Saturday, 12 November 2011 22:25

Nigeria - Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow

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First let me thank the organizers of this Gala Night for inviting me to make this presentation whose main purpose is to enlighten our children who do not have opportunity to study Nigerian history and our non-Nigerian guests, about the political history of Nigeria. The presentation will also refresh the memories of those of us who studied Nigerian history, and shed more light on past and recent political developments in the country. For the purpose of the presentation, Nigeria’s political history will be discussed under three periods: pre-colonial era, colonial era and post-independence era. I will conclude with a brief look at Nigeria today and the likely future.

Pre-Colonial Era (antiquity to c. 1900):

The present territory of Nigeria has always been home to many of its current 250 ethnic groups and people who are aboriginal in the territory. The people constituted themselves into independent kingdoms, city states, and empires before the colonial era which started in the later part of the 19th century. Archeological evidence shows that people lived in some parts of the present-day territory of Nigeria as far back as 10,000 BCE. For instance, fossils with negroid features dating more than 10,000 years old have been found in Iwo-Eleru is the South West of the country. Microliths, smelting furnaces and ceramics dating back to 400 BCE have been found n Okigwe in South East and Turuga in North Central part of the country. Furthermore, excavations during the construction of the Kainji dam on the Niger River revealed iron-works from the second century BCE. The Nok culture that flourished in the  around the Jos Plateau area between 900 BCE and 200 AD produced terracotta sculptures that bore semblance to the sculptures of the Late Period of Ancient (Pharonic) Egypt (from the 26th Dynasty  to the 31st Dynasty, i.e. from664 BCE to 323 BCE).  

In the South East of the territory, linguistic evidence indicates that the area around the Benue River and Cross River is the original homeland of some Bantu  people who migrated  to  central and southern Africa in different  waves between the 1,000 BCE and 1,000 AD. Also, in the South East, the Nri Kingdom of the Igbo people flourished from about 1,000 AD until the advent of British rule in 1911. The Arochukwu Kingdom also flourished between 1630 and 1720.

In the North West, several small Hausa kingdoms or city states (including Daura, Zaria, Gobir, Bira, Rano, Kano and Katsina) existed between 900 AD and 1804 when they were attacked and conquered by Fulani jihadists, led by Usman dan Fodio who incorporated the city states into the Hausa-Fulani Empire. The centralized empire, also known as the Sokoto Caliphate, continued until 1903 when it came under British rule as part of the Northern Protectorate. In the North East, the Kanem-Borno Empire flourished between 1396 and 1893. In the North Central region, the Nupe Kingdom flourished in the basin between Niger and Kaduna rivers between the 15th century and about 1841 when it came under the control Fulani jihadists and was then transformed into the Bida Emirate which also came under British rule in 1903.  

In the South West, the city of Ife (Ile-Ife), the cradle of Yoruba culture, was founded around 350 BCE by the deity Oduduwa. The Oòni (or king) of Ife is believed to be a direct descent of Oduduwa.  According to one version, Oduduwa was the son of Lamurudu, a prince from the Middle East, who was probably related to the ancient Nok people. Oduduwa’s sons, daughters and a grandson went on to establish their own kingdoms and empires, including Oyo Empire founded by Oranmiyan, Oduduwa's last born. At its height, the Oyo Empire that stretched from the western banks of the River Niger to the Eastern banks of the River Volta in present day Ghana. The Oyo Empire flourished from about 1330 to 1896 and was one of the most powerful of Africa's medieval empires prior to its collapse in the 19th century. The Oyo Empire became a formidable power by the end of the 14th century but around 1535 it suffered military defeats at the hands of the Nupe Empire which occupied it and forced the ruling dynasty to take refuge in the kingdom of Borgu. After an interregnum of 80 years as an exiled dynasty, the Oyo Empire reemerged more centralized and expansive. By 1680, the Oyo Empire spanned over 150,000 square kilometers, and it reached the height of its power in the 18th century. Towards the end of the 18th century, the empire began to decline when Oba Abiodun was killed by his son and successor, Awole. In 1796, Oba Awole was ousted by the government in an Ilorin-centered revolt initiated by Afonja, the Are Ona Kakanfo. The revolt led to the secession of Ilorin. After he was rejected by the Ruling Council, Oba Awole cursed the empire and committed suicide, and Afonja, now master of Ilorin, invited an itinerant Fulani scholar of Islam, Alim al-Salih, into his ranks. Weakened by internal struggle, the Oyo Empire was unable to defend itself against the Fulani jihadists who killed Afonja in 1836 and razed the capital city, Oyo-Ile, which marked the collapse of the Oyo Empire.  Thus, up to this day, the Ilorin traditional ruler is an emir, whereas other Yoruba city states or towns are ruled by kings known as oba or bale. After the destruction of Oyo-Ile, the capital of the empire was moved further south, to Ago d'Oyo. Oba Atiba sought to preserve what remained of Oyo Empire by moving power further south to Ibadan. However, Oyo Empire never regained its prominence and became a protectorate of Britain in 1888.

