India and Nigeria: Similar Colonial Legacies, Vastly Different Trajectories: An Examination of the Differing Fates of Two Former British Colonies

By Caroline Cohn
Cornell International Affairs Review
2013, Vol. 7 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |

The nations of Nigeria and India both have exceptionally diverse populations, endured the deliberate divide-and-rule strategies executed by British colonizers who sought thereby to exacerbate existing differences, and experienced peaceful transfers from colonial rule to independence. Despite these key similarities in certain aspects of their colonial and decolonization experiences, India and Nigeria have had very different levels of success in their efforts to create and maintain politically stable nation-states. Today, India is distinguished from other post-colonial independent nations for its political stability, demonstrated by its "set of stable political and legal institutions that has now remained more or less intact for over five decades" and a parliamentary democracy that has "remained more or less unchanged since India's independence and continues to function in an orderly fashion".1 Nigeria, on the other hand, is an exemplar of third world political instability, characterized as "highly nondemocratic and prone to using force" and plagued by recurrent coups and violent ethno-religious conflicts.2 In this paper, I identify crucial differences between each country's pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial experiences that have contributed to such divergent political conditions today. Specifically, this paper surveys the types and structuring of diversity in each country; their experiences under British colonialism (including how their boundaries were determined, what political and economic policies were implemented, and how they gained independence); and finally the important aspects that have colored their experiences since colonialism—including significant historical events, the geographic distribution of natural resources, and particular economic and political policies pursued.i

I argue that the source of India and Nigeria's divergent outcomes lies primarily in the structuring of their demographic diversity. India has had success in achieving political stability due to its diversity existing as "crosscutting cleavages," a characteristic of society that is associated with political stability.ii A society with cross-cutting cleavages is a society in which political, ideological, ethnic, racial, religious, socioeconomic, or linguistic divisions cut across one another "such that individuals on opposite sides of one divisive issue are often allies on another issue".3 And India, "with [its] multiple cleavages of religion, caste, tribe, region, and language slicing across each other," is indeed commonly considered to be "an outstanding example" of such a society.4 To give a concrete example, it is not the case that all Hindus in India speak the same language, are of the same socio-economic class, and live in the same region. Additionally, having a common ancestral history and traditions, experiencing a unifying and nationalistic independence movement, and pursuing political and economic policies (both under colonial rule and afterward) that had the effect of uniting the population has helped India.

In contrast, Nigeria's "overlapping cleavages"iii—being comprised of a population whose linguistic, religious, and ethnic differences overlap on top of one another and coincide with regional boundaries—have compromised its political stability. As scholar Okechukwu Iheduru describes, Nigeria's "250 ethnic groups, with their distinct (and mostly unintelligible) languages and cultural characteristics, are geographically separated".5 Moreover, Nigeria's lack of common national history, unequal natural resource distribution, and promotion of regionalism over a strong central government via specific political and economic policies (both under colonialism and after gaining its independence) have helped produce a Nigeria whose stability continues to be undermined by regional competition and violence.

I conclude this paper by looking at the political approach taken by several Southeast Asian countries. It is true that several Southeast Asian countries have had success in achieving national political stability via a type of governance that emphasizes central planning under an authoritarian government. However, I propose that several preexisting characteristics of India and Nigeria, as well as some features of their current political structure, are such that this Southeast Asian "model" (as some have described it) would not necessarily be adaptable to or useful for improving these nations' political stabilities.

Highly Diverse National Populations

Quantitatively Comparable Diversity

Certain key similarities exist between India and Nigeria; not least significant in terms of national political stability is the tremendous amount of diversity that has been and remains present within each nation. One source of diversity in India is race, as the country is divided between an "Aryan" race in the north and a "Dravidian" race in its southern regions.6 Nigeria's ethnic diversity is significantly more varied. It has an ethnic makeup of 250 tribal groups, and about two-thirds of the population falls into one of three major ones (the HausaFalani, the Yoruba, and the Ibo), each of which is concentrated in its own distinct geographic region.7 While Nigeria is characterized by considerable ethnic diversity, India exhibits comparable linguistic diversity. Over 200 languages are spoken throughout the country—many of which are mutually unintelligible—and this serves as the basis for India's linguistically determined regions. For their part, Nigerians also "speak more than 250 mutually unintelligible languages" that are also regionally concentrated.8 Each country also has religion as a source of diversity: in India, there coexists a Hindu majority, a substantial Muslim minority, as well as Buddhists, Sikhs, and Christians.9 The Nigerian population is divided between a Muslim-dominated north and a primarily Christian population in the south. An additional, distinct source of diversity within India is caste (or jati): Indian society distinguishes between Brahmins, warriors, merchants, artisans/ peasants, and untouchables as separate social castes. These distinctions were considerably more socially and politically significant during India's colonial past but retain a degree of political and social significance.10

