Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East, a blog chronicling Sino-Canadian relations.

His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, FACTA Magazine, The Japan Times, The Diplomat and Asia Times, among others.


Power and Politics in Nigeria

Nigeria is Africa's most populous and potentially one of the wealthiest countries in the world, yet despite its mineral assets and the potential of it's labour force, it remains mired in poverty and political discord. The misappropriation of government funds, as well as nepotism and interest groups have a long history in Nigeria. The historical factors which contribute to and help shape the present state of affairs in Nigeria are multifaceted and deeply intertwined. Nigeria's colonial, modern and post-modern history all indicate similar trends, which have influenced the development of the state.

The proliferation of politics of the belly in Nigeria is less the result of ethnicity and religion as been suggested by schools of thought such as dependence theory, but rather the result of socio-political issues and practices, which undermines the legitimacy and hegemony of the Nigerian state. The role of middlemen and the socializing affect of education are key to understanding Nigeria.

The 'politics of the belly' is a term coined by Jean-Francois Bayart, and is an attempt on his part to name the nameless; to define the convoluted, nebulous and idiosyncratic nature of African socio-political interactions within a conceptual framework. By introducing said framework, Bayart attempts to dispel the Hegelian view of African historicity, namely that Africa lacks a history of its own, for the African is uncivilized and in a state of barbarism.1 During the 1970s Nigerian intellectuals also sought to discredit this long standing viewpoint, which together with dependence theory shaped Western conceptions of the continent.2

Dependence theory espouses that, circumstances in Africa are due to the reversion of Africans to passivity and naivete, following the departure of colonial power.3 The significance of these viewpoints is that they directly affect the potential for legitimate sources of hegemony in Africa for “for so long as the African is regarded as a man without culture, and without a history, doubts concerning his ability to govern himself will find credence.”4

Despite the refutation of traditionalist thinking, the roles of race, ethnicity and tribalism, have long been and are continued to be seen as major influences in Nigerian and African society and politics at large.5 Although Nigeria has over 250 distinct ethnic groups6, this paper focuses on the interplay between the Hausa and Fulani (mainly Muslim) and Yoruba and Igbo (mainly Christian). While Nigerian social and political history plays witness to a plethora of regional conflicts, the overarching theme for the majority of Nigerian history has been the tension between the Muslim North and the Christian South.7

This ethnic and religious distinction was acknowledged by the British colonial administration, who following the conquest of the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria in 1900, and the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria in 1903, ruled each separately.8 The policy of separate rule was conceived by Sir Frederick Lugard, which continued even after the official amalgamation of both protectorates in 1914.9 Even at this early stage, there is evidence that despite the fact these regions were under one political entity, they were in fact autonomous, thereby delegitimizing any overtures of a central body. The decision by the British to opt for indirect rule (using local rulers as colonial administrators),10 only increased the sense of regionalism, and saw the formation of power-politics in Nigeria as it exists today.

Bayart mentions that active dialogue and cooperation between African factions and colonial masters, typified the era, for the structure of colonial rule, assimilated aspects of local tribal hierarchies.11 The role of indigenous middlemen is an important one, for it has had long lasting effects on the power structure of Nigeria. Following the defeat of the Mahdist revolt in 1906, the Fulani aristocracy was incorporated as middlemen into the colonial power structure.12 The Fulani along with the Hausa continue to enjoy political dominance in Nigeria, for the Fulani sarakuna (aristocracy), was incorporated upon independence into the new Nigerian parliamentary democracy, in a manner similar to the United Kingdom.13 This preserved the existing power structure and therefore the interests of the established elites. This transition was complete when, in 1970, the title of Native Authorities were 'reformed' and re-branded as Local Government Authorities.14

Nigerian politics is characterized by tension between the political dominance of the North and the economic strength of the South.15 Nigerian federalism reflects the efforts of the ruling political class to regulate political conflict along ethnic ties, and can be seen as response to reduce the dominance of the Hausa-Fulani.16 This is witnessed by Hausa and Fulani governments using federal power to the benefit of Muslims, such as subsidies for Hajj pilgrims, the construction of a National Mosque in the capital Abudja and OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries) membership in 1986.17 Despite being the motivation behind federalism in Nigeria, the ethnicization of politics is a powerful impediment to the proper function of Nigerian politics.

The ethnicization of politics has “led to mutual calculations of benefit and advantage by ethnically based fractions.”18 The institutions of democracy are used as methods of ethnic sparing, as witnessed by actions of the Hausa cattle-dealers in Ibadan, who voted for the Action Group and not for the Northern People's Congress as expected. The Hausa hoped that by voting in this manner it would prevent the Yoruba butchers from obtaining an unfavourable deal.19 Despite the significant role played by ethnicity in Nigeria, the limits of 'cultural history' must be taken into consideration. Wolfgang Kaese criticizes cultural history as a “reductionist view, that distorts political and social factors and overplays the importance of tribalism.”20 There exist other factors which shape politics of the belly in Nigeria, be they other social elements, or political contrivances and actions.

