Tackling ethnic, religious problems in Nigeria

Bola Tinubu


By Rasak Musbau

Aside from during sporting events, when every Nigerian passionately supports and wants Nigeria’s team to succeed, Nigeria is synonymous with deep division along the lines of intricate ethnic, religious, and regional divides.

Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of modern-day Singapore, visited Nigeria a few days before the military struck on January 15, 1966. His visit was in connection with the Commonwealth Conference held in Lagos on Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. His conclusion about Nigeria in 1966 is contained in a book he wrote in 2000 titled, ‘From Third World to First’. In the book, he concluded: “I think their tribal loyalties were stronger than their sense of common nationhood”.

The tragic preference for tribal loyalties at the expense of good governance has made Nigeria arguably the worst-run of the world’s seven most populated countries. For too long, our country has been used as a symbol for anything wrong in terms of countries that are endowed with resources. Religion and ethnicity seem to influence leadership selection in the political system, in co-existence, and in general perception of one another.  Unfortunately, government policy preferences are also associated with religion and ethnicity. This is evidenced in the reaction of some Nigerians to the recent move to relocate some departments in the CBN and FAAN to Lagos State. Many would rather prefer policy that would favour their interest instead of the national interest.

Tackling ethnic and religious problems in Nigeria is a complex and multifaceted challenge that requires a comprehensive and sensitive approach. Nigeria is a diverse country with over 250 ethnic groups and a roughly equal division between Muslims and Christians, which can sometimes lead to tensions and conflicts.

Despite the constitutional provision for equality in the Nigerian constitution, we are confronted with the dangerous tendency of mutual distrust and manipulation of what divides us by powerful political and religious mongers. In truth, socio-economic cum political inequality is a reality in Nigeria. But despite various efforts to eradicate the problem as evidenced in the creation and proliferation of States, ethnic “arithmetic”, ethnic balancing, federal character, NYSC scheme, Unity Colleges, various means for revenue allocation, official and unofficial exhortations for national unity, and inter-ethnic tolerance and inter-faith groups, the problem still haunts us.

It is important to understand that governments, leaders, or groups that manipulate the people by appealing to their religious and ethnic sentiment have a reason for doing so. The reason is simple. Manipulators have something to profit or hide.  They pretend to be protecting the interests of groups to which they belong by ethnicity or religion while they are only taking care of their selfish interests.  By this manipulation, they want to weaken the consciousness and opposition of the entire people to their bad government and bad leadership.

Since independence, various selfish leaders have manipulated our people by emphasizing our differences. For example, some have based their political campaigns on ethnicity, regionalism, and religion. But while in office, their performances, ways of life, and style of living belied their religious claims as they were more corrupt and perverted than Shaitan (devil).

It is time we recognized that the old saying, “unity is strength” remains valid. It is only in unity that we can win the war for economic development, social progress, and political emancipation. It is when we are united that the war against insurgency, banditry, corruption, and other crimes and what prompted them can be successfully fought and won. Trading of blame by various leaders, to further deepen our division, is counter-productive. Fighting with vulgar words on social media along ethnic lines is not the way to go. The winners from the social media war are the manipulators and exploiters of our commonwealth.

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Much has been said and published in the media about our challenges. How to address the issues is what should be paramount now. Let there arise a group of patriotic people encouraging open and honest dialogue between different ethnic and religious groups to help build mutual understanding and trust. This can be facilitated through community meetings, interfaith dialogues, and other forms of structured communication.

Also, addressing economic disparities and promoting inclusive economic development can help to reduce competition and tension between different groups. This can involve targeted policies to support marginalized communities and promote economic opportunities for all.

Nigerians must know that the poverty, ignorance, and disease which oppress the working masses today, do not recognize ethnic, language, religious or regional differences. Hunger does not discern your ethnicity. So, whether you are Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Urhobo, Itsekiri, Longuda, Birom, Ogoja, Tiv, Gbagyi, Efik, Kanuri, Chip, Annang, Izon, Nupe, etc means nothing to poverty. Likewise, the disease does not care about your religious affiliation. Neither does ignorance.

Poverty, disease, and ignorance attack primarily the masses. Therefore, the masses need to shun all artificial and counter-productive divisive tendencies. They would lead us to nowhere.

Another area to address is political inclusion. Promoting political inclusion and representation of diverse ethnic and religious groups in governance can help to ensure that all voices are heard and considered in decision-making processes. What people who exercise their political rights experience after the election should be democracy and not kakistocracy. The masses’ expectation of governance is the application of the rule of law. Strengthening the rule of law and promoting respect for human rights can help to ensure that all individuals and communities are treated fairly and equitably.

This is the time for our people to use religion and ethnic frontiers to promote national development and stability. The people should be educated about the importance of forming and joining popular associations, such as professional and trade unions and clubs that cut across ethnic, language, religious, and regional boundaries, to strengthen national identity and unity.

This is the time for individuals and organizations with influence and means to educate the masses on the imperative for national unity, harmony, and cohesion. Promoting education and awareness about different ethnic and religious groups can help to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions. This can be done through school curricula, public awareness campaigns, and community outreach programs. Irrespective of how herculean it is, it is better today for leaders to agree on all areas that need restructuring in our polity before we approach another electioneering year. We have been fooled for too long. Now is the time to ‘shine’ our eyes and refuse to be fooled again.

-Musbau is the Director, Public Affairs Unit, Lagos State Infrastructure Asset Management Agency (LASIAMA), Alausa Secretariat, Lagos.

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