A Century Forced Marriage: The Nigerian Project

Filed under: National Issues |


The concept of ‘forced marriage’ is a metaphor that this article uses as a political concept to describe Nigeria’s ethno-political situation and regimes. It is drawn from a common cultural practice within some societies such as Nigeria. Conceptually, in an arranged marriage the parents of either a male or female – sometimes parents of either side – choose a spouse for their offspring for reasons or ulterior motives, ultimately beneficial to themselves. Usually, it is believed that a parent knows what is best for their children and will always act in their best interests. However, the notion or impulse to marry their children to whom they choose and consider ‘best’ is often prompted by ‘material advantages’. This cultural practice is acceptable in some societies – predominantly Africa and Asia, yet seen as repulsive or abhorred in others.



To gain a better understanding of Nigeria’s ethno-political situation, the author will relate the situation to another concept well known within society; this means establishing a common ground by using something the people within and outside the society can quickly relate to and drive home the substance of the political discussions. This article aims to achieve the following. First, as a sense-making approach, this article will compare the political situation with another concept that plays a role in various societies, in the form of forced marriage. Secondly, it will approach Nigeria as a project rather than a nation. By doing so, this article will establish a di-conceptual framework for the discussions on Nigeria’s ethno-political situation. Therefore, this article will use apt metaphoric concepts to analyze how Nigeria’s democracy and nationalism are affected by its ethno-politics and conflicts.

The first section of this article explain the concepts of marriage and uses them to examine Nigeria’s situation in the subsequent sections, starting from 1914 when the British amalgamated the northern and southern protectorates of Nigeria. It does not delve much into the pre-colonial period aside from gleaning any relevant information that could be use to substantiate colonial and post-colonial periods. In essence, it examines marriage concepts attributable to the Nigerian entity. The second section of the article examines why Nigeria was contrived into an enterprising project of an imperial agenda. The third section discusses Nigeria’s ethno-political situation with access to material, political, social, and discursive resources. It looks at the possible consequences of a shift in the access to these resources or ethno-political power. The fourth section considers ethnic conflicts in Nigeria as a result of the struggle to keep the status quo of hegemonic control or as a result of change that alters or modifies it. In addition, it discusses what these ethnic conflicts reveal about Nigeria’s nationalism. The fifth section of this article examines the future of Nigeria’s democracy, and how to manage its differences by applying a right ethno-political regime. This article concludes by discussing the implications of the present Nigeria ethnic-political regime and make possible predictions on Nigeria’s future. All of these are discussed within the theoretical frameworks of ethno-politics and symbolism.

I. The Concept of Marriage

Marriage can be interpreted as an institution; possibly one of the oldest institutions in human history. While its true origins are unknown, it was documented centuries ago in various religious scribes. It was in the Bible that the first marriage was conducted when God declared Adam and Eve man and wife. Since that first marriage account recorded in the scriptures, a lot of humans follow these scriptures and view marriage as almost a necessity. From a secular perspective, one can say that marriage is not an institution by humans, but a divine institution. From the Bible’s account, when God instituted the first marriage it was intended to be a one man and a one woman’s affair. Genesis 2:24 states, “that is why a man (singular) will leave his father and his mother and he must stick to his wife (singular) and they must become one flesh”. Though in modern society, the notion of marriage is diverse, and stretches far beyond the Biblical design for marriage. In some situations, humans – out of selfish desires or cult beliefs – have betrothed more than one wife or man through polygamy or polyandry – influenced by cultures. Nonetheless, marriage can be seen as a legal contract, also called marriage contract, that also established the rights and obligations between the spouses and their children and extended families. Within a marriage, couples or spouses sometimes celebrate their marriage in the form of a marriage anniversary. It is during this time that the spouses could sit together and look into each other’s eyes and smile for the successes that has been achieved in their marital life; on the contrary, they can also look into each other’s eyes, face, or nose, and discuss the issues that has befallen the marriage looking at the past and trying to make headways for the future. When people are honest with each other, they can identify underlining problem factors of their marriage and try to proffer solutions to make it work, if not for them for the interests of their children. Most times culture shapes marriage and could determine how the couple make concerted efforts to make the marriage to work. At least, it is a known fact that most Africans and Asians fight hard to make their marriage work, rather than let it fall apart – believing strongly in the vow, “for better or for worse”. It does not mean that one should die trying to save a marriage. Within some marriages, it could turn out to be a violent and dangerous affair for spouses and their offspring; in such case will be wise for the involved participants to take leave before the situation escalates.  When a marriage cannot be salvaged – in a worse case scenario – it leads to separation or divorce, which could either lead or prevent physical or psychological traumas. Therefore, this article has identified six concepts that will be used to examine Nigeria’s ethno-political situation. Next, we need to understand how Nigeria is contrived into an enterprising project of an imperial agenda.

