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Ethnicity and Perceptions of Governance Issues: Evidence from the Afrobarometer Survey

The primary focus of this research is to determine the correlation between ethnic groups in Nigeria and Zambia and opinions on the importance of issues facing survey respondents’ respective nations. The purpose of this research is to inform the development of charter cities, infrastructure projects, and policy reform in Zambia and Nigeria, and to better understand the role of ethnic demographics in the perception of governance issues. Using micro-level survey data from three Afrobarometer rounds (2005, 2012, and 2017), I conduct a series of bivariate regressions, concluding that the correlation between ethnicity and opinion on various governance issues is highly mixed, with any significant relationships being relatively small in magnitude. 


Nigeria and Zambia are two of the fastest urbanizing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, which simultaneously face various governance-related issues. These two nations are also composed of many different ethnic groups, with observable regional, religious, economic, and other differences across groups. However, a systematic attempt has not yet been made to examine the correlation between being a member of a given ethnic group and opinion on governance issues. This research seeks to fill that gap in the literature, by determining the effect of being a member of a given ethnic group on the likelihood of viewing particular governance issues as important. 

Both Nigeria and Zambia meet the minimum criteria for the creation of charter cities within their borders: rapid urbanization, low- or middle-income, baseline level of government stability, and a minimum level of political openness. Because of this, the results of our research will have strong implications for the potential development of charter cities over time. Specifically, this research will help to understand the governance issues that can be targeted by the Charter Cities Institute. 

For this research, Afrobarometer Round 3 (2005), Round 5 (2012), and Round 7 (2017) micro-level surveys on “The Quality of Governance and Democracy” for Nigeria and Zambia were used as the key data sets. In Nigeria, we examined three major ethnic groups, and several smaller groups as additional reference points: Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, Ibibio, and Kanuri. In Zambia, the ethnic groups assessed are: Bemba, Tonga, Lozi, Ngoni, Luvale, Kaonde, Chewa, Nsenga, and Tumbuka. 

Furthermore, the outcome variables consisted of survey responses that were grouped into six different categories of governance issues: economy, infrastructure, politics, crime and security, agriculture, health, and government services. Each governance outcome was regressed separately against each ethnic group. Finally, we controlled for a variety of observed characteristics, including gender, education level, news sources, employment status, living standards, and area of residence. Each discussion section will primarily focus on subtopics that produced statistically significant correlations. 



Nigeria is not only Africa’s largest country, with a population in excess of 200 million, but is also the continent’s
largest economy, with a nominal GDP standing at $432B USD as of 2020. The nation’s economy is primarily built off of the oil reserves in the Niger Delta region that were discovered in 1956. Petroleum accounts for approximately 80% of all government revenue, and as a result, Africa’s largest oil producer fell into an economic crisis in the years following the 2014 oil crash.

Additionally, there had been growing concern about the state of the economy since Muhammadu Buhari (whose term ended in May 2023) came to power as the president of Nigeria in 2015. In an interview with Buhari conducted by Channels Television, interviewees compared some key economic indicators between 2015 and 2021: “When [Buhari] took over in 2015, our debt stock at the time was about 12 trillion, now it’s about 32 trillion. The inflation rate was about 9%, it’s now sitting at about 15%; unemployment rate was about 9.2%, it’s now at about 32.2%; exchange (rate) was about N197 to a dollar, now it’s way over N400 to a dollar.” Mr. Buhari responded with an urge to Nigerians to return to agriculture as a mechanism of fixing the economy.

Given these trends, it is not surprising that our results are indicative of the increasing importance of economic issues in the eyes of the Nigerian population. However, the results of our research indicate that only members of the Igbo ethnic group are more likely – by 6% – to view economic issues as the most important, compared to others. Additionally, individuals residing in urban areas are 3.1% – 3.6% more likely to indicate the importance of economic issues. 

People that have completed elementary school or higher, are more likely to view the economy as an important problem. The intensity of this preference increases with an increase in education level. As an example, those with bachelor’s degrees are three times more likely to view the economy as an issue, as compared to individuals whose highest level of completed education is secondary school. 

