The fallacy of ethnic homogeneity
by Simon Kolawole
At the centre of separatist campaigns in Nigeria, and possibly around the world, is the desire to have “homogenous” nations, or nations where an ethnic group is overwhelmingly in the majority, thereby leaving little room for rivalry, conflict and instability. When an ethnic group is overwhelmingly dominant in a country, the tendency for ethnic conflicts — which are often deadly and destabilising as we have seen in Rwanda and Ethiopia — is expected to be minimal. With a sense of cultural harmony, therefore, a nation is expected to enjoy peace and progress, and such conditions are considered necessary for development. This is a key belief and driving ideology in separatist circles.
Political scientists define “nation” as a people with a shared sense of history and identity. The aspiration is to turn a state into a nation-state. Some will instinctively argue that Nigeria is a not a nation but a country, basically a geographical expression or a political entity. In the well-quoted words of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the Yoruba nationalist, as contained in his book, ‘Path to Nigerian Freedom’ (1947), “Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression. There are no ‘Nigerians’ in the same sense as there are ‘English’, ‘Welsh,’ or ‘French’.” However, increasingly, ‘nation’ and ‘country’ are now used interchangeably, perhaps as a reflection of a changing world.
Nigeria can be described as a country of 250 nations, based on the identified ethnicities. But three stand out: Hausa-Fulani (deliberately hyphenated by me because the two groups have become so fused that ‘pure’ Hausa and ‘pure’ Fulani are difficult to come by these days as anthropological evolution continues), Igbo and Yoruba. They stand out because they are the biggest. While the Hausa-Fulani, dominant in most of the 19 northern states, have the biggest population of the Big Three, the Igbo and the Yoruba are not minorities and cannot subjugate themselves, or be subjugated, to the Hausa-Fulani. The end result is rivalry, ignited mostly by the political economy.
Because we do not capture census figures for ethnic groups in Nigeria, we do not know their actual sizes. We removed religion and ethnicity from the population census questionnaire since 1991 because of our perennial ethno-religious conflict which always leads to the rejection of the results. However, the CIA World Fact Book (2021) estimates that Hausa-Fulani are 36 percent, with Yoruba and Igbo combined making up 31 percent. The ethnic homogeneity hypothesis suggests that if Hausa-Fulani were to be an overwhelming majority, say 80 per cent, and Igbo and Yoruba were to be just 10 per cent combined, there would be little or no room for ethnic rivalry in Nigeria.
With Nigeria perpetually locked in a fierce ethnic rivalry which tends to always dictate the tone of national discourse and slow down national development, some analysts are of the opinion that the country is too big and too diverse to make progress as one unit. The best way forward, they propose, is to break up the country along “homogenous” ethnic lines to be able to contain the conflicts, foster peace and engender human and economic development. This is perhaps the mildest view in the pro-balkanisation camp. For many devout campaigners, the agenda is not strictly about national development but a desire to own a country or not to be in the same country with others.
The campaigns for Yoruba Nation and Republic of Biafra can be understood within this context. The Yoruba Nation would overwhelmingly be Yoruba, perhaps by 95 per cent. For sure, the Ogu (also called Egun) people of Badagry, Lagos state, are distinct and there are also Ijaw in parts of Ondo state. But there is no doubt that the Yoruba would be the absolute majority. It is regularly projected that if the Yoruba own a country and call the shots — in the absence of the Hausa-Fulani, in particular — their nation would become one of the most prosperous in Africa. It is expected to achieve quick economic boom, particularly with its industrial base and access to the Atlantic Ocean.
Also, if Biafra were to become a country, the Igbo would own it. The south-east is the most homogenous geo-political zone in Nigeria, with every indigene identifying as Igbo. Biafra, if it is created purely from the south-east, will be 100 percent Igbo. If it includes the south-south, the Igbo would still be a clear majority, especially as there are several ethnic groups of Igbo origin in Delta and Rivers states in the south-south. The argument of the ethnic homogeneity school of thought means a country where the Igbo are predominant would be less prone to ethnic conflicts and would, thus, be able to focus on governance and development. This notion favours the IPOB cause.
Conversely, the glaring lack of enthusiasm in the south-south to be part of Biafra (Chief Edwin Clark, the Ijaw leader, recently got battered by IPOB for saying the Niger Delta would not be part of Biafra) may be because the oil-rich region senses that it would still be a minority entity under the proposed country. The region is made up of disparate ethnic groups, perhaps 50 or more, and is only bound by the “Niger Delta” identity because of the oil. If Niger Delta, or more appropriately the south-south zone, were to become a country of its own, the Ijaw, Urhobo, Efik, Ibibio and Edo would battle for domination — similar to what is going on among The Big Three in today’s Nigeria.
What is my opinion on ethnic homogeneity as a driver of national development? My initial comment would be that there is definitely a correlation between ethnic homogeneity and development: Western European countries are the least ethnically diverse in the world and are, remarkably, the most developed. They rank high on development indices that define the standards of living of citizens. They are also less prone to ethnic and religious violence. Conversely, Africa is the most diverse and the least developed of all the regions, scoring pretty low on human development indices. So, on the basis of these evidences alone, an argument can be made for homogeneity.