II. Nigeria as a British Project

It is difficult to address Nigeria as a nation, at least for those who have certain ideas of what a nation represents. According to primordial theories on nations, nationality is a natural part of human beings and nations have existed from time immemorial. Based on this approach, we can construe nation as an ethnie. An ethnie or the Greek term ethnos is a generic differentiation of people or animals living together and acting together. It is such ethnic group(s) that Anthony Smith (1989) identified as the origin of nations. According to him there is a sense of history and perception of cultural uniqueness within a population of ethnie or nation to another that differentiates them with a definite identity, both in their own eyes and those of outsiders. Further he attributed six dimensions to an ethnie or a nation, to include:

1) A collective name

2) A common myth of decent

3) A shared history

4) A distinctive shared culture

5) Association with a specific territory

6) A sense of solidarity

So what Smith implies, is that what we have in modern understanding as nation has always existed as ethnie – a community of a people with a historical, cultural, territorial identity, etc. Therefore, any discussion on nation should first look into those facts to make sense of it. If this notion should be strictly followed, in that sense most people would like to be on a safe side by addressing Nigeria as a country or much better a project. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a project is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim: a research project, a housing project, history project, etc. it is usually an individual or a collaborative enterprise! In this case Nigeria is a British enterprise or project. What it means here is rather than see Nigeria as a nation, see it as a project or a collection of micro nations – The Igbos in the east, the Yorubas in the west, the Hausa/Fulanis in the north, and other minority nations trapped between these major three. This makes Nigeria a polygamous entity or family. To put it straight or better, Nigeria is a contrived enterprising project for the British.

The amalgamation or union of the southern and northern protectorates in 1914 was a contrivance by the British that created Nigeria. It was not by consensus of the people that lived in those territories! At this point we can see how the British assumed the role of African parents and decided how Nigeria should be married. But what could have prompted this action by the British? Well, it should not be far-fetched – the industrial revolution drove most western nations out in search of resources, as far as we know it that was the beginning of colonization in Africa that span even today. Nigeria is one of the territories with much needed resources to drive those industries, making her a British enterprise or project. When an entrepreneur finds a market niche, the next is to look for resource availability to satisfy the need of the market. That was what happened. The source of the resources is very crucial, and you have to make sure nothing stands in the way to stop the resources from coming, otherwise the factories will not function and you loose your business and capital, also people will suffer for the needs that cannot be satisfied. So Nigeria was fashioned to keep supplying that need – and becomes a prototype of human marriage institution. Now let’s understand how that action shaped Nigeria’s ethno-political situation from then onwards.

III. Nigeria’s Ethno-political Situation

An ethno-political situation can be described as the historical modes through which ethnic groups within a state come to find themselves together. This situation could happen naturally through what Ernest Gellner in his book, Nationalism (1997) described as the “marriage of state and culture.” He implied that the couple had to live in a kind of customary marriage for ages, learned each other and know that they are meant to be together. In contrast, the marriages of states in former colonial countries were by force based on ulterior motives. They did not happen through natural means – learning and understanding each other first and reinforcing the mutual understanding through an agreement to be merged into one. The ethno-politics within the situation described adapts to how different ethnic groups within a single state struggle to modify or alter the use of modern state power(s) in relation to the maintenance of ethnic identities (ethno-political power). In this situation, plural societies compete for a share of power, and every ethnic class want equal rights and opportunities against discrimination as a result of being either on the minority side or on the immigrant side (Gurr & Harff, 1994). The state power is used in this context as resources or analytical tools; these could include: Material, Political, Social, and Discursive.

