Ethnic Conflict Management in Africa: A Comparative Case Study of Nigeria and South Africa

Emmy Godwin Irobi

May, 2005


Nigeria and South Africa could be likened to the Biblical Aaron and Moses, who were endowed with the responsibility to bring Africa out from the bondage of despair, decline and underdevelopment. As regional powers, history has imposed on them the enormous task of finding solutions to some of the most pressing African concerns.

African countries today face greater challenges to peace and stability than ever before. The countries of sub-Saharan Africa, including Sierra-Leone, Ivory Coast, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are a volatile mix of insecurity, instability, corrupt political institutions and poverty. Alarmingly, most of these countries lack the political will to maintain previous peace agreements, and thus have fallen prey to continuous armed ethnic conflict. (Monty Marshall, 2003) This is partly due to ineffective conflict management.

The conflicts in these countries are mostly between ethnic groups, not between states. If not checked, ethnic conflicts are contagious and can spread quickly across borders like cancer cells. Ted Gurr and Monty Marshall have written that most African conflicts are caused by the combination of poverty and weak states and institutions. (Peace and Conflict, 2001:11-13; 2003)

This paper is meant as a contribution towards the ongoing search for new means of managing ethnic conflicts in Africa. Using Nigeria and South Africa as case studies, it compares the management of ethnic conflicts in both countries and shows the difficulties in managing deep-rooted and complex conflicts. The governments of Nigeria and South Africa have taken bold constitutional steps to reduce tension, but the continuing ethnic and religious conflicts raise questions about the effectiveness of these mechanisms.

This study proposes, among other things, that ethnic conflict has been at the heart of both countries' development problems. Politicised ethnicity has been detrimental to national unity and socio-economic well-being. It is important to note that most of these ethnic conflicts were caused by colonialism, which compounded inter-ethnic conflict by capitalising on the isolation of ethnic groups. The divide-and-conquer method was used to pit ethnicities against each other, thus keeping the people from rising up against the colonisers. Distribution of economic resources was often skewed to favour a particular group, pushing marginalized groups to use their ethnicity to mobilise for equality. These are the seeds of conflict.

There are some common conflict patterns. They include:

  1. The demand for ethnic and cultural autonomy,
  2. Competing demands for land, money and power, and
  3. Conflicts taking place between rival ethnic groups.

Theoretical Approaches to Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflict

Ethnic groups are defined as a community of people who share cultural and linguistic characteristics including history, tradition, myth, and origin. Scholars have been trying to develop a theoretical approach to ethnicity and ethnic conflict for a long time. Some, like Donald Horowitz, Ted Gurr, Donald Rothschild and Edward Azar, agree that the ethnic conflicts experienced today-- especially in Africa -- are deep rooted. These conflicts over race, religion, language and identity have become so complex that they are difficult to resolve or manage. Ethnicity has a strong influence on one's status in a community. Ethnic conflicts are therefore often caused by an attempt to secure more power or access more resources. The opinion of this study is that conflict in Africa is synonymous with inequality. Wherever such inequality manifests among groups, conflict is inevitable. Hence the question, how can we effectively manage ethnic conflict in Africa to avoid further human losses? Is there a blueprint for conflict management?

Causes of Ethnic Conflict

Economic factors have been identified as one of the major causes of conflict in Africa. Theorists believe that competition for scarce resources is a common factor in almost all ethnic conflicts in Africa. In multi-ethnic societies like Nigeria and South Africa, ethnic communities violently compete for property, rights, jobs, education, language, social amenities and good health care facilities. In his study, Okwudiba Nnoli (1980) produced empirical examples linking socio-economic factors to ethnic conflict in Nigeria. According to J.S. Furnival, cited in Nnoli (1980:72-3), "the working of economic forces makes for tension between groups with competing interests."

In the case of South Africa, Gerhard Mare confirms that ethnicity and ethnic conflict appear to be a response to the uneven development in South Africa, which caused ethnic groups (Xhosas, Zulus and even Afrikaners) to mobilise to compete for resources along ethnic lines. It follows that multi-ethnic countries are likely to experience distributional conflicts.

Another major cause of ethnic conflict is psychology, especially the fear and insecurity of ethnic groups during transition. It has been opined that extremists build upon these fears to polarise the society. Additionally, memories of past traumas magnify these anxieties. These interactions produce a toxic brew of distrust and suspicion that leads to ethnic violence. The fear of white Afrikaners in South Africa on the eve of democratic elections was a good case in point.

Gurr's (1970) relative deprivation theory offers an explanation based on an ethnic groups' access to power and economic resources. This is closely related to Horowitz, (1985) who wrote that group worth is based on the results of economic and political competitions.