Members of Nigeria's Igbo tribe, one of 250 ethnic groups in the country

Members of Nigeria's Igbo tribe, one of 250 ethnic groups in the country

Qualitatively Distinctive Diversity

Despite the similarity that both nations are immensely diverse, a key difference for political stability lies in the geographic distribution of these differences. Though Indian states are organized around linguistic identities, in each state and city one can still find members of different religions and castes. This feature of differences being cross-cutting (and particularly that of cutting across geographic boundaries) prevents serious secessionist threats, which have had obvious implications in terms of promoting political stability.ix Nigeria, on the other hand, is comprised of a population whose cleavages overlap with each other and coincide with regional boundaries. Nigeria's 250 ethnic groups—almost each of which is associated with a distinct language and distinct cultural characteristics—are geographically separated.11 Such "overlapping" cleavages present problems for nations trying to maintain political stability because they promote identity-based politics, are a barrier to cooperation, present potential secessionist threats, and promote regional rivalries that often (particularly in Nigeria's case) grow into more violent conflicts. The nature of each nation's cleavages has thus been a crucial determinant of its subsequent political stability.12

British Colonial Legacies

Ostensibly Similar British Colonial Legacies

Another key similarity between the two nations is a colonial legacy of British rule, specifically one that intentionally used a "divideandrule" strategy to highlight and reinforce each nation's preexisting cleavages and diffuse nationalism among the native population.13 The use of the "divide-and-rule" tactic via direct rule has to be qualified in the case of both countries. However, the common outcome is that it served to politicize differences, which is the outcome that has had the most lasting political significance as it relates to stability of each country.

The case of British direct rule in India must be qualified because British influence in India actually began rather passively before it transitioned first to indirect rule in 1757 (after and due to the Battle of Plassey) and then became direct rule in 1857 (after and due to the Sepoy Rebellion).14 The particular timing of Britain's adoption of direct rule in India also influenced the character it took on, and it was a character that further encouraged the reinforcement of differences. Britain transitioned from indirect to direct rule as it was moving increasingly further away from feudalism and toward industrialization. The politicization of identities in colonial India thus took on the Enlightenment skew of placing heightened attention on measurement and identification, particularly in the context of gathering information via censuses of demographics, regions, and populations. This served to reinforce identities that previously had not necessarily existed—or at least were not yet politically significant—in India. In particular, Britain played up the racial differences between the North and South and also emphasized religious differences between Hindus and Muslims.15

Unlike Nigeria, India had a stronger foundation for a national consciousness due to the existence of a common civilization that had forged prior to its colonization

The assertion that Nigeria experienced direct colonial rule by Britain also merits further explanation. Direct rule only applied to the southern regions of the country, while the northern region was controlled via indirect rule and was largely left to "native authorities," often HausaFaulani landlords.16 The politically salient feature and consequence of direct rule for the purposes of this paper, however, is that of reinforcing and politicizing cleavages. I will argue that, despite allowing some indirect rule (which tends to be less divisive), these regionally differing forms of colonial rule in Nigeria reinforced the cleavages as much as or even more so than if direct rule had been universally applied.17

Cleavages within both India and Nigeria were not necessarily sources of conflict prior to them being intensified and politicized, which for these nations was a direct consequence of British colonial rule and its particular strategies. Indeed, the long "period of relatively peaceful coexistence between Hindus and Muslims" before Indian colonization is strong evidence that "the relationship between the two groups is not inherently a conflictual one".18 Similar patterns can be witnessed in African countries that have now become paradigms for ethnic and religious violence, such as Rwanda and the Congo. However, it is because they are crosscutting that these cleavages have not seriously impacted the stability of present-day India, whereas their overlapping nature in Nigeria has greatly undermined its stability.

