history and people

Constitution & political system

  • Constitution - adopted 1979, re-introduced with amendments in 1999. Nigeria has embarked on a review of its constitution
  • Legal system - based on English law, common law, Islamic law, and Customary law
  • Legislative branch - bicameral National Assembly consists of Senate (109 seats), and House of Representatives (360 seats)
  • Elections - last held 23rd February 2019, which re-elected President Muhammadu Buhari for a second term.

Post Independence

Between 1960 and 1966, Nigeria was under civilian rule. Tafawa Balewa of NPC continued as the federal Prime Minister also becoming Minister for foreign affairs and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe of NCNC succeeded the pre-independence Governor-General-representing the British monarch as head of state. This continued until October 1963 when the country adopted a revised constitution and Dr. Azikiwe took office as Nigeria's first President. The major problems that confronted the federal government within the period were threats to federal unity evidenced by ethnic rivalry, factionalism and the desire for autonomy within the federal system. This led to the formation of various political groupings and political alliances.

After the exclusion from power at the federal level in the 1959 election, the AG party- with Yoruba sentiments- felt alienated and was also affected by factionalism. Awolowo thus decided to replace Akintola (the Prime Minister of the Western Region) with a protégé, provoking disorder in the Western regional assembly. After a six-month period of state of emergency, Akintola's new party United People's Party (UPP) controlled the government of the Western Region, in alliance with the NCNC, which had strong support in the non-Yoruba areas of the region.

In February 1964, further threats to the federal unity emerged when the ethnic tribe, Tiv of the Benue Plateau- who had sought autonomy since independence, launched attacks against NPC personnel and offices. The Nigerian federal army rapidly suppressed the insurgency. A two-week general strike staged in protest at wage levels the same year also reflected the widespread concern at economic disparities in the Nigerian society and the visible signs of corruption in public life.
The first election since independence to the federal House of Representatives took place in December 1964. This was preceded by a split in the coalition between the NPC and the NCNC (renamed the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens) and the formation of two new national coalitions. The Nigerian National Alliance (NNA), led by Ahmadu Bello was composed of the NPC and the Akintola's breakaway Yoruba party, now renamed the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). The United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA), led by Dr. Michael Okpara, Prime Minister of the Eastern Region, was composed of NCNC, the remainder of the AG (whose leader was imprisoned for plotting to overthrow the federal government) and the minority, populist Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU). The NNA won the election by default and Azikiwe reluctantly asked Tafawa Balewa to form a new government.

The period between 1966 to 1979 was characterised by military intervention, takeovers and civil war. National rivalries and ethnic sentiments that were reflected in the national armed forces led to a military intervention in January 1966. Tafawa Balewa's government was overthrown by junior (mainly Ibo) army officers. He, along with Sir Ahmadu Bello, Prime Minister of the Northern Region, Chief Akintola, Prime Minister of the Western Region and Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, the federal finance minister were killed in the coup d'état. Regional animosities flared, prompting massacres of Igbo-speakers living in the north. The Supreme Military Council was formed and the constitution suspended. Maj-Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, commander-in-chief of the army, took control of the government on the request of surviving federal ministers. Aguiyi-Ironsi was succeeded in a counter-coup in July 1966 by chief-of-staff of the army, Lt-Col (later Gen.) Yakubu Gowon. Gowon restored some degree of discipline in the army and attempted to revive the system, appointing a military governor for each region.

The Biafran civil war erupted in 1967 when the military governor of the Eastern Region, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu announced the succession of the Eastern Region and proclaimed its independence as the Republic of Biafra on May 30 of the same year. During the civil war, military casualties reached an estimated 1,000,000. Biafran civilians died mainly from starvation as a result of the federal blockade. A 12-state structure proposed by Gen. Gowon -intended to produce larger representation for ethnic groups other than the big three- came into effect in April 1968 and after the cease-fire in January 1970, East Central State was reintegrated into Nigeria. The military rule continued under Gowon till 1975 when he was forcibly retired and allowed to go into exile.
Gowon however presided over the signing of the final agreements establishing the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); a Nigeria-funded initiative aimed at combining the economic potential of the West African sub-region. His interest in Nigeria's foreign policy culminated in his overthrow when he was attending an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit meeting in Uganda.