In the South South, the Edo people established the Benin Empire which was initially ruled by the Ogisos (Kings of the Sky) who called their land Igodomigodo, founded in the 8th century AD, which was later called Benin City  (from “Ubini” or “Bini”) by the Portuguese in the late 15th century. The Benin Empire reached its golden age during the reign of Oba Ewuare the Great (circa 1440) and the empire held sway between the 15th and 19th century stretching as the city of Eko (which was later named Lagos by the Portuguese) and to present day Republic of Benin. The first European explorers (Portuguese) reached Benin in 1485 and developed a strong mercantile relationship with the empire. In the early 16th century, the Oba of Benin sent an ambassador to Lisbon, and the king of Portugal sent Christian missionaries to Benin City. The first English expedition to Benin was in 1553, and significant trading developed between England and Benin based on the export of ivory, palm oil and pepper. European visitors in the 16th and 17th centuries described the empire as "the Great Benin, a fabulous city of noble buildings, ruled over by a powerful king”. The empire began to decline after 1700 as a result of the Trans-Atlantic slave-trade, but it rebounded in the 19th century as a result of the trade in palm oil and textiles. It refused to sign a protectorate treaty with Britain through most of the 1880s and 1890s. As a result of the killing of eight British representatives who came to visit Benin, the British launched a Punitive Expedition in 1896 -7 as a result of which Benin City was razed and much of the empire’s treasured arts were stolen by the invaders. Some of these treasures are today displayed in museums around the world. The expedition weakened Benin Empire and it finally succumbed to British colonial.

All the above empires and other kingdoms in the territory of present day Nigeria came under British colonial rule towards the end of the 19th century and early 20th century.

Colonial Era (circa 1900 - 1960)

Portuguese and Spanish explorers were the first Europeans who came to the territory of the present day Nigeria. They came around the 16th century to trade in the ports of Lagos and in Calabar. The British joined later and together with other Europeans they began to trade in slaves (in addition to other commodities) from late 16th century to the 1807 when slave trade was abolished.  In the mid 19th century, the European powers (Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, etc) became interested in maintaining “spheres of influence” over certain territories in Africa. This resulted in the “Scramble for Africa” or “Partition of Africa” through a process of invasion, occupation, colonization and annexation of African territories by the European powers beginning around 1881. The scramble resulted in heightened tension between the European powers and it led to the Berlin Conference (1884–1885) that established rules of effective control of the African territories and for resolving competing claims. The British claim to a West African sphere of influence, including much of the territory of present day Nigeria, received international recognition, and the Royal Niger Company was chartered in 1986 by the British government to conduct business in present day Nigeria. However, Britain soon found out that it was impossible for a chartered company to hold its own against the state-supported neighboring protectorates of France and Germany. Consequently, on January 1, 1900, the Royal Niger Company transferred its territories to the British Government and the ceded territory together with the small Niger Coast Protectorate, already under British imperial control, to form two protectorates of northern and southern Nigeria in a move to consolidate British hold over the area of modern Nigeria. In 1914, the two protectorates were formally united (amalgamated) as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. Administratively, Nigeria was divided into the northern and southern provinces and Lagos Colony.  After World War II, a great wave for independence began spreading across Africa. Thus, in response to the growth of Nigerian nationalism and demands for independence, the British government moved Nigeria toward self-government on a representative and federal basis. On 1 October 1954, the colony became the autonomous Federation of Nigeria. On October 1, 1960, the British government granted the Federation of Nigeria full independence under a constitution that provided for a parliamentary system of government and significant self-government for the country's three regions (North, West and East).

