Nigeria's Identifiable Ethnic Groups

O. Otitie

Introduction | The Past  | Contemporary Diversity  |  Emerging National Culture | Tribes In Nigeria


Nigeria's social boundaries are often described as artificial. This characterisation is generally acceptable in the sense that certain ethnic groups and governmental societies were split and located within the colonial state territories of different European powers, following the 1884 Berlin Conference and the subsequent legal instruments. Thus, although Nigeria formally became one entity in 1914 after the amalgamation of the then northern and southern protectorates along with Lagos, many members of different social groups found their kinsmen and friendly neighbours just outside Nigeria's political boundaries. Yet, peoples in the pre-colonial geographical region now occupied by Nigeria and her neighbours such as the Cameroun, Chad, Niger and Benin Republics, were not only linked by blood or descent but also by trade and commerce, as well as by relations of friendship and conflict.

The above factors defined the nature of international relations in the region. People of the different nationalities were not totally strange to each other. Instead, there was something natural and common to most of the people found in this pre-colonial region. Thus, Chief Obafemi Awolowo's viewpoint that Nigeria is "a mere geographical expression" (Awolowo, 1947) can only still mean that one could not speak of Nigeria as a society with a national identification in the same sense as one could speak of say the Katsina emirate, or the kingdom of Benin or lfe. Awolowo argued that Nigeria, being a multi-national or polyethnic society, could not be regarded as one nation.          Top



In the very distant past, many of the peoples now located in Nigeria shared many social values and cultural traits. In this connection, Hambly (1935) refers to a substratum of African culture shared in common by peoples in the region of present-day Nigeria, particularly in its southern part. This suggests that many of these peoples main tained a high degree of homogeneity. Within the Nigerian region, there was also a history of long migrations and settlements with such a mixture of social and cultural relationships that it often became difficult to separate the people within these settlements into neat socio-cuttural groups.

In recognition of the above feature of the social-cultural arrangement in the region, Arikpo (1957) I asserted that early and long contacts between

peoples in the region promoted common understanding, shared fate and common commitments, it was I therefore possible for him to suggest the conclusion that "Nigeria is not an accident ... (and) not an artificial creation."

This perspective of a high degree of homogeneity and oneness in the region is further butttressed by the language argument. It should be noted that language is a critical part of a people's culture and a powerful instrument for preserving and transmitting values and systems from one generation to another.

Most Nigerian languages belong to three main language families. The first is the , Niger-Congo, with its subgroups, which include such languages as the Bariba, Birom, Busa, Chamba, Edo (including Bini and Urhobo), Efik (including Ibibio), Fulani, Idoma, lgbo, ljo (ljaw), Jukun, Kambari, Nupe, Tiv, Vere and Yoruba. The second major language family, the Afro-Asiatic, consists of Angas, Bachama, Bura, Hausa, Higi, Mergi, Shuwa and others. The third major language group is the Nilo-Saharan. It includes Dendi and Kanuri, among others. People who speak the different languages belonging to the Nigerian language families have lived together as neighbours for long periods under mutual socio-economic and ) socio-political influences as well as under language and cultural borrowing. This language classification , is important in postulating the universality of Nigeria's peoples. The acceptance of this kind of argument must modify any contention that Nigeria's past breaks up into many "pasts," since the distinction between such "pasts" would then be a superficial and comparatively recent one. Any pluralisation of the "past" may well apply to all old or new states that are plural societies (Otite, 1975). ' Nigeria's three language families or sociocultural units evolved, over centuries of diverse historical experiences in different geographical regions, into the more recent and complex heterogeneity of nations and cultures. At some point in time, states, ) empires and complex societies, developed. As Hodgkin (1960) points out,


A variety of links existed between the various states and people which were the predecessors of modern Nigeria: between Kanem-Bomu, the Hausa states, Nupe, the Jukun kingdom, the Emirates of Oyo and Benin, the Delta states and the loosely associated lbo communities. These relationship sometimes took the form of war and enslavement. But they expressed themselves also through diplomacy, the visits of wondering scholars, the diffusion of political and religious ideas, the borrowing of techniques and above all trade.

Hodgkin also analysed the rise and expansion of states, foreign religious incursions, slave trade and European political and economic activities, following a chronological order of seven historical periods from the eleventh to the nineteenth centuries. He argued that the societies and states which

dominated the pre-colonial region of Nigeria communicated amongst themselves and also depended on one another. None was self-sufficient. In addition to their relations with one another, they were exposed, in varying degrees at different periods, to influences from farther afield including Mali and Gao, Egypt and the Maghreb, western Europe and North America. Similarly, it has been pointed out that until the arrival of the British, northern Nigeria was economically oriented towards Libya and Egypt.

Thus, while some peoples were brought together culturally and socially to look inward, others found it necessary to move outside the region now occupied by Nigeria for purposes mainly of trade and commerce. When universal religions such as Christianity and Islam were introduced into the Nigerian societies, other kinds of religio-cultural interests emerged which tended to incline the vari- ous peoples towards the organisation of new identities with others within and outside the region of Nigeria.

The preceding paragraphs indicate that societies and social groups within the Nigeria region were dynamic. None was static and none was an isolate unto itself. The peoples that shared in the oneness resulting from the original three language family groups have evolved, under different environments and changing circumstances, into diverse distinct groups in contemporary Nigeria.           Top



Each of the culturally distinct groups in Nigeria today is an ethnic group. Ethnic groups are categories of people characterised by cultural criteria of symbols including language, value systems and normative behaviour, and whose members are anchored in a particular part of the new state territory (Otite, 1990). It is pertinent to bring out a few distinct features of this definition. The first is that an ethnic group is identified with a particular geographical part of the country; for example, the Ibibio of the south-eastern part, the ljo ((ljaw) and Urhobo of the delta area, the Kanuri of the north-eastern part and the Tiv of the middle belt area. Non-the- less, members of the ethnic groups concerned also live and possess landed-property, among other things, in territories outside their own.

Second, culture provides the main social marker of ethnic groups. Members of one ethnic group, for example the Bachama of Adamawa State or the Bini of Edo State, do things and organise their lives in a way that is different from those of the Kagoro of Kaduna State or the Fulani (Fulbe) who inhabit many of the northern States.

Certain components of culture, such as language and organisational forms, do overlap (examples are the languages of the Edo speaking peoples in the Delta, Edo and Rivers States, and the languages derived from Efik or Ibibio language in the Cross River and Akwa lbom States. Such groups of languages have many corresponding items. Yet, language is not a sole maker of an ethnic group. Speakers and non speakers of a language may or may not necessarily belong to the same ethnic group. The Yoruba speakers of the Igbo or Hausa language do not necessarily belong to the lgbo or Hausa ethnic group, and vice versa. But the lgbo non-speakers of the lgbo language still belong to the lgbo ethnic group.

Third, ail the distinct ethnic groups form inextricable parts of Nigeria. Each is encapsulated in a wider network of social relations provided by the new state. Within this framework, each group develops and manipulates its own mythology of descent, ritual beliefs and moral practices, while its members share an exclusive culture and normative behaviour. Members of each group share an identity which they use as a means of forging relationship within the political and economic spheres and in accessing resources in the new state. Thus, each group devices means of consolidating its boundaries sustained by myths and symbolism. Since each group co-exists with others in the new state, its 'social and cultural boundaries are frequently broken through interactions. Finally, each ethnic group in Nigeria is an interest group . It is a cultural expression of its projected kith-and-kin ideology.

Hence, members of one group regard themselves as "brothers" and "sisters," as members of the same "family," with the implied trust, reliability, mutual assistance, and defence whenever needed or solicited. , However, ethnic boundaries in Nigeria, as elsewhere, can be confusing and are manipulable. Thus, as Otite, (1990) noted, whereas most Nigerians from the northern parts of the country can speak the Hausa language and, therefore, pose and pass as Hausa in the southern parts, they resort to their ethnic identifications as Bassa, Kwanka, Migili, Ningi, Rurnada, Waja, Yergarn and Physical And Human Characteristics

lgbo or Hausa, or Yoruba, and appear in the appro- priate dress form, saved many Nigerians during the last civil war. In such cases, ethnic-symbolic markers become assets both for members and non members alike and, thereby, dilute the ethnic boundaries. Two other features need to be noted about the people of Nigeria. First, there are marginal people who are sandwiched between two larger ethnic groups. Such marginal societies, usually found in shatter belts, adopt cultural elements from both ethnic groups, for example in the mixture of con- cepts and language.

