2023 Elections and the Resurgence of Identity Politics in Nigeria: In Whose Interest?

Mojeed Animashaun

2023 Elections and the Resurgence of Identity Politics in Nigeria: In Whose Interest?

By Adekunle Animashaun, Department of Political Science, Fountain University, Osogbo, Nigeria.

The last few months in Nigeria’s political arena have witnessed a growing concern about the upsurge of negative forms of identity politics which is primarily driven by cries of marginalization-real or perceived. This resurgence of identity syndrome is better understood within the context of inter-group competition for access to the Nigerian state and the resources controlled by the state that is essentially rentier in character and which lacks autonomy from the predatory governing elite. Diverse identities, cultural, sectarian and demographic, that have hitherto been inactive or de-radicalized are being re-generated not only in aggressive manner but with remarkable political significance which has consequences for the Nigerian nation and its democratization project.


Identity as a concept has been substantially engaged in the social anthropology and psychology literature. It loosely refers to a person’s sense of belonging or commitment to a group and what the group values or craves for; thus identity can be understood in individualist and collectivist senses. Its basic attributes include membership of a group (with the attendant obligations and responsibilities to the group), commitment to the group’s cause as well as primordial tie to the group. Identity consciousness is a salient feature of multi-cultural societies and experience has shown that this attribute can sometimes be exploited for political mobilization.

In contemporary modern societies, particularly those with multi-national character, identity represents a mobilizing agent which guides social action and political behaviour within the context of inter-group competition for relevance and influence. In the Nigerian context characterized by bestial struggle for access to arenas of accumulation, the “us against them” identity framing has manifested in popular patterns of contestation like Muslim versus Christian, Northerner versus Southerner, Hausa versus Fulani, Hausa-Fulani versus Yoruba, Igbo versus Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani versus Igbo. These patterns of contestation are framed in a manner that dispenses privileges/benefits to specific groups and costs/discrimination to others.


The agitations-sometimes violent- by separatist and self-determination and extreme sectarian groups including Independent Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), Northern Consultative Forum, Northern Elders Forum, the Yoruba Nation agitators and the Boko Haram insurgents have continued to challenge the corporate existence of Nigeria and the condition of its democratic governance.
It is a general belief that the present resurgence of identity-based agitation in the country is largely induced by state failure as defined by the inability of the state governance structure to deliver development to the people particularly in terms of improvement in the material conditions of the citizenry and social provisioning. Sadly however, the character of identity politics currently being promoted in the country, with its defining elements of exclusivity and negative profiling of ethnic identities, does not promise to enhance either the developmental capacity of the state or the degree of its responsibility or responsiveness to the citizenry.
As obtains in most ethnically-segmented societies, there are formal and informal mechanisms of managing plurality or diversity in the Nigerian federation to ensure equity, fairness and inclusivity. These mechanisms include the entrenchment of the federal character principle in the constitution which seeks to promote inclusiveness and discourage ethnic/group domination; as well as informal initiatives such as rotational presidency and regional zoning of party and political offices. Since the restoration of democratic politics in 1999, the recruitment of elective and political officeholders (including party offices), both at the national and state levels, has been anchored on these formal and informal principles.


The emergence of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 has been implicated by many analysts as the primary driver of the current wave of the identity crisis and transformation in Nigeria. Allegations of nepotism have been strongly levelled against the Buhari presidency which according to the regime critics manifest in three key areas namely, appointments, siting of public infrastructure/military formations and sectarian bias popularly premised on alleged tendency of President Buhari to religious bigotry.

Mojeed Animashaun
Mojeed Animashaun

The most recent evidence of salience of identity politics in relation to the 2023 elections started with the resolution of the Southern Governors Consultative Forum under the chairmanship of Ondo state governor, Arakunrin Rotimi Akeredolu, to the effect that Nigerian presidency should shift to the southern region of the country after the two term tenure of President Muhammadu Buhari. This resolution which drew criticisms from prominent northern groups and politicians was to raise a lot of dust within the polity and became a major issue in the presidential nomination of the two largest political parties in the land, the ruling All Progressives Congress and the largest opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party. While the APC shared the sentiment of the southern governors and consequently picked a southern presidential candidate, the PDP selected a northern presidential standard bearer. The consequences of the identity syndrome that characterized the presidential nomination of these two parties have exposed the two party labels to high level of electoral uncertainties ahead of the 2023 vote. While the electoral fortunes of the APC’s same-faith ticket are being threatened by the possibility of losing millions of Christian votes across the country, the chances of PDP are being threatened by the possibility of losing the votes of millions of southerners who may be strongly averse to a president of northern extraction succeeding the outgoing northern president. At another level, the PDP is being troubled by another identity-based crisis of both the national chairman (North Central) and presidential candidate (North East) coming from the same region. While southern elements within the PDP insist that it is both morally and politically unjust for one region to produce the two positions and thus calling for the resignation of Dr. Iyorchia Ayu, the party chairman has dismissed such call.


In the midst of this identity dichotomy and intra-elite contestation, two critical questions become pertinent: to what extent is the interest of an average Nigerian projected and promoted in this elite competition? Who is the ultimate beneficiary of identity politics? Evidence has shown that Nigerian elites- political, religious and regional- remain the ultimate beneficiaries of identity politics and its gains using identity ladder for state access. Ordinary citizens as party members, voters, Muslims, Christians, Hausas, Igbos and Yoruba have continued to bear the brunt of leadership and development failures that have been unleashed on the country by successive political elites that have piloted the country’s affairs since independence. There is no better testimony to this today than the worsening living conditions of the citizens, decreasing access to education and the attendant increase in the number of out-of-school children as well as rising insecurity. Thus, there is the challenge of putting the interests of the poor at the centre of elite competition for power.

There is no denying the fact that governance failure deepens identity politics which in turn undermines merit and competence. The challenge for the Nigerian state therefore is to deliver good governance to the Nigerian people and thus weaken and delegitimize the primacy of identity politics. As things stand today, three key mechanisms that can guarantee responsive and accountable political leadership are electronic voting, independent candidature and security of the Nigerian masses against poverty. One fundamental limitation of these mechanisms however is that they are all within the purview of the governing elite who immensely profit from identity politics. Therefore, as long as identity politics guarantees the elites access to the corridors of power, it will continue to be a salient factor in electoral politics in Nigeria.


The Editor of News Boom Nigeria has years of cognate practical journalism experience.

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