Saatah Nubari: Ethnic Politics In Nigeria For Dummies

I planned on putting down this piece the day after the Presidential primaries of the leading opposition party in Nigeria, the APC; but with the boorish, uncouth and rascally behaviour put on display by the dis-honourable members of our Honourable National Assembly, I just had to wait no more.

This is a crash course on Ethnic Politics in Nigeria. Firstly, I’ll define what I mean by “Ethnic Politics” so as not to confuse my readers as we voyage through the murky waters of ethnocentrism and politics:  “This New Nation called Nigeria should be an estate of our great grandfather, Uthman Dan Fodio. We must ruthlessly prevent a change of power. We use the minorities in the North as willing tools, and the South, as conquered territory and never allow them to rule over us, and never allow them to have control over their future” (Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of Northern Region: The Parrot of October 12, 1960)—I’m sorry I couldn’t find a more apropos statement/definition, but this one here will certainly do justice to what we’re about to discuss.


In Nigeria, politics or rather leadership doesn’t revolve around one’s ability or inability to perform. It instead revolves around some flimsy, insubstantial and tenuous ideologies propagated over a long period of time and dexterously cemented with politics’ best adhesives, religion and ethnicity.

Failing to accept this truth has and will continue to be the greatest undoing of the Nigerian state, even leapfrogging Lord Laggards’ geographical feat of 1914, for which I whole heartedly nominate him for a posthumous Nobel Prize for his geographical adroitness.

What majority of Nigerians (mostly younger folks) fail to understand about our political landscape is that there is no replica anywhere in the world. Ours is a case of political-extraordinaire—ours is a case of limits, and it’ll do us so much good if we can for once admit that the few times when one is a Nigerian is when one travels abroad and when the country is being represented at an international or continental event. In Nigeria, you’re born Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Ijaw, Ogoni, Tiv or one of the 250 or more other ethnic groups but you’re not born Nigerian, well, not at first. Your ability to understand Nigerian Politics hinges on this confusing paragraph, but as we forge ahead, ambiguity will make way for clarity.

Another thing we pretend doesn’t exist and I wish didn’t exist is the truth that Nigerians are born with a limit to their political aspirations. What tribe you belong to and what religion you profess goes a long way in dictating the distance you are “Allowed” to cover in the Nigerian political landscape—since this series is for dummies, I’ll just cut to the chase and make it simple: for you to get to the highest office in the land (Presidency), you’re either born into the right ethnic group or the wrong ethnic group.


The 1966 coup led by Major. Kaduna Nzeogwu and Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna both of Igbo extraction, like their ranks became the major turning point of the “ethnicalisation” of politics in Nigeria. In a coup that saw the killing of mostly Norherners, including the Sardauna of Sokoto and the Prime Minister Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, ethnic politics took a dangerous twist still manifesting today.

The coup was seen by the Northerners (Hausa/Fulani) as a ploy by the Easterners (Igbo) to exterminate their leaders, grab power and relegate them to the “back seat”. The after effect of this is what we now know as the Nigerian Civil War. The 1966 coup and the resulting Civil War worsened an already bad trust issue hovering over the Nigerian state and there and then, the “ethnic alliance” began.

After the Civil War, the “ethnic alliance” began—though unofficially and undocumented. The Igbos were systematically prevented from getting to the highest office in the land either by crook or by polls.

NOTE: The Niger Delta people and the South-South in general, by this time, had not come into the “ethnic politics” of the country. Their existence then can best be described as inconsequential to the politics of “ethnicism”.


What we have as alliances in Nigerian politics today are: Hausa-Fulani/Yoruba alliance which came into effect immediately after the Civil War and the South-South/Igbo alliance which came into play immediately the present President, Goodluck Jonathan came into office.

In 1999, the Hausa-Fulani (Abdulsalami Abubakar) literally handed power over to the Yoruba’s (Olusegun Obasanjo), this was a continuation of the Hausa-Fulani/Yoruba alliance. This was more like compensating for the annulment of the June 12 Presidential election which a Yoruba man won. Deputising for Obasanjo was Atiku Abubakar and the plan was simple; Obasanjo does one term and hands over to a Hausa-Fulani man. This agreement was meant to continue like this with the Presidency being rotated between the Hausa-Fulani and their Yoruba counterparts. A name was giving to it, “Zoning” which to me was just a calculated attempt at deceiving other ethnic groups and the Igbos in particular into believing that they too had a chance of getting to the exalted office of the President.

The North/South zoning formula was vague to us, but simple to its planners. North meant Hausa-Fulani and not Nupe or Tiv while South meant Yoruba and not Igbo, or Ijaw—well, these people could be Vice-Presidents, but the Presidency was off limits.

The plan was hatched and the ball was set in motion. Obasanjo had other plans which included seeking for re-election and in 2003 he succeeded in getting the backing of his Hausa-Fulani counterparts. 2007 came and Obasanjo didn’t feel like relinquishing power, at least not yet. Atiku Abubakar, seeing that Obasanjo was renegading on his agreement and also seeing what a successful manipulation of the constitution would do to his political career had no choice but to fight it. I’m of the opinion that his strong stance against the third term agenda of Obasanjo wasn’t done out of love for country, but out of ethnic interests. Thank God third term failed—at least we all get to enjoy its failure.

