Life is in stages, men are in sizes and faces they say. Throughout history, Nigeria has undergone various stages under diverse political leaders to become what it is today. The ups and down, grass and grace, story and glory, test and testimony all summed up Nigeria’s experience since independence in 1960. From British Monarchy to Parliamentary system, Military coups and counter coups to the contemporary democracy, it’s obvious that the country has experienced lots of political upheavals and glories. As Nigeria march into another phase in her democratic dispensation, it is pertinent to look back at the major landmarks in the history of the country since independence.
From 1959, Nigeria was scheduled for independence from Britain in 1960 and three main political parties ran in the preparatory elections in 1959 (the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons-NCNC which had control of the Eastern Region i.e Igbo led by Nnamdi Azikiwe; the Northern People’s Congress-NPC which had control of the Northern Region [Hausa/Fulani] led by Ahmadu Bello and the Action Group-AG which had control of the Western Region [Yoruba] led by Obafemi Awolowo). This shows that political parties during this era were divided along ethnic lines and ideologies. When no party won a majority during the 1959 elections, the NPC combined with the NCNC to form a government, and when independence arrived in 1960, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was made the Prime Minister, and Nnamdi Azikiwe was appointed Governor-General in a Parliamentary System of Government.
When Nigeria became a Republic in 1963, Nnamdi Azikiwe was elected President of the Federal Republic, and Tafawa Balewa remained as Prime Minister. However, there was great controversy over the 1963 population census, which the Igbo thought overestimated the number of Hausa-Fulani in order to give the Northern region more representation in the federal parliament. The NCNC split with the NPC and joined with a splinter of the Action Group led by Obafemi Awolowo to form the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA) while the NPC led a coalition with Ladoke Akintola’s faction of the old AG to form the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). Nigeria won her first Olympic medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in Japan when Nojim Mayegun won a bronze medal in men’s light middleweight boxing.
In January of 1966, some Igbo army officials staged a coup d’état to overthrow the government. Members of the army killed Tafawa Balewa, Ahmadu Bello, Ladoke Akintola, and some senior officers; Nnamdi Azikiwe was outside of the country at the time. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was placed in charge of the new military government. Despite the fact that the coup was a bloody one, the new government promised a progressive program, a return to civilian rule determined by elections, and vowed to stamp out corruption and stop violence. Aguiyi-Ironsi tried to restore discipline within the army, suspended the regional constitution, dissolved all legislative bodies, banned political parties, imprisoned Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and formed a centralized Federal Military Government.
A decree was issued in March of the same year (1966) to abolish the federation, and unify the federal and regional civil servants. There were many suspicions that Aguiyi-Ironsi favoured the Igbos over other ethnic groups, and the fact that the military government did not prosecute the officers who had killed the northern leaders stirred further violent. Though Aguiyi-Ironsi gave some concessions to northerners, many Hausa-Fulani felt the coup was a plot to make the Igbo dominant in Nigeria.
In July of the same year, northern officers staged another coup, killing Aguiyi-Ironsi and many other Igbo officials. The Muslim officers chose Yakubu Gowon (who was a Christian) as the new ruler. Gowon had not actually been involved in the coup, but they felt he would be the best compromise candidate to head the Federal Military Government. His first steps included restoring Federalism, and releasing Obafemi Awolowo from prison.
Gowon vowed to start Nigeria along the road to civilian government. However, when Gowon moved to split the 4 existing regions into 12 states in 1967, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the leader of the Eastern Region refused to accept this and declared that the Eastern Region would become it’s own independent republic named “Biafra”.
The Civil War
On May 30, 1967, Ojukwu declared the secession of the three states of the Eastern region under the name of the “Republic of Biafra”, which the federal government interpreted as an act of rebellion. Fighting broke out in early July and within weeks had escalated into a full-scale civil war. In August Biafran troops crossed the Niger, seized Benin City, and were well on their way to Lagos before they were checked at Ore, a small town in Western state (now Ondo state). Shortly thereafter, federal troops entered Enugu, the provisional capital of Biafra, and penetrated the Igbo heartland. The next two years were marked by stiff resistance in the shrinking Biafran enclave and by heavy casualties among civilians as well as in both armies, all set within what threatened to be a military stalemate. Peacemaking attempts by the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) remained ineffective, while Biafra began earning recognition from African states and securing aid from international organizations for what was by then a starving population.
