Nigeria at 63: four reasons for persistent disunity six decades on

Photo Credit: Protesters in Lagos during Nigeria’s 60th Independence Day anniversary on 1 October 2020. Olukayode Jaiyeola/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Authors: Muhammad Dan Suleiman, Research associate, Curtin University; Benjamin Maiangwa, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Lakehead University

At 63 the story of Nigeria can be anything from the “celebration of greatness to an act of barbaric cruelty”. These are the words of Nigerian writer Dipo Faloyin in his book Africa Is Not a Country.

Nigeria attained its independence from Britain on 1 October 1960. Nearly half a century earlier, in 1914, the British amalgamated the Northern and Southern British protectorates into the Nigerian Federation. For many — including the Nigerian independence leader Chief Obafémi Awólòwò, in his book Path to Nigerian Freedom – the country that emerged from this amalgamation was “a mere geographical expression”.

Since independence, Nigeria has made deliberate attempts to knit a cohesive nation from this legacy of division. This has included measures such as power sharing arrangements, the creation of the National Youth Service Corps, as well as its vibrant cultural expressions through food, sports, and literature.

But there have also been missed opportunities at unity due to leadership failures on the part of successive Nigerian governments. In the end, as research shows, divisions persist. These often overshadow the country’s achievements.

We are political scientists and researchers with published works at the intersection of politics, culture, and society and the international politics of Africa.

We offer four reasons why Nigeria remains divided. We identified these as ethnic and religious division, economic disparities, identity and lack of nation building.


Most nations have been crafted out of disparate cultures. According to the Irish political scientist and historian, Benedict Anderson, all nations are imagined.

However, our observation is that the first reason for persistent disunity in Nigeria is the depth of ethnic and religious division.

Ethnic and religious division: This must be placed in the context of colonial mapping and plunder of material and cultural resources.

This came about from cobbling together starkly different cultures, lands and peoples. Before colonialism, what is now called Nigeria was peopled by different kingdoms and empires. These ranged from the Hausa states and Kanem-Bornu empire in the north, the Jukun states in the north central region, to Yoruba states in the south west, and Igboland and Delta City-states in the south.

The arbitrary borders drawn by the British during colonisation bundled together these numerous ethnicities and peoples without regard for their historical, cultural or socio-political differences.

Britain ruled Nigeria for close to 80 years. The Crown governed through what was called indirect rule. This allowed the colonial administration to govern from a distance. It delegated local administration to traditional authorities and native institutions.

Nigeria is home to over 300 ethnic groups – the Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, and Fulani are the major ones. Each group has its own language, culture, and traditions.

Nigeria is also divided along religious lines. It is predominantly Muslim in the North and Christian in the South. Indigenous religions are spread across the country, with some experiencing no dualism between these spiritualities. Indeed, this non-binary spiritual disposition was what made the Christian and Arab missionaries successful in Africa.

Economic disparities: The British Crown governed its conquered colonial territories through different systems of authority. Over time, these translated into different levels of economic development.

In the north, the colonial government relied on existing political structures of “centralised governing systems with a reputation for their bureaucratic, administrative, and judicial institutions” – mainly relics of the Sokoto Islamic Caliphate in the region.

In the South, however, the colonial administration revolved around artificially created authorities. These were usually in the form of warrant chiefs – a native leader whose legitimacy was based on a warrant issued by the colonial government rather than on the people’s culture and custom.

These different governance systems were allowed significant autonomy under the colonial system of indirect rule. Different levels of economic development began to emerge, which in turn created economic disparities. For instance, northern Nigeria has the highest concentration of less economically empowered states, communities and peoples.

Identity: As we have argued elsewhere, Nigeria was conceived by the colonial government as a business enterprise corporation, not as a nation. As one scholar pointed out, British rule also promoted the ideas of ‘the “North for Northerners,” “East for Easterners,” and “West for Westerners” within Nigeria.

Independence promised a new Nigeria that benefited all Nigerians. But the country failed to savour the “independence” moment. Nigerian leaders who took over wasted the opportunities offered by the gains of independence to dismantle the inherited colonial fissures of their societies.

Leaders such as the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Chief Obafémi Awólòwò and Sir Nnamdi Azikiwe rose to champion the cause of their respective ‘ethno-regions’. They became guilty of Frantz Fanon’s charge of the pitfall of the nation being passed over for the race, and the tribe being preferred to the state.

This was to translate into a series of coups and conflicts, including the civil war of 1967 in which about a million people died.

We have argued that the failure to savour the independence moment makes Nigeria – not just the colonial administration – complicit in its identity crises. We also acknowledge how ground-level activists and people across the different divides shape the country’s future through everyday expressions of nationhood. Nigerians are intermarrying. They’re doing business together. And they often express a general sense of pride and unity in the country’s food, sports, music and movies.

Lack of nation building: Some scholars agree that nation building requires state building. Nation unity, therefore, comes on the heels of effective action being taken by the state. But that’s not how Nigerians experience their government. For them, the state doesn’t exist behind rituals of statehood.

In the state’s absence, citizens resort to what they have – their identities – as tools for survival. This further widens ethnic fault lines and creates new ones.

A lack of investment in the infrastructures of the state has also created deplorable conditions for ordinary Nigerians.

The outcome of using identities for political scores and advantage? The proliferation of conflicts and violent clashes.

Moving forward

At the everyday level, Nigerians should focus on advancing and celebrating their soft cultural resources. These include comedy, sport, food, music, movies, and a general sense of hope and positive interaction. We argue that this ground-level, soft but courageous and clear-minded activism has the potential to restore hope in the nation. It could even achieve more.

For its part, the Nigerian state must open its doors to the people, and address their economic hardships and insecurity. If this doesn’t happen the danger is that Nigerians will abandon democratic ways and turn to violence, as we are witnessing across West Africa and the Sahel.

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