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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Yoruba in Nigeria

View Group Chronology

Nigeria Facts
Area:    923,768 sq. km.
Capital:    Abuja
Total Population:    110,530,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Yoruba are at a low risk for future rebellion. Even though they do have a history of protest, they have only engaged in militant activities once against the Nigerian government in the past. At present, the group does not face any significant political, economic or social discrimination. In fact, the Yoruba won the presidency in the 2003 elections. There is, however, some risk of renewed protest, since the Nigerian government continues to adopt repressive tactics. In addition, there are reports of communal violence between the Yoruba and the plurality Hausa-Fulani communities. If not managed, these factors could contribute to increasing discontent, and perhaps even violence.


Analytic Summary

The Yoruba of Nigeria occupy the southwestern region of the country and constitute about 21 percent of the total population (GROUPCON = 3). The Yoruba are the second largest ethnic group next to the Hausa/Fulani of the northern region (30 percent). Traditionally, Yoruba kingdoms were unstable because the central government had insufficient power to control chiefs in outlying areas. The Yoruba were the first Africans to come into contact with Europeans in Nigeria. Several civil wars were fought in Yorubaland in the mid-1800s, partly as a result of the abolition of the slave trade, in which they actively participated. Britain's goals of abolition of the slave trade and ending the Yoruba wars led eventually to its takeover of the coastal region where the Yoruba resided. Thus, the Yoruba were autonomous until 1861, when they came under the control of the British.

The Yoruba language group includes several ethnicities (LANG = 1), and Yoruba-speakers are also found in neighboring Benin. Some Yoruba have converted to Christianity (the Anglican Missionary Society has been historically active among the Yoruba), and others to Islam (BELIEF = -99). Many Yoruba have, however, retained their traditional belief system. The group is identifiable in comparison to other groups in Nigeria due to physical characteristics.

The British practiced indirect rule in Nigeria as they had in much of the rest of their colonial states. Under the British system of indirect rule, traditional leaders were employed in Yorubaland. For various reasons, the British favored the Ibo as a whole, and this favoritism led to further conflict with other groups when the Ibo were placed in authority positions in the north and southwest. As the press for independence intensified, the Ibo came to support the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. The Yoruba mainly supported the Action Group (AG), and the Hausa/Fulani supported the Northern People's Congress (NPC). The NCNC and NPC formed a coalition that led the country to independence in 1960. The AG was a consistent supporter of minority demands for greater autonomy within the federal government and it had ties to commercial interests in the western region. The AG was largely marginalized from the federal government during the early years of independence, which led to a renewal of Yoruba factionalism. The AG eventually collapsed because of divisions within Yoruba society, and this loss of stability in the west gradually undermined the political structure of the entire country. In January 1966, an Ibo-led coup took control of the government.

In 1967, disputes between the eastern Ibo region and the government led to a declaration of secession by the eastern region. The independent state of Biafra was declared on 30 May 1967. The Biafra war lasted until January 1970, when Biafran troops surrendered. It is estimated that 100,000 casualties resulted from the war itself, and that an additional 500,000-2,000,000 civilians died, mainly from starvation, as a result of a blockade by the federal government.

Following the Biafra war, civilian rule was restored for a brief time in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Power became more and more entrenched in the hands of northerners during the 1980s and 1990s. During the 1980s, religious overtones became more and more important in the rivalries between the Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba and Ibo. In June 1993, presidential elections were held in the country. Two parties were allowed to contest the elections: the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The former was led by a northerner Alhaji Bashir Othman Tofa, an economist and businessman. The latter drew large support from the Yoruba community and was led by a prominent Yoruba businessman, Moshood Abiola. Voter turnout was reportedly low, but the elections were thought to be free and fair. When it became apparent that Moshood Abiola, a prominent Yoruba businessman from the south, was going to be the victor, the elections were declared null and void by the incumbent government. Abiola declared himself president, but later fled the country in the wake of death threats against him. Violent protests and strikes took place over the next two years in an attempt to return Abiola to power. Strikes and demonstrations were particularly frequent in the southwest region dominated by Yoruba. Some protesters were killed in the violence, Yoruba leaders openly talked about secession, and Nigeria plunged into its worst crisis since the Biafra war from 1967-70.

