Cultural Diversity: A True Source of Unification in a Pluralistic Society

Cultural Diversity: A True Source of Unification in a Pluralistic Society, By Nimi D Briggs*. A Paper Presented at the International Conference on THE CULTURAL HERITAGE AND ITS DIVERSITY AT THE ORIGIN OF CREATIVITY Losinj, Croatia, 27-31 August 2006

I wish to express my gratitude to the organisers of this conference on Cultural Heritage and its Diversity, for inviting me to visit this wonderful country, Croatia, and to participate in the deliberations of the conference. As you all, components of the former state of Yugoslavia, reconnect with your roots in Europe, it is my fervent prayer that nothing will be done to destroy the stunning beauty of your great country, including that of the archepalag island of Losinj the venue of the conference. Here, I notice that nature and culture have blended admirably, giving rise to what, in my opinion, must be one of the most relaxing spots on planet earth.

My country, Nigeria, came into being following the amalgamation of a northern and southern protectorate by a British colonial administrator, Lord Lugard, in 1914. Before that amalgamation, the area which is currently known as Nigeria consisted of many individual nation states which contained several ethnic groups that the British had conquered one after the other and established control and authority over them, earlier on in the 19th century. The ethnic groups had diverse cultures in their religion, and ways of life which were fiercely defended and moulding them into a unified, single nation state proved difficult on account of these challenges even after independence from the British colonial masters in 1960. These perceived and real contradictions in the configuration of the nation, as it turned out, among others, eventually led to a disruptive and fratricidal civil war in 1967 which almost resulted in a cleavage of the country.

This paper gives a brief account of the ethnic groups of Nigeria and their cultural diversities. It indicates how these cultural differences, as well as a number of other factors, were exploited to precipitate a civil war from which happily the nation recovered. It then discusses the robust efforts that are being made in the country to institute a paradigm shift in which the complex cultural diversity of its people is seen as cultural pluralism and as a source of strength and opportunity, not weakness and limitation. In this new concept, cultural pluralism is being nurtured, cultivated, guarded and actively promoted by government as a basis for creativity, national cohesion and tourists’ attractions.


With a landmass area of 923,768.64 sq. km. and an estimated population of about 130 million people, Nigeria is indeed a big and populous nation. The country is located in West Africa, bordering the Gulf of Guinea, between Benin and the Cameroon Republic. Nigeria is the largest black nation in the world and it is estimated that one out of every five black persons of the world is a Nigerian. The economy of the country is dependent largely on the sale of crude oil in the international market which provides 95% of the nation’s foreign exchange earnings, and about 65% of budgetary revenues. Following over 16 years of military rule, during which the country was eventually divided into 36 composite units, called states, the country adopted a new constitution in 1999 and completed a peaceful transition to civilian government which brought into power, its current President, His Excellency, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, GCFR.

Nigeria has over 350 ethnic groups each with its distinct way of life and associated language. When one considers that no civilization or race is superior to the other as was stated in August 2003 by the participants at the UNESCO’s Orhrid Regional Forum on the Dialogue among Civilizations, it becomes difficult to justify the frequent classification of ethnic groups in Nigeria as well as in other lands, into major and minor. However, such classification has gained currency from common usage and in Nigeria the Ijaw, Ibibio, Efik, Igbo, Yoruba, Urhobo, Bini, Istekiri, Hausa, Fulani, Idoma, Nupe, kanuri and Tiv are regarded as major ethnic groups. Commenting on each of these in a short paper such as this, will prove to be drudgery and is unnecessary. What follows therefore, is abridged information on the culture and way of life of a few of the named ones based essentially on the strength of their populations.

The dominant ethnic group in the north of Nigeria is HAUSA. They are of Sahelian origin, most are Muslims and in large part, herdsmen. They are also found in large numbers in the northern parts of other West African countries including Niger, Cameroon, Benin, Senegal and Ghana. They have an ancient culture that extends to other Islamised peoples in West Africa and beyond. The city of Kano and the Sokoto Caliphate constitute large concentrations of Hausa where communal relations are shared with the Fulanis. Sharia law is the law of the land.