Government Services  

Nigeria ranks 171
st on a list of 190 countries in terms of access to electricity, according to the World Bank. Despite having a form of central provision of commodities such as water and electricity, lack of developed infrastructure means that many of these services, including water supply, sewer systems, and electric supply, have to be provided through supplementary. Approximately 60% of the Nigerian population possesses private wells as a result. Similarly, a 2016 study by the Africa Center showed that 32% of 4,581 households surveyed have private generators. Our research indicates that employed individuals are 1.8-2.3% less likely to give importance to government services, and one plausible explanation for this is that individuals in this group may be more likely to be able to afford to build private infrastructure, compared to those who are not employed. Furthermore, watching TV as a news source is associated with a 2.4-3.2% decreased likelihood that one places high importance on government services as an issue, compared to obtaining news from other sources. 

Three ethnic groups predominantly reside in Northern Nigeria, which is also the most underdeveloped and underserviced part of the country: the Hausa, Fulani, and Kanuri. As a result, one would expect members of these ethnic groups to be the groups most reliant on government services. However, the results of our research indicate that of the Northern ethnic groups, only members of the Fulani group have a higher likelihood, by 4.2%, for placing importance on government services as a major problem facing the nation. Likewise, being a member of the Yoruba group, which is often viewed as among the wealthiest Nigerian ethnic groups, and one that also resides in the more developed South, has a 4.2% increased likelihood with viewing government services as an important issue. On the other hand, being a member of the Hausa, Igbo, or Kanuri group is correlated with a 2.7%, 2.3%, and 8.9% decreased likelihood of viewing government services as an important national issue. These results suggest that the degree of development of the region in which a particular ethnic group is concentrated is not a likely explanation behind its opinion on government services. 


The results of this study point to a rise in the importance of agricultural issues over time, which is consistent with the current situation in Nigeria. Upon his election as President in 2015, President Buhari indicated that the priority of his government was to boost food production. That same year, the
Buhari administration initiated the Agricultural Anchor Borrowers Program (AABP), through which $110 million USD in loans was disbursed to assist 200,000 farmers in cultivating a selection of crops, as well as fish farming. This was in part the result of an effort to diversify Nigeria’s economy and increase agricultural self-sufficiency, as Nigeria exports crude oil but imports almost all other commodities. The government increased customs duties on rice from 10% to 60% in October 2016 to encourage farmers to plant more. The Nigerian Central Bank also imposed foreign exchange restrictions on importers bringing in 41 categories of goods, including rice, toothpicks, and incense.

Furthermore, multilateral organizations, including the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the International Fund for African Development (IFAD), have also acknowledged the underutilization of arable land in Sub-Saharan Africa, and have pledged increased resources for financing and other programs to initiate better use of the land and accelerate the development of the continent as a whole. Of the world’s surface area suitable for sustainable production expansion, Africa has the largest share by far, accounting for roughly 45% of the global total. Increasing agricultural activity not only presents itself as a significant economic opportunity but is also one that can increase domestic food supply and thus has the potential to decrease the prevalence of malnutrition in Nigeria. Malnutrition results in numerous health issues amongst children in particular, one of which is stunted growth. Nigeria has the second highest burden of stunted children in the world, with a national prevalence rate of 32% of children under five.

Nigeria’s agricultural industry has been hurt by several other shocks, with one of the most significant being conflicts between herdsmen and local farmers. Such conflicts most commonly occur when crop damage is caused by passing livestock of nomadic northern groups moving southwards. Nigeria has experienced the highest number of farmer-herder fatalities in West African and Central Africa over the past decade. The number of fatalities has been increasing, from 300 in 2012 to almost 1,000 in 2017. 

Watching TV as a news source is correlated with a 2.5-3.1% decreased likelihood of prioritizing agricultural problems, which may reflect rural-urban patterns of TV ownership. Further, women are more likely to care about agricultural issues. This may in part be due to cultural roles assigned to women in rural areas. 