Crucial Differences between Colonial Experiences

Drawing Boundaries Predating independence, a major difference in the way each nation's national boundaries were initially formed has had lasting implications on their relative successes in creating politically stable nation-states. Unlike Nigeria, India had a stronger foundation for a national consciousness due to the existence of a common civilization that had been forged prior to its colonization. Indians can look to a shared, ancient history of dynasties that stretched across much of the subcontinent. These dynasties also helped to spread Hindu beliefs and practices with them, thereby establishing an early prevalence of Hinduism and making the caste structure and Hindu traditions universally recognizable.v These widespread traditions and shared history were immensely useful in providing Indian nationalist leaders with a foundation from which to draw a common national myth to unite the country during the subsequent independence movement.vi

The Sansad Bhavan, the Indian House of Parliamnet, a tribute to the strength of the Indian central government

The Sansad Bhavan, the Indian House of Parliamnet, a tribute to the strength of the Indian central government

This common myth stands in stark contrast to the complete lack of shared, unifying history in Nigeria, whose national boundaries are utterly artificial and whose diverse population was arbitrarily united, providing little ostensible rationale for nationhood. Nigeria's national boundaries were arbitrarily drawn by European powers during the 1885 Berlin Conference with a blatant disregard for the existing tribes, demography, or geography of the area, which has been a major source of the turmoil Nigeria experiences today.19 The Berlin Conference set up two adjacent British protectorates in the area that now comprises Nigeria, one southern and one northern. 1914 saw another arbitrary regional unification, as these two ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse protectorates were formally amalgamated into one colony. Two differing systems of colonial political control (one direct, the other indirect) served to further exacerbate existing differences.20

The effects of this colonial legacy on Nigeria's present political unity are manifest. The South continues to have more secular laws while the North still retains some Sharia laws, and two models of suffrage are still preserved within each region, with the South allowing universal suffrage and the North only giving men the vote. The North-South divide is further evidenced by the fact that the regions received self-government at vastly different times, almost two years apart: the eastern and western regions (compositely the southern region) were granted self-government in 1957, while the northern region declined the offer until 1959.21 These political differences are both an indicator and source of the political instability Nigeria currently experiences. Indeed, the amalgamation is still referred to as the "mistake of 1914" for the persistent problems it created.22

Political and Economic Policies

Specific political and economic policies implemented in each nation prior to independence have also had lasting implications on present political relations and stabilities. For example, prior to British influence in the region, the Mogul Empire (15261750s) set up a "federal" system of tribute in India. This federal system served to set up a centralregional political system that "contributed to the expansion of administrative bureaucracies as well as closer economic and political ties among the diverse regions of the subcontinent," while still establishing the center as dominant in centerperiphery relations. The legacy of this policy has aided in creating the political stability India now enjoys by promoting ties among regions as well as upholding the strength of the central government.23 Similarly, British colonizers introduced the civil service to India and established "national and regional assemblies." These "provide[d] an institutional basis for parliamentary democracy in postcolonial India," as well as "systematized division of labor between central and provincial administrations, providing a bridge from the tributary system…to the institutions of modern day Indian federalism" that have served India so well since independence.24

The incentive for strong central leadership has been and continues to be compromised by Nigeria's political structure

Nigeria, on the other hand, underwent a series of administrative political reforms under Britain's direction prior to its independence that had the effect of reorganizing the nation into three regions corresponding to the North, West, and East. This reorganization merely reinforced and further politicized regional differences by laying the "foundation for the creation of new geographic identities" to overlay the preexisting primordial ones. Such politicization and overlaying of differences has largely contributed to the political competition along regional lines and the weakening of the central government that are such a major source of Nigeria's current political instability.25 In 1951, Britain established a federal system in Nigeria, which, unlike India's system that allowed for a structurally and administratively stronger central government, had the opposite effect of giving its regions more autonomy. This regional control also applied to control of resources, which has had particularly dire consequences to be explained in more depth further on.