The YORUBA people, about one half of whom are Muslims and the other Christians are predominantly in the south-west of the country. The Yorubas have a very rich culture which transcends international borders and is observable in other countries of West Africa and as far away as the Americas, despite the debilitating effects of slavery. Sango worship and various musical art forms popularised in Latin America, Cuba, and Puerto Rico are rooted in Yoruba music. Their religious beliefs are complex and they recognize a wide variety of deities, including Oludimare who is generally regarded as the creator. However the point must be made that a large number of Yorubas have converted to the Christian and Muslim faith which they now practise in a devoted manner.

The IGBOs who are mainly Catholics are in the east of the country. Their social structures were based for the most part on semiautonomous communities which were largely devoid of kings or governing chiefs. Although title holders were respected because of their accomplishments, they were never revered as kings but often performed special assignments which were ascribed to them by members of the community. This way of governing was radically different from most other communities in Nigeria. After the civil war, which affected the Igbos particularly, many emigrated out of the traditional Igbo homeland of south-eastern Nigeria to other parts of the country and beyond including North America and Europe.

The IJAW ethnic group is a collection of peoples residing mostly in the forest region of the Niger Delta, the Southern part of Southern Nigeria, along known trade routes. They consist of a western Ijaw comprising Kiama, Bomadi, Ekeremor, Nembe, and Kolokuma and an eastern Ijaw comprising Kalabari, Okirika and Ibani, all of whom are in the Rivers State of Nigeria. The Ijaws were one of the first people in Nigeria to make contact with Westerners and were active as go-betweens in trade between the visiting Europeans and the people of the interior. Governance was by way of “Houses”, each house having an elected leader and a fleet of war canoes for use in protecting trade and fighting rivals. The other occupation was fishing. Although the Ijaws are now primarily Christians, they have elaborate traditional religious practices of their own which are centered on “water spirits” and the payment of tributes to ancestors. Organised initially in several loose clusters of villages which cooperated to defend themselves against outsiders, the Ijaws now increasing view themselves as belonging to a single coherent body, bound together by ties of language and culture. This tendency has been encouraged in large measure by the environmental degradation that has accompanied the discovery of crude oil in the Niger Delta region which is the home of the Ijaws, as well as a revenue sharing formula with the federal government that is viewed by the Ijaws as grossly unfair. The protests generated by this unequal relationship have resulted in several high-profile clashes with the federal authorities, which unfortunately are continuing till this day.

Each of the ethnic groups in Nigeria has its own identifiable way of life, mode of dress, values, food, cultural disposition, system of marriage and family organization. For example, whereas the karftan, a long sleeve shirt which descends almost to the ankles, and the agbada, a complex three piece flowing cloth material, made usually of high quality cotton, would be worn by many Hausas and Yorubas, in the north and western Nigeria, the Igbos and the Ijaws are more likely to dress in atibos and wokos, which are short sleeve lose shirts that are made usually of woollen materials with accompanying beads that are displayed on the anterior chest wall. In the area of traditional industries, the Igbos are known for their woven fabrics, the Hausas for their pottery and leather craftsmanship, the Yorubas and the Binis for their carvings and the Ijaws for their weaving of fish nests. Whereas cassava is the main tuber for the ethnic groups in Southern Nigeria, where it is used for garri which is extensively consumed, yam serves that purpose for those in the north. The guinecorn which is popular in the north is rarely consumed in the south. White marriages of individual couples in churches are common in the south while traditional Muslim marriages, which occasionally involve several couples being married at a single event, is noticed more in Northern Nigeria. The Iriah ceremony with its rich display of gold and coral beads is an important component of the marriage and childbearing process of the Ijaws of Southern Nigeria. Furthermore, masquerades, such as the owus, the ekpos and the mmauns feature prominently in major traditional dances of the Ijaws and the Igbos of Southern and Eastern Nigeria, whereas such is not the case with the Hausas of Northern Nigeria. However, there is a surviving practice of respect for parents and elders in all cultures in the country. The Yoruba culture is probably the strongest in this regard as it demands prostration for elders as a way of greeting and a special language parlance in addressing them.