According to Lake and Rothschild, (1996) ethnic conflict is a sign of a weak state or a state embroiled in ancient loyalties. In this case, states act with bias to favour a particular ethnic group or region, and behaviours such as preferential treatment fuel ethnic conflicts. Therefore, in critical or difficult political situations, the effectiveness of governance is dependent on its ability to address social issues and human needs.

Recently, scholars have come out with different approaches to conceptualising ethnicity. Faced with the proliferation of separatist conflicts in North America, the inadequacies underlying modernisation theory are being exposed. The notion that modernity would result in smooth transition from gemeinschaf (community) to gessellschaft (association), with gradual dissolution of ethnic affiliations, simply did not work. Ethnicity has persisted in North America, Africa and elsewhere. This failure simply means ethnicity will remain, and that the stability of African states is threatened not by ethnicity per se, but the failure of national institutions to recognise and accommodate ethnic differences and interests. According to this argument, the lesson for ethnic conflict management is that governments should not discriminate against groups or they will create conflict.

The second theory is from the primordial school and stresses the uniqueness and the overriding importance of ethnic identity. From their point of view, ethnicity is a biological and fixed characteristic of individuals and communities. (Geertz, 1963)

The third theoretical approach is the Instrumentalist argument. (Barth.1969, Glazer and Moynihan, 1975) In Africa where poverty and deprivation are becoming endemic, mostly as a result of distributive injustice, ethnicity remains an effective means of survival and mobilization. Ethnic groups that form for economic reasons, easily disband after achieving their objectives. This corresponds with Benedict Anderson's (1991:5-7) argument that ethnicity is "a construct" rather than a constant.

Additionally, scholars' attention has also shifted to the nature of ethnic conflict and violence because the post Cold War era has been marked by the resurgence of ethnic conflict and even genocide in some societies like Rwanda, Bosnia, and Zaire.

An important theory on conflict and conflict management is John Burton's (1979, 1997) human needs theory. This approach to ethnic conflict explains that ethnic groups fight because they are denied not only their biological needs, but also psychological needs that relate to growth and development. These include peoples' need for identity, security, recognition, participation, and autonomy. This theory provides a plausible explanation of ethnic conflicts in Africa, where such needs are not easily met by undemocratic regimes.

This paper focuses on John Burton's theory to explain ethnic conflict in Nigeria and South Africa, because it provided cogent reasons for the conflicts in the case studies. (Burton 1979) The human needs theory was introduced to debunk the other theories that attribute causes of conflict to the innately aggressive nature of human beings. (John Burton 1990) The importance of this theory to ethnic conflict management in Africa is that it moves beyond theories that blame African conflicts on a primordial past. Instead, it points to ineffective institutions unable to satisfy the basic human needs of their citizens. Wherever such non-negotiable needs are not met, conflict is inevitable. Obviously, the problem of ethnicity in Africa largely depends on the level of state effectiveness, accountability, and transparency in handling the demands of diversity. The focus on the human needs theory in this study does not mean the neglect of other theories, which I consider to be equally useful.

It is necessary to emphasize that proper analysis of ethnic conflicts is very important in order to avoid prescribing a wrong medicine for the ailment. Failure to find solutions to Africa's ethnic problem will have devastating social and economic consequences on a continent that is already worn out by conflict, poverty and disease.

According to theorists, conflict management means constructive handling of differences. It is an art of designing appropriate institutions to guide inevitable conflict into peaceful channels. The importance of conflict management cannot be overemphasised. It is when leaders and states fail to address important issues and basic needs that violence brews. Nowhere is conflict management and peaceful resolution of conflict more important than in Africa. African leaders should take a second look at their behaviour and policy choices. Emphasis here should be on discouraging corruption, embracing transparency and good governance.


This study has undertaken detailed analysis of most of the ethnic conflicts that have recently bedevilled Nigeria and South Africa. However, this paper does not claim to have the solution to the threat posed by ethnic conflict in Africa; it is a humble contribution to the discourse. This analysis began by examining the following questions:

  • Sources of ethnic conflicts,
  • The participants and issues at stake,
  • The policy and institutions used to manage the conflicts,
  • The success of the policy and institutions and
  • The need for alternative mechanisms for managing such complex conflicts.

In this analysis, two inter-disciplinary methods have been chosen to understand the dynamics of ethnic conflicts in Nigeria and South Africa:

  1. It is believed that a comparison of patterns of ethnic conflict management may offer a better understanding of the complexities and available mechanisms to ensure ethnic harmony and peace. A comparative study of Nigeria and South Africa focuses on identifying ethno-political problem spots and subsequently assessing the similarity or differences in approach to conflict management and effectiveness in securing ethnic coexistence.
  2. Secondly, the historical methodology is pertinent in light of the fact that the problems of today have a long history that requires looking at contemporary developments in Nigeria and South Africa through the lens of the past.