Abiola eventually returned to the country and was subsequently arrested on charges of sedition. In August 1993, the Nigerian government was taken over by an interim council, but the real power was in the hands of General Sani Abacha, then secretary of defense. He led a very oppressive regime under which thousands were jailed and countless numbers killed, particularly in the Niger Delta. From 1996 to 1998, there were several arrests of prominent Yoruba by the Abacha military regime.

Sani Abacha died in June 1998. Within a month of taking power, the new military leader, Abdusalam Abubakar, released some political prisoners, held talks with opposition groups, and announced that general, multi-party elections would be held in order for a civilian president to take over. During the 1980s and 1990s, power became more and more entrenched in the hands of northerners. Presidential elections were held in March 1999 in which former military leader and Yoruban Olusegun Obasanjo was declared the victor. Shortly after the election, he set up a panel to investigate the abuses of the previous 15 years of military regimes. In the Delta region and the Muslim north, thousands were killed in communal conflict or anti-state activity during the 1990s.

The Yoruba do not face any ecological or demographic constraints; nor do they face significant levels of cultural, political or economic discrimination (POLDIS06 = 0; ECDIS06 = 0; CULPO106 = 0; CULPO206 = 0). In the 1999 democratic elections, a Yoruba was elected president. As a result, many of the restrictions they had faced earlier were removed. The militant group, the Odua People's Congress (OPC), is banned; as a result, the group's freedom to organize politically is somewhat limited. In 2001-2003, a number of new Yoruba organizations have been formed. These groups could challenge the position of the OPC. The OPC has come to be seen by many as a criminal group, which instigates rioting with the Hausa/Fulani. The relative frequency of violence between the Yoruba and the Hausa/Fulani is an issue of concern. However, the most violent recent fighting in 2004 and 2006 took place between the Ibo and the Yoruba (CCGROUPSEV104 = 3; CCGROUPSEV106 = 5). Yoruba have also been the victims of raids and sporadic violence on the part of the Ijaw (CCGROUPSEV204 = 3). The Yoruba also face intracommunal violence particularly between the Gani and Fasehun feuding factions of OPC (INTRACON04-06 = 1). Yoruba, particularly the militants of OPC, continued to face repression from the government. OPC members were arrested in 2004 and six were killed in fighting with police in 2005 (REPVIOL04 = 3; REPVIOL05 = 5).

The Yoruba are mainly represented by the Social Democratic Party (SDP), but also by the Afenifere socio-political organization (GOJPA06 = 3). The SDP also relies on support from other groups and is, therefore, fairly broad-based. The OPC, representing Yoruba, has become more active in demanding either political independence or regional autonomy (POLGR06 = 4). The majority of the Yoruba do not appear to share this demand. Rather, they appear to be concerned with obtaining more political power at the state level to ensure that their interests are addressed. The Yoruba are also concerned with protection from other Nigerian ethnic groups, reinforced by the recent high levels of communal conflict.

The first signs of organized protests by the Yoruba came in the late 1940s. Protests reached their peak in the early 1990s with large-scale demonstrations. Although there were no reports of protests from 2001-2003, protesting amongst the Yoruba increased in 2006 after Yoruba organizations became frustrated with the slow voter registration processes in Lagos (PROT06 = 3). Despite a lack of prior history of militant activity against the government, political banditry was recorded in 2005 when OPC members attacked an official associated with the census collection (REB01-04 = 0; REB05 = 1).



Chapin Metz, Helen, ed. 1992. Nigeria, A Country Study. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.

Folola, Toyin. 1999. History of Nigeria. Westport: Greenwood.

Laitin, David. 1985. Hegemony and Culture: Politics and Religious Change among the Yoruba. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lexis/Nexis. Various news reports. 1990-2006.

Suberu, Rotimi. 2001. Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria. Washington: USIP.

Trager, Lillian. 2001. Yoruba Hometowns: Community, Identity and Development in Nigeria. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

United States Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Nigeria, 2004-2006.

University of Georgia - Yoruba Language Program. 8/1999. "Yorb Omo Odduw: Papers on Yoruba People, Language, and Culture.", accessed 2/6/2009.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006