Goodluck Jonathan, the president of Nigeria, whose power is undermined by stronger regional governments

Goodluck Jonathan, the president of Nigeria, whose power is undermined by stronger regional governments

In neither India's nor Nigeria's case was a lack of agency or strong leadership a chief cause of political instability. However, the incentive for strong central leadership has been and continues to be compromised by Nigeria's political structure. Effective leaders have been deterred from taking charge of the nation as a whole—which could encourage stability—preferring instead to seek control over the regional governments that are relatively stronger than the central one. For example, the leader and founder of one of Nigeria's major parties, Ahmadu Bello of the National People's Congress (NPC), declined the role of being Nigeria's first post-independence Prime Minister to instead become Premier of the northern region. Bello's decision is a testament to the relative importance and political power of Nigeria's regions, over and above the country at large.

The central government's weakness continues to pose major problems in Nigeria;26 however, even the creation of central governmental institutions in Nigeria has had the effect of politicizing differences and reinforcing ethnic cleavages. For example, after national parliaments gained importance as places where distribution of resources and money was decided, extreme ethnic mobilization ensued, evidenced by the fact that the emergent political parties were completely organized along ethnic lines.vii Furthermore, these divisive forms of "ethnic identity mobilization," in the words of Iheduru, have "spilled over into economic and social life…igniting often a more vicious interethnic competition, stereotypes, and mutual suspicion that persists to this day".27

Narendra Modi at a flag raising ceremony during India's Independence Day celebrations in Bhuj

Narendra Modi at a flag raising ceremony during India's Independence Day celebrations in Bhuj

Paths to Independence

Nigeria and India similarly experienced peaceful transfers of power from British colonial rule to independence and both adopted Western-style constitutions and established parliamentary governments upon gaining independence. However, the fact that India struggled through an independence movement to gain this independence, while Nigeria was simply granted it, has had important repercussions on their respective relative political stabilities.

The independence movement in India was an important nationalizing and unifying force, with lasting implications on India's present political stability, because it gave Indians another common source of national pride to look back to and draw upon. Indians were required to form a united front against their common colonial enemy, and the particular way in which this was done— largely due to the methods employed by Gandhi— helped to further unify the country. Gandhi, as leader of the Indian National Congress (INC) that led India to independence, used a strategy of grassroots mobilization and organization. This method connected peasants with the members of the educated elite who led the movement. Indeed, in India's case, a source of initial divisions paradoxically became fuel for India's nationalist movement. The British, in their attempt to divide and rule, elevated Hindu Brahmins to key administrative posts, which required that they be educated; however, in one of colonialism's familiar ironies, these native educated elites became the new political leaders of the Indian independence movement.28 Furthermore, Gandhi's "syncretist" method drew upon and combined universal Enlightenment ideals with nationalistic Hindu spiritualism. Gandhi drew upon Indians' shared histories and emphasized its universal elements, thereby creating a nationalistic movement that had widespread appeal for the entire nation.29 It was helpful that India also had ancient history and traditions from which to draw a common national myth.

During India's independence movement, Britain's calculated efforts to exploit MuslimHindu tensions by calling for the Partition of Bengal in 1905 ironically backfired and instead had the effect of fueling greater resentment against the British for what was recognized as a deliberate divide-and-rule tactic. Indeed, rather than driving Indians apart, it "spur[red] greater activism across India and [gave] more impetus to the budding independence movement"—even if it would later become a source of division and ultimately lead to the secession of Bangladesh.30 The Bengali example is a testament to the strength of the Indian independence movement as a unifying and nationalizing force because it was able to overpower, for a time, such a strong cleavage.

Nigeria was never forced to unify and form a common national identity and regional differences were merely swept under the rug, only to later resurface in highly destabilizing ways.

This independence story stands in stark contrast to Nigeria's narrative. Nigeria experienced no similar independence movement, and therefore did not experience an equivalent unification or overcoming of cleavages. Instead, Nigeria was anticlimactically granted independence from and by Britain in the year 1960, making it one of fourteen African colonies to gain its independence in that year. Thus, Nigeria seemingly gained independence at a time when the international climate was conducive to it, rather than as a direct result of its own agitations. Nigeria was therefore never forced to unify and form a common national identity in the way that India was, and differences were merely swept under the rug, only to later resurface in highly destabilizing ways.

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