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Within the states that make up Nigeria, the role tribalism plays in our democracy is overwhelming. It is glaring within the ethnic and sub-ethnic nationalities. Governors who are the Chief Executive Officers in many states have consistently emerged from ethnic or sub-ethnic groups with larger populations.

By Adesina Akande

Tribalism is defined as tribal consciousness and loyalty by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. As uncomplicated as the word is, it has received severe knocks from political commentators and analysts in our environment recently. This is hardly surprising. It is pandering as usual to our politicians. All over the world, the power-seeking game is to slant discussions in a manner that will give political advantages over opponents. Voting in elections is about identifying with a person or group of persons, usually along political party lines, and what they stand for.

In the ongoing contest for the Presidency, the debates are skewed in a way to justify the centrality of religion, especially as regards the pairing of candidates in our multi-religious country. The tendency that advocates the need for religious balancing in our polity is the same one that is loudest in condemning tribalism. Identifying with one’s ethnicity, colour or creed should not be debasing in politics. It is not a social crime. It was in that light that African Americans largely embraced and identified with Obama, the only black president in American history during his first election. 

Stripped of hypocrisy, the 2023 presidential candidacies of Atiku, Kwankwaso, Obi, and Tinubu, the four main contenders for our presidency as much a contest along the old ethnic/regional lines of Fulani/Northeast, Fulani/Northwest, Igbo/Southeast, and Yoruba/Southwest. Their running mates can similarly be interpreted along Igbo/South-South, Edo/South-South, Fulani/Northwest, and Kanuri/Northeast respectively. Only APC, the ruling party, parted ways with religious sensitivity incursion in our politics by adopting a Muslim/Muslim ticket. This has generated a lot of hostility in many Christian communities throughout the country. 

Usually coined in colourful expressions to capture the expectations of the electorates, the parties fashion their manifestos and expect to be elected to various offices on those bases. The voters who constitute the electorate are the kingmakers. Unfortunately, in exercising this fundamental right, their choices are often questioned and negatively profiled. A voter’s choice in an election is determined by the summation of the electoral promises of the contesting candidates or parties and the one that approximates his priorities. This is so because an average voter is conditioned by his values as dictated by his immediate environment. Consequently, within the same country, the same state, or constituency, the voters are open to different predilections. This is tribalism. As a result of this, there is no point in looking at ourselves and feeling embarrassed by the accusation of tribalism in our politics.

It is as to degrees and is evidenced everywhere political choices are made by the electorates. Advanced democracies are not exempted.
Playing the ethnic/tribal card is by the way conspicuous in our Constitution. The requirement of reflection of federal character in political and other government appointments – ethnic spread – is one of the clear indications of the acceptance of our diversities. It is for this reason that each state must be represented in the Federal Executive Council at the Centre, and each local government represented at the State Executive Council at that level. These diversities are also acknowledged by our leading political parties. One of which in fact stipulates in its constitution that political power must rotate between the Northern and Southern parts of the country. If these diversities have been accorded their rights of place, why the hues and cries when they are observed in our voting patterns? 

There are copious examples of ethnicity/tribalism influences on voting in many countries of the world, inclusive of the established democracies that the limit of space will not permit listing here. However, here at home and in the first republic, party formation was deeply rooted in the Regions and drew their membership and mass followership therefrom. Hence, the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) had no pretense about its focus. The support was entirely within the Northern Region. The National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) in spite of its name, was essentially a core Igbo of the Eastern Region party. Action Group (AG) was mainly a Yoruba party from the Western Region. These were the main parties. What followed were efforts by these parties to form alliances with the minor parties that had their roots in regions outside of their own.

The Second Republic was not in any way different. The pan-national posture of NPN which boosted its relative strength in the minority areas of the South was betrayed by its poor showing in the 1979 polls elsewhere, outside the core North peopled by Hausa and Fulani. NPP had a little challenge to its control of the votes of the Igbo people of Southeast. The Yoruba as in the past held onto UPN which was not too different from AG of the first republic. GNPP led by Ibrahim Waziri, a Kanuri retained the attraction of the Kanuri people of Borno and neighbouring Gongola states. Kano and Kaduna states remained within the fold of Aminu Kano’s PRP.