Being a member of the Hausa, Fulani, or Yoruba group has a significant positive correlation with viewing agricultural issues as important, by 2.6%, 3.4%, and 3.4% respectively. The Hausa and Fulani groups tend to reside in the North, in which the regional economy is agriculture-based. The Northern states are also the most affected by the two most common forms of malnutrition of children in Nigeria – stunting and wasting – which are directly tied to agriculture and the lack of food security. Many Yoruba are also engaged in agriculture.

Being a member of the Igbo or Ijaw groups has significant negative correlations – 2.2% and 4.7% respectively – with viewing agricultural issues as most important. Members of the Igbo and Ijaw ethnic groups predominantly reside in Southeast Nigeria where agriculture is less of an economic focus, as the population is denser and the land is less prone to be used for agricultural purposes. 

Security & Crime

It is a surprising finding of our research that the importance of security as an issue facing the nation decreased from 2012 to 2017. Data on crime is sporadic, as many crimes go
unreported. However, kidnappings for ransom and political abductions have increased from less than 25 incidents annually in 2012 to over 100 annually by 2017. Additionally, both the number of attacks by Boko Haram, and the reported number of fatalities from these attacks, increased between 2012 and 2017. Growing calls for secession in southeastern Nigeria have gradually increased over the last decade. In December 2015, a series of peaceful pro-separatist protests began, calling for the return of the once-independent state known as Biafra. These protests were forcefully suppressed by the Nigerian government with an estimated civilian death toll of 150 by August 2016.

Watching TV as a news source decreases one’s likelihood of emphasizing security by 2-2.4%, which again may reflect socioeconomic and rural-urban divides regarding TV ownership. 

Being a member of the Hausa ethnic group is associated with a 2.2% greater likelihood of rating security issues as important. Likewise, being a member of the Kanuri group increases the likelihood of viewing security issues as important by 1.5%. As the Kanuri primarily reside in northeastern Nigeria, one plausible explanation for this is the increased activity of Boko Haram, which is based in the region. 

Being a member of the Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo, or Ibibio ethnic groups decreases one’s likelihood of deeming security issues to be important, by 6.4%, 6.4%, 2.4%, and 7.7%, respectively. Simultaneously, three of these groups – the Yoruba, Igbo, and Ibibio – are predominantly in the South of Nigeria. The Igbo and Ibibio reside in South-central Nigeria, in the formerly independent Biafra, while Yoruba typically reside in the nearby southwest. The lack of correlation between the Ijaw group and political issues may rule out the idea that there are other factors pertaining specifically to the geographical south that would contribute to negative correlations for other groups in this region. 

Further, the negative correlation for the Fulani group, while the positive correlation for the Hausa group, is quite surprising, and suggests that their close geographical proximity to each other (in northern Nigeria) might not be a reason for these correlations. 



Zambia’s economy fell into a deep recession due to the adverse impact of the COVID–19 pandemic. However, even before the pandemic, the economy was experiencing macroeconomic challenges, which include high inflation, high debt levels, and high unemployment rates. Government
corruption contributed to this issue. In 2016, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) refused to bail out Zambia until it was made certain that plans were in place for economic reforms.

The findings of our research indicate that Zambians living in urban areas are 17-18% more likely to view economic issues as important. This may be due to the fact that urban areas, in general, are more sensitive to inflation, and are more exposed to rises in the prices of consumer services. Inflation rose from 6.6% annually in 2012 to 17.1% by 2017, the highest inflation level since 2005. Rural areas of Zambia are home to subsistence farmers, who are not affected by inflation as much as individuals living in urban areas, who are more exposed to rises in the prices of consumer services. 

