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1:1 Background to the Study

Subnationalism in Nigeria is as old as the country and stems from the character of the Nigerian state which cannot be dissociated from the role the colonialists played in the creation of the country. Before the intrusion of the British into what is now known as Nigeria, the various ethnic and cultural groups that make up the country existed as autonomous political entities. These entities had their own political systems, social and religious values distinct from one another (Okafor 1997). The aim of the colonialists in bringing these entities together was purely for exploitation of capital.  To facilitate this, they employed divide and rule tactics so as to consolidate and preserve British foothold with little interest in the social, economic or political development of the country or its people (Asia 2001).

Consequently, British colonial policies, were not tailored to foster unity among the disparate groups that constitute Nigeria, rather it was intended to exploit the varied differences, create distrusts, suspicions and cleavages among them (Uzoigwe 1996). The entrenchment of these differences and competition among the ethnic groups to control the soul of the Nigerian state led to several violent confrontations between them prior to the country’s independence (Okafor 1997). The post-colonial regimes that succeeded the colonialists, instead of carrying out comprehensive reforms of the Nigerian state so as to reduce subnationalism, had largely continued the pattern of the receded colonialists (Adejumobi 2002). These successive post independence regimes failed to initiate far-reaching policy measures to coalesce ethnic differences into positive ventures that could create a pan Nigerian identity. Instead, most of the policies undertaken were rather aimed at suppressing ethnic consciousness and minimize the challenge it poses to the legitimacy of the state or the authority of the incumbent regime. The result of this is the heightened hegemonic contest for power at the centre by the ethnic groups that make up Nigeria.

This competition for ethnic domination has over the years, assumed varying forms in the politics of Nigeria. At one time or the other, the ethnic groups that are disadvantaged in this game have either attempted secession or had threatened to secede from the country. For instance, the attempt of the Igbo dominated former Eastern Region to transform into the Republic of Biafra between 1967 to 1970 was crushed by the Federal government, thus consigning that ambition to history. But since the end of that war, the Igbo who used to be part of the tripod on which the Nigerian state was established has been crying of marginalization and exclusion from full integration into the Nigerian society (Nnoli 2008). In the Niger Delta region, the minority ethnic groups perceive themselves as second class citizens of Nigeria, and have been crying out for recognition (Osaghae 1995, Ikelegbe 2001). This cry for recognition preceded the country’s independence, but the Ogoni uprising of the 1990s gave impetus and fillip to the agitations in that region and from which other groups have taken cue from. The same applies to the Yoruba where perception of injustice against the group, stems from the annulment of the presidential election held in June 1993, which was widely believed to have been won by a Yoruba man in the person of Chief Moshood Abiola.  The natural effect of all these developments is the emergence of groups as offshoots of these perceptions of marginalization portraying their activities as attempts to redress the marginalization of their particular ethnic group.

But the Nigerian state has been a violent institution right from inception because it has sought to maintain control and hegemony in society through violent means as exemplified by the pattern of administration of the colonial and military regimes that dominated governance for the most part of the country’s history (Uzoigwe 1996, Obi 2004). Subnationalism tendencies were therefore suppressed because peaceful agitation and popular movements were visited with official violence and repression (Uzoigwe 1996).

Presently, the use of arms is not restricted to the state and as it is beginning to manifest in Nigeria because there is a tendency within the political society to use violence as an instrument of achieving political ends. Examples abound on how the political parties of the first and second republics recruited armed thugs, as a strategy to win elections. As such, the prevalence of violent ethnic movements which now seem to be flourishing is not new after all, as portrayed in some literature and commentaries. According to Madunagu (2000), the widespread resort to violence by primordial groups in Nigeria as a means to achieve their ends, stem from the nature of politics which compels every political organization at a certain stage of its development to acquire an armed wing. Some ethnic groups take advantage of their entrenched position in the government, to deploy the national army, the police and other security operatives as armed wings to further exclusive group interests. So whether it is called youth wing of a political party or cultural association, thugs, intelligence officers or bodyguards, these militarized forms have been used directly to push for power and political objectives. And so the background and precursor to the militarization of some civil society organizations sometimes referred to as ethnic militia groups, was the militarization of the state and politics in Nigeria (Udogu 1994, Adejumobi 2002). These varied organizations that are referred to as ethnic militias have different histories, goals and present action, their objectives range from the motive of drawing attention to the perceived marginalization of their ethnic group, serving as social pressure to influence the structure of power to redress perceptions of marginalization of their group or the extreme goal of outright dismemberment from the Nigerian political family. The implication of the statement above is that new forms of ethnic assertiveness have emerged. This new dimension of sub-nationalism is epitomised by ethnic movements that believe in violence as means to furthering parochial interests (Jason 2006). The point being made here is that ethnic consciousness has escalated from simple agitation of loose ethnic associations to the level where organised violence oriented groups with the audacity to carry arms are asking questions and demanding answers, thus directly challenging the legitimacy of the state.

This development has been observed across the country. For instance, the Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) founded in 1999 is an Igbo dominated ethnic movement, the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC) is predominant in the Yoruba area and predates the return to democracy in 1999, but became more visible thereafter in their quest for a repositioned Yoruba nation in the politics of Nigeria. In the Niger Delta, the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni Peoples (MOSOP) founded in the 1990s, sparked the formation of loose armed groups that are based in that region such as the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) and the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND). These organizations are not only struggling to call attention to the despoliation of the environment of the delta due to oil exploration, but are also demanding that a good proportion of the resources exploited from their region be retained there so as to right the wrongs of years of deprivation.

In the North, the story remains the same, violent ethnic movements and militant Islamic bodies dot the area and these developments stem from the perception of marginalization and non-accommodation of pure Islamic way of life by the Nigerian political system. Prominent among these organizations in the North are the Arewa People’s Congress (APC) which emerged to counter the OPC, the ‘hambada’ and ‘hisbah’ which enforce sharia compliance in northern states.