This paper assumes that the great political and economical inequalities that exist in both countries have contributed to ethnic prejudice. This however calls for thorough analysis of political and economic policies behind governmental measures to redress inequality and poverty.


This study is structured around two main hypotheses.

  • First, conflict is inevitable in any society where people are denied their basic human needs for identity, equality, recognition, security, dignity and participation. It is also likely wherever the performance of a government is believed to be against the national interest and where government policy is biased in favour of a certain ethnic group.
  • Second, South Africa has been a more successful "melting pot" than Nigeria because ethnic conflict is more likely to be managed in a country with reasonable economic growth.

Contextual Comparison of Nigeria and South Africa

There are good reasons why I have chosen Nigeria and South Africa as case studies. Though countries apart, they are regional giants. They wield great economic, political and military power in sub-Saharan Africa. The two countries are equally blessed with a mosaic of ethnicities and races, an asset to national and economic development.

In the case of South Africa, the country's over 40 million people have long been polarized along racial lines. The country is made up of whites, indigenous Africans, coloreds, and Indians. The blacks form the majority of the population with about 30 million people, the whites 5 million, and the coloreds and Indians share 3 million. In South Africa, class is determined by race, with blacks at the bottom of the ladder. In the past, indigenous Africans were forced to live in impoverished and segregated ethnic "homelands" under the apartheid regime. The country has about 11 linguistic groups, but English is the official language.

With about 120 million people, Nigeria is Africa's most populous country. It is home to 250 linguistic groups, but English is also Nigeria's chosen official language. Although most of the ethnic groups are very tiny, three ethnic groups constitute somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the population. The Hausa-Fulani ethnic groups count for 30 percent of the population, the Yorubas about 20 per cent and the Igbos about 18 percent. These three major ethnic groups are differentiated not only by region, but also by religion and life-style.

Nigeria and South Africa are both stratified societies. However, only in South Africa was the white race dominant over the African majority. As we shall discover from this study, institutionalized racism, discrimination, language, history and culture reinforced the distance between South Africa and Nigeria. Both countries were shaped by assumptions and definitions imposed by the British rulers. British imperial rule in both countries provided identities, languages and symbols for ethnic and racial groups. Colonial racism was responsible for creating ethnic divisions and encouraging regionalism and separatism, which further separated the races and ethnic groups.

In South Africa, for example, the colonists' policies deepened the differences between Zulus and Xhosas, Ndebele and Vendas, Tswana and Qwaqwa, etc. Also, those of mixed race were segregated from the white groups through culture, residence, occupation and status. These differences benefited the elite by fomenting conflict. (See Horowitz, 1985; Mare, Gerhard, 1993)

The case of Nigeria is similar, with the exception of the racial groupings. There are no significant populations of colored people or whites in Nigeria. Instead, there are indigenous ethnic groups who were encouraged to segregate by the colonialists. The divide-and-rule strategy was evident in the design that distanced ethnic groups from each other in separate areas called "Sabongari", in northern Nigeria and "Abakpa" in the eastern part of the country. This arrangement resulted in violent conflict when the various ethnic groups were forced to compete for scarce resources.

In both countries, the process of modernization is adding tension to already divided societies. As in most of the third world countries, major rifts in society such as these present formidable problems for governments attempting to maintain or establish ethnic harmony and foster economic development.

The South African conflict involved the Zulus and the Xhosas, African National Congress supporters in the KwaZulu-Natal homeland. Few physical conflicts occurred between the dominant minority white groups and the black majority ethnic groups. This was partly because of the government strategy of segregation, which distanced black homelands from white cities. However, there was a high level of violent conflict between black ethnic groups in the homelands. In Natal alone, well-over 1,147 people were killed during the first months of 1992 ( The New York Times, 18 November 1992: A6 ).

The conflict in Nigeria, especially from the year 1967 to 1970, was somewhat different from that in South Africa. In Nigeria, ethnic identities are so mixed that no region or state is immune to the infection. The main conflicts involved Hausa-Fulani and the Eastern Ibos and the Yoruba and Hausa, the minorities of the oil producing states of the south.

Both Nigeria and South Africa are among the richest in the continent in terms of natural resources. Nigeria can boast of its oil, coal, tin, bauxite and gold. South Africa is rich in gold, diamonds and other strategic minerals. Unfortunately, the majority of South Africans did not benefit from these riches because of racism and apartheid. That however does not rule out the presence of a strong and diversified private business sector and a substantial middle class that does include some blacks. Though South Africa's economy is not very healthy, they still have a highly developed financial system, a fairly efficient telecommunication infrastructure, power, a reliable water supply, roads, and a system of public administration, which is afflicted by patronage and corruption, but still delivering to the citizens.

