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Happy Nigerian Independence: A look back in time, part 1

SWEET: Independence celebrations in 2016

NIGERIA CELEBRATES 57 years of independence today and for the most populous country in Africa, the journey since self-rule was gained in 1960 has been a turbulent one.

Nigeria’s independence government was led by the Northern People’s Congress, in alliance with the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (a largely Igbo party), with Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as prime minister. In 1963, the country became a republic and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe its first (non executive) president.

The first of several coups occurred in January 1966 and Balewa was among those killed. Army commander Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi headed a new administration, which abolished the federation and instituted a unitary state.

In July 1966, troops from the north retaliated with another coup in which Aguiyi-Ironsi was killed and Lt-Col Yakubu Gowon assumed the leadership. He restored the federal state and replaced the four regions with 12 states. He included civilians in government and promised to restore democratic rule as soon as possible.

In May 1967, Lt-Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared eastern Nigeria an independent state named the Republic of Biafra. This led to civil war. Hostilities lasted until Biafra was defeated in January 1970 and Ojukwu went into exile. The war cost some one million lives.

CATALYST: Lt-Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu (image credit: Getty)

In 1975, Gowon was deposed in a coup and replaced by Brigadier Murtala Muhammed, who introduced radical economic reforms, a new structure of 19 states and a programme for a return to civilian rule in four years. He was assassinated in an abortive coup in 1976.

Lt-Gen Olusegun Obasanjo succeeded and continued Muhammed’s policies: the ban on political activities was lifted (1978), multi-party elections were held in 1979 and Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria became (executive) president, re-elected in 1983.

However, that year, a military coup put an end to this brief period of democracy. New head of state Major-General Muhammadu Buhari initiated a severe austerity programme with campaigns against idleness and self-enrichment. This provoked a further coup in 1985, bringing Major-General Ibrahim Babangida to power. He repealed the most unpopular decrees and, in 1987, promised a return to civilian rule by 1992. In 1989 two parties were formed (only two were permitted).

The transition to civilian rule went as far as elections to state assemblies in 1991 and presidential primary elections in 1992 (re-run in 1993) before the whole process was halted.

The newly-created Social Democratic Party won the majority in both Houses, and its leader, Chief Moshood Abiola, was believed to be leading in the presidential elections. However, before all the results had been announced, the elections were annulled by Babangida, who shortly after resigned. For a few months, civilian Chief Ernest Shonekan was head of an interim government and charged with holding yet further elections.

POWER: General Sani Abacha (image credit:

However, in November 1993, in Nigeria’s seventh coup, General Sani Abacha assumed power and cancelled the scheduled return to civilian rule. He dissolved the interim national government, national and state assemblies, the state executive councils and the two political parties, and banned all political activity.

In June 1994, a constitutional conference was held to devise a programme for a return to civilian rule. The conference failed to reach consensus. Shortly before it opened, Chief Abiola, on the basis of the 1993 elections, proclaimed himself president. He was arrested and charged with treason; he was held in solitary confinement and was never brought to trial.

In March 1995, during a clamp-down after an alleged counter-coup, the military arrested prominent opponents of the regime and campaigners for a rapid return to democracy, including retired generals Olusegun Obasanjo and Shehu Musa Yar’Adua – whose political influence stemmed from the fact that they headed the military government which handed power to a civilian government in 1979. Obasanjo and Yar’Adua were tried for treason and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.

Shortly afterwards, in October, Abacha further postponed plans for a return to democracy, and announced a new three-year timetable for completing the transition by late 1998.

Part 2 of this piece will be published later today at 1.30pm GMT.

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