Repression has formed the hallmark of the Nigerian government response to these manifestations of subnationalism. Instead of specifically looking at each of the cases, they have often been bunched into a basket and same treatment applied. This approach of the government to managing subnationalism does not permit the expression of grievances on discussion table but had rather tended to escalate the situation resulting in the frequent clashes between these groups and security operatives that often culminate into loss of lives. Government strategy has also centred on clampdown on the leadership of these organizations. Such reactions have not succeeded in abating the activities of these organizations but have rather intensified the spate of ethnic nationalism in Nigeria.

Therefore, the study aims at a comparative examination of ethnic militias as a form of subnationalism expression in Nigeria. Specific cases that were examined are the MASSOB and OPC which draw their membership from two of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria. The study attempted to find out if these organizations emerged from spontaneous development in the political system or isolated cases emanating from different circumstances.

The study also probed the factors that led to the emergence of these groups, the motivation, participation and membership of the organizations. It examined the profile of the rank and file members and the strategies of recruitment into the organizations. The study also examined the tactics employed by these organizations to realize their professed objectives and attempted to ascertain the level of support of the two organizations from their publics whose interests they purport to project. Though Nigeria is the main focus of the study, similar developments in other parts of the world were highlighted. The aim is to draw lessons useful for nation building and better management of ethnicity for the country.


1:2 Statement of the Problem

The concept of ethnic militia in the context of Nigerian political development as a form of subnationalism expression is new; it wasn’t a surprise therefore that apart from popular media characterization, the body of literature that focuses on the subject is very scanty. It is this fact that makes it difficult to establish an acceptable criterion to determine which of the groups that parade the Nigerian landscape falls under the categorization of militia. But that apart, some of the ethnically based organizations in Nigeria have exhibited certain attributes of militia organizations, especially the tendency for violent behaviour and hierachical organization. Though these organizations spread across the country are diverse in nature and do not pursue the same agenda, the common thread that runs through all of them is the manifestation of subnationalism. For instance, Adejumobi (2002:2) sees these organizations as ‘youth based formations that emerged with the intention of promoting and protecting the parochial interests of their ethnic groups and whose activities sometimes involve the use of violence’. But subnationalism in Nigeria is not a new phenomenon and not restricted to particular sub-national groups in Nigeria, but rather applies to all sub-national groupings in the world. The locus for this has been pointed at the contradictions that attended the formation of the country. The coercive integration of disparate groups with diverse ways of life and orientations makes the expression ‘sub-nationalism’ natural.

The proliferation of violent ethnic formations and groups in Nigeria raises the question of factors responsible for this development. The reasons advanced by the various ethnic militia groups making varying demands on the Nigerian state as justification for their activities relate to perception of injustice and marginalization of their ethnic groups within the context of the Nigerian political system. The realization of this has compelled the government to come out with measures aimed at addressing what is popularly referred to as the ‘national question’, which has been the reason for the persistence of sub-nationalism in the country. The containment approach of military administrations aggravated subnationalism and created the condition for its transformation into forms championed by emboldened ethnic organizations using violence as a means to accomplish their objectives. Included in these are MASSOB and OPC which purport to promote the interests of Nigeria’s two major ethnic groups of Igbo and Yoruba respectively. Establishing the degree of variability of these manifestations is imperative so as to identify, analyse and explain similarities and differences.


1:3 Objectives of the Study

The broad objective of this study is to:-

  • Carry out a comparative study of MASSOB and OPC as consequences of subnationalism in Nigeria

Other objectives are to:

  • Examine the nature, character and modus operandi of MASSOB and OPC as militia organizations.
  • To determine the extent to which MASSOB and OPC represent the aspirations of their publics.
  • Examine the relationship between socio-economic conditions and the motivation of membership of MASSOB and OPC.


1:4 Research Questions

  • What are the factors responsible for the emergence and persistence of ethnic militia groups in Nigeria?
  • What are the nature, character and modus operandi of MASSOB and OPC? 
  • To what degree are MASSOB and OPC representative of the aspirations of their ethnic groups?
  • What socio-economic conditions created avenues for these groups to persevere and how similar are the motives that drive joiners?


1:5 Research Propositions

  • The non resolution of the Nigerian national question is significantly responsible for the transformation of subnationalism into forms expressed by MASSOB and OPC.
  • By their nature, character and modus operandi, the degree of variations between MASSOB and OPC are not significant.
  • The motivation of joiners of MASSOB and OPC varies significantly from each other.
  • The response of OPC’s public to their activities varies significantly from MASSOB’s public.


1:6 Significance of the Study

The study contributes to the literature on ethnic militia. It will open new vistas of knowledge on the subject, thus providing concerned stakeholders opportunity of understanding the causal factors of subnationalism as it relates to the Nigerian context.

The study also brings out the role or contribution of subnationalism to nation building in Nigeria. This is significant in the sense that it shall establish factors that pull towards ethnic conflict and sub-nationalism within the peculiar Nigerian milieu which in turn will guide the management of ethno-national tendencies for a multi-national society.



1:7 Research Methodology

This study adopted the comparative study method and so applied comparative analysis. This implies that the focus of the study centred on the discovery of uniqueness and similarities that relates to the manifestations of ethnic militia and subnationalism. The reason behind the adoption of comparative method which incorporated aspects of qualitative and quantitative data gathering techniques for this study were to interrogate phenomenon of ‘ethnic militias’ as a consequence of subnationalism in Nigeria. Therefore, data collection for the study was through a combination of primary sources such as survey and key informant interviews and secondary sources from books and other documentary materials’, especially periodicals.


1:7:1 Research Population