Post-independence Era (1960 – date) 

At independence, Nigeria’s political parties reflected the three main regions/ethnic groups. The Nigerian People's Congress (NPC) represented the Northern (largely Hausa/Fulani) interests, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) (later became National Convention of Nigerian Citizens) was dominated by the Eastern (largely Igbo) region, and the Action Group (AG) represented largely the Western (largely Yoruba) region. The first post-independence national government was formed by an alliance of the NCNC and the NPC, with Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, as Nigeria's first Prime Minister, and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as the Governor-General. The Yoruba-dominated AG became the opposition party under its leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo.  Following a plebiscite in 1961, Southern Cameroon opted to join the Republic of Cameroon while Northern Cameroon chose to remain in Nigeria. On October 1, 1963, the country was declared a Federal Republic, and Dr. Azikiwe’s position was changed from Governor-General to the President while Sir Balewa remained the Prime Minister. The same year, the Midwestern region was carved out of the Western region. In 1965, the AG was outmaneuvered for control of the Western Region by the Nigerian National Democratic Party. This led to a political crisis. The disequilibrium created by this action and the perceived corruption of the electoral and political process led a group of young officers led by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu to stage a military coup on January 15, 1966.

The coup plotters murdered Prime Minister AbubakarTafawa Balewa, Premier Ahmadu Bello of the Northern Region and Premier Ladoke Akintola of the Western Region. Despite this, the plotters could not set up a central government, but the Acting President, Mr. Nwafor Orizu, was pressured to hand over government to General J.T.U. Aguyi-Ironsi, the General Officer Commander (GOC) of the Nigerian Army who became the military Head of State, thereby terminating the First Republic. In view of the loop-sided nature of the January coup and Ironsi’s later attempt to move the country from federalism to unitarism, a group of military officers of Northern extraction staged a successful counter coup on July 29, 1966 which claimed the lives of Gen. Ironsi and the Military Governor of Western Region, Col. Adekunle Fajuyi. Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, one of the coup plotters, replaced Gen. Ironsi as Head of State. The coup was followed by repression of Igbos, especially in Northern Nigeria. In the face of increased tension between the federal government and the eastern region government, and in an attempt to thwart secessionist tendencies and weaken the regional governments, Lt. Col. Gowon reconstituted the four regions into 12 states on May 27, 1967, and appointed military governors for each state. The Eastern Region was divided into three states: East Central, Cross River and Rivers. However, this didnot stop the Military Governor of the Eastern Region, Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu from declaring that region an independent State of Biafra on May 30, 1967. This lead to a civil war that claimed about one million lives, mostly Igbos. The war ended on January 15, 1970 with the surrender of the Biafran Army, but Gen. Yakubu Gowon declared that there was “no victor no vanquished” in the war. Gen Gowon quickly embarked on a massive rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country, especially the Eastern region. There was a rapid increase in the price of crude oil in the post-war period which led to a massive flow of “petrol dollars”.