But wait for this: Yemen, Comoros, Bangladesh, Somalia and Haiti are among the most ethnically or culturally homogenous countries in the world. Yemenis are all Arabs; the non-Arabian population is made up of immigrants. Though, Yemenis are Arabs and Muslims, their homogeneity has neither prevented conflict nor turned them into an economic power. Yemen is one of the poorest Arab countries and has been under the strain of a civil war since 2014. Bengalis make up 98 percent of Bangladesh. They are Muslims. Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in 1971 in the name of ethno-religious homogeneity but is now officially recognised as one of the poorest countries in the world.
Somalia, which I have cited as an example a dozen times, must be the most tragic case in recent history. They are of one ethnic stock, they profess Sunni Islam and they even look alike physically. But because human society must contend with one conflict or the other, the Somalis broke up along clannish lines with the fall of President Siad Barre in 1991. Even when you are of the same religion and of the same sect, there is no end to human capacity for conflict and rivalry. The Al Shabbab terror group has turned Somalia to a slaughter slab. Somalia is a classic example of how speaking the same dialect is neither an automatic panacea for conflict nor a certified tonic for development.
My second comment, therefore, would be that correlation is not the same thing as causation. That homogenous European nations are advanced economically and technologically does automatically not mean Biafra, Yoruba Nation and Boko Haram’s Islamic Caliphate will be developed when they become countries on their own. Europe went through upheavals in the course of history. If we delve into the development history of the “homogenous” European countries, which I cannot do today because of space, I will show proof that homogeneity was the least driver of their progress. If homogeneity were the magic wand, Somalia would be the most advanced country in Africa.
There are many other issues I cannot touch in this article because of space: for instance, the internal divisions in Nigeria’s regions that are likely to be magnified if the country is broken up for the purpose of ethnic homogeneity. Human capacity for sub-division is infinite. We can always invent one for purpose. The more you divide a group, the more you magnify internal differences. That is why demands for state creation never end even when a state is homogenous. I am also unable to discuss, herein, the pre-colonial history of Nigeria and the intra-ethnic wars that shaped, for instance, the Hausa and Yoruba kingdoms, and homogeneity did not eliminate conflicts and violence.
We now return to my pet theory: that development is a product of competence and patriotism. It is about ideas and commitment to progress. It is about the quality of the brain. It is about leadership. It is about followership. All the argument about ethnic and religious homogeneity, no matter the merit of it, amounts to work avoidance — always looking for someone or something to blame for our own failures. Let us look at the tragedy of South Africa: it used to be ruled by a tiny but racist ethnic minority and it competed with the best in the world. The ethnic majority is now in charge of South Africa with little opposition, but the country is going down the drain — like Zimbabwe next door.
I will conclude in my usual wont. Although I believe in one Nigeria and will continue to campaign for a united and prosperous nation “where peace and justice shall reign”, I have passed the stage of pleading that we shouldn’t break up. If we decide to balkanise our country, let’s please ourselves. Until then, however, I will keep saying this: diversity is no cancer and balkanisation is no magic formula. Even if we break Nigeria into 250 “homogenous” nations, good governance will still be key to development. All countries battle internal conflicts — racial, ethnic, religious or class. In fact, conflicts only take new shapes in new countries. In the Nigerian case, I wish I knew what to expect.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
Where you think you have hit rock bottom, you ain’t seen nothing yet. With the doctors’ strike already paralysing public hospitals, the Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU) and the Assembly of Healthcare Professional Association say they will commence an indefinite strike in two weeks — if the federal government does not address “outstanding welfare issues”. That is total lockdown looming. Who is suffering the burden of the current strike and who will be hurt from the impending one? You guessed right: the poor. The high and the mighty are never the victims. To be poor in Nigeria is a crime, and you always get punished for sins you did not commit. Sickening.
Rt Hon Rotimi Amaechi, the minister of transportation, says anyone stealing under President Muhammadu Buhari is doing it quietly, compared to previous administrations. “Corruption was so pervasive that nobody was talking about it. It was not hidden that people completely and openly displayed their wealth… but here, if you are stealing, it is done quietly,” the former governor Rivers state told Daily Trust. Actually, we’ve heard of some ministers buying up every property on sale in FCT. There are stories of bribes being flown into the country as diplomatic baggage. We will hear the full story when Buhari leaves office, and we hope the “quiet stealing” will be punished. Loudly.
When I got hints that President Buhari would drop two ministers, I kept doing what I was doing as if I didn’t hear. After six years in office, Buhari had cut the picture of an employer of labour who would never sack anybody. Job security in his cabinet is second to none. The incentive to be excellent is not there: you know that you are safe and secure irrespective of your performance at your duty post. Most ministers are guaranteed eight years in office. I was overly surprised that Buhari fired Mallam Saleh Mamman, the minister of power, and Alhaji Sabo Nanono, the minister of agriculture. But there are even more deadwoods in the cabinet. Let us hope the weeding continues. Overdue.
Newly elected President Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia has given an appointment to the man who once oversaw his detention. In 2017, Hichilema, then opposition leader, was detained by President Edgar Lungu for “treason” — because he failed to give way to the presidential motorcade. Hichilema spent four months in detention under the watchful eyes of Kuyomba Bwalya, whom he described as “professional” (Bwalya probably allowed conjugal visits). Bwalya is now the deputy commissioner-general of prisons, fancifully called “correctional service” when it is anything but. Hichilema is saying the right things. I hope this would not be another typical African leadership story. Populism.