actions. You must consciously expose the effects of the colonial project – and continue to do so. And they have to find ways to reverse them. This includes taking responsibility in cases where the colonial mentality has been internalized.

Unpacked three phases

The first phase, the “invented” one, consisted of the division and accession of societies along ethnic and cultural lines. For example, under British colonial rule, people were divided into different groups – which shortened their history and disrupted their social arrangements. While British colonialism tried to form a Nigeria, it created destructive divisions. This was done in two ways.

The colonial administration created physical boundaries to separate people and allow economic exploitation. Unsurprisingly, many identity conflicts have arisen in the context of the distribution of power and control of resources. Groups that once flourished along with minor tensions and skirmishes have become stubborn enemies because of these meaningless borders.

Psychological boundaries were also created to build hatred and bigotry. This can be seen in the way black skin and Africa are perceived or talked about. For example, colorism favors black people with lighter hues, while black people with darker hues are stigmatized and marginalized.

Centuries of normalized anti-blackness have not surprisingly led to skin bleaching and hair straightening practices. These are still common across the continent.

Read more: There is a complex history of skin lighteners in Africa and beyond

This form of colonialism persists in the over-simplification and generalization of African practices and cultures, only to associate them with negative connotations and undesirable features.

In the second phase (between 1914 and 1960) the actions of difference creation continued. During this period, British colonialism promulgated various measures to control the African population. Leading scholars from Nigerian colonial and post-colonial societies such as Adiele Afigbo, Claude Ake and Peter Ekeh have set out how this was done.

For example, northern Nigeria was clearly ruled through an indirect system ruled by Fulani and Hausa aristocrats, or “subcolonials,” as described by Moses Ochonu.

This kind of politics, as peace scholar Surulola Eke wrote:

facilitated the colonial goal of promoting and intensifying a “we” against “them”, Muslims against Christians, northerners against southerners and Hausa-Fulani against Yoruba against Igbo syndrome in Nigeria.

The third phase can be divided into two periods. The first was from 1954, when preparations for independence began, from independence to shortly before the civil war between Nigeria and Biafra (1967–1970). The second was from maybe 1979 until today.

In the first phase, the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria – Yoruba, “Hausa-Fulani” and Igbo – began the pursuit of political dominance and superiority. All three groups, representing their respective regions East, West and North, fought rigorously for dominance of the political space. The result was that the post-colonial state continued to design its statecraft on the basis of colonial heritage.

The third phase has its roots in the political choice of the elite to create a federal system of laws and social categories based on where a person was born. A context was created in which post-independence Nigerian leaders exploited ethnic and religious sentiments to obtain political and social patrons.

Next Steps

We conclude that the most lasting obstacle to national unity in Nigeria is not that colonialists created races and traditions. It’s like Nigerians are doing it now.

Colonialism cannot continue to be responsible for the divisions and clashes that hit the Nigerian state. Given the peculiar ethno-politics of the groups, even the dissolution of the federation would lead to internal conflicts. The modern Nigerian state needs to look carefully at what it has created. It needs to find practical Nigeria-specific solutions to ongoing tensions arising from paranoia and distrust of groups that are strictly ethno-religious “different”.

Postcolonial thinker Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni argues that this process would involve a journey of “self-criticism, self-denial and self-discovery”.

This must take into account the role of each sphere of Nigerian society in creating mutually exclusive identities that deny the legitimacy and existence of the “other”.

Such a process could rid Africa of inferior standards and complexes that justify behaviors such as corruption and violence. Crucially, however, African countries like Nigeria must begin this process by identifying and recognizing their own complicity in colonialism. This would require a shift in focus from guilt and troubleshooting to outside forces.

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