Angered by growing corruption within the ranks of the military, especially the military governors, and Gowon’s reneging on his promise to hand-over power to democratically elected government in 1976, some military officers staged a successful military coup on July 25, 1975 during the absence of Gen. Gowon in Kampala for an OAU Summit. Gen. Gowon was replaced by Gen. Murtala Mohammed who embarked on swift reforms and promised to hand-over power to elected civilian government in 1979. He also reconstituted the 12 states into 19 states. Unfortunately, Gen Mohammed was himself killed in a botched military coup on February 13, 1976, and his deputy, Gen Olusegun Obasanjo, became Head of State. Gen. Obasanjo continued with Mohammed’s program and produced a new constitution in 1979 based on presidential system of democratic governance. He successfully organized elections in 1979, and handed over power on October 1, 1979 to Alhaji Shehu Sharagi of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) who won the election. Alhaji Shagari was re-elected in 1983 and sworn in sworn in for a second four-year term on October 1, 1983. However, based on allegations of flawed election, massive corruption and economic mismanagement, Alhaji Sahagari was overthrown in another military coup on December 31, 1983 and General Buhari was declared military Head of State, thereby terminating civilian rule (the Second Republic).

Amidst charges of draconian rule, Gen. Buhari was overthrown on August 27, 1985 in another military coup led by Gen Ibrahim Babangida who declared himself military President and Head of State. In 1986, Gen. Babangida embarked on a Structural Adjustment Program that resulted in a significant depreciation of the nation’s currency, high inflation and increased poverty. Gen. Babangida promised to organize elections and return the country to democratic civilian rule by 1990, but he later extended the date to January 1993. In October 1989, he established two parties, the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). A new constitution was adopted in 1992. Local government and state elections were held in 1992 and elected civilian governors were installed while the federal government remained military. The presidential election was held on June 12, 1993 which was won by Chief M.K.O. Abiola, a Yoruba (from the South-West) of the SDP, defeating Alhaji Bashir Tofa, from the North, of the NRC. However, the military regime of Gen. Babangida and the Supreme Military Council, dominated by the North, annulled the election on June 23, 1993. This led to tension and riots, especially in the West, which forced Gen. Babangida to “step aside” as Head of State on August 27, 1993 after setting up Interim National Government on August 26, 1993 headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, a Yoruba from the West, with backing from, and under the watchful eyes of, the military led by Gen. Sani Abacha who retained the office of Defence Minister. Gen. Babangida handed over power to Chief Shonekan who appointed the “Head of State” and Chairman of the ING. The ING planned to organize fresh election in February 1994. However, the country drifted into chaos.

Due to the inability of the Shonekan administration to arrest this drift and fuelled by his own political ambition, Gen Abacha, seized power from Shonekan on November 17, 1993 and declared himself military Head of State. General Abacha’s regime was brutal and oppressive. He quickly dissolved all democratic institutions and replaced the elected civilian governors with military governors and then abandoned the elections planned for February 1994. In defiance of Gen. Abacha’s regime, Chief M.K.O. Abiola  declared himself as President of the country on June 11, 1994 in an attempt to claim his June 12, 1993 mandate. Chief Abiola then went into hiding until he was arrested by the military regime on June 23, 1994. In response to the arrest, the petroleum workers union and other unions went on strike which paralyzed many parts of the country especially Lagos and the South West. Gen. Abacha responded with arrests and imprisonment of union leaders. Towards the end of 1994, Gen Abacha set up a National Constitutional Committee to draft a new constitution.  In early 1995, the military regime announced that it had uncovered a coup plot by some military officers led former Head of State, Gen. Obasanjo and his deputy, General Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, who were arrested and kept in prison. Gen. Yar’Adua later died in prison. After receiving the draft constitution, Gen. Abacha announced on October 1, 1995 a timetable for a three-year transition to civilian rule. On November 10, 1995, despite worldwide appeal for clemency, Gen Abacha executed (by hanging) Mr. Ken Saro-Wiwa, popular civil and environmental rights activists, and eight other Ogoni activists for their alleged roles in the killings of four Ogoni politicians. On December 21, 1997, Gen. Abacha arrested his deputy, General Oladipo Diya, ten officers, and eight civilians on charges of coup plotting against him. The accused were tried before a military tribunal that sentenced Gen. Diya and eight others to death.  Meanwhile, Gen. Abacha began to undermine his plan to hold elections and hand-over power to elected civilian administration.

