Tribalism in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is defined as loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group. There have been accusations and counter accusations on who introduced tribalism into Nigerian politics. “Before the fall into tribalism,” in the view of these historians, there were no ethnic consciousness in the politics of the burgeoning country of Nigeria, or ethnicity was at its barest minimum. While there is some truth to this proposition of Nigeria’s political Garden of Eden, what is preposterous is that a single event or action marked the introduction of this vice into the Nigerian polity.
Not the first pan-tribal association that was formed in 1928 by some Ibiobio or the Ibo State Union founded in 1943, not even the establishment of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa that was established in Nigeria in 1948. The vision of one of Nigeria’s earliest nationalist association, the National Union of Students in which inter-tribal cooperation was to be fostered, is an indication that tribalism preceded these times, and that its institutionalization was only a matter of time. Tribalism had festered owing to Nigeria’s existential structure, and became institutionalized as it came to be in the late 1940s due to the failure of the early generation of nationalists to produce a common front to the Colonial authority.
At the bedrock of the country’s modernization, Lagos, in the Victorian colonial era, there was no such luxury as tribalism as all that existed were the British, their African subjects and the natives. Herbert Macaulay made friends with the natives against the “better Africans,” and was, through the trust he had created across board, created a nationalist front that was later faulted by a generation of younger activists who think his party’s activities were centered in Lagos. The Nigerian Youth Movement became in 1938, the first pan-Nigerian nationalist movement in the country’s history with the explicit aim of uniting across boundaries in order to create a common voice with which to confront colonial government. With the demise of this experiment came the vocalization of what may have been present in the marrow of some; tribalism.
The Okoli-Akinsanya crisis consequent of Nnamdi Azikiwe, a pioneer nationalist of Igbo origin’s abandonment of the group is painted with allegations of tribalism, and indeed considered by some as the moment of the fall. The search for a common front did not end with this failed experiment, Azikiwe did team up with Herbert Macaulay, a Yoruba man, whose support base, in addition to the already huge Igbo base in Lagos, he continued to enjoy after Macaulay’s death. However, it became clearer at this point that a unitary formula to achieving unity remained problematic. Awolowo gave up on this strategy of achieving a common front for Nigeria, and during his studentship in London immersed himself fully in cultural nationalism, developing the idea of Federalism, a model, which he believed would preserve Nigeria and enhance her unity. He soon discovered with his failure to save their youth movement before his academic voyage to London, that mistrust is inherent in a less innovative attempt at achieving a common front. True to his projection, the Yoruba members of the National Council for Nigerian Citizens, now under Azikiwe, dissented repeatedly on party leadership’s policies. When the last straw that held them together, the Lagos monarch, changed, the Yoruba left in droves, effectively mitigating even the NCNC’s national outlook.
The paradox was becoming clear; that unhealthy competition will persist in a country such as Nigeria, except if a system that suits the country in its quest for unity is introduced. Awolowo argued in his 1945 book for pan-tribal unity, which in his view, was a necessary condition for political advance. His fear was for the clannishness in each ethnic unit which he wrote, must be totally destroyed. In that year he formed the Egbe Omo Oduduwa in London. By the time a pan-African activist, Ladipo Solanke came back to the city from a fund-raising tour for the West Africa Student Union hostel project, he discovered he was living in the past, as territorial organizations had become the fad with the emergence of ethnic association within it. On his return to Nigeria in 1946, Awolowo devoted himself to forging a common front for the Yoruba. His unity plans received huge support from Yoruba professional and political elites many of whom were becoming worried by the fast rise of Azikiwe, an America-trained Igbo journalist, whose early return to Nigeria and leadership commanded followership across the tribes, capriciously resulting in growing ethnic consciousness of Lagos Igbos.
Awolowo, on surface assessment, can hardly be absolved of the charge of tribalism, but his philosophy on federalism showed that his involvement in regional politics was among other things, an innovative way of averting crisis which may have been let loose with blind search for a common national front. The charge of tribalism against the National Council for Nigerian Citizens too was seemingly substantiated with their chief, Azikiwe’s acceptance in 1948, of the presidency post of the Ibo State Union, an Ibo linguistic political unit formed in accordance with the NCNC Freedom Charter.
By the middle of 1948, highly tribalistic commentaries had become common features of the once friendly but now rival newspapers, the Azikiwe’s West African Pilot and the Yoruba-dominated Nigeria Youth Movement’s Daily Service. Although Azikiwe was himself an ally of the Yoruba Herbert Macaulay who died in 1945, and many Macaulay’s admirers who were Lagos natives including the White Cap chiefs and Imams had followed Azikiwe, frequent quarrels among Yoruba and Igbo factions of the NCNC coupled with the ascension of Adeniji Adele to the throne of Lagos, reversed the trend. The new Oba, a supporter of the Yoruba-dominated Nigerian Youth Movement and member of Egbe Omo Oduduwa inspired the mass defection of Lagos indigenes to tribal politics, preparing the way for the most successful party that never washed itself clean from the charges of been a tribal party; the Action Group.