They exist at the periphery of either of the ethnic groups and their culture, especially language, differs somewhat from those of the two centres or core cultures. Examples of these societies are the Obiaruku and Orogun peoples whose cultures and languages integrate both Urhobo and Ukwani socio-cultural symbols in the Delta State with their linguistic continuities and dis- continuities. The second feature relates to the apparent extinction of some of the Nigerian peoples and their languages. Examples include the Ashaganna in Plateau State and Bolewa of Bauchi State. They have been reported to be nearly, if not totally, extinct, having been culturally absorbed by neighbouring larger groups. Thus, Nigeria has been characterised by a dynamic ethnic pluralism, involving the extinction of some groups and the evolution of new ones over the centuries. Currently, scholars have identified over 350 ethnic groups in Nigeria.


Each ethnic group has its own identifiable way of life, mode of dress, values, food and food habits, cultural predispositions for members to do or not t

o do certain things, and its shared mechanisms or patterns of socialising its members.

Each group also has its systems of marriage and family organisation which are affected by the system of descent and, hence, the domination or parity of men and women in their societies. For example, whereas the Afikpo sub-group of the lgbo people trace descent through the female line, the Bini and Urhobo recognise the male line as the one through which descent may be reckoned. The Yakurr people trace descent through both the male and female lines. These various practices of male and female dominance and visibility in social organisations have different implications for the economic and political life of the people. Similarly, the culture of reverence for kings and chiefs, which features strongly among the Yoruba, Kanuri, Hausa and Bini, among other ethnic groups, is generally absent among the village group arrangement of the lgbo and others. Among the lgbo, few exceptions to the general rule are found, for examole. Onitsha. Osamari. Oauta. Aboh and the ancient Nri kingdoms. However, the feature of a common pool of cultural traits, which we referred to earlier, is gradually re-emerging, at least in principle.

There is a surviving practice of respect for parents and elders in all the cultures found in Nigeria. There is also the trait of communalism and altruism commonly demonstrated by most Nigerians. This is particularly in the rural areas and in places where traditional culture is maintained. Good examples of these are indigenous enclaves in the urban areas, such as the Oje of lbadan where the Yoruba culture is kept strongly, and the Sabo of lbadan and many urban centres in southern Nigeria where Hausa or Hausanised cultural practices are maintained. Kindness to others, especially strangers, and the attributes of hospitality, as well as sharing with and helping the needy, are also extant in many parts of Nigeria. Apart from the foregoing cultural practices, which help to smoothen the hardships of life especially during economic recessions and inflationary : crises, many Nigerians now share one another's ethnic cultural practices.

This is one result of a combination of factors brought about by the inextricable encapsulation of groups in one modem new state. Such factors include enhanced communication system, increased frequency of social and cultural interactions, and common political participation and socialisation within one country. ' Nigerians from different ethnic groups appreciate the diversity of cultural dances, dress forms, food, handicrafts, drumming, songs, farm implements and practices, and other traits. For example, many Nigerians eat eba, pounded yam, 'amala'and even usi (starch) and akpu that do not traditionally belong to their cultures. They enjoy the Efik 'Edikang-lkong', the Hausa and Fulani tuwo, the Urhobo ukodo and the lgbo pepper soup. Just as many Nigerian men wear the Hausa 'babanriga' and Yoruba full traditional dress (agbada), so do many Nigerian women now put on the Urhobo and Itshekiri george wrapper and blouse. Many Nigerians now speak languages other than their own and also marry from ethnic groups outside their own. In addition, theTee is an evolution of neu tral traits adopted from cultures outside Nigeria, and to which local traits adapted. For example, many musicians and drummers from different ethnic groups have adapted themselves and their styles to pop and disco music and, lately, rap music.

Thus, the emerging national culture in Nigeria is little more than a rag tag of sorts. Yet, it is still obvious when you see or meet a Nigerian in the midst of other Africans and, of course, non-Africans.           Top


Nigerian people and their cultures have common distant roots. Their "pasts" can be anchored on the heritage of the three main language families. Yet, subsequent diversities which resuited from NIGERIA exposures to different social, politico-economic and environmental circumstances, are now gradually narrowing, while common traits are evolving, fashioned by the growing interaction among the various people of Nigeria. In spite of this homogenising development, ethnic identities and ethnicity will persist, at least to the foreseeable future, as the different peoples organise and mobilise their exclusive cultural symbols as powerful means of gaining access to the nation's political and economic resources.           Top