Now let’s delve deeper into Nigeria’s situation, make sense with these resources and see how they have been affecting Nigeria’s political situation. First, Nigeria is a country endowed with many natural resources: rubber, cocoa, palm oil, crude oil, natural gas, gold, tin, coal, iron ore, groundnut, etc. As a result they are profitable for Nigeria through means of trade. These resources are scattered all over the country, so there is no section of the country that would claim a lack of material resources. However, the majority of resources that are being harnessed today come from the south of Nigeria. It is the search for these resources that allured the British first into that territory, and for this reason their presence still lingers to this day. When the British decided to “leave” Nigeria in the name of independence, they handed political power to the north of Nigeria, thereby creating a hegemonic country. We can assume here that this decision is based on self-motives. The north welcomed them with open arms when they set their foot in that territory for colonization, while the south (especially the Igbos) resisted any form of colonization fiercely. We can draw several conclusions from this: either the north welcoming the British is seen as a smart move avoiding any means of conflict, or the north let itself be easily manipulated by the British whom were still reaping the benefits from the land. Second, even though the political power was left in the hand of the north, the Igbos, driven by their individualistic nature, found their way to political and economic control; however, the military was still dominantly in the hand of the north. It would not favor the British, if such intelligent and Jewish-like people would continue to helm the affairs of the enterprise that has been created. They always wanted the North to have hegemonic control. This struggle for control would be the spark of the many conflicts that Nigeria has witnessed. Third, the Igbos and Yorubas – because of their education and more democratic nature in contrast to the northern centralized or unitary system – were economically more advanced than the north; in addition they discovered oil beneath their land. Based on this we can say social capital and organizational capacity were in their favor too – this does not mean that the north did not thrive economically at some point in Nigeria. In fact, at some point, Nigeria’s economy depended partly on the groundnut production from the north. But there are many other factors that kept the South ahead of the north, for example, education, which is another social capital. There was much needed competition from both sides, everyone were being resourceful in what they are best at, making the country to develop rapidly at that time. It could be said that the North at one point realized that the British plan was incongruous to the existence of Nigeria. Because they too were once very competitive, trying to make use of what they have to contribute to the growth of the country. Yet, it was not what the British wanted, so the game must change again – the beginning of the wicked plots against one another.

IV. Ethnic Conflicts in Nigeria

Within an ethno-political situation – the struggle to alter or modify the use of modern state power – there could be a change, however. When such change happens, it is usually not easily accepted, especially by those who always had the hegemonic control. Human beings inherently resist change therefore ethnic conflicts could emerge when there is a change in the ethno-political situation, which causes a shift in the access to all or one of the four resources already mentioned. If a shift occurs, it could turn violent. Given such condition, “humans are capable of discounting the suffering of those they know well and directly inflicting the cruelest forms of suffering upon them” (Esses & Vernon, 2008). In addition, Stefan Wolff (2006) takes it further by explaining factors that could combine to cause conflicts, which include creed, greed, and grievances. Again, because of the Igbos individualistic nature and drive to thrive in any given environment, they become easy target for those that envy them. There could be psychological or cultural modalities to explain why the hates towards the Igbos by some ethnic groups within Nigeria – probably complexes or sets of attitudes of the sense of being victimized by the Igbos.

In the colonial and post-colonial periods, the Igbos becomes easy targets in the north of Nigeria where they own many businesses. They were killed and their houses and businesses destroyed, yet they never gave up, but continue to thrive in their endeavors in the spirit of one Nigeria. The first military coup in Nigeria, which saw an Igbo assume the office of the head of state, as the most senior army General was termed an Igbo coup – even though those who executed the coup were young military men from different sections of the country who were fed up with the increasing corruption by the civilian government. The north saw it as an attempt by the Igbos to wrestle power away from them, and therefore orchestrated a reprisal coup that led to the death of many Igbo high-ranking officers. It did not end there, as more killings of the Igbos continued unabated in the north of Nigeria. It was this pogroms that created serious concerns amongst the Igbos on their safety within the one Nigerian entity. The Igbos in their attempt to protect their lives and properties decided to pull out of the union, which resulted into the Civil War of 1967. There was or still is what could be called an Igbo-phobia within and outside Nigeria. The Civil War of 1967, provided an opening to wipe out or reduce the population of the Igbos, which some scholars around the world have termed a genocide based on the international convention on genocide (1949). About two million lives of the Igbos were lost in that war all through the support the British gave the Nigerian government to diminish the Igbos once and for all, but not successful since the Igbos remain possibly the largest population in Nigeria today.