Gen Abacha died of heart failure on June 8, 1998 and was replaced by General Abdulsalami Abubakar on June 9, 1998. About a month later, on July 7, 1998, Chief Abiola died under suspicious circumstances while still under house arrest[1]. Later, the military Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) under Gen. Abubakar commuted the sentences of those accused in the alleged coups during the Abacha regime and released almost all known civilian political detainees. In August 1998, Gen. Abubakar appointed the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct elections for local government councils, state legislatures and governors, the national assembly, and president. The three main parties that contested the elections were the People's Democratic Party (PDP), the All People's Party (APP), and the Alliance for Democracy (AD). Former military head of state Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, who had been released from prison by Gen. Abubakar, ran as a civilian presidential candidate under the PDP and won the presidential election held in April 1999. Gen. Obasanjo was sworn in as President /Head of State on May 29, 1999. Gen Obasanjo was re-elected in 2003 and was sworn in for a second four-year term on May 29, 2003. In 2006, President Obasanjo failed in his attempt to amend the constitution to enable him to contest the election in 2007 for a third four-term. However, he bypassed his deputy, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, and selected Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua[2] as the presidential candidate of the ruling PDP in the 2007 election.

Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua was declared the winner of the election and was sworn into office on May 29, 2007. However, after a protracted illness, President Yar'Adua died in office on May 5, 2010 and was replaced by the Vice President, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, who was sworn in as President on May 6, 2010 to complete the tenure of Yar’Adua on May 29, 2011.  Dr. Jonathan thus became the first person from the South South geographic zone to become Nigeria’s Head of State.  He selected as his Vice President the former Kaduna state governor, Alhaji Namadi Sambo, who was sworn in on 18 May 2010. President  Goodluck Jonathan contested the April 16, 2011 presidential election  under the platform of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and was declared the winner on 19 April 2011, having received 22,495,187 votes out of the total of 39,469,484 votes cast, ahead of former military ruler, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), who received 12,214,853 votes.. Although the elections were relatively smooth and adjudged to be better than the 2003 and 2007 elections, the results were challenged and greeted by violence and protests in parts of Northern Nigeria. Dr. Jonathan was sworn again as President on May 29, 2011 for a four-year term. He retained Alhaji Sambo as his Vice-President. He has promised not to contest the next presidential election in 2015 but he is planning to submit a bill to the National Assembly for a fixed single six-year term for the President and Governors as part of the proposed constitutional amendments. 

The following table summarizes Nigeria’s Presidents/Heads of State/Government since independence.

Table 1: Nigeria’s Heads of State since Independence

President/Head of State

Geographic Zone

Period in Power

Duration in Power

1.SirAbubakarTafawa Balewa  (Prime Minister)

North East

1 Oct., 1960 –  15 Jan., 1966

5 years + 3.5months

2. Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe

(Governor-General, then President*)

