Ethnic Identity Politics in Kogi State, Nigeria: Exploring the implications of the fault lines for Inclusive Development.

By Dele Bello-Williams

The evolving components of the Nigerian constitution have always sought to legally prevent identities such as ethnic, religion, and regionalism from becoming the basis of political organisation and a contest for state power. Contrarily, ethnic identity politics of one of the country’s key north central states, Kogi state, proved to be quite resilient, igniting incessant ethnic-factionalism and tensions for the past two decades. Nevertheless, ethno-identity politics and pressures are not unique to Kogi state, but a culture that is inherent in Nigerian body politics.

Kogi state was formed in 1991 from portions of Kwara state and Benue state. Kogi state now consists of twenty-one local government areas with three senators representing the state since the return of democracy in 1999. The core languages spoken are Ebira, Igala, Nupe and Yoruba. The current Governor is Yahaya Bello, from Ebira tribe, who was declared the winner of the 2015 elections after he was chosen on the platform of the All Progressives Congress, replacing Abubakar Audu, a leading contestant from Igala tribe in the same elections, who passed away prior to the conclusion of the polls. The ethnic identities in Kogi state have always had a very strong divisive influence between the three ethnic groups: Igala, Ebira, and Okun.


Most of the Igala people live in the area between the Benue and Niger rivers, which is an area that used to be called the Igala Kingdom with the capital in Idah. The total population is around 1.5 million people (2006 census). A new paramount ruler for Igala Kingdom Traditional Council is Idako Michael Ameh II, elected in 2012 by the Igala Mela kingmakers and the Achadu Ata. Mr Idakwo took the position after the death of late Alhaji Aliyu Obaje in July 2012. This prompted the kingmakers and Achadu Ata to commence the process of selection who finally elected Mr Idakwo from the Ocholi lineage as the 22nd Ata Igala. The most practised religion of the Igala people is Christianity (78%).


Most of Nigeria’s Ebira people live in Kogi state, Nasarawa state, and Edo state with a total population of two million people. Okene was said to be the administrative hub of the Ebira-speaking population in Kogi state. Before the advent of Islam, Ebira people practised a form of African traditional religion with Ohomorihi as the central god. The correspondence of Ebira Islam-Christianity religion practice is 74-18 percent respectively.


The “Okun people” is usually a term related to the groups speaking Yoruba dialects in the Kogi state with the total population of around 800,000 people. The Okun people practice mostly Christianity, including Islam and traditional African religions. The correspondence of Okun’s Islam-Christianity religion practice is 15-85 percent respectively. Before the creation of the Kogi State, Okun Yoruba populations lived in Kwala state alongside some of the Ekiti and Igbomina neighbours. The perceived marginalisation of the Okun people in the Kogi state has made them to call for a state of their own and proposed that it is made part of the south-western geopolitical part of Nigeria.

The politics of ethnic identity in Kogi state

Since 1991 and the partial lifting of partisan political activities by the military juntas, the Kogi political scene was flooded with political moguls representing the three major ethnic groups in the state driven by mutual fear of domination and marginalisation of one zone over the other. Some of the main actors included: late Dr Stephen Achema, Prince Abubakar Audu and others for the Igala Kogi East; Samuel Olorunfemi, Shola Akanmode and others for Okunland in Kogi West; late Chief A. T. Ahmed, Moses Okino and others for Ebira Kogi Central.

Image 1 source: BBC

Image 1 shows the income map highlighting a clear income divide in how wealthy Nigerians are, with the north, comprising Kogi state, being much poorer than the south of the country. The pivotal issue in Kogi is that unlike in most federations where political parties have the important responsibility of building bridges, in the case of Kogi State—and Nigeria in general—partisan democracy marginalised ethnic minorities in each of the three senatorial states. Kogi political elites who developed within the contours of their senatorial zone sought to maintain their privileged domain by magnifying ethnic artifice to gain access to the Lugard House (Kogi State Government House). (Bagaji, 2012: 133-4)

