Before the colonial period, the area which comprises modern Nigeria
had an eventful history. More than 2,000 years ago, the Nok culture in
the present Plateau state worked iron and produced sophisticated terra
cotta sculpture. In the northern cities of Kano and Katsina, recorded history
dates back to about 1000 AD. In the centuries that followed, these Hausa
kingdoms and the Bornu empire near Lake Chad prospered as important terminals
of north-south trade between North African Berbers and forest people who
exchanged slaves, ivory, and kola nuts for salt, glass beads, coral, cloth,
weapons, brass rods, and cowrie shells used as currency.
In the southwest, the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo was founded about 1400,
and at its height from the 17th to 19th centuries attained a high level
of political organization and extended as far as modern Togo. In the south
central part of present-day Nigeria, as early as the 15th and 16th centuries,
the kingdom of Benin had developed an efficient army; an elaborate ceremonial
court; and artisans whose works in ivory, wood, bronze, and brass are prized
throughout the world today. In the 17th through 19th centuries, European
traders established coastal ports for the increasing traffic in slaves
destined for the Americas. Commodity trade, especially in palm oil and
timber, replaced slave trade in the 19th century, particularly under anti-slavery
actions by the British Navy. In the early 19th century the Fulani leader,
Usman dan Fodio, promulgated Islam and that brought most areas in the north
under the loose control of an empire centered in Sokoto.
A British Sphere of Influence
Following the Napoleonic wars, the British expanded trade with the Nigerian
interior. In 1885, British claims to a sphere of influence in that area
received international recognition and, in the following year, the Royal
Niger Company was chartered. In 1900, the company's territory came under
the control of the British Government, which moved to consolidate its hold
over the area of modern Nigeria. In 1914, the area was formally united
as the "Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria." Administratively, Nigeria
remained divided into the northern and southern provinces and Lagos colony.
Western education and the development of a modern economy proceeded more
rapidly in the south than in the north, with consequences felt in Nigeria's
political life ever since. Following World War II, in response to the growth
of Nigerian nationalism and demands for independence, successive constitutions
legislated by the British Government moved Nigeria toward self-government
on a representative, increasingly federal, basis.
Nigeria was granted full independence in October 1960, as a federation
of three regions (northern, western, and eastern) under a constitution
that provided for a parliamentary form of government. Under the constitution,
each of the three regions retained a substantial measure of self-government.
The federal government was given exclusive powers in defense and security,
foreign relations, and commercial and fiscal policies. In October 1963,
Nigeria altered its relationship with the United Kingdom by proclaiming
itself a federal republic and promulgating a new constitution. A fourth
region (the midwest) was established that year. From the outset, Nigeria's
ethnic, regional, and religious tensions were magnified by the significant
disparities in economic and educational development between the south and
On January 15, 1966, a small group of army officers, mostly southeastern
Igbos, overthrew the government and assassinated the federal prime minister
and the premiers of the northern and western regions. The federal military
government that assumed power was unable to quiet ethnic tensions or produce
a constitution acceptable to all sections of the country. In fact, its
efforts to abolish the federal structure greatly raised tensions and led
to another coup in July. The coup-related massacre of thousands of Igbo
in the north prompted hundreds of thousands of them to return to the southeast,
where increasingly strong Igbo secessionist sentiment emerged.
In a move that gave greater autonomy to minority ethnic groups, the
military divided the four regions into 12 states. The Igbo rejected attempts
at constitutional revisions and insisted on full autonomy for the east.
Finally, in May 1967, Lt. Col. Emeka Ojukwu, the military governor of the
eastern region, who emerged as the leader of increasing Igbo secessionist
sentiment, declared the independence of the eastern region as the "Republic
of Biafra." The ensuing civil war was bitter and bloody, ending in the
defeat of Biafra in 1970.
Following the civil war, reconciliation was rapid and effective, and
the country turned to the task of economic development. Foreign exchange
earnings and government revenues increased spectacularly with the oil price
rises of 1973-74. On July 29, 1975, Gen. Murtala Muhammed and a group of
fellow officers staged a bloodless coup, accusing Gen. Yakubu Gowon's
military government of delaying the promised return to civilian rule and
becoming corrupt and ineffective. General Muhammed replaced thousands of
civil servants and announced a timetable for the resumption of civilian
rule by October 1, 1979. Muhammed also announced the government's intention
to create new states and to construct a new federal capital in the center
of the country.
General Muhammed was assassinated on February 13, 1976, in an abortive
coup. His chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, became head of state.
Obasanjo adhered meticulously to the schedule for return to civilian rule,
moving to modernize and streamline the armed forces and seeking to use
oil revenues to diversify and develop the