Ethnicity in Nigeria

Simon A. Rakov, Vassar College '92 (English 32, Fall 1990)

The ethnicity of Nigeria is so varied that there is no definition of a Nigerian beyond that of someone who lives within the borders of the country (Ukpo, p. 19). The boundaries of the formerly English colony were drawn to serve commercial interests, largely without regard for the territorial claims of the indigenous peoples (38). As a result, about three hundred ethnic groups comprise the population of Nigeria (7), and the country's unity has been consistently under siege: eight attempts at secession threatened national unity between 1914 and 1977. The Biafran War was the last of the secessionist movements within this period (3).

The concept of ethnicity requires definition. Ukpo calls an "ethnic group" a "group of people having a common language and cultural values" (10). These common factors are emphasized by frequent interaction between the people in the group. In Nigeria, the ethnic groups are occasionally fusions created by intermarriage, intermingling and/or assimilation. In such fusions, the groups of which they are composed maintain a limited individual identity. The groups are thus composed of smaller groups, but there is as much difference between even the small groups; as Chief Obafemi Awolowo put it, as much "as there is between Germans, English, Russians and Turks" (11).

The count of three hundred ethnic groups cited above overwhelmingly enumerates ethnic minority groups, those which do not comprise a majority in the region in which they live. These groups usually do not have a political voice, nor do they have access to resources or the technology needed to develop and modernize economically. They therefore often consider themselves discriminated against, neglected, or oppressed. There are only three ethnic groups which have attained "ethnic majority" status in their respective regions: the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Ibo in the southeast, and the Yoruba (Soyinka's group) in the southwest (11, 21).

We must be very careful to avoid the use of the term "tribe" to describe these ethnic groups. "Tribe," Ukpo points out, is largely a racist term. The Ibo and Hausa-Fulani of Nigeria are each made up of five to ten million people, a figure comparable to the number of, say, Scots, Welsh, Armenians, Serbs or Croats. Yet we do not refer to the latter groups as "tribes." The term "tribe" is almost exclusively, and very indifferently, applied to peoples of Native American or African origin. It is a label which emerged with imperialism in its application to those who were non-European and lived in a "colonial or semi-colonial Asia, Africa and Latin America" (14). As we are attempting to discard the prejudices of imperialism it is in our best interests to discard the use of the term "tribe" when referring to the ethnic groups of Nigeria.

With that in mind, we should dabble in brief definitions of the major ethnic groups of Nigeria. The majority groups, as stated above, are the Hausa-Fulani, Ibo and Yoruba. The first, the Hausa-Fulani, are an example of a fused ethnic group, as they are actually made up of two groups, not surprisingly called the Hausa and the Fulani.

The Hausa are themselves a fusion, a collection of Sudanese peoples that were assimilated, long ago, into the population inhabiting what is now considered Hausaland. They believe in the religion of Islam. Their origin is a matter of dispute: legends trace them back to Canaan, Palestine, Libya, Mecca and Baghdad, while ethnologists hold them to be from the Southern Sahara or the Chad Basin. Once they arrived in Hausaland they became known for setting up seven small states centered around "Birni," or walled cities. In these states the Hausa developed techniques of efficient government, including a carefully organized fiscal system and a highly learned judiciary, that gave them a reputation of integrity and ability in administering Islamic law (20).

The Fulani are also Muslims, and, like the Hausa, their origin is more or less an open question. Once a nomadic people, they believe themselves to be descended from the gypsies, Roman soldiers who became lost in the desert, a lost "tribe" of Israel, or other groups such as the relatives of the Britons or the Tuaregs, who inhabit the southern edge of the Sahara in central Africa. Scholars claim that the Fulani are related to the Phoenicians, or place their origin in shepherds of Mauritania that were looking for new pastures. Whatever their origin, the Fulani are known to have arrived in the Hausa states in the early 13th century. Since then they have intermarried with the Hausa, and have mostly adopted the latter's customs and language, although some Fulani decided to stay "pure" by retaining a nomadic life and animist beliefs. The Fulani are most distinctively known for a dispute that developed between them and the local King of Gobir, a spat which developed into a religious war or Jihad ending with a Fulani conquest of the Hausa states (20-21).

The second majority ethnic group is the Ibo, who like the Hausa-Fulani are a synthesis of smaller ethnic groups. In this case the smaller groups are the Onitsha Ibo, the Western Ibo, the Cross River Ibo, and the North-eastern Ibo. Their origins are completely unknown, as they claim to be from about nineteen different places. They do maintain an "indigenous home," however: the belt of forest in the country to the east of the Niger Valley. This home was established to avoid the Fulani's annual slave raids, which were conducted on cavalry that was unable to explore very deeply in the forest. The Ibo thus generally inhabited inaccessible areas, although during the 19th century they began to assert ancestral claims to Nri town, "the heart of the Ibo nationality" (32).

The Ibo established a society that was fascinating in its decentralization. Their largest societal unit was the village, where each extended family managed its own affairs without being dictated to by any higher authority. Where chiefs existed they held very restricted political power, and only local jurisdiction. The villages were democratic in nature, as the government of the community was the concern of all who lived in it.

The third ethnic majority group, the Yoruba, is like the others made up of numerous smaller collections of people. Those who are identified as Yoruba consider themselves to be members of the Oyo, Egba, Ijebu, Ife, Ilesha, Ekiti or Owu peoples. The Yoruba are united, however, by their common belief in the town of Ife as their place of origin, and the Oni of Ife as their spiritual leader. Their mythology holds that "Oduduwa" created the earth; present royal houses of the Yoruba kingdoms trace their ancestry back to "Oduduwa," while members of the Yoruba people maintain that they are descended from his sons. Yoruba society is organized into kingdoms, the greatest of which was called Oyo and extended as far as Ghana in the west and the banks of the Niger to the east. The Oyo empire collapsed in 1830 when Afonja, an ambitious governor of the state of Ilorin, broke away but lost his territory to the hired mercenaries of the Fulani. Despite the fact that this event occurred in close temporal proximity to the Fulani Jihad, it was not associated with it (29-30).

These three groups comprise only fifty-seven percent of the population of Nigeria. The remainder of the people are members of the ethnic minority groups, which include such peoples as the Kanuri, the Nupe, and the Tiv in the north, the Efik/Ibibio, the Ejaw, and the Ekoi in the east, and the Edo and Urhobo/Isoko to the west, along with hundreds of other groups that differ widely in language, culture and even physique. The specific groups mentioned above are distinct in that they were found, in the 1953 census, to have over one hundred thousand members. As the population of Nigeria has doubled to over seventy-eight million people in 1982 from approximately thirty-one million in 1953, it is safe to assume that these groups are now much larger (24, AHD p. 1509).

We close with a comparison that attempts to portray the difficulties of successfully governing such an incredible variety of people. Nigeria is an area the size of the state of Texas in which over three hundred different languages are spoken, and in which the same number of separate cultures desperately try to retain their identity. You can only imagine the ensuing chaos.


Hodgkin, Thomas. Nigerian Perspectives: An Historical Anthology. London: University Press, 1960.

Meek, C. K. The Northern Tribes of Nigeria. London: Oxford University Press, 1925.

Okpu, Ugbana. Ethnic Minority Problems in Nigerian Politics: 1960-1965. Stockholm: LiberTryck AB, 1977.

The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982.

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