After Gowon’s overthrow, Brigadier (later Gen.) Murtala Ramat Muhammed immediately dismissed the 12 state governors and undertook a radical and extremely popular purge of the public services. He announced the return to a civilian rule government by October 1979, following the adoption of a new constitution and the holding of local, state and federal elections.
Though Gen. Muhammed had a substantial popular following, he was assassinated in February 1976 by a disaffected army officer, Lt-Col Bukar Dimka and a number of associates who demanded the reinstatement of Gen. Gowon. Lt-Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, Muhammed's deputy and chief-of-staff of the armed forces assumed power and led the country to a civilian rule- about 13 years after military rule- in 1979. A constitutional drafting committee's recommendations announced in September 1976, included among others: the creation of a federal system of government with an executive presidency; a moratorium on the creation of further states- the number of which had been increased by seven to 19 in March of that year; creation of genuinely national political parties; the holding of free and fair elections; and the transfer of federal capital from Lagos to Abuja. The new constitution was produced in 1978 and promulgated by the Supreme Military Council (SMC) in September. It envisaged an executive presidency and a separation of powers between executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The Second Republic was formed.
The Second Republic spanned the period 1979-83. The five approved parties that contested the elections were the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, leader of the AG in the 1950's, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), formed by veteran politicians like Alhaji Shehu Shagari and Makaman Bida both of whom had played prominent roles in the northern based NPC. The others were the People's Redemption Party (PRP), the northern based opposition to the NPN under the leadership of former member of the NPN, Alhaji Aminu Kano, the Nigerian People's Party (NPP) with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as its presidential candidate and the Greater Nigeria People's Party (GNPP) led by Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim, initial leader of NPP.

In the aftermath of the elections, the NPN received the most widespread support, securing 37% of seats in the house of representatives, 36% in the state assemblies, and 38% in the senate and winning seven of the 19 state governorships. In the presidential elections, Alhaji Shehu Shagari obtained the 25% mandatory vote in 12 rather than 13 of the 19 states, but following a legal debate on this, the supreme court upheld his election.

Under Shagari's leadership, the second republic was dominated by the problem of institutionalising the framework of the federal government, alleged issues of religious extremism, corruption and economic difficulty arising from volatility in world petroleum prices at the time. Nothing substantial was done to tackle these problems. Neither the regional tensions nor the issue of corruption had been resolved. The Shagari regime was perceived to be notoriously corrupt and incompetent. Despite these problems, the NPN used its entrenched position and financial influence to return to office in a six-political party-contested elections which took place from August to September 1983. Presiding, nevertheless, over a country that was more bitterly divided than it had been at the inception of the second republic, Shagari was deposed in a bloodless military coup on 31 December, 1983, led by Maj.-Gen. Muhammed Buhari, a former military governor of Borno State and federal commissioner for petroleum from 1976-78.

The ushering in of the reconstituted SMC under Buhari, after the second republic brought with it, the usual military dictatorship and the banning of political party activity. With the promise to purge governance of corrupt and nefarious practices, the regime arrested, detained and tried past political leaders suspected of any criminal offence. Union leaders and activists including striking doctors and media personnel suffered similar fate. In July 1984, a diplomatic crisis arose between Nigeria and the United Kingdom as a result of an attempted kidnapping in London of Umaru Dikko, a political exile and a former government official in the Shagari administration being sought on charges of corruption. This resulted in a mutual withdrawal of the two countries' high commissioners. Full diplomatic relations were however restored in February 1986 though annual bilateral talks at the ministerial level remained suspended until 1988.

