Ethnic militias in Nigeria and their impact on democratic consolidation

Sandve, Oyvind (2009-03)

Thesis (MA (Political Science. International Studies))--Stellenbosch University, 2009.


As the ethnic militias increased in strength after the transition to democracy, voices were raised whether they could pose a threat to the consolidation of democracy. In order to understand the problems that ethnic militias pose for the consolidation of democracy we try to show how they were established and how they have influenced the consolidation of democracy in Nigeria. Further, we ask if the ethnic militias have outplayed their role in Nigerian society. The main results show that the ethnic militias arose because of necessity, in an environment where ethno-nationalism was prevalent because of a repressive state’s inability to take care of its own people. The violent activities of the ethnic militias was not good for democracy in the short run, but as a counterweight to the state the ethnic militias played an important role in what can be described as civil society taken up arms. This militarising of society seems to have forced the state to take the ethnic militias more seriously. Hence, it can be claimed that the ethnic militias served as a midwife to the current Nigerian transitional democracy. However, as the state recognised the ethnic militias as a part of the political realm, and not just violent groups, the legitimacy for the ethnic militias eroded. The Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), which was the most influential ethnic militias in Nigeria, has now changed its agenda, and has not gone back to being the socio-cultural organisation as they were formed as. There is an important role for the OPC and the Niger Delta ethnic militias as a counterweight to the state, but dialogue should be the main way of communication, as violence will only foster violence. It seems clear that the state needs to take the first step in order to make this happen. The conclusion is that ethnic militias have had, and still have an effect on the consolidation of democracy by holding the state responsible for its actions, and by punishing the state when it does not act according to its people’s wishes. It can be claimed that they forced out democracy by highlighting the flaws of the Nigerian state even if the way they operated, was not democratic. By highlighting corruption, lack of law enforcement and unnecessary use of force, they were able to bring down the authoritarian rule and make way for the transition to democracy. However, they do not seem to pose a threat to consolidation in the short term, rather they can have a positive effect, as they can act a counterweight to the ruling elite and other forces obstructing democracy. As we show, ethnic militias are and have been a part of civil society, and the focus of the future should be how to incorporate them into civil society, especially the Niger Delta ethnic militias as they are still active. Ethnic militias (except for some ones in the Niger Delta) were a brief phenomena in Nigerian history, and the focus should be on understanding the reason for them coming into being, in order to avoid it happening again. This thesis tries to give a holistic view of the Nigerian political situation. This thesis fills a gap in the literature concerning ethnic militias, by incorporating the most important factors into a framework. This makes it easier to make an accurate conclusion on how they have affected democracy, and questions the opinion that militias were only harmful to Nigerian development. It is the author’s opinion that this thesis will give scholars a more nuanced perspective of the ethnic militias, and lead to more accurate research in the future.

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