In Nigeria, the majority of the population, especially the people from the Niger Delta oil-producing areas in the South, has yet to feel the impact of oil revenues because of corruption, discrimination and economic mismanagement. After independence, the Nigerian government interfered heavily in all spheres of economic life at great cost to the private sector and economic growth in general. Additionally, ethnicity, centralized government, and a corrupt ruling elite overshadow life in Nigeria. The incessant power failures in Nigerian cities and lack of good drinking water, telecommunication systems and reliable roads are complicating life in Africa's most populous and wealthy nation. Hence the questions, where is Nigeria's oil income? Where is Nigerian leadership?

Both Nigeria and South Africa, having concluded a difficult transition to democratic rule are at a crossroads. Both countries bear the responsibility to steer the continent away from the repression of authoritarian governments towards a path of social and economic development and good governance. Interestingly, the two countries are also driven by a similar political strategies to manage conflict through national reconciliation, consensus building and economic development. The dual processes of transition and transformation need nothing less than a vibrant economy in which the basic needs of citizens are taken care of. They also require a state and society with a sense of shared destiny where racial and ethnic identities are harnessed positively as a uniting force rather than divisive factor or an impediment to nation building. In South Africa, the potential for disaster may have been averted by the wisdom of Nelson Mandela. However, what will become of current president Thabo Mbeki's government is still unknown. Now, all eyes are on Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and his party to show some degree of capability too.

In South Africa's transition process, Mandela's charisma helped the African national Congress (ANC) to pursue the path of negotiation, accommodation and confidence building for managing the ethnic diversity problem, though some South African whites still complain of dominant party favoritism following ANC's second election victory of 1999. However, in Nigeria the ruling Peoples Democratic Party's (PDP) shortcomings are evident in Nigeria's democratic transition process. The South African people defied the pattern of their past and broke all the rules of social theory to forge a powerful spirit of unity from a shattered nation. (Waldmeir and M. Holman, 1994) But in Nigeria, the politicians are still putting out the growing flames of ethnic conflicts and religious violence. This is partly due to the government's lack of will and partly due to the military, which has been a stumbling block in the transition to democracy for some time. Nigeria's dictators often dressed in ethnic costumes and exploited the opportunism of the politicians and thus were able to use ethnicity to manipulate the transition process and silence their opponents. The human right groups that fought against General Babangida's and Abacha's regimes were not prepared for electoral politics. Hence, Nigeria marches towards democratization with a feeble civil society, fearing future military takeovers.

Comparatively, civil society in South Africa is believed to be far more supportive of democracy than in Nigeria. The South African society accommodates non-governmental organizations, civil associations, and human rights groups. They play a very important role linking the formal bureaucratic activities with the interests of the people. Contrastingly, what has emerged in Nigeria during the transition period are militant ethnic associations, like the Oodua Peoples Movement for the Yorubas, the Arewa Group for the Hausa-Fulanis, and the Movement For Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra (MOSOB) for the Igbos. Unlike a genuine civil society, these militant organizations act like political thugs, rarely supportive of democratic principles.

Historical Antecedents to the Problem of Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria and South Africa

Nigeria and South Africa both have disturbing histories of colonialism and white repression, which generated hatred and conflict among different ethnic groups. The task of addressing these seeds of conflict planted by the British has been a complex one.

After weakening the African kingdoms and reordering societies, the colonial powers failed in nation building and providing for the people's basic needs. Hence, poverty increased and with it, conflict over scarce resources. South Africa became a United Republic in 1910. Less than four years later, Nigeria's Southern and Northern protectorates were also being merged into a nation. In South Africa, the creation of the republic followed the 1902 peace agreement reached with the Boers after the gruesome Anglo-Boer War. Meanwhile, the merging of separate colonies into the country of Nigeria was forcefully done without the people's consent. This was a major seed of conflict that is still troubling Nigeria today.

First Case: South Africa

In South Africa, racism made it impossible for the indigenous Africans to enjoy the fruits of modernization. The white rulers who saw them as only a "thorn in their flesh" constantly discriminated against the Zulus, Xhosas and other black ethnic groups. The period between 1910 and 1947 exposed how economic racism consolidated the structures of white domination and black disenfranchisement and exploitation. This was done through racist legislation against the black majority. These laws forced Africans to evacuate the major cities and move to remote settlements in an impoverished part of the country. In 1912, African elites rebelled by forming the African National Congress (ANC), which was meant to represent and defend black African rights.

The black South Africans were deprived of their rights to own land through the enactment of the 1913 Black Land Act. This legislation prevented blacks from producing food for themselves and from making money through agriculture. The government also regulated the job market, reserving skilled work for whites alone and denying black African workers the right to organize and form trade unions. Finally, the Pass Laws prevented blacks from moving freely between the homelands and the cities, thereby paving the ground for the introduction of apartheid.