Obasanjo, seeing that his third-term agenda was dead and couldn’t be resuscitated, he hatched another plan. Obasanjo wanted to be god; he wanted to remain relevant despite his lost third term bid so he handpicked the late Yar’adua and Goodluck Jonathan, two quiet fellows he could dictate things to. He tried to kill two birds with one stone; he wanted to keep the alliance with the North and also wanted to dictate things behind the curtains, one that would see him become the de-facto President—third-term by proxy. It is widely known that the front runner to get the PDP’s Presidential ticket then was the Governor of Rivers State, Dr. Peter Odili. Peter Odili had the money to throw around, and he made sure he threw it around, but Peter Odili was not a Hausa-Fulani and couldn’t be allowed to move ahead so he was schemed out. The best Odili could get at that time was a Vice-Presidential slot, but Obasanjo feared his independence.

At the end of the scheming and counter scheming, the PDP settled for a Yar’adua/Goodluck ticket, the ANPP settled for a Buhari/Ume-Ezeoke ticket and the ACN settled for an Atiku/Obi ticket. A careful analysis of the various political parties save for the PDP shows a definite pattern, all went for a Hausa-Fulani Presidential candidate, and a Vice-Presidential candidate from the East (Igbo).

One re-occurring decimal in Nigeria’s political history is that things don’t always go according to plan. Yar’adua won the 2007 Presidential elections although it was rigged, that is not the topic of today. From 2007 to 2009 when Yar’adua was President, the nation was relatively calm, and then things unfortunately went from calm to worse when Goodluck Jonathan, a minority who wasn’t part of the alliance looked likely to replace the ailing Yar’adua. To cut a long story short, Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in despite protests from Northern politicians and since then, the country just hasn’t been the same.

2011 was war—or “do or die” like Obasanjo would put it. The aim was simple; recapture the Presidency by all means necessary. The opposition against Goodluck Jonathan took a different turn and he had to promise to do just one term so as to placate the Hausa-Fulani members of the PDP so as to get the Party’s ticket. Buhari formed his own political party called CPC and had Tunde Bakare as his running mate while his counterpart in the ACN went for Nuhu Ribadu as Presidential candidate and Fola Adeola as his Vice. This point in our history witnessed the forming of a new alliance, this time between the Igbo (Easterners) and the Niger Delta (South-Southerners). A people who could not forge an alliance during the Civil War now had a reason to forge one, the Presidency.

It should also be noted that there was a major shift from the 2007 Presidential elections where the major political parties went for Hausa-Fulani Presidential candidates and Igbo Vice-Presidential candidates, the ethnic alliance was now in full swing, every ethnic group now had a partner, with the Middle-Belt tilting towards Goodluck Jonathan.

Goodluck Jonathan won the election in 2011 and the criticisms (majority of which comes from the Hausa-Fulani/Yoruba) and support (majority of which comes from the Igbo/Niger Delta) which has trailed his administration shouldn’t be treated with a wave of the hand. We have had threats from people of Hausa-Fulani extraction promising fire and brimstone and even promising to make the country ungovernable if Jonathan wins, threats which we will be wrong to say have not been actualised. We have also had threats from people of the Niger Delta extraction promising war if Jonathan isn’t re-elected in 2015—threats which we will be very wrong if we think won’t be carried out with all precision.


The reason the Igbos will continue to show support for Jonathan is this; they feel short-changed and as such will love to vie for the office of the President in 2019 if Jonathan wins in 2015. They know they won’t get the backing of the Hausa’s and Yoruba’s hence their support for Jonathan, so in 2019 they will also have the support of the other ethnic minorities who also feel short-changed if they decide to vie for the highest office in the land.


You have Rotimi Amaechi, Fashola, Oshiomole and Fayemi who the major opposition in Nigeria, the APC, claims to have performed excellently well but they didn’t get the Presidential nomination forms of their party. Instead these “performers” are silently clamouring for the Vice-Presidential slot to a 71 years old Buhari—forget Atiku Abubakar, he definitely won’t get the ticket and he’ll soon realise it. Now you understand that who becomes president is not based on how much you have performed or how much you can perform. It’s about where you’re from and Goodluck Jonathan just doesn’t come from the right place, or rather wasn’t born into the right ethnic group. So if by 2015 GEJ brings God himself to Nigeria, the ethnic alliance will still be against him.

So when next you plan on commenting on political issues weigh everything—check the commentators, weigh their arguments alongside their ethnicity/religion/interest, note that no matter how “neutral” every political commentator would claim to be, there are just two sides to this coin; Hausa-Fulani/Yoruba and Igbo/Niger-Delta.

Well I’ve done my best to explain the way I think politics is run in Nigeria. To those of you who have held your insults till now, feel free to give it to me generously, God bless you.


Article written by Saatah Nubari is on Twitter @Saatah


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One Comment

  1. The writer said North means Hausa/Fulani (not Nupe or Tib)and they handed over the power to a Southerner (which means Yaroba but not Ibos or Ijaws)in 1999. The author may have forgotten or he did not know that Abdulsalami Abubakar is Nupe man from Niger state. This invalidate his opinion that the presidency was planned to be rotated between 2 ethnic groups only.

    Our country is passing through difficult stage of disintegration and articles like this are capable of making the atmosphere to be more harsh. The PEN should be use to correct people please, and it should not be use to cause suspicion and ethnic rivalry among Nigerians. Let us came together and take our country to a next level of development.

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