By late 1966, the tension caused in the country by these seeming incompatibles in religious beliefs, culture, mode of governance as well as several other factors, had come to a head and in January 1967, erupted into a full-blown war following military coups and counter coups that had taken place in 1966. However, masquerading behind all these perceived and real aetiological factors was the desire of the warring parties to control access to and obtain royalties from the sale of crude oil which had been discovered in commercial quantities in the littoral states which are in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. In the midst of this confusion, in order to assuage the fears of domination as expressed by some ethnic groups in the country, the Military Government of the day drastically altered the administrative structure of the country, a decision which a section rejected and declared itself an Independent state of the Republic of Biafra.

The civil war that ensued in order to prevent the balkanization of the country, ended with the defeat of Biafra in 1970 and the reunification of the nation. The war thought Nigerians that ethnic conflicts were among the most destructive forces in the life of a nation. And so, thereafter, ethnic conflict was suppressed and carefully controlled so that any out break or seriously published discrimination on ethnic grounds was considered a matter of national security as the Federal Government took steps to reunite all segments of the country. The promotion and enhancement of the cultural inheritance of the various ethnic groups of the country was one way by which Government hoped to achieve national unity and cohesion.


Although various governments in Nigeria had always recognized the richness in the diverse cultures of its different ethnic groups, efforts at showcasing this diversity as a national monument and wealth that unifies its people, had been weak, feeble and uninspiring. Rather, government had often turned a blind eye to the activities of unscrupulous persons who capitalized upon such diversities to make a case that efforts at forging a Nigerian nationhood would end up as an exercise in futility. Gladly, in recent times, Government is living up to its responsibility to promote the concept of UNITY IN DIVERSITY as a national inheritance. There is now a Ministry of Culture at the Federal Government level with a minister of cabinet rank responsible for its affairs. Some of the 36 states of the country also have such a ministry. The country now has a National Cultural Policy whose aims and objectives are, among others, “to mobilize and motivate the people by disseminating and propagating ideas which promote national pride, solidarity and consciousness” as well as to “evolve from our plurality a national culture”. Various councils, commissions, centres and troupes have been formed for the promotion and propagation of the indigenous culture of the people by the federal as well as state governments.

Outside the country, Nigeria’s unflinching support for UNESCO, the United Nation’s organization with responsibility, among others, for the promotion and preservation of culture globally, is demonstrated by the presence of a National Commission for UNESCO in the country; a strong permanent delegation of the country at the headquarters of the organization in Paris, which is headed by a seasoned diplomat; the presence of an in- country representative office of the organization at the nation’s headquarters in Abuja; and the visit to the organization’s headquarters in Paris by the country’s President himself, His Excellency Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, GCFR, on several occasions. A Nigerian, His Excellency Ambassador Professor Michael Omolewa, who is Nigeria’s Permanent Delegate at UNESCO, served as the President of the 32nd General Assembly of the organization. Ambassador Omolewa is also currently a member of the Executive Body of the organization. For the balance of the time allotted to me for this presentation, I shall concern myself with expatiating on some of the processes by which culture, as well as its diversity is being given a pride of place in my country. I shall conclude by showing how this is impacting positively on the nation’s well being, especially on its economy and development.


The argument could be made that it was only in 1975 that a very positive step was taken in Nigeria for the promotion of the nation’s culture with the establishment of the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC).

