November 28, 2012

Tribalism & Nigeria's Democracy

I recently read a Viewpoint by Professor Calestous Juma (International Development, Harvard) on the BBC website, How Tribalism Stunts African Democracy. In this article, he was very clear about the infamous role of tribal sentiments in Africa's stunted socio-political progress, and how its influence in Africa politics is somewhat underestimated whilst we beam our spotlight on theelection process.


As a quick recap, my research is on building democratic culture through an effective (digital) public sphere, and a few questions are currently guiding my study. They are:
  • What is the new digital public sphere?
  • In what ways has digital media facilitated democracy?
  • What new culture, social and political changes have been affected by this digital public sphere?
  • What existing societal forces are disadvantageous to its development?
  • What strategies can be found to to be instrumental in developing a fully effective public sphere?
(More on my academia.edu profile)

I have highlighted the question that best addresses the issue of tribalism.

Nigeria is the focus of my study. Since the Professor illustrated his points with mainly Kenya and Somalia, I thought I'll do a blog post on how tribalism is also a big issue in Nigeria's democracy.

I have not begun to tackle this question in detail (i'm still on the first two questions), however, I feel it is necessary for me to touch upon it albeit briefly here. Let me call this post a mini-preptowards the real deal. I have no doubt that in the course of research, I will find other social forces that are detrimental to the creation of the digital public sphere. Hypothetically, tribalism may be on the list of findings. As a researcher, I am often self-reminded not to go into the field with ready-made assumptions.

Moving on, I have a few texts that aptly capture how tribalism began to rear its head in Nigeria's social-sphere, especially in Journalism; not being nipped in the bud, it gradually sipped into party-politics and found a clear pathway to strongly impact on the country's democracy. If not so, in late 2000s, we wouldn't still be talking about the concept of zoning the presidency in Nigeria.

Where did this start?

Once upon a time, Nigeria and the people within it had a common enemy, colonialism. The race was on to get colonialists off the land and secure political independence. Unlike others, it was a bloodless war fought on the pages of newspapers.

The first newspaper in the country was founded in Abeokuta (a thriving centre of missionary activity) by Rev. Henry Townsend. It was called Iwe Iroyin fun Awon Ara Egba ati Yoruba (the newspaper for the people of Egba and Yoruba).

Albeit that this newspaper was primarily a religious pamphlet, carrying news on missionary activity, it also published content on local politics. Fred Omu (1978) says Iwe Iroyin must have had a robust editorial policy because it was reprimanded by the British Colonial Office, for "aggravating problems of foreign policy".

The birth of a radical press emerged in the 1880s, the kind of press that had no affiliation to the church. These were newspapers by educated Africans, returnees. By 1937 there were no less than 51 newspapers in existence (Olatunji Dare, 2000:12). Here are a few names of the pioneers: Richard Beale Blaize (Lagos Times), Benjamin Blackall (The Observer), Owen Emerick Macaulay (The Eagle and Lagos Critic), John Payne Jackson (Lagos Weekly Record)...

Herbert Macaulay, regarded as the Father of Nationalism took over Nigeria's first daily in 1927, Lagos Daily News and transformed it into 'a ferocious anti-government news paper and a political springboard, and the organ of his political party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party" (Dare, 2000:14-5).

In 1937, Nnamdi Azikwe also joined the league of journalists when he set up West African Pilot, and proceeded to establish Nigeria's first newspaper chain. Azikwe's newspaper chain even 'secured a foothold in Northern Nigeria,' with the publication Daily Comet.

It was about fighting the idea of colonialism, hence tribal differences were kept aside.

In the North, the first newspaper was the Hausa language, Gaskiya Tafi Kwabo, established in 1939 by the colonial authorities.

In 1949, Obafemi Awolowo also set up the Nigerian Tribune to serve as a vehicle for his political party, the Action Group.

As Dare (2000) puts it, a distinct feature of the press in Nigeria before independence was that it was almost entirely owned and controlled by individuals or political parties.

This was the foundation of journalism in Nigeria. Given the significant role journalism plays in the democracy of any society, it's quite evident the road Nigeria's was headed.

I can't put the description of events that occurred after Nigeria's independence any better than Dare (2000 citing Omu (1978):
With the attainment of political independence in 1960, the cleavages that had been subsumed by the nationalist struggle came into bold relief. Britain, the "common enemy", had departed. The regions, the ethnic groups and the political parties around which they were organised, turned inwards on themselves. So intense was the rivalry and the bitterness among the contending political groups that editors and staffers working on newspapers of different political persuasions, were hardly on speaking terms...

In summary, the Nigerian press was already divided along party lines (pre-independence), and the parties were equally divided along ethnic lines. Hence, tribalism became enshrined in Nigeria's democracy even before practice or perhaps I should say attempted practice.

Professor Calestous suggests that concerted effort to build modern political parties founded on development ideas and not tribal bonds is needed to counter this cankerworm of tribalism. Also, that building clear party platforms requires effective intellectual input, usually provided through think-tanks and other research institutions.

Ironically, the intellectuals-of-old in Nigeria were the players in the history I have attempted to narrate in brief. One would have thought they would know better than to than to allow tribal differences fester in politics - there has been no end to it since then. However, there can be an end to it.

How do you suppose tribalism can be eradicated from Nigeria's democracy? What steps would you take?

Your suggestions are welcome. Please comment.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. mandlods

    l cannot comment on Nigeria Specifically but I just wanted to add that tribalism in Africa has led to genocide for example in Rwanda. It is really about time we started such conversations and to think deeply about what needs ,to be done.

    30 Nov 2012, 12:59


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