The influence of religion further hardens existing divisions, and adds a new dimension to ethnic tensions, while at the same time influencing the actions of power holders in Nigeria. Paradoxically religion has historically both aided and hindered Nigerian nationalism. The Church was “the cradle of Nigerian nationalism, the only forum of nationalist expression until the beginning of the Nigerian press in 1867,”21 and the main focus of nationalist sentiment after 1914. Conversely religion has been a source of division, not only between Muslims and Christians, but has become embroiled in ethnic tensions. For example, the origins of the Yoruba and Igbo political rivalry and ethnic nationalism was instigated by Christian missionary work (competing Catholics and Protestant denominations) in the 19th century.22

Christian and Muslim identities are competing with Nigerian political identity, for “Nigeria means far less to the ordinary Nigerian than his God or Allah...[because the state] for years has not demonstrated its capacity to clothe and house him.”23 The Nigerian nation is weak and an “imagined community - one which coexists and is subordinate to, more immediate forms of popular identity.”24The fact that religion presents a competing source of identity and hegemony, does not go unnoticed by the political elites in Nigeria, and active efforts are undertaken to neutralize religious power. The Nigerian government appoints government officials as religious leaders, as seen in the appointment of Ibrahim Dasuki (President Babangida's banker), as Emir of Sokoto in 1985. Dasuki was later overthrown, however the lack truly popular religious leaders, acts to remove religious organizations are vehicles of protest or power.25 Power-politics of this nature characterize Nigerian governmentality, and the interactions between state and civil society are often defined by efforts to obtain legitimacy, hegemony as well as extraversion and corruption.

Nigerian politics is seen as a pariah, for it is characterized as the “stultifying embrace of democracy and prebendal politics.”26 The politics of the belly describes the processes of extraversion, namely the practices and motivation of the gratification of immediate needs and wants, by the misappropriation of wealth and power via official channels.27 Impulse to act on personal benefit compels political actors to “mobilize resources derived from their (possibly unequal) relationship with the external environment.”28 The widespread usage of methods of extraversion is due to the fact that there is very limited socio-political and economic space for autonomous action.29 Political office is seen not (or at least not only) as an position of service to the people, but rather means of material gain, therefore causing actors to try and retain their privileges at all costs. This in turn fosters the creation of a kleptocracy, in which “the swollen state has turned politics into a zero-sum game, in which everything of value is at stake in an election.”30

Corruption in Nigeria is widely linked to the symbiotic (arguably mutually parasitic) relationship between elite networks, private enterprise and official office holders.31 Following the return to civilian government in 1978-79, Nigeria was turned in to a 'contractocracy' – namely a government of, by and for contractors.32 Throughout the 1970s, private investment in Nigeria was catalysed by the large increase in both governmental and presidential spending in the wake of the oil boom.33 The use of state office for the promotion of private business interests, or 'pirate capitalism'34 is a key factor in understanding the economic and political turmoil in Nigeria. Such actors are described as 'Old Brigades' (OBs) and 'Money Bags' (MBs), with the latter financing the former, and the first legitimatizing the latter.35

The financing of private interests in seen in the interaction between Ibrahim Dasuki, and President Babangida. Dasuki not only financed Babangida's successful coup attempt in 1985, he was also in charge of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).36 The interplay of middlemen and political and economic elites, can be viewed within in the framework of dependence.37 Efforts to privatize state industries and businesses do little to stop government abuse, because the connections between the economy and the state are not omnidirectional, namely both public and privately owned businesses fall victim to corruption. Both OB and MB actors benefit from privatization, yet neither share in the social costs of austerity.38 Studies conducted by an independent Nigerian economic review panels, found that in 1980, contracts in Nigeria were 200% more costly than similar endeavours in Kenya, and 130% more than in Algeria.39 In 1983 a similar investigation found that contracts in Nigeria were four times as expensive as in Asia.40

These actions destabilize both the economic and political spheres, as can be witnessed by the turmoil of the early and mid-1980s, for “African states experienced failures with consequent depreciation of legitimacy and resulting internal discord, the state became emasculated and decomposing.”41 Economic crisis due to corruption and weak government and discontent concerning the IMF structural adjustments programs, led to the overthrow of the civilian government via military coup in 1983.42 The demise of the Second Republic in 1983, was welcomed with widespread relief and support, precisely because of the policies of extraversion and corruption, which had come to define the civilian government.43

Despite the fate of the Second Republic, Nigerian society continues to be characterized by overlapping networks of subordination and exploitation, as actors misappropriate material wealth and power, and via a 'trickle-down' system distribute some of their gains to those under their influence. While the specific individuals may change, the system of extraversion and dependence has not. Despite the initial euphoria concerning military rule, the incursion into and dominance of the Nigerian political scene by the military, changed little.44 During its military rule, Nigeria, continued to see clientism, as well as a trend of increasing personalization of power, hegemonic agendas and repression.45 Later governments have also continued similar practices.