It must be emphasized here that policies of segregation or discrimination foment conflict. But blinded by color, the South African government was oblivious of the future consequences of their choices. The brutal suppression of early black workers' strikes in 1922 indicated that the whites were bent on solidifying the boundary between them and the indigenous Africans.

Significant to the history of ethnic conflict in South Africa was the victory of the right-wing racist National Party (NP) in 1948 and the introduction of apartheid. The victory of the Afrikaner Nationalist Party consolidated white interests in the political and economic arena. The NP strengthened the discriminatory laws and championed the belief that Africans were inferior both biologically and culturally to whites and incapable of running their own affairs. The apartheid system served as a divide-and-rule strategy that limited black mobility and participation in socio-economic activities in the country, placing them at a structural disadvantage.

Subsequent NP governments did not consider the basic needs of the African population when they created the homelands under the pretext of preserving national authority. (Leroy Vail 1989) According to Mzala (1988:77), the separate administration plan for the homelands was aimed at "retribalization within the colonial framework of South Africa. It was an attempt to exclude the black majority from having a role in the administration of their own country."

The homelands or "Bantustans" (Ivan Evans.1997) were designed to distance the Africans from the fruits of economic development in the country and made them sources of cheap labor for white owned industries. These Bantustans like KwaZulu-Natal, KwaNdebele, Bophuthatswana, and Lebowa where mainly characterized by poverty, overpopulation, underdevelopment and frustration (David Chanaiwa, 1993:258-9). Institutionalized racism and apartheid took control of black people's lives causing great hardships, poverty, despair and disease in the homelands. Because bad policy choices and denial of people's basic needs are seeds of conflict, the government of South Africa witnessed as a result, organized strikes by members of the banned African Nationalist Congress (ANC), and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) with the support of the Union of Democratic Party (UDF). Violence also increased between 1976 and 1980 in the mostly black townships of Johannesburg and Soweto, where youth and school children were trying to make the townships ungovernable (see John Kane-Berman, 1993: 29-31). The brutal police repression and closure of schools forced many youths to flee the townships and join the militant wing of the banned ANC where they continued the liberation struggle.

Apartheid made the lives of blacks very difficult in the face of increasing scarcity in the homelands. The little that trickled in was hotly competed for and in most cases became a means of building patronages for the elites. Scholars believed that the Zulu traditional ruler, Chief Mongosuthu Buthelezi and his Inkatha Freedom Movement represent a good example of how resources were misused for patronage networks in his KwaZulu homeland (Mzala, 1987; Gerhard Mare`. 1993). Distribution of the resources in this homeland was skewed to favor those loyal to the chief, while marginalizing members of other ethnic groups who lived in the area. According to Mare` (1993:41) this strategy, "aims to hide the class interests of the cultural entrepreneurs, to paper over horizontal stratification such as those of class and gender, through a kind of ethnic popularism; and to advance the class interests of the mobilizers." Inkatha being a cultural group as well as a political party, controlled the middle class businessmen and professionals. (See Mare` and Hamilton, 1987: 59-60) Chief Buthelezi did not hide his intention to control economic and political power in the homeland. He invoked ethnic markers (Gerhard Mare 1993:14-15) like language, common descent, culture and tradition to create boundaries between the Inkatha and the other ethnic groups.

The behavior of Chief Buthelezi was not acceptable to the ANC who disliked the chief's cooperation with apartheid leadership and his growing ambition to usurp the leadership of the African National Congress by claiming to be the leader of black opinion in South Africa. Chief Buthelezi was once a member of the youth wing of the ANC before his overt ambition to carve out a Zulu nation, KwaZulu-Nat,l caused him to be sacked from the party. (See Gerhard Mare, 1993) Additionally, the chief's policy was in opposition to the ANC armed struggle against black disenfranchisement and apartheid rule in South Africa.

Inkatha s activities and its close cooperation with the apartheid government divided the black opposition against the apartheid regime, thus strengthening the government and its oppressive policies. Chief Buthelezi and his movement were used as puppets by the apartheid state in its war against the liberation movements. Chief Buthelezi's attempt to influence the city dwellers, (Gerhard Mare , 2000:66) some of whom were not adhering to his rhetoric, escalated the ethnic conflict which engulfed many black townships in South Africa in the early 1980s through the later part of the 90s. By penetrating and influencing the activities of ethnic associations and clubs in the townships, Inkatha and Chief Buthelezi created conflict as blacks started to view their competition for scarce resources like jobs, social amenities and education, from the ethnic prism.