Given the political notion of democracy, and with the three dominant ethnic groups in place, it could be argued that the broad political issue in Kogi state is control of political power and its instruments. For this reason, within a short post-military political life in 1998/99, politics in Kogi state was riddled with a cry of marginalisation. The crucial argument is that ethnic identity politics in Kogi was nurtured by the military during the historical restructuring of Nigeria, leading to the creation of Kogi state in 1991, which was triggered by winner-takes-it-all political culture in Nigeria. The state had also experienced, the factional struggle for power between the leading political elites of the three dominant ethnic groups. Consequently, marginalisation re surged as it pursued people to reconsider political participation and reassert their ethnic identity in the state. (Bagaji, 2012: 134-5)

Ethnic identity in Nigeria

Nigeria had been under the firm grip of military dictatorship for an uninterrupted period of sixteen years, during which the democratic public sphere was excessively constricted. This encompassed the barring of interest groups and social and political formations from advancing their interests and expressing their grievance through democratic means.

The steady mobilisation of ethnic identity in Kogi State purportedly for state-building is one of the most significant threats, not only to the ethnopolitical stability of Kogi state, but also for peace and unity of Nigeria as a whole. In competition or struggle over societal resources, especially during times of scarcity, collective demands are prone to be predicated and organised on shared interests or socio-cultural identities. Simply said, identity politics are closely linked to access to state power and benefits associated with it, leaders are prone to use necessary means to establish such access. (Calhoun, 1994).

Given that the ethnic-based marginalisation in politics is no peculiar to Kogi state only, a similar problem is experienced by the Yewa people in Ogun state. Obunayo Joseph writes that the reality on the ground is that “Igalas are hiding under the pretext of governing Kogi State to fast track the development of the Eastern Senatorial District peopled by them, while ignoring the underdevelopment and utter neglect of the West and the Central Senatorial Districts in all ramifications.” The scholar adds that “if the marginalisation of the West and the Central Senatorial District in Kogi state is not checked, the name given to the state may as well be re titled Igala State to reflect the true state of Kogi politics of marginalisation.”

What is clear from the crass competition for power is that the inter-ethnic relations tend to be fragile and the Kogi state remain unstable because there are fewer points of convergence and consensus among constituent ethnic groups. However, despite the many pathologies and ethnic identity politics and perhaps, tensions that are plaguing the Kogi state, there are several solutions connected to the question of Kogi statehood. For example, when the state leaders feel marginalised by the government in power, they could mobilise support against the government based on the ethnic features of their followers. Overall, it is hoped that Kogi state may one day benefit from the emerging power shift and diffused nature of Nigerian partisan politics.

Current Plight of the people of Kogi State

Indigenous people of Kogi have not experienced much dividends from Nigeria’s experience of democracy since 1999. The state appears to suffer from more than a fair share of poverty, insecurity, farming hardships, unemployment and very poor working conditions. Upwards of 60% of the working population are employed within the public sectors. There are reported cases of unpaid wages and salaries to public sector workers, spanning six months arrears and in some cases longer.

The state is due to conduct another round of governorship elections on November 16, 2019, ordinarily an opportunity to choose a new chief executive to run the affairs of the state for the next four years. Under normal circumstances, this would present a prized opportunity for its three million inhabitants to choose a better future. However, lessons from past elections suggest that the exercise is unlikely to offer much succour for the people. Previous elections have been charaterised by violence and large scale electoral malpractices. Of the 1.3 million registered voters in its last (2015) gubernatorial elections, only 37% of the electorates bothered to turnout for the vote. Fears of electoral violence and the pervading sense of inevitability as regards the outcome of the elections have kept voters away from polling centres. The people of Kogi require assistance of local and international communities to break out of the cycle of poverty, violence and disenfranchisement that has become synonymous with state.

Bagaji, A. S. Y. (2012). The Scramble for Lugard House: Ethnic Identity Politics and Recurring Tensions in Kogi State. Canadian Social Science, 8(1), 130-135.
Calhoun, C. (1994). Social Theory and the Politics of Identity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Dele Bello-Williams, Executive Director NIAS