Government influence over loan guarantees has led to the crippling of the Nigerian financial system, with nine major state run banks claiming distress due to noncollectable loans. Noncollectable loans constituted 72.8% of the portfolios of said banks.46 In 1991 twenty-two banks faced similar problems.47

Alongside the exploitation of office holders, the Nigerian states is prone to abuses of power, lawlessness and predation. The prevalence of money politics as well the lack of populist appeal of candidates, promotes general apathy towards elections, thereby delegitimizing the democratic process and perpetuating the status quo.48 Widespread vote rigging and tampering are common, with candidates often 'sandwiching' voters – placing money between pieces of bread in attempts to swing the ballot.49 Governmental policies of extraversion as well as its attempts at hegemony not only alienate, but actively run counter to the aspirations of civil society. Classical nation-building theory holds that political and societal units must be congruent,50 however in Nigeria, civil society is regarded as “ a haunt and repository of dissent – a composite of counter-hegemony.”51

The government of Nigeria views civil society as a threat, for it is seen as “both the terrain of constructing the hegemony of social democracy as well as its vehicle”52, as opposed to the state. Subsequently government leaders attempt to circumvent and contain civil society, in that they limit political participation of trade unions as well as cooperative and human rights groups in political matters, and force political organizations into government directed parties.53 Political murders are common in most Nigerian states, and dozens of opposition and union leaders have been killed in the last decade alone.54 Such actions in turn diffuse any potential threats to power, thereby depoliticizing grievances, forcing many actors to adopt violent means in order to achieve their aims.

Violence becomes the means of political discourse as the government attempts to eliminate any resistance, and opposition groups respond in kind. In 1998 the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), voiced grievances concerning violent suppression, neglect and ecological destruction.55 The IYC issued the Kaiama Declaration on December 11th 1998, threatening unilateral privatization of the oil fields. The government responded with hundreds of soldiers, as well as heavy weapons system and attack aircraft, killing, brutalizing and raping dozens. Subsequently the IYC has turned into a semi-terrorist organization with secessionist overtones, since avenues of peaceful protest are closed.56

Nigerian civil society to an extent has begun to resemble the Nigerian political sphere, with increasing corruption, divisions and sectarian violence. This transformation can be seen as a result of civil society adapting the policies of extraversion of the government in order to gain material and political power. Civil society in Nigeria is witnessing an increasing number of civil organizations, in the wake of opportunism, in regards to donor funds. These organizations have become “part of the non-governmental organization industry funded by funds from the West.”57

Additionally pro-democracy groups are becoming associated with particular sentiments, and “may articulate ethnic, regional and sectarian interests.”58 This hinders the creation of a national consensus and allows for the possibility of civil society becoming “an arena of intense conflict organized along said lines.”59 The multifaceted and fractured nature of civil society in turn weakens the state for, the state erodes the foundations upon which it is maintained, however simultaneously the weakness of civil society and its inability to find common ground, strengthens state hegemony over all.60

The interplay between civil society and the realm of politics in Nigeria is superbly demonstrated in the history and role of the education system in shaping the course of power-politics in the country. Politics of the belly in Nigeria is exemplified by the fact that institutions such as universities, the National Youth Service Corps and government colleges, have instead of fostering nationalism, fostered sectarian solidarity, and perpetuated dependence and extraversion.61 Historically Nigerian leaders have had to look to the past in order to justify their current status and position,62 as seen by the role of the Fulani aristocracy. The position of middlemen continued in that a Western educated and orientated elite emerged out of pre-colonial and colonial eras.63 Education became an engine of identity for the elite, who thereby distanced themselves from the chiefs and colonial process, thereby claiming legitimacy, in the years up to and following independence.64

This process was repeated as dissatisfaction grew in the 1970s, and the emergence of a new generation of elites began in 1977. These 'New Breeds' differed in age and profession to the 'Old Brigade', and drew their identity from their common Western knowledge and association with the prestigious Barewa College.65 The New Breeds felt restricted by the political dominance of the OB which controlled the country via the Northern People's Congress. From1978-79 there was a power struggle, with old and new elites fighting for control. This struggle climaxed in the 1983 military backed coup.66 Following the coup the OB was cut out of the political sphere by the reforms of the military government.

