Abstract. Since the 1960s, intermittent social conflicts in Nigeria appear mostly linked to ethnic groups’ differences. Considering the importance of regime change in social and political stability, this article critically analyses the historic and dynamic role of the core political executive elite in the political system’s stability. The article argues that ethnic politics persist in Nigeria based on the nature of interactions between political institutions, institution-builders, and society. It asserts a contradictory link between deep-rooted elite interests and popular preferences in ways that undermine orientations towards democracy. The empirical focus is on the composite nature of the core political executive elite analysed through their ethnic and educational backgrounds. It is observed that, although ethnic shocks are variously motivated, the atypical shape and inequity in power and role distribution at the highest levels of executive office-holding stand out as a salient source and target of antagonism by ethnic groups. This finding has a paradoxical implication: deep-seated economic and political interests of the elite play a diversionary role from the real causes of ethnic conflicts in Nigeria.