The immediate causes of the conflict could be linked to the high rate of poverty, unemployment and politicization of every bit of life in the homelands. It is pertinent to add that these social conditions often helped the ethnic entrepreneurs to mobilize certain groups against the other group. The conflicts commonly called "black on black conflicts" were given ethnic connotation by rhetoric coming from the Inkatha camp. This conflict created rigid boundaries between the Zulus and the Xhosas and intensified the human carnage and destruction in the townships.

It must be conceded that the various South African governments since 1983 have tried to find a solution to the violence, but their efforts were cosmetic because they were biased towards the Inkatha and the white Afrikaners. Furthermore, allegations by Nelson Mandela and the ANC that the South African government was giving logistical and armed support to the Inkatha sapped trust from whatever efforts the government was making to separate the warring groups. The government that oppresses its majority could not boast of effective institutions of conflict management and as a result, conflict escalated. The ethnic conflict that ensued claimed many lives and destroyed properties until 1990 when the process of democratization began.

It took the boldness and wisdom of President F.W. de Klerk in 1990s to introduce reforms, which led to a democratic republic (see Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley, 1993) where blacks and other minorities could participate equally. This change of heart from De Klerk led to the release of political prisoners like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, as well as the legitimization of the African National Congress. It also later paved way for a democratic election in South Africa in 1994, which the ANC won under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

Second Case: Nigeria

The history of ethnicity and ethnic conflicts in Nigeria also traces back to the colonial transgressions that forced the ethnic groups of the northern and southern provinces to become an entity called Nigeria in 1914. Since the various ethnic groups living in these provinces were not consulted regarding the merger, this British colonial policy was autocratic and undemocratic, and thus led to conflict. It denied the people's basic needs of participation, equality and social well-being.

An administration that endorses segregation for its people does not have the unity of the country at heart. Rather the separate governments introduced in the North and the South were designed to strengthen the colonial grip on Nigerian society and weaken the people's potentials for resistance. This era of provincial development, though relatively peaceful, also led to growing ethnocentrism.

The introduction of "indirect rule" in Nigeria by Lord Fredrick Lugard, the chief administrator, was not the appropriate mechanism for managing tribal animosities in the colony. The system not only reinforced ethnic divisions, "it has complicated the task of welding diverse elements into a Nigerian nation" (Coleman, 1958:194 as cited in Nnoli, Okwudiba 1980:113). This strategy of governance distanced ethnic groups from each other. Lugard gave power to the traditional rulers who corruptly used it in the villages to amass wealth, land and establish patronage networks, which, in the long run, encouraged tribalism and nepotism.

The segregation of the Nigerian colony was also reinforced by the colonial laws that limited the mobility (Afigbo, A.E.,1989; Okonjo,I.M., 1974) of Christian Southerners to the Muslim North, created a separate settlement for non-indigenous citizens in the North, and even limited the purchase of land outside one's own region. Prejudice and hatred became rife in the provinces as different ethnic groups started looking at each other suspiciously in all spheres of contact. Unequal and differential treatment of ethnic groups was responsible for the intense competition in Nigerian society. It created disparity in educational achievement and widened the political and economic gaps between northern and southern Nigeria.

During this period, there was significant scarcity of all goods, "evident in the economic social and political areas of life. It affected employment, education, political participation and the provision of social services to the population." (Nnoli, 1980 :87) The lack of such "basic needs" always gives elites the ability to mobilize groups for intense competition, employing ethnocentrism to achieve their goals. In 1947, a colonial constitution divided Nigeria into three political regions: East, West and North. The North, which was predominately Hausa-Fulani, was the largest and eventually the most populous region. The Igbos dominated the East and Yorubas the West. With the three major ethnic groups in dominance, the minority groups (Osaghae, Eghosa 1991; Rotimi Subaru, 1996) rebelled and Nigerians started fighting for ethnic dominance as the nation marched towards independence.

The creation of the three ethnic regions did not take into account the needs of the ethnic minority groups for autonomy and self-determination. Instead, they were lost within the majority. This development was based on the "bogus theory of regionalism?That one should be loyal to and protect the interest of one's region to the exclusion of the others." (Osaghae, Eghosa, 1989:443)

The years between 1952 and 1966 brought change in the political culture of the country, transforming the three regions into three political entities. Thus, the struggle for independence was reduced to the quest for ethnic dominance. At this time, ethnic and sub-ethnic loyalties threatened the survival of both East and West, while the North was divided religiously between Christianity and Islam. It was a period of politicized ethnicity and competition for resources, which worsened the relationships between ethnic groups. There was a high degree of corruption, nepotism and tribalism. The national interest was put aside while politicians used public money to build and maintain patronage networks. Since independence, the situation in Nigeria has been fraught with ethnic politics whereby the elite from different ethnic groups schemed to attract as many federal resources to their regions as possible, neglecting issues that could have united the country.