The New Breeds were considered 'clean' by the military, and able to gain power.67 However, the New Breeds were unable to use the tactics of extraversion, for the Old Brigade still controlled the connections to the economy and civil society. Eventually the new reforms were co-opted, as the New Breeds were incorporated into the existing power structure, becoming the new middlemen between the Old Brigade and the military government, thereby allowing both groups to benefit.68

Education and the mastery of Western knowledge has been one of if not the defining feature of the perpetuation of the politics of the belly in Nigeria. The roles played by ethnicity and religion are significant, however they merely constitute the societal background. Education has been a resource of extraversion since the colonial period. Schools are “powerful forces of straddling”69, which help shape social stratification. The actions of educated elites in both the political realm and the subsequent manifestations of the politics of the belly in civil society, demonstrate the notions of dependence, extraversion, hegemony and legitimacy. The role of the middleman, either between Nigeria and the world, or internally, has been a persistent trend in Nigerian history, and has shaped the political and social framework of the nation.



Bayart, Jean-Francois. The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.

Green, December, and Laura Luehrmann.. Comparative Politics of the Third World: Linking Concepts and Cases. 2nd ed. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007

Igwara, Obi. Holy Nigerian Nationalisms. In Nationalism and Ethnosymbolism; History, Culture and Ethnicity in the Formation of Nations., eds. S. Athena Leoussi, Steven Grosby, 267-280. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2007.

Ikelegbe, Augustine. 2001. The Perverse Manifestation of Civil Society: Evidence from Nigeria. The Journal of Modern African Studies 39 (1) (Mar.): pp. 1-24,

Jinadu, L. Adele. 1985. Federalism, the Consociational State, and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria. Publius 15 (2, Federalism and Consociationalism: A Symposium) (Spring): pp. 71-100,

Kaese, Wolfgang. 1999. Akademische Geschichtsschreibung und Politik in Nigeria seit 1955: Ein überblick [Academic Historiography and Politics in Nigeria since 1955: An overview]. Africa Spectrum 34 (2): pp. 237-264,

Reno, William. 1993. Old Brigades, Money Bags, New Breeds, and the Ironies of Reform in Nigeria. Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 27 (1): pp. 66-87,



1 Jean-Francois Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), 3.

2 Wolfgang Kaese, “Akademische Geschichtsschreibung und Politik in Nigeria seit 1955: Ein überblick [Academic Historiography and Politics in Nigeria since 1955: An overview],” Africa Spectrum 34, no.2 (1999), 245.

3 Kaese, 245.

4 Kaese, 239

5 Kaese, 245.

6 December Green, Laura Luehrmann, Comparative Politics of the Third World: Linking Concepts and Cases (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007), 20.

7 Adele, L. Jinadu, “Federalism, the Consociational State and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria” Publius 15, no. 2 (1985), 72.

8 Green & Luehrmann, 79.

9 Green & Luehrmann, 79.

10Ibid, 79.

11Bayart, 271.

12Bayart, 127.

13Ibid, 128.

14Ibid, 128.

15Green & Luehrmann, 203.

16Jinadu, 72-73.

17Obi, Igwara. Holy Nigerian Nationalisms(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 269.

18Jinadu, 72.

19Bayart, 53

20Kaese, 248.

21Igwara, 268.

22Igwara, 267.

23Ibid, 267, 272.

24Ibid, 270.

25William Reno, “Old Brigades, Money Bags, New Breeds and the Ironies of Reform in Nigeria” Canadian Journal of African Studies 27 no. 1 (1993), 82.

26Reno, 67.

27Bayart, 271.

28Bayart 21-22.

29Augustine Ikelegbe, “The Perverse Manifestation of Civil Society: Evidence from Nigeria” The Journal of Modern African Studies 39 no. 1 (2001), 3.

30Reno, 68.

31Reno, 68.

32Bayart, 87.

33Bayart, 98.

34Reno, 67.

35Reno, 77.

36Reno, 74.

37Bayart, 69.

38Reno, 77.

39Bayart, 79.

40Bayart, 79

41Ikelegbe, 3.

42Ikelegbe, 7.

43Reno, 67.

44Ikelebge, 7.

45Ikelebge, 7.

46Reno, 77.

47Reno, 77.

48Ibid, 80.

49Ibid, 83.

50Igwara, 269.

51Ikelegbe, 3.

52Ikelegbe, 4.

53Reno, 70.

54Reno, 80.

55Ikelegbe, 12-13.

56Ikelegbe, 12-13.

57Ibid, 10.

58Ibid, 10.

59Ibid, 5.

60Ibid, 5.

61Igwara, 269.


63Kaese, 241.

64Kaese, 242-43.

65Bayart, 130-31

66Bayart, 130-31.

67Reno, 80.

68Reno, 80.

69Bayart, 75.

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