With the pronouncement in July 1985 by Maj.-Gen. Idiagbon -chief of staff at supreme military headquarters- that there was no schedule for a return to civilian rule and the prohibition of all debate on Nigeria's political future, the stage was set for another military takeover.

In August 1985, Buhari's regime was deposed in a peaceful military coup, led by Maj.-Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, an army chief of staff at the time. The Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) under the leadership of Babangida and the support of his chief of army staff, Maj.-Gen. Sani Abacha (who later became a Nigerian president) ruled the country from 1985 to 1993. Under his regime, Babangida promised to restore democracy. However, despite initial indications of the military's commitment to this goal, hopes for a swift transition began to fade by the end of the decade. The schedule was repeatedly revised and the government made increasingly intrusive attempts to "manage" the process of political party formation.
Apart from efforts to restore the country back to constitutional rule, the Babangida regime also had to deal with issues of corruption, declining economy under the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) and violent clashes between Christians and Muslims on the issue of the imposition of the Sharia law. It also had to suppress the attempted overthrow of the regime.

Current Political Situation - Key Indicators

In the hope of restoring the country back to civilian rule, the AFRC created two new political parties: the National Republican Convention (NRC) led by Bashir Tofa from northern Nigeria and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) led by Chief Kashimawo Olawale Moshood Abiola, from the southwest, both, wealthy businessmen. The imposition provoked widespread criticism. The SDP, led by the late Chief Moshood Abiola, obtained majority votes in the June 12 1993 presidential elections. Nevertheless, Nigeria's hopes for a return to civilian rule were dashed when the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the results of the national elections after votes were counted. Repression escalated to unprecedented levels, culminating in the execution of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues in November 1995. Military ruler General Sani Abacha- who took over power in 1993 from Babangida after his resignation- peddled another complex "transition" programme which generated internal protest. This was repeatedly quashed and the international community paid sporadic attention.

Despite the repression, human rights and environmental groups, trade unionists, educators, and others inside Nigeria continued to resist authoritarian rule. Among some of these groups are the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Campaign for Democracy (CD) and the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). International opposition was also supported by a large and well-educated group of Nigerians living abroad, including countries like the USA, South Africa and Canada and international organisations like the United Nations (UN), Organisation of African Unity (OAU)- now African Union (AU)- the European Union (EU) and the Commonwealth. These organisations imposed limited sanctions on Nigeria, including a ban on arms sales and visa restrictions on Nigerian officials. There had also been increased international support for Nigerian organisations working for democracy and human rights.

Nigeria played and continues to play a leading role in African and more especially, West African affairs. It remains a prominent member of the ECOWAS and the AU. The Nigerian government has contributed a significant number of troops to ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), especially in the Liberian civil war in the early to mid 1990 and spearheaded the African military intervention that restored Sierra Leone to civilian rule in March 1998.

Nigeria had strained relations in mid-1993 with the United Kingdom as well as other European nations and the USA owing to its reluctance to embrace democratic governance and its bad human rights record. The same was with the Republic of South Africa but apparently had very good relations with its West African neighbours.

Abacha's death in June 1998 was seen as a blessing in disguise as the country under a transitional government of Gen. Abdusalami Abubakar handed over power to a democratically elected government under the leadership of former head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo in May 1999. Since then, the country has embarked on a series of reforms geared towards the consolidation of democracy and for that matter, good governance. President Olusegun Obasanjo was re-elected for a second term in May 2003. Under him, a series of fundamental economic and political reforms were introduced, resulting in macro-economic stability, and rapid development of the telecommunications sector, especially mobile phones. President Obasanjo handed over to Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua on 29th May 2007 after another round of general elections. This represented the first ever civilian-to-civilian democratic transition of power in the country.

5203 Haile Selassie Avenue, Diplomatic Triangle, Longacres

+260 211 253177


Latest News · E-Newsletter · Speeches/Statements · Up-Coming Events · Press Releases · Photo Gallery · Business

The High Commission Quarterly Newsletter brings you news about our activities as part of our public outreach.

© All Rights Reserved