Today, the conflicts has evolved, it is no longer pure attack against the Igbos but something that looks like religious conflicts between the predominantly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south. Still, these conflicts can be pined on the shift on the access to ethno-political power or resources. The two are intrinsic! In between the north-south conflicts are the minorities’ conflicts within both sections of the country. They too want to be heard, they want their rights protected, and they want to be significant and take part in the decision-making of Nigeria. More so, they have grievances on how their resources are being depleted, their environment destroyed, yet they get nothing out of it. The resources that nature endowed them have become a national cake for the elites, while they “suffer and smile.”  It is difficult to say which of the two sides – north and south, is the man or wife of Nigeria. Also it is impossible to say there is a homogenous south or north, but based on religious homogeneity and the closeness of cultures of the ethnic groups within each section, it can be assumed that there is one south and one north within Nigeria for the purpose of this article. So if we go by political power or military power that has been dominated by the north for years, we could assume that they have been playing the manly role of the two for decades subduing the woman – south that is very resourceful in the family, which is part of the reason for the conflicts.  The south wants to assume that role of the man and dictate how things are run in the family. If taken from the perspective of the breadwinner of the family, we could rightly say the south is the man or should be the right man of the house of Nigeria. Still, it is difficult to clearly give each side any of these roles based on the marriage conceptualization.

Obviously, these conflicts reveals the truth already stated about Nigeria – it is not a nation, but a collection or fusion of micro nations. It explains why there is little or a lack of nationalistic spirit when it comes to collective interests of the country. Most Nigerians are too tribalized and do not have that spirit of nationalism, a trait often found with the elites. It is nationalism that keeps a nation united and to stand against odds in order to survive, because the two are intrinsic. “Nationalism is primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” (Gellner, 1983). In the absence of this principle, how can a nation survive? On the other hand, nationalism can be nurtured. Ethnic groups could evolve to learn how to tolerate one another by taking advantage of those intrinsic qualities they share rather than emphasize their differences, to put on a common united front against a common enemy in order to sustain unity, peace, and progress. The founding fathers of Africa possessed this nationalistic spirit, which was the catalyst of the emancipatory struggle against colonial powers. In the absence of nationalism it could be constructed through a homogenous thinking, if the state must survive. In addition to creating that nationalistic atmosphere, there should be a suitable ethno-political regime that would give every ethnic group within the state a voice.

V. Democracy and Nigeria’s Future

It would be dangerous for any state to operate a system of government that is alien to its inhabitants. In order to get things right, to manage conflicts within Nigeria’s ethno-political situation, the right political regime must be applied to meet the political demand and supply of the state. There are different ethno-political regimes practiced around the world, the practice of which tailored to each socio-political environment, but there could be only two types of such regimes utilized to regulate ethnic conflicts in a democratic state like Nigeria according to the taxonomy created by McGarry and O’Leary (1994). By ethno-political regime we mean a structure that would balance modern state power among ethnic groups in a single state in relation to the maintenance of ethnic identities. Despite possible lingering imbalances, when the right regime is identified and applied, it constructs equilibrium of some sorts between ethnic groups.

The Nigerian state should not be looking for how to eliminate their differences, because it has been implemented before through the genocide against the Igbos, the secession attempts by the Igbos, and military dictatorship which created hegemonic control for decades; none of these is working for the country. Instead, they hamper every opportunity for the country to develop and to live up to standards with the rest of the developed world. It is therefore imperative to try better options in managing their differences, especially now that Nigeria operates a democracy. The two possible regimes could be cantonisation or federalization and power-sharing or consociation regimes.

Cantonisation and/or federalization are based on the territorial principles of macro-political ethnic conflict regulation used to manage differences. This form of ethno-political regime devolves political power to conceivably smaller political units, which enjoys mini-sovereignty. In other words, it subscribes to the principles of subsidiarity to ethnic relations, where decision-making power is managed at the lowest appropriate level of political hierarchy. In its federalistic sense, both the central government and the state or local government enjoys separate domains of power, although they may have concurrent powers. It requires a written constitution and bicameral legislatures. Policing and judicial powers can be devolved to those areas the population expressed a wish to exercise such powers.

