Ask most people why countries break apart and many will say that different groups sharing a single country naturally dislike and distrust one another. Yugoslavia fragmented because the Serbs and Coats and then the Bosnian Muslims started to fight each other soon after the Soviet Union collapsed. Ethiopia recently descended back into civil war because its various ethnic groups – the Tigrayans, Amharans, and those from Sidama region – each wanted control of government.
So fundamental ethnic, religious difference must be the cause of all these conflicts, right?
Nigerians have a lot at a stake in the answer to this question. Our country has become increasingly divided, with ethnicity now playing a central role in debates over where the presidency should go in 2023. Could the country travail through these adversaries and polarisations?
It turns out that the differences themselves do not lead to violence. This is the finding of political scientists who have studied hundreds of ethnic conflicts around the world. Almost all countries around the world are multi-ethnic and religious yet few experience crisis. Until 1922, Bosnia was a diverse nation where Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians lived together peacefully for decades.
For a society to fracture along identity lines, you need mouthpieces – influential people who are willing to make discriminatory appeal and pursue discriminatory policies in the name of a particular group. They provoke and harness feelings of fear as a way to lock in an ethnic constituency that will support their scramble for power. These mouthpieces are often politicians seeking to gain or maintain power, but they can also include business elite (seeking brand loyalty), religious leaders (seeking to expand their followers), and media figures (seeking to grow their audience).
Separate and hostile ethnic identities don’t exist in a vacuum; they need to be crafted – and these individuals rise up to do just that. They’re often at a high risk of losing power or have recently lost it. Seeing another route to securing their future, they cynically exploit divisions to try to reassert control. We are seeing such figures on our social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, etc). And they’re more dangerous than what we’ve been led to believe. Experts have a term for these instigators of conflict; ethnic entrepreneurs.
The term was first used in the 1990s in Yugoslavia, but ethnic entrepreneurs have emerged many times over, in all parts of the world. Though the catalyst for conflict is often ostensibly something else – the economy, freedom of religion – ethnic entrepreneurs make the fight expressly about their position and status in society. Harnessing the power of media, they work to convince citizens that they are under threat from an out – group and must band together under the entrepreneur to counter the threat. They also try to persuade those in their group, often with incendiary language, that they are superior and “deserve” to dominate. They (ethnic entrepreneurs) at rallies, symposia, places of worship and town hall meetings cast aspersions on some ethnic and religious groups.
So why do average Nigerians let themselves be swept along this rhetoric? Perhaps, surprisingly, they are often clear-eyed about ethnic entrepreneurs. They know these individuals have their own agenda and are not telling the whole truth. Many Igbo did not trust, let alone love Peter Obi, who was a running mate to Atiku Abubakar few years earlier (2019). But they’re now willing to show support after a mounting threat – to their lives, livelihoods, families, or future and over time, the OBidients rhetorics together with increasing ethnic biases, steadily sowed doubts. After silencing the disloyal journalists and media outlets, they plied their audiences with unrelenting messages of fear and suspicion.
These ethnic entrepreneurs are now thriving. But they didn’t emerge out of nowhere. In fact, from the #EndSARS protesters, some of these ethnic entrepreneurs have metamorphosed to #OBIdients.
Unfortunately, Mr Obi is now relying on their appeals to win the presidency, albeit, with a code language.
Religion is next. In an effort to secure the support of evangelical leaders and their increasingly mobilised voters, the ObIdients stake more and more pro-life positions.
Moral imperatives and cultural identities are now, more than ever, driving voting patterns.
From appealing to core policy concerns and stoking anxiety where it’s not required, these ethnic entrepreneurs are using different tools to upset the political atmosphere of the country.
They rightly do so by exacerbating issues in social media. Case study, Deborah’s murder. Twitter exploded, Facebook went mainstream, and social media became an ever present part of our lives.
Critically, a network of these gleeful ethnic entrepreneurs realised that they could gain ratings and influence by emphasising the tension online. Media titans such as Sahara Reporters whose bottom lines were enhanced by ratings and clicks fed us more and more polarised content.
Into this political morass stepped in Peter Obi. In his bid for power, he realised that appeals to identity could galvanise his political base. Now he embraced identity politics explicitly and with gusto.
Obi intuitively understood that the deep feeling of alienation among many Igbo voters could carry him to power. Although he’s too clever to factor much on the division like other ethnic entrepreneurs, he resorted to radicalising the previous administrations of which he’s part of being a two-time governor of Anambra state.
Although he remained an underdog in the race, his movement is a future incentive for other ethnic entrepreneurs who are now studying his playbook and will use it to try to catapult themselves into the Villa in the nearest future. They will build on the momentum, and they will do so by manufacturing threats, fomenting even more ethnic fear, and convincing Igbo that they truly are in the midst of an existential fight. How far will these ethnic entrepreneurs go? How far will we let them?
Hardawa, Misau local government area,