South East

1 Oct.1, 1960 –  30 Sept., 1963

1 Oct., 1963 – 14 Jan., 1966

3 years

2 years + 3.5 months

3. Gen. Aguyi Ironsi

South East

15 Jan., 1966 – 28 July, 1966

6.5 months

4. Gen. Yakubu Gowon

North Central

29 July, 1966 – 28 July, 1975

9 years

5. Gen. Murtala Mohammed

North West

29 July,1975 – 13 Feb., 1976

6.5 months

6. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo

South West

13 Feb 1976 – 1 Oct. 1979

3 years + 6.5 months

7. Alhaji Shehu Shagari

North West

1 Oct. 1979 – 31 Dec. 1983

4 years + 3 months

8. Gen. Mohammadu Buhari

North West

31 Dec 1983 – 27 Aug. 1985

1 year + 8 months

9. Gen. Ibrahim Babaginda

North Central

27 Aug. 1985 – 26 Aug. 1993

8 years

10. Chief Ernest Shonekan

South West

26 Aug. 1993 – 17 Nov. 1993

3 months

11. Gen. Sani Abacha

North West

17 Nov. 1993 – 8 June 1998

4 years + 7 months

12. Gen. AbdulsalamiAbubakar

North Central

9 June 1998 – 29 May 1999

1 year

13. Olusegun Obasanjo

South West

29 May 1999 – 29 May 2007

8 years

14. Alhaji Musa Yar’Adua

North West

29 May 2007 – 6 May 2010

2 years + 11 months

15. Dr. Goodluck Jonathan

South South

7 May 2010 – date

1 year + 4 months

During the First Republic (1 Oct. 1960 – 15 Jan. 1966), Nigeria practiced parliamentary democracy and Dr. Azikiwe was the titular (ceremonial) Head of State while Alhaji Tafawa Balewa was the Prime Minister and Head of Government (Chief Executive)


From the above discussion, it is clear that Nigeria has come a long way. Today, Nigeria has a population of about 160 million people. With an area of 356,700 sq. miles, Nigeria is about the size of California, Nevada and Arizona put together. The area remains almost the same as it was during independence, except for the loss Southern Cameroun to Cameroun after a plebiscite. Nigeria is a fast growing developing country but it still depends heavily on oil and gas which account for about 30% of the GDP, 85% of the Federation Account revenue, and 95% of exports. However, the country has other minerals including tin, columbite, iron ore, coal, limestone, lead, zinc. The key agricultural products include cocoa, palm oil, yams, cassava, sorghum, millet, corn, rice, livestock, groundnuts and cotton. The key industrial products include textiles, cement, agro-allied products, footwear, metal products, lumber, beer, soft drinks, petrochemicals, detergents, and vehicle assembly. The financial and telecommunication sectors are developing rapidly and modernizing.  However, the country still faces many challenges including power sharing, federalism, organizing free and fair elections, good governance, corruption, poor leadership, inadequate and erratic electric power supply, inadequate and poor social and economic infrastructure, conflicts, extremism and insurgency, poverty, etc[3]. Despite these challenges, the country is still forging ahead, and I am optimistic that Nigeria will in no too distant future join the club of emerging and fast-transforming economies like India, China, South Korea and other Asian Tigers.

God Bless Nigeria! Long Live Nigeria!

Dr. Emmanuel Ojameruaye

October 1, 2011


[1] Chief Abiola collapsed after taking tea during a meeting a visiting US headed by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Susan Rice and was rushed to the State House Clinic where he was pronounced dead!

[2] Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adau was the junior brother of Obasanjo’s former deputy as military Head of State, Gen Shehu Yar’Adau who died in prison under Gen. Abacha.

[3] These challenges are discussed in detail in my other related paper, “Nigeria’s Unfinished Agenda at 51” published at and   

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Emmanuel Ojameruaye Ph.D

Dr. Emmanuel O. Ojameruaye is President/CEO of Capacity Development International, LLC based in Phoenix, Arizona State, USA. He was Vice-Resident for Research & Program Development with the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH), an NGO based in Scottsdale, Arizona State until 2013 when that organization closed its operations. He joined IFESH in 2002, first on loan from Shell International Oil Company until 2008 when he retired from Shell. He worked for the with Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) from 1992 to 2002, as Head Community Development (Western Division) from 1997 to 2002, Head Community and Environmental Issues Management (1995-96) and Head Government and Community Affairs in the Lagos Office. Before joining Shell, he was a National Consultant (appointed by the UNDP) for Nigeria’s National Data Bank Project in the Federal Ministry of Budget and Planning in Lagos (1989-1992) and a Lecturer in Economics and Statistics at the University of Benin in Nigeria (1982-1989). He was also the National Secretary of the Nigerian Economic Society (1986-1990). He holds a PhD degree in economics and has several publications to his credit including three books, Political Economy of Oil and other Topical Issues in Nigeria, A First Course in Econometrics and A Second Course in Econometrics (both coauthored), and several articles on energy economics and community development in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. He is married with five children.