In the aborted third republic, the military artificially created two political parties with fake political ideologies of a “little to the right and a little to the left”. The National Republican Convention (NRC) and Social Democratic Party (SDP) were assumably devoid of ethnic linkages and founders. This was the first attempt to create parties that were “nationalistic” in outlook. This cosmetic approach to politics ended in spectacular failure when the overwhelming victory of MKO Abiola at the presidential poll could not be defended by the winning SDP. The ensuing struggle to actualize the mandate by protests and agitations was limited mainly to his Yoruba of the South West.
Not much has changed in this republic. The military which also midwife this democracy, realizing the futility of forging and forcing political parties on the populace allowed the civilians to form the parties. The outcome was the dominant PDP which aped the defunct NPN, AD, a near replica of AG. The rump that APP became after the pulling out by the Yoruba leaders and much later, APGA with its narrow base among the Igbos and limited electoral successes. Even now with the multiplicity of parties, the umbilical cords of the main political parties to their ethnic/tribal bases are palpable. The plethora of others that only exist in the INEC register in fulfillment of legality has not altered the reality.

As it is in Nigeria, so is it with more advanced democracies. Britain has the dominant Conservative, Labour, and Liberal parties. This has not dampened the love of the Irish in Northern Ireland and the Scots in Scotland for parties that are indigenous and rooted in those communities. Britain has in living memory been having Prime Ministers who are English. The only exception was Gordon Brown, a Scot whose tenure ended abruptly in 2010. The recent drama following the exit of Boris Johnson that saw the emergence of native girl Liz Truss as Prime Minister over the better-exposed and prepared Rishi Sunak with Indian roots is another confirmation of the role of ethnicity/tribalism in democracy.

Minorities hardly prevail in elections irrespective of their outstanding individual qualities. In Rhodesia, the preeminence of Joshua Nkomo during the independence arm struggle was not in doubt. Nkomo was from the minority Matabele ethnic group. Robert Mugabe, from the majority Shona, emerged as the President of the newly independent democratic Rhodesia rechristened Zimbabwe.
Within the states that make up Nigeria, the role tribalism plays in our democracy is overwhelming. It is glaring within the ethnic and sub-ethnic nationalities. Governors who are the Chief Executive Officers in many states have consistently emerged from ethnic or sub-ethnic groups with larger populations. In Benue State, the majority of Tivs monopolise power. In Oyo State, the Ibadan group’s grip on power is total. In Kogi State, but for the mishap of the death of an Igala who was coasting to victory in an inconclusive election, the majority Igala people never conceded power to their Ebira and Okun citizens. Power rotation and semblance of participatory democracy become expedient only when one ethnic group does not have the population to lord it over others. In the situation described, alliances are formed to obtain the majority required to win elections.

Such alliances are products of long-time efforts spent to reach out and cultivate the trust of the required allies. MKO Abiola was at it for a long time before it manifested in his victory in the 1993 presidential election before it was scuttled by the military. 
Tinubu has been cultivating these alliances since the death of Abiola and with more determination after politically securing his Yoruba South West base in 2007. He strategically cultivated relationships across the length and breadth of the country. Stories of his friendship and generosity have been told even by his present day’s political foes. Atiku has done wonderfully well along this line also. His earlier political apprenticeship under Sheu Musa Yar’adua and his eight years as Vice President under Obasanjo afforded him ample opportunities to expand his reach and consolidate his established links.

Not so much can be said of Kwankwaso and especially Obi. Incidentally, it is the camp of the latter that has been more vociferous in its condemnation of the place of tribalism/ethnicity in our politics. This sentiment echoes his obvious lateness in forming political alliances. But in spite of this, his grip on the Igbos in the Southeast is unyielding.
This essay has merely scratched the surface of this topic. Many will continue to see tribalism as the bane of our politics. It is the same way others see the incursion of religion. What is required of our political class is not to play the ostrich. Let enduring bridges be built across these barriers that certainly cannot be destroyed.

Adesina Akande is a public affairs commentator. He recently retired from the University of Jos

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