Power sharing or consociation operates at state or regional levels, based on the acceptance of ethnic pluralism. It is a political relationship that secures the rights, identities, freedoms, and opportunities of all ethnic communities. So what it offers within a conflict ethnic state like Nigeria is equality without forced assimilation, thereby enhancing democratic values. It could operate under four features:

  • A grand coalition government, which brings different political parties together to avoid dissension that could divide the society – also could mean different ethnic segment and ideologies.
  • Proportional representation, employment and expenditure rules, which apply throughout the public sector. This can be called federal character.
  • Community autonomy, which ethnic communities have self-government over those matters of utmost concern to them.
  • Constitutional vetoes for minorities, which gives the group some form of greater voice in decision-making.

The future of Nigeria and its democracy lies in how and when they could establish the right political regime of the kinds discussed that would regulate conflicts among ethnic groups. It is more urgent than before as the nation is almost clocking a hundred years old in its amalgamation since 1914. If this regime cannot be realized, Nigeria could witness a political divorce or separation, which is the collapse of a state that may result into anarchy. In two years from now Nigeria will be celebrating her centenary, which could be likened to a marriage anniversary. It will be wise to honestly look at their past to proffer a solution for the future based on democratic conflicts regulation. To achieve that, they must involve the people or the children of Nigeria to participate in a form of referendum on how they want to be governed. Such action would help to produce most likely a true people-oriented constitution or a marriage contract that would establish the rights and obligations of every member of the family. The way these issues are handle from now till 2014 when Nigeria will become hundred years old would decide the future of the country – a stronger nationalistic Nigeria or a shameful divorce. In a literal sense any marriage that has lasted for these years would be seen as a perfect one made in heaven, so I am not a proponent of secession and I think it is not in the interests of Nigeria and Africa for the country to break into pieces. The population of Nigeria and its multiculturality are assets and beauties. But the people must decide soon on how they want to live with one another in such a polygamous state! However, the Nigerian elites have repeatedly stalled attempts to move the country forward, probably out of fear of their heinous crimes coming to limelight. Well, change will always come, now or in the future, it does not matter how much it is delayed. The fact that Nigeria has been created by the British agenda does not mean it cannot be re-created to meet Nigeria’s social and political need. It is shameful that the elites want things to remain the way it has been against the interests of Nigerians.


Finally, several concepts were drawn to create a common ground to understand Nigeria’s ethno-political situation. Along the line, each concept was linked to different main points of the discussions, and the following questions have been answered in part or whole. It is important to see the article as a sense making approach on Nigeria’s ethno-politics to bridge the gap on what has been written before and to connect theories on ethno-politics and symbolism to the Nigerian situation. As Nigeria is looking forward to her centenary, it is imperative to ponder on the future and fashion how the different ethnic groups should live in peace with one another.


















Anderson, B.  (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread ofnationalism. London and New York:

Esses, V. & Vernon, R. (2008). Explaining the Breakdown of Ethnic Relations. Blackwell Publishing.

Gellner, E.  (1983). Nations and nationalism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Gellner, E. (1997). Nationalism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Gurr, T. & Harff, B. (1994). Ethnic Conflicts in World Politics. Westview Press.

Harff, B., and T. R. Gurr.  2004. Ethnic conflict in world politics.  Boulder,Colorado: Westview Press.

McGarry, J. & O’Leary, B. (1994). Politics of Ethnic Conflict Regulation. Routledge.

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. 8th Edition.

Smith, A.D. (1989). The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell & New York.

Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, (1961). New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. Pensylvania, USA.

Wolff, S. (2006). Ethnic Conflict: A Global Perspective. Oxford University Press.





2 Responses to A Century Forced Marriage: The Nigerian Project

  1. Who’s project is this?

    Uzoma Jonadab Phillip
    December 11, 2012 at 9:36 pm

  2. An interesting write-up!

    Ahmad Isah
    December 12, 2012 at 2:12 pm