Due to its cyclical and capital-intensive copper industry, Zambia faces many obstacles to creating additional job opportunities, despite the rapid growth of its labor force. Over 85% of the labor force is employed in the expanding but low-productivity informal sector. This is a result of the stunting of the formal sector, which employs less than 15% of labor. Youth unemployment, estimated to be at 18.6% in 2022, is a particular concern that will only intensify in the years to come, as 46% of Zambia’s population of 17.3 million is below the age of 15. It is interesting to note that employed Zambians are approximately 5.9% more likely to view economic issues as important. Employed individuals may be able to directly witness and feel the impact of how much they can afford with their given wages, as opposed to the unemployed. 

Watching TV as a news source is positively correlated with viewing economic issues as important. It is possible that television news places an emphasis on issues pertaining to the economy. In April 2020, the Zambian government shut down the nation’s leading private television station, Prime TV, which rivaled the state-run ZNBC in providing an alternative source of information by becoming the main outlet for civil society organizations and political parties. However, Hakainde Hichilema, who was elected as Zambia’s president in 2021, has represented an increasing shift towards democracy and freedom of expression in the nation. 

Ethnicity does not seem to play a role in one’s view of economic issues. Only one ethnic group – the Bemba – has a statistical correlation with the importance of economic issues. Our results indicate that being a member of the Bemba group has a negative correlation with viewing economic issues as important. However, the decrease in likelihood is small – 2.9% – and is of weak statistical significance. 


Zambia’s share of the employed population engaging in agriculture has been steadily declining, from 69% in 2005 to 57% in 2018. This might suggest that like other developing countries, Zambia has undergone a structural transformation, as declining agricultural labor shares are coupled with
absorption of labor into higher productivity activities in industry and services.

Notably, with respect to education, there is a significant and negative correlation between most individuals who have completed any degree of education, irrespective of where they live. However, it is interesting to note that this is not the case for individuals living in rural areas who have not completed elementary or secondary school. In fact, there is no correlation between being a member of either of these groups and their likelihood of viewing agriculture as a major issue. This may suggest that dropouts before finishing elementary school or secondary school care more about agriculture. As of 2011, only 28% of children that enter Zambia’s schooling system complete secondary education. Children of uneducated parents are more likely to drop out or not go to school at all. In communities engaging in subsistence farming parents want their children to be at home and help out with subsistence farming.

Being a member of the Tonga, Chewa, Luvale, or Tumbuka groups have a higher likelihood of viewing agricultural issues as important, by 5.1% for Tonga and Chewa, and by 6.9%, for the Luvale and Tumbuka, although the statistical significance of these correlations is weak. On the other hand, being a member of the Bemba group results in a 4.8% lower likelihood of viewing agricultural issues as important, which may be capturing this group’s employment in the mining industry. 


Zambia borrowed heavily from foreign governments, and in particular,
China, for important infrastructure in roads, energy, railways, and telecom. During his presidency from 2015 to 2021, Edgar Lungu put in place numerous infrastructure improvement projects. As an example, the Link Zambia 8000 Project, which saw 8000 km of high-quality roads built throughout the country, was completed under Lungu’s government. Thus, it is not surprising that a key finding related to infrastructure is that its importance as an issue facing the nation declined significantly between 2012 and 2017, in the eyes of the survey respondents. Likewise, infrastructure was also found not to be an issue of importance amongst the urban population, as these individuals are most exposed to new infrastructure investments. 

Further, our results indicate that women are approximately 2.9% less likely to place high importance on issues pertaining to infrastructure, which may reflect the family caretaker role of women, leaving them less exposed to the daily changes brought about by new roads. 

Being a member of the Lozi ethnic group increases one’s likelihood of viewing infrastructure issues as important, by 5.7%. Being a member of the Tonga or Chewa ethnic group decreases one’s likelihood of viewing infrastructure issues as important, by 4.3%. 


The results of this research indicate that while ethnicity has some role in an individual’s opinion on the importance of given governance issues, the results are not fully consistent with the commonly observed characteristics of a given ethnic group.  However, there appear to be several other factors that are also highly correlated with perceived governance issues, including an area of residence, watching television as a news source, and employment status. As such, further research is necessary to determine the reasoning behind the ethnic correlations presented in our research.  

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