The Southern Area

Nigeria Table of Contents

In general, the southern groups of peoples have a fragmented quality. In 1990 the two most important groupings were the Igbo and the Yoruba--both linguistic communities rather than single ethnic units. History, language, and membership in the modern nation-state, however, had led to their identity as ethnic groups. In addition, although not as clearly differentiated, two subunits had strong traditions of ethnic separateness. These were the peoples of the Niger River delta area and those on the border between the Igbo and Yoruba.

Yorubaland takes in most of southwestern Nigeria and the peoples directly west of the Nigerian border in the independent country of Benin. In Nigeria alone, Yorubaland included 20 million to 30 million people in 1990 (i.e., about double the 1963 census figures). Each of its subunits was originally a small to medium-sized state whose major town provided the name of the subgrouping. Over time seven subareas--Oyo, Kabba, Ekiti, Egba, Ife, Ondo, and Ijebu--became separate hegemonies that differentiated culturally and competed for dominance in Yorubaland. Early nineteenth-century travelers noted that northern Oyo people had difficulty understanding the southern Ijebu, and these dialect differences remained in 1990. The language is that of the Kwa group of the Niger-Congo family, related to the Idoma and Igala of the southern grouping of middle belt chieftaincies south of the Benue River. The population has expanded in a generally westerly and southwesterly direction over the past several centuries. In the twentieth century, this migration brought Yoruba into countries to the west and northwest as far as northern Ghana.

The Yoruba kingdoms were essentially unstable, even when defended by Portuguese guns and later by cavalry (in Ilorin and Kabba), because the central government had insufficient power constitutionally or militarily to stabilize the subordinate chiefs in the outlying centers. This fissiparous tendency has governed Yoruba contemporary history and has weakened traditional rulers and strengthened the hands of local chiefs and elected councils. Ilorin, like Nupe to the north, was an exception, an extension of Fulani imperial expansion; in 1990 it was ethnically Yoruba, yet more closely allied through its traditional rulers to the Islamic societies to the north. It thus formed a bridge between north and south.

The region has had the longest and most penetrating contacts with the outside world. Returned Yoruba slaves, the early nineteenth-century establishment of the Anglican Church, and Yoruba churchmen, such as Bishop Samuel Adjai Crowther (in the 1820s), made its religious life, its formal education, and its elites among the most Westernized in the country. The first university, founded in 1948, was at Ibadan in the heart of Yorubaland, as were the first elite secondary schools; the first research institutes for agriculture, economics, African studies, and foreign affairs; the first publishing houses; and the first radio and television stations. Wole Soyinka, Africa's first Nobel prizewinner in literature, claims Yoruba ethnicity. The entry port of Lagos, predominantly Yoruba, is the largest and economically dominant city in the country (and its first capital).

In relation to others, the Yoruba had a strong sense of ethnic identity and of region, history, and leadership among Nigeria's peoples. In relation to each other, the seven subgroups used inherited prejudices of character and behavior that could exacerbate animosities, should other factors such as access to education or prominent positions create conflict among the subdivisions. At the same time, the Yorubas' longer contact with Westernizing influences had created some dedicated nationalists who saw their Yoruba identity as a contributing factor in their loyalty to the wider concept of a Nigerian nation-state.

The other major group of the south was the Igbo. They were found primarily in the southeast and spoke a Kwa language of the Niger-Congo family. This language tied them, historically, to regions east and south of their contemporary locations. In 1990 it was hard to find any major town in Nigeria without an Igbo minority, often in an ethnic enclave. As communities they had traditionally been segmented into more than 200 named groupings, each originally a locally autonomous polity. These groupings varied from a single village to as many as two or three dozen nucleated settlements that over time expanded outward from an original core town. Most of these central villages ranged from 1,000 to 3,000 persons in the nineteenth century. In 1990 they were as much as five to ten times larger, making severe land shortages and overused farmland a widespread problem. Precolonial trade up the Niger River from the coast stimulated the early development of a few larger towns, such as Onitsha, that in 1990 contained a population of several hundred thousand. Igbo culture, however, unlike the emirates and the Yoruba city-states, did not count urban living among the traditional ways of life.