The anarchy, competition, and insecurity led to the demise of the first republic. Military intervention culminated in the gruesome ethnic war from 1967 to 1970, when the mistreated Igbos of eastern Nigeria (Biafrans) threatened to secede from the federation. The Igbos' grievances were caused by the denial of their basic human needs ( Burton, 1992) of equality, citizenship, autonomy and freedom. Wherever such basic needs are denied, conflict often follows as aggrieved groups use violent means to fight for their human rights.

While the politicians tried to cope with the colonial legacy that lumped incompatible ethnic groups together into one country, the military elites staged coups, making a mockery of democracy in Africa's most populous and promising country. The corruption, ineptitude and confusion that marked the military era plunged Nigeria into economic problems, poverty, and ethno-religious conflicts until the 1990s. In Nigeria, where politics still follow ethnic lines, there is always disagreement about the rules of the game. The military intervened because they viewed the civilian leaders as inept and indecisive. However, the southerners distrusted the military regime because they felt it was trying to maintain a Hausa-Fulani hegemony in Nigeria. On June 12, 1993, Chief Moshood Abiola, a Yoruba from southwestern Nigeria, won Nigeria's presidential election, but his presidency was annulled by the military regime. In retaliation, southern Nigerians began to form militant organizations to protest unfair treatment and demand a democratically-elected government. During the authoritarian rule of General Sani Abacha, a Muslim from the North, Southerners increasingly feared political marginalization and demanded an end to the Hausa-Fulani domination of the political arena. This development signified the weakness of the government and their lack of effective mechanisms to manage ethnic conflict in Nigeria.

Adding to the ethno-religious conflict in Nigeria, was the Yorubas' boycott of the 1994 constitutional conference arranged by General Abacha's regime. The conference was meant to resolve the national debate over ethnicity. Inspired by the pan-Yoruba militant groups, the Afenifere and the Oduduwa Peoples Congress (OPC) in southwestern Nigeria threatened secession and intensified violent protests across the country.

Ethnic conflicts in Nigeria continued through the democratic transition. Olusegun Obasanjo, a civilian, has been president for several years. However, conflict continues to escalate, as various ethnic groups demand a political restructuring. The federal structure has developed deep cracks and demands urgent action to mend it. But what is most worrisome is the religious dimension of ethnic competition for power and oil wealth in Nigeria. The multiple ethno-religious conflicts in the northern cities of Kano, Kaduna, Jos and Zamfara spring from the introduction of Muslim Sharia courts, and the South's demands for autonomy. The continuing conflict is an indication that Nigeria lacks effective mechanisms to manage ethnic conflicts.

Comparitive Conflict Management Approaches

In view of the intensity of the ethnic conflicts that have rocked Nigeria and South Africa, both countries have worked to develop constitutionally backed institutions for conflict management.

In South Africa, after a difficult and courageous political negotiation between the country's various interest groups, the state has prevented further violence by developing multiple democratic approaches to create a foundation for peace and security. The architects of the new South African constitution crafted an impressive document aimed to heal the wounds of the past and establish a society based on social justice, fundamental human rights and rule of law. The constitution guarantees freedom of association, languages and religion and includes a bill of rights.

Secondly, the government has created affirmative action packages for disadvantaged groups, which emphasise "management of diversity." They are meant, among other things, to address the structural racism created by the apartheid state.

Thirdly, the structure of the South African government was constitutionally changed to make way for a government of national unity. Power-sharing mechanisms were included in the constitution to prevent the ethnic or racial domination of any group. The composition of the new government confirms a trend towards accommodation and tolerance, which also helped to legitimise the government.

Fourthly, the constitution dismantled the homelands. This act signified the end of apartheid. As mentioned above, the conditions in the black reservations were inhuman. Poverty was endemic and social amenities and jobs were scarce. The neglect of the homelands and townships made the people vulnerable to ethnic entrepreneurs and warlords who were fighting for power and economic resources. Following the dismantling of the ethnic homelands, the constitution provided for the creation of nine provinces in place of the former four provinces that existed during apartheid. This decision aimed to distribute power between sub-national units. The provinces enjoy relative autonomy, thus helping to de-escalate conflict.

The fifth step taken towards peaceful conflict management was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) chaired by Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu, which helped to heal the wounds inflicted by the apartheid system. It also helped to inculcate a commitment to accountability and transparency into South African public life.

The sixth step the ANC government took was meant to address the roots of economic inequalities. The ANC introduced an ambitious plan of action called the "Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). The RDP was aimed at encouraging disadvantaged groups, especially blacks, to participate equally with others in business.

To manage her complex ethnic problem, Nigeria, like South Africa, has developed mechanisms for ethnic conflict management. Constitutionally, Nigeria opted for federalism and secularism to manage ethnic and regional misunderstanding Like South Africa, a bill of rights was included in the 1999 constitution, which was intended to allay the fears of ethnic minorities in the South.

