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Nigerian Independence: 58 years of self-rule

UNSTABLE DEMOCRACY: Nigerians celebrate on Northumberland Avenue, London, on the eve of Nigeria’s independence in 1960

NIGERIA CELEBRATES 58 years of independence today (Oct 1) and for the most populous country in the African continent, the journey since self-rule was gained in 1960 has been turbulent.

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 fist (non- executive) President.

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

He was killed five months later when troops from the north staged a coup and Lt-Col Yakubu Gowon assumed leadership, restoring the federal state and replacing the four regions with 12 states.


In May 1967, Lt-Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared eastern Nigeria an independent state named the Republic of Biafra. The resulting civil war killed a million people before it ended in 1970 and Ojukwu went into exile.

In 1975, Gowon was deposed and Brigadier Murtala Muhammed took over with radical economic reforms, a structure of 19 states and a plan for a return to civilian rule. An abortive coup in 1976 saw him assassinated, but Lt- Gen Olusegun Obasanjo succeeded and continued his policies: the ban on political activities was lifted (1978), multiparty elections were held (1979) and Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria became (executive) President, re-elected in 1983.

This brief democratic period was ended by a military coup the same year, but new leader Major-General Muhammadu Buhari’s austerity programme was itself overthrown in 1985 by Major-General Ibrahim Babangida.

He repealed the most unpopular decrees and, in 1987, promised a return to civilian rule by 1992.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 1993) before the process was halted.

The newly created Social Democratic Party won a majority in both Houses, and leader Chief Moshood Abiola was believed to be leading in the presidential elections. Before all the results were announced, the elections were annulled by Babangida, who then resigned. Civilian Chief Ernest Shonekan was head of an interim government – until November 1993, when General Sani Abacha assumed power in Nigeria’s seventh coup.

the Queen and Nigeria’s military ruler, General Ibrahim Babangida during a state visit to Britain in 1989

He dissolved the 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 return to civilian rule but failed to reach a consensus. Chief Abiola, on the basis of the 1993 vote, proclaimed himself President but was charged with treason, held in solitary con nement and never brought to trial.

In March 1995, the military arrested prominent opponents oftheregimeandcampaigners for a rapid return to democracy, including retired generals Olusegun Obasanjo and Shehu Musa Yar’Adua – whose political in uence stemmed from the fact that they headed the military government which handed power to civilians in 1979.

Obasanjo and Yar’Adua were tried for treason and sentenced to prison. Abacha postponed plans for a return to democracy, and announced a three- year timetable for completing the transition by late 1998.

But Nigeria was then suspended from membership of the Commonwealth amidst calls for the release of Abiola and 43 other political prisoners. In 1996, five parties were registered and local elections took place in March 1997, when the United Nigeria Congress Party (UNCP) and Democratic Party of Nigeria won most seats.

Nigeria’s suspension from Commonwealth membership was extended until October 1, 1998, by which time the Abacha government had said it would restore democracy. In December 1997, UNCP gained a majority in 29 of the 36 state assemblies. By April 1998 all five registered political parties had adopted Abacha as their candidate for the August presidential election – but he died in June after the UNCP won the general election and was replaced as head of state by General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who promised a return to civilian rule.

A presidential election gave the People’s Democratic Party candidate Obasanjo a convincing victory, and the departing military rulers published a new constitution, and Nigeria was back in the Commonwealth.


The 1999 constitution permitted the practice of Sharia law for consenting Muslims, but its implementation in northern states sparked vio- lence from worried Christians. Obasanjo’s civilian election day is now marked as Democracy Day, a public holiday.

In his first term, he spent most of his time going abroad to reassure potential investors, especially in the USA and UK, that the oil industry was stable, and that Nigeria was a fair and democratic country.

He won a second term in 2003, and endorsed the winning Umaru Yar’Adua in the controversial elections of 2007, as his record showed no signs of corruption and/or ethnic favouritism. But Yar’Adua fell ill and was unable to uphold his Presidential duties, so his powers were transferred to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.

As Yar’Adua’s Vice President, Jonathan kept a low pro le, although he was instrumental in negotiating with Nigerian militants to achieve stability. He won the Presidency for himself in the 2011 elections and implemented a major strategy to stabilise the power supply of Nigeria, as blackouts were costing the economy millions, if not billions, of dollars.

Having contested in the previous Presidential election, Muhammadu Buhari was - nally successful in his 2015 bid to become President.

Sworn in on May 29, 2015, Buhari became the second ex- military leader to become a Nigerian President. He is still in power today as Nigeria marks its 58th year of independence celebrations.

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