NCAC’s establishment was predicated on the need to set up a central coordinating body in the country “to promote and foster the appreciation, revival and development of Nigerian Arts and Culture” and also “to plan and coordinate cultural activities in Nigeria”. Its formation was quickly followed by the country hosting the second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in 1977, a prolonged cultural fiesta which was termed FESTAC 77. There is also the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) which involves collecting, preserving and presenting for the enjoyment and education of the public on all material evidence of human existence in Nigeria. The coming into being of these instruments for cultural revival, led to further concrete steps to enhance cultural activities in the country. These included the construction of a National Arts Theatre and the formation of a National Troupe.

Constructed in 1975 by the Federal Government, in Surulere, a suburb of the then capital of the nation, Lagos, the Nigerian Arts Theatre is a magnificent building which serves for the preservation, presentation and promotion of culture and its development. It was used as a focal point during FESTAC 77 and currently as a meeting arena to support the accessibility of Arts and Culture to Nigerians as well as visitors to the country. Furthermore, it also serves educational, leisure and entertainment purposes through the presentation of concerts, musicals, plays, film shows and various exhibitions.

As for the National Troupe which was formed to present Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage, within and outside the borders of the country, it came alive in 1986 when the Federal Government appointed the culture and Art guru, Hubert Ogunde (now late), as the artistic director of the troupe. The troupe has since carried out this function satisfactorily and has participated in several national and international performances.

These heightened activities at cultural promotion have had several outlets and avenues of expression, one of them being the emergence of many well-organized cultural traditional festivals which are staged on regular basis across the country. Of these, the Kano Durbar, the Arugungu fishing festival, and the Onitsha Ofala festival deserve special mention. These ceremonies which mark significant events in the life of the people are used to transmit ideas, aspirations and the philosophy of the people. They are rallying points and renactments of important events which serve as factors of interaction, cohesion and mobilization in the societies. In so doing they promote indigenous creativity which is required for national development.

Furthermore, the combination of enhanced cultural promotion and the emergence of many well organized traditional cultural festivals, fuelled as it were by the economic liberalization policy of the federal government, are having a knock on effect on the nation’s tourism industry which until recently had been in the doldrums. Drawn by the plethora of cultural festivals, game reserves, ranches, water falls, ocean beaches, handicrafts, slave trade relics and other attractions, many tourists are beginning to make Nigeria a destination of first choice. This is creating employment opportunities in the country and it is expected that it would contribute substantially to the national economy in the near future. The TINAPA Project, a gigantic and bold initiative by the Cross River State Government of Nigeria, constitutes an enormous commitment to the development of eco-tourism in the country. Located by the Calabar River and the adjacent Calabar Free Trade Zone (CFTZ) in South-eastern Nigeria, the project which is being developed as an integrated business and leisure resort, is weaved on the matrix of the rich culture of the people of the state as well as a wide variety of items of tourist attractions which abound in the state. First of its kind in West and Central Africa, the TINAPA Project is modelled after similar centres in Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Bombay and Bangkok. On completion, the project is expected to serve as a major catalyst for foreign and local investment and a principal source of employment for Nigerians.


Realizing that the cultural diversity of a people is an inheritance of great value, Nigeria is exploiting the cultural complexities of its many ethnic groups to unite its citizens and to forge a strong national identity. It is succeeding in some measure in this respect as it has learnt that respect for cultural diversity teaches tolerance and peace which is required for the advancement of prosperity and the well being of a people. Cultural diversity is necessary for humankind as Biodiversity is for nature. It is this importance of cultural diversity that encouraged UNESCO in August 2002, during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, to put forth 12 articles on Cultural Diversity, including its common heritage and its usage as a factor for development and creativity, among others. It is my expectation that the Nigerian Permanent Delegation at UNESCO will continue to support the parent body “to serve as a reference point and a forum where States, international organization, non-governmental organizations, civil societies and private sector may join together in elaborating concepts, objectives, and policies in favour of cultural diversity”.

Cultural Diversity: A True Source of Unification in a Pluralistic Society, By Nimi D Briggs*. A Paper Presented at the International Conference on THE CULTURAL HERITAGE AND ITS DIVERSITY AT THE ORIGIN OF CREATIVITY Losinj, Croatia, 27-31 August 2006