Past Nigerian dictators had been under enormous pressure from minority groups for a more fair distribution of power. From 1967 to 1999, thirty-six states were created in Nigeria, which cut across ethnic and religious lines. This move was meant to further allay the ethnic groups' fears of being dominated by the three major linguistic groups, the Hausa-Fulani, the Igbo and the Yoruba.

However, the viability of these new states is unclear, with the exception of the oil-producing states in the South. Some of these states have recently become conduits for the personal enrichment of the elites at the expense of alleviating poverty and creating job opportunities for the rest of the population.

There have been reports of disparities in the distribution of the oil resources in Nigeria for many years. This contentious issue has fuelled most of the recent ethnic conflicts in the country. Though the constitution provided for a new system of resource allocation, ethnic groups from the oil and mineral producing areas see the new system as inadequate, arguing they are not receiving enough money for their own regional development. These are the dynamics behind the Ogoni crisis and the recent sporadic ethnic violence in the oil producing Niger Delta states. I would argue that unless this issue is resolved, by a national conference, the economic base of the country will be jeopardised.


In sum, these two cases give evidence that suggests some important links between conflict management, and the resultant state and quality of relations between rival ethnic groups. Firstly, the preservation of ethnic peace (or its breakdown) is dependent upon the type and effectiveness of the available conflict management mechanisms and also the respective government's policy choices and decisions. Secondly, the use of constitutional conflict management tools has the potential to create lasting peace. This was more evident in South Africa, where the government created the foundation for a thriving civil society, accountability and government transparency. In Nigeria however, the undemocratic 1999 federal constitution lacks the support of the citizens. The constitution was drafted by military dictators and handed over to the people. It has not gone far enough to resolve the problems of ethnicity that have dogged the country since independence. Civil liberty groups are currently campaigning for a new constitution.

In both countries, ethnic conflicts arose as a result of the denial of the basic human needs of access, identity, autonomy, security and equality, compounded by the autocratic roles played by the government and the military. Furthermore, the violent conflicts in KwaZulu Natal, Johanesburg, Lagos, Kano, and the Niger Delta resulted in a more distorted pattern of governance, which led to further denial of basic needs to the masses. Conflict management is more effective if a government is devoid of corruption. In tune with John Burton's theory, this is the only way to satisfy people's basic needs.

The role of good political leadership cannot be overemphasized. The leadership scale awards Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk high marks. Both leaders were able to forget the past and move towards the path of peace and democracy. Nigeria, however, has been less fortunate in its leadership. Ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria have continued because Nigerian elites are corrupt and split along lines of religion and ethnicity. This has resulted in ethnic rivalry, suspicion and hostility among leaders. Without a bold and articulate leadership, conflict management or prevention will always be a mirage.

The relative economic growth and development witnessed in South Africa after its transformation has helped the country alleviate poverty and manage ethnic grievances. This success has challenged Nigeria to try and transform ethnic politics into mutually beneficial relationships. To do this, Nigeria must withdraw from its old and ineffective approaches and develop new institutions and mechanisms that can address poverty, revenue allocation, and other national issues peacefully.

This paper has pointed out the importance of civil society in ethnic conflict management. The vibrancy of civil society in South Africa contributed to its peaceful democratic transition. In Nigeria, most of the civil society has been crushed. During the military dictatorship, most grassroots organizations were threatened and forced to go into hiding or become militant. The civil society that does exist in Nigeria has played an important role in conflict management. They used public meetings and debates to raise awareness about the need for ethnic harmony and the consequences of unchecked ethnic animosity. The next step is for the civil society to try and cooperate with the state in designing conflict management strategies as well as monitoring the efficiency of the institutions in place.

The lessons of this study are that ethnic conflict is a negative sum game that benefits no one. The advocates for racial and ethnic peace in Nigeria and South Africa have outnumbered those who want to feed from the spoils of conflict. The recent decrease in violent conflict and both countries' transitions to democracy attest to this. To achieve a lasting peace, Nigeria and South Africa should challenge the actions of ethnic leaders who have used violent ethnic conflict for personal gain.

The lessons learned from both South Africa and Nigeria may begin to convince policy makers and politicians that strategies of discrimination and racism are not in the interest of peace and democracy. Furthermore, effective conflict management institutions reassure foreign investors, thus boosting the economy. Finally, peace would help both countries solidify their leadership positions in the African Union and the New African Partnership for Development (NEPAD).

The democratic transformation process in both countries is not yet complete. The significance of ethnic conflict management in Africa is underlined by the continent's underdevelopment and weak economic growth. This points to the need for a change in the continent's approach to conflict management. Peace in Africa is not the absence of war, but the provision of the people's basic human needs.


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