The final Biafran collapse began on December 24, 1969, when federal troops launched a massive effort at a time when Biafra was short on ammunition, its people were desperate for food, and its leaders controlled only one-sixth of the territory that had formed the Biafran republic in 1967. Ojukwu fled to Côte d’Ivoire on January 11, 1970, and a Biafran deputation formally surrendered in Lagos four days later.
General Gowon was able to reconcile the two sides so that the former Biafran states were integrated into the country once again and were not blamed for the war. The oil boom that followed the war allowed the federal government to finance development programs and consolidate its power.
In 1974, Gowon broke his promise to return the nation to civilian rule, and in July of 1975 there was another military coup; for a change, Gowon was not killed. Murtala Muhammed took over, promising the continuation of the federal system of government with constitutional laws guaranteeing fundamental human rights, maximum democratic participation, and an orderly return to civilian rule. Plans were made to move the national capital from Lagos, but this became a tremendous drain on the economy.
In February of 1976, there was an attempted coup by Buka Dimka, and though it was unsuccessful, it was very bloody; Muhammed was killed. Olusegun Obasanjo was chosen to take his place as the new ruler, and promised to continue what Muhammed had started. In sports, 1976 and 1977 saw the country tasting victories in continental championships through IICC Shooting Stars and Rangers International of Enugu in the Cup Winners Cup Competition. During his term, Olusegun Obaanjo raised University fees, and this led to student riots. The government banned student organizations, restricted public opposition to the regime, controlled union activity, nationalized land, and increased oil industry regulation. However, in 1978, a new constitution was written that would return the country to civilian rule, and elections were held in 1979.
Shehu Shagari was named the new president in the 1979 elections, though many felt that he did not meet the requirements for winning. The country’s sports record of achievements continued in the 1980s with series of achievements especially in football. The bronze medals won in 1976 and 1978 in the African Cup of Nations was improved upon in 1980. The Christian Chukwu led Green Eagles won the Cup for the first time in Lagos.
Shehu Shagari stayed in power for his entire term, and when the new elections were held in 1983, he won again. Many people were convinced that the elections were rigged and that Obafemi Awolowo had actually won; violence erupted in many areas, and every election was contested in court.
Military Regimes (1983-1999)
Another coup took place on December 31 1983, although this one was actually quite welcome at the time because many Nigerians felt that the nation had deteriorated into shameless corruption and economic mismanagement. Shagari was placed under house arrest, and General Muhammadu Buhari was named the new leader. Muhammadu Buhari set out to try to revive the economy, giving this priority over returning the country to civilian rule. He also restricted freedom of the press, suppressed criticism of the government, and outlawed many political and labour organizations. In addition, he declared a War Against Indiscipline to deal sternly with indecent public behaviour, inadequate sanitation, corruption, and smuggling, while encouraging patriotism. His fiscal policies made it difficult for many companies to run profitably, and eventually led to high inflation. His inflexibility led to increasing discontent. During his regime, Nigeria went to the Olympic games in Los Angeles in 1984 and came back home with a silver medal in boxing through the efforts of Peter Konyegwachie and a bronze from the 4 x 400m male team led by Innocent Egbunike.
Nigeria’s under-17 football team also went to China and conquered the world in the first ever FIFA under-17 World Cup on August 11, 1985. The victory took Nigerian football to a high pedestal, setting the stage for a respect of Nigeria in international competitions.