For the Igbo as an ethnic group, personal advancement and participation in local affairs were matters of individual initiative and skill. Villages were run by a council of the most respected elders of the locality. Colonial administration created local headmen, or "warrant chiefs," who were never fully accepted and were finally replaced by locally elected councils.

This development does not mean that Igbo culture is exclusively dedicated to egalitarianism. Rank and wealth differences have been part of the society from early times and were highly prized. Success, eldership, wealth, a good modern education political power, and influence were all recognized as ways by which people, especially adult males, could distinguish themselves. As with all Nigerian societies, Igbo life was complex, and the organization of local and regional society was stratified into more and less affluent and successful groups, families, individuals, and even neighborhoods. Graduates of secondary schools formed "old boy associations," some of which had as members wealthy men linked to one another as local boosters and mutual supporters. Comparatively speaking, Igbo were most unlike other Nigerians in their strong positive evaluation of open competition for success. Children were encouraged to succeed; if they did so skillfully, rewards of high status awaited them. It was no accident that the first American-style land-grant university, linked for guidance during its founding to Michigan State University, was at Nsukka in Igboland, whereas the first universities in Yorubaland and in the north looked to Britain and its elitist traditions of higher education for their models of university life.

Psychological tests of "achievement motivation" that measure American-style individual competitiveness against standards of excellence given to comparable Nigerian groups resulted in Igbo people placing highest, followed by Yoruba, and then Hausa. This stress on individual achievement made Igbo people seem "pushy" to fellow Nigerians, whose own ethnic traditions fostered individual contributions to collective achievements within close-knit kin and patron-client groups that were more hierarchically arranged. In these latter groups, achievements were obtained through loyalty, disciplined membership in a large organization, and social skills that employed such memberships for personal advancement.

The impressive openness of Igbo culture is what first strikes the outsider, but closer inspection produces several caveats. Besides differences of wealth and rank achieved in one's lifetime or inherited, there was a much older tendency for people who traced their descent from the original settler-founders of a village to have higher status as "owners of the land." Generally, they provided the men who acted as priests of the local shrines, and often they provided more local leaders than descendants of later arrivals. At the other end of the scale were known descendants of people, especially women, who were originally slaves. They were akin to Indian "untouchables," low in status and avoided as marriage partners.

As with all Nigerian ethnic groups, there were internal divisions. Generally, these had to do with town area of origin. More northerly areas had a feeling of separateness, as did larger towns along the Niger River. Beyond Igboland, people from the region were treated as a single unit, lived in separate enclaves and even faced restrictions against ownership of local property in some northern towns. Once they suffered and fought together in the civil war of Biafran secession in the 1960s, these people developed a much stronger sense of Igbo identity that has since been expressed politically. Nevertheless, localized distinctions remained and in 1990 were significant internally.

The peoples of the Atlantic Coast and the Niger River delta are linguistically and culturally related to the Igbo. But the ecological demands of coastal life, and the separate history of contact with coastal trade and its effects produced ethnic differences that were strong enough to have made these people resist the Biafra secession movement when it was promulgated by Igbo leadership. Ijaw, Ibibio, Anang, and Efik lived partly from agriculture and partly from fishing and shrimping in the coastal waters. Religion, social organization, village life, local leadership, and gender relations were deeply affected by this ecology-based differentiation. Although there was a natural and historical pull of migration to Lagos, especially by young Ijaw men who went to the city to find work and send home remittances, the area boasted its own coastal town of Port Harcourt in Efik country that was, in a sense, the headquarters of this subgrouping.

To a lesser extent, the peoples of the western bank of the Niger River--and the western delta--especially the Bini speakers and Urhobo--were culturally close to those around them but had a sufficient sense of linguistic and historical separateness to see themselves as unique. These differences were partly buttressed by the past glory of the kingdom of Benin, of which a much diminished remnant survived in 1990, and had been used to provide the south first with an extra region, then with extra states when the regional level of government was abandoned in 1967.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress