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Citizens and governance in Nigeria

In countries with complex domestic situations, citizens have little opportunity to exercise influence on governance and policy. Leiden academics research these situations and share their insights with the public, such as in Nigeria for instance. This enables the people and their communities to improve their circumstances.

The people of Nigeria are faced with a complicated conflict-ridden domestic situation. There are tensions between Islamic and Christian groups, and violence erupts from time to time. In addition, in terms of the administration of the country, there are two ‘worlds’ that are at odds with each other with regard to the administration of the country: on the one hand, the traditional and religious leaders have an important role for the population, but on the other hand the young democratic government is trying to run the country.

Added to this is the social tension caused by the economy, particularly now the low oil price is having such a drastic effect on economic growth. Many people are migrating to the cities in search of training and work. However, this flow of migration has led to increasing calls from the ‘indigenes’ for protection from the ‘non-indigenes’.

Igbo Chiefs during the elections of the Igbo Community Association in Kano (photo: David Ehrhardt)

Indigene certificate

University lecturer Dr David Ehrhardt wants to find out how the citizens and local authorities operate in such a tense situation. His current focus is the indigene certificate in the poor north of Nigeria: how is this issued and what does it mean to be awarded such a certificate? ‘The problematic cases are migrants without connections, and in particular women who migrate with their partners,’ says Ehrhardt. ‘They often find themselves in a no man’s land: they are recognised by neither their partner’s nor their family’s community. This makes it more difficult for them to follow education and find work. In these cases, personal connections are often the only solution.’

Traditional leaders and the Nigerian state

Ehrhardt is also studying the interaction between traditional local leaders (emirs), religious leaders and the democratic government in North Nigeria. ‘The emirs, as an extension of the British, were very dictatorial in the colonial period, so they lost much of their political power after independence in the 1960s. They had no choice but to be creative in reinventing themselves, which has meant that today they have a surprising amount of trust from their community, just like religious leaders. However, for government officials and democratic politicians, the opposite is true.’ Sometimes the government and local leaders work together but at other times they do not. ‘In some instances, the government and leaders provide each other with power and legitimacy, but in others, emirs and imams distance themselves from the political establishment, because they do not want to be associated with corruption.’ This is particularly complicated in the states in Nigeria in which sharia law has been introduced and where religion and politics are therefore closely linked.
In this complex political situation, it is difficult to achieve anything as an individual or a community, says Ehrhardt. ‘It is a complicated game with many unwritten rules. You need to play various loyalties and connections at exactly the right point in time if you want to win. Sometimes you can go straight to the home of your local politician for financial support, but at other times it is better to call in the help of your imam or priest, or to request an audience with the emir.’ Sometimes mass protest cannot be avoided, as was the case in 2012 when then President Jonathan tried to remove the fuel subsidy. ‘The whole country ground to a halt. Muslims and Christians, northerners and southerners: everyone worked together. And it worked! But such moments are rare.’

Erhardt aims to conduct research that is relevant to the population of Nigeria. ‘Statistics are often very unreliable in poor countries. Of course, the people themselves know how their own area and local administration works, but they have a limited picture of bigger patterns – like the issuing of these indigene certificates. Our research data can help improve things here.’ A topic such as indigenousness is also relevant to other parts of Africa, which makes it interesting to see if the problems and solutions from Nigeria are applicable elsewhere too.

Members of the Kano Emirate during the annual Durbar, riding to greet the Emir (photo: David Ehrhardt)
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