Yet another coup that took place on August 27, 1985. This time Ibrahim Babangida (Buhari’s chief of army staff before the coup) was named Chairman of the Federal Executive Council. Babangida claimed that the reasons he rebelled against Buhari was the insensitivity of the regime to the feelings of the Nigerian masses. He began his rule claiming to be a human rights activist, and did release some of the politicians that Buhari incarcerated. However, he detained many people for political offenses. Economically, Babangida introduced market reforms, freeing exchange and interest rates which led to a sharp drop in the value of the Nigerian currency while raising lending rates to more than 40 percent. In April of 1986, there was an attempted coup by Mamman Vatsa; he and his followers were executed. On April 22, 1990, there was another attempted coup by Gideon Orkar that failed, but the coup almost killed Babangida. Unlike the other coups, this coup was believed to have been heavily funded by civilians, implying that the civilian leaders of Nigeria were willing to accept another military ruler over the current government. In the midst of this coup plot, Nigerian athletes participated at the 1990 Commonwealth games in Auckland, New Zealand and did marvellously well, winning five gold, 13 silver and seven bronze medals. A tremendous improvement from previous outings.
A new constitution was set up in 1990, and the country was to return to civilian rule in 1992. With the euphoria of the 1990 Commonwealth Games, the country stormed the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992 and again there was an improvement from previous records. The quartet of Olapade Adenikan, Chidi Imoh, Kayode Oluyemi and Davidson Ezinwa won silver in the 4 x 100m, while the women led by Mary Onyali captured the bronze medal in the same event. Two Nigerian boxers also won silver medals. It was a moment of joy for all Nigerians. Football in the 90’s took Nigeria to greater heights.
As the new date of 1992 return to civilian rule approached, there were suspicions that this promise was not going to be kept. Pressure started mounting, and finally, in 1992, the Federal Council allowed an election to take place. However, the Babangida government annulled the results of that election, claiming fraud, and postponed additional elections for a year. Another election was held in June of 1993 and the winner was declared to be Moshood Abiola. Babangida again claimed fraud, and annulled the results of the second election, which was believed to be the first fair election held in the history of Nigeria. Hundreds were killed in demonstrations, human rights and pro-democracy activists were arrested, and opposition newspapers were shut down. Internal and external pressure mounted, and finally on August 27, 1993, Babangida resigned. Ernest Shonekan, a civilian, was appointed President.
Shonekan’s rule was the shortest in history, lasting less than 3 months during which for the second time, Nigeria won the FIFA under -17 championship making her the only country to achieve such feats on September 4, 1993. In a world of football giants like Brazil, Italy, Germany and Argentina, the feat of the Golden Eaglets and Nigeria was indeed spectacular. Ernest Shonekan was overthrown by Sani Abacha on November 17, 1993. Abacha is believed to have been instrumental in both the 1983 and the 1985 coups, and was Babangida’s defense minister.
Sani Abacha is probably the most ‘famous’ president of Nigeria if only because of his brutality. Initially, Abacha promised to return the government to civilian rule within two years. In the meantime, he dismantled all elected institutions, terminated all national and state assemblies, closed independent publications, banned all political activity, and suspended the constitution. Moshood Abiola, backed by politicians, retired army officers, and pro-democracy activists, proclaimed himself president; he was imprisoned on charges of treason was placed in solitary confinement. One of Abiola’s wives launched a campaign for democracy and human rights shortly after his arrest and was assassinated, most likely on government orders. Wole Soyinka (the 1986 Nobel Prize winner in Literature) was also to be arrested, but was hinted about the proposed arrest and escaped. Abacha charged him in absentia with treason, and was sentenced to death in absentia; he was in exile for the remainder of Abacha’s life.
In 1994, Super Eagles of Nigeria (Nigeria Senior Football team) won the African Cup of Nations for the second time and also qualified for the first time to represent Africa in a senior World Cup and did it in grand style. She became the first country to win her first World Cup match and the first to advance beyond the first round in her attempt. Although the Eagles lost in the second round to Roberto Baggio’s Italy, they had stunned the world and Nigerian stars have become the toast of big football clubs all over the world.
In 1995, Abacha announced a three-year program of transition to civilian rule. On March 1, 1995 there was another attempted coup by Lawan Gwadabe. Also suspected as part of this coup were Olusegun Obasanjo and Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. They were sentenced to 25 years of imprisonment for this. Yar’Adua died while in prison, and Obasanjo was there for the remainder of Abacha’s life. Also arrested sometime in 1995 was Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, a human rights activist who had been repeatedly arrested and released, but this time was charged with treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. That same year, trouble began with the Ogoni people. Ken Saro-Wiwa (an environmentalist and playwright) criticized the Nigerian government for the environmental damages being inflicted by the oil industry on the land inhabited by the Ogoni people. Saro-Wiwa and 8 other leaders were arrested on charges of conspiring to slay political opponents and all 9 were sentenced to death by hanging. Opposition to this sentence and an appeal for mercy came from all over the world. However, on November 10 they were hung. This stunned the world, and led to the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth.
This hurt the already deteriorating economy, and Abacha tried to improve his image by portraying Nigeria as a regional peacemaker. In 1996, he negotiated a peace agreement that ended Liberia’s 7-year civil war. When a military coup took place in Sierra Leone, Abacha stepped in and sent the Nigerian army to restore the democratically elected government. With these acts, people started to become more confident that he would return Nigeria to democratic rule as he had promised.
Nigeria made Olympic football history by becoming the first African and non-European and South American team to win the gold medal at Atlanta 1996 Olympics Games in USA. Chioma Ajunwa also won the gold medal in women Long Jump event at the 196 Olympics rounding up a successful outing for the country at the International event.
On December 21, 1997, there was another attempted coup on the Abacha government by Oladipo Diya, and he was imprisoned. In April of 1998, Diya, 4 other officers, and a civilian were sentenced to death, while many others were sentenced to prison terms of varying lengths. Elections to return to civilian rule were set for August 1, 1998, with a return date to civilian rule set for October 1, 1998. However, in April, Abacha became the only nominated candidate for the presidency. Opposition to his rule had been mounting more and more in recent months, because it was suspected that he did not intend to step down. Demonstrations and riots broke out, and many were killed. On June 8, 1998 Abacha died reportedly of heart attack at the age of 54 and was replaced by General Abdulsalam Abubakar.
Return to Civilian Rule
After Abacha’s death, political activity blossomed as numerous political parties were formed. Of these, three emerged that were able to contest elections: the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the Alliance for Democracy, and the All People’s Party. A series of elections was held in January-March 1999 in which councillors for local government, legislatures for state and federal assemblies, and state governors were elected. The Presidential election took place in February and was carefully monitored by international team of observers. Olusegun Obasanjo of the PDP, who as head of state in 1976-79 had overseen the last transition from military rule, was declared the winner and was sworn in on May 29. A new constitution was also promulgated that month. Nigerians, tired of prolonged and crisis-prone military regimes, welcomed the change of government, as did the international community. In the first civilian-administered elections since the country achieved independence in 1960, Obasanjo was re-elected in 2003, although there were widespread reports of voting irregularities.
Although conditions in Nigeria were generally improved under Obasanjo, there was still strife within the country. Ethnic conflict-previously kept in check during the military rule-now erupted in various parts of Nigeria, and friction increased between Muslims and Christians when some of the northern and central states chose to adopt Islamic law (the Sharia). Demonstrations were held to protest the government’s oil policies and high fuel prices. Residents of the Niger Delta also protested the operations of petroleum companies in their area, asserting that the companies exploited their land while not providing a reasonable share of the petroleum profits in return. Their protests evolved into coordinated militant action in 2006. Petroleum companies were targeted: their employees were kidnapped, and refineries and pipelines were damaged as militants attempted to disrupt oil production and inflict economic loss. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) was the most active of such militant groups, although its activity decreased after the group declared a unilateral ceasefire, and the government introduced an amnesty program in 2009.
Obasanjo was also faced with resolving an ongoing border dispute with neighbouring Cameroon that included the question of which country had rights to the Bakassi Peninsula, an oil-rich area to which both countries had strong cultural ties. Under the terms of a 2002 International Court of Justice ruling, the region was awarded to Cameroon, and Obasanjo was criticized by the international community when Nigeria did not immediately comply by withdrawing its troops from the area in the subsequent years. He also received much domestic criticism for contemplating withdrawal from the peninsula by those who questioned the fate of the large number of Nigerians living in the region and cited the long-standing cultural ties between the Bakassi Peninsula and Nigeria. Nevertheless, Obasanjo eventually honoured the terms of the ruling in 2006 when Nigeria relinquished its claim to the peninsula and withdrew its forces. In 2003 and 2004 football season, Enyimba International Football Club of Aba, Nigeria made history by becoming the first football club in Nigeria to win the CAF Champions League back to back in 2003 and 2004.
The process of transferring the peninsula to Cameroon was not without its problems, including the ongoing issue of resettling Nigerians displaced by the transfer and the dissatisfaction of those who remained but were now under Cameroonian rule. In November 2007, Nigeria’s Senate voted to void the agreement that had ceded the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon. However, this action did not affect the actual status of the peninsula, and a ceremony held on August 14, 2008, marked the completion of the peninsula’s transfer from Nigeria to Cameroon.
Meanwhile, Obasanjo was the subject of domestic and international criticism for his attempt to amend the constitution to allow him to stand for a third term as president; the proposed amendment was rejected by the Senate in 2006. With Obasanjo unable to contest the election, Umaru Yar’Adua was selected to stand as the PDP’s candidate in the April 2007 presidential poll. He was declared the winner, but international observers strongly condemned the election as being marred by voting irregularities and fraud. Nonetheless, Yar’Adua was sworn in as president on May 29, 2007. During Yaradua’s tenure, the Golden Eaglets (Nigeria’s Under 17 football team) won their third World title at the 2007 FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Korea.
Yar’Adua’s health was the subject of rumours, as he had travelled abroad for medical treatment several times in the years prior to his presidency and continued to do so after the election. His ability to serve as president while dealing with health issues was called into question after he went to Saudi Arabia in late November 2009 for treatment of heart problems and kidney problems. After he had been absent from Nigeria for several weeks, critics complained of a power vacuum in the country, and there were calls for Yar’Adua to formally transfer power to the vice president, Goodluck Jonathan. Although a ruling by a Nigerian court on January 29, 2010, indicated that Yar’Adua was not obligated to hand over power to the vice president while he was out of the country for medical treatment, the controversy surrounding his prolonged absence remained. On February 9, 2010, the National Assembly voted to have Jonathan assume full power and serve as acting president until Yar’Adua was able to resume his duties. Jonathan agreed and assumed power later that day, but it was unclear whether or not the assumption of power was constitutional. When Yar’Adua returned to Nigeria on February 24, 2010, it was announced that Jonathan would remain as acting president while Yar’Adua continued to recuperate. Yar’Adua never fully recovered, however, and died on May 5, 2010; Jonathan was sworn in as president the following day. His priorities for the rest of his term included tackling corruption, dealing with the country’s energy problems, and continuing his involvement in peace negotiations with rebels in the Niger delta, something he had focused on while he was vice president.
Another area of focus cited by Jonathan was the reformation of the electoral process. Noting the irregularities associated with the 2007 presidential election, he vowed to make fair and transparent elections a priority, beginning with those scheduled for 2011. Voting in Nigeria’s legislative elections began on April 2, 2011, but, because necessary electoral materials were not available in some areas, voting was halted and postponed until April 9 (April 26 in some locations). As a result, the presidential election that was scheduled for April 9 was delayed until April 16. Jonathan was the overwhelming winner of the presidential election, receiving almost 59 percent of the vote among a field of 19 other challengers. Former military leader and head of state Muhammadu Buhari placed second, with about 32 percent of the vote. In other elections, the PDP did not fare as well as in previous years, but it managed to maintain control of the legislature and a majority of state governorship posts. International observers praised the elections as being largely free and fair. The polls were not completely without violence or controversy, however, as supporters of Buhari and other losing candidates rioted, primarily in the north, and accused the ruling PDP of electoral fraud
Among the most-pressing concerns in Jonathan’s first full term as president was the ongoing threat presented by Boko Haram, an Islamic sectarian movement founded in 2002 in northeastern Nigeria; the group claimed to want to end the corruption and injustice in the country and impose Shariah, or Islamic law. Boko Haram did not gain widespread popularity until 2009 when, after an altercation with military and local police forces, it began attacking police and government targets, killing and injuring many; in response, security forces launched a crackdown on the group, killing many members. Shortly thereafter, the group’s leader, Muhammed Yusuf, was captured and killed while in police custody, as were several of his followers. The group later resurfaced under the leadership of Yusuf’s deputy, Abubakar Shekau, and unleashed a campaign of violence in 2010 that continued in the following years.
Boko Haram’s attacks grew in intensity and frequency, occurring primarily in northeastern and central Nigeria and typically targeting government buildings, military barracks, the police, and Christian churches and schools. Extrajudicial violence and killings by the police and military while in the pursuit of the group’s members were not uncommon and further heightened tensions in the country; the extrajudicial activity was also widely condemned by human rights groups. In 2012 some estimates held that more than 2,800 people had been killed by Boko Haram or by the security forces pursuing the group. The idea of granting amnesty to the group members if they disarmed—similar to what had been done with the MEND rebels in 2009—had been periodically proposed but dismissed for various reasons. In April 2013, however, with Boko Haram’s violence showing little sign of abatement and the previous strategies of dealing with the group by force clearly proven ineffective, Jonathan appointed a committee to investigate the implementation of an amnesty program, but it bore little fruit. In June Jonathan officially declared Boko Haram a terrorist group and banned it under Nigerian law. The militants and anyone caught helping them could then be prosecuted under the country’s Terrorism Prevention Act, which was expected to facilitate legal prosecution of the accused. In 2013, the Super Eagles of Nigeria won her third African Cup of Nations by beating Burkina Faso 1-0 in South Africa. The Nigeria Under 17 team also won her 4th FIFA Under 17 World Cup in grand style. During this period, the Super Falcons (Nigeria Senior famale football team) continued their dominance in Africa and still unable to extent such dominance to world stage as their performance at FIFA Women’s World Cup remain a fiasco save for the Under 20 side that were able to make it to the final of the FIFA Under 20 World Cup twice.
Boko Haram’s attacks continued throughout the rest of 2013 and into 2014, with the government unable to do much to stop the group. In April 2014 Boko Haram’s mass kidnapping of more than 275 girls from a boarding school in Chibok in Borno state brought the group and its unabated campaign of terror into the international spotlight. The kidnapping was widely condemned across the globe and generated an increase in offers of international assistance to Nigeria, which, unlike in the past, the country was now more willing to accept. Neighbouring countries as well as Western nations worked with Nigeria to curtail the group’s actions and to try to locate the missing schoolgirls. The next month the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on individuals in Boko Haram—freezing assets and issuing travel bans and an arms embargo—but, given the nature of the group’s operations, it was unclear if the sanctions would actually have an impact on Boko Haram’s activities. They did not: the group’s attacks continued, and in August Boko Haram declared the areas under its control to be an Islamic state.
The government’s inability to eliminate the threat from Boko Haram was one of the key issues in the run-up to the 2015 presidential and legislative elections, along with the economy and the persistent complaint of corruption. Economic progress was mixed: Nigeria’s economy grew to be the continent’s largest in 2014, but the oil-reliant economy also experienced sharp decline later that year because of oil prices. Also, despite overall economic growth during Jonathan’s term, many Nigerians, especially those in rural areas and in the north, lived in poverty. The elections had originally been scheduled for mid-February, but the country’s electoral commission postponed them for six weeks, citing the current level of violence from Boko Haram in the northeast as an impediment to holding elections there. President Goodluck Jonathan, who had been criticized along with the military for not doing enough to combat Boko Haram, accepted assistance from the neighbouring countries of Benin, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Plans were made for a regional force comprising troops from Nigeria and the aforementioned countries, and an offensive was launched against the militants. Marked progress was made in the fight against Boko Haram, with forces retaking much of the area previously held by the group. Meanwhile, in early March Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), although it was not clear what effect that would have on the group’s actions.
Although there were 14 candidates standing in the March 28 presidential election, the real contest was seen as being between Jonathan, once again the PDP candidate, and Buhari, the former military head of state (1984–85) who was the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate and enjoyed a reputation as being tough on corruption and adept at handling security issues. The election was the most closely contested ever in Nigeria. When it became clear that Buhari had won the election, Jonathan conceded. The election marked the first time that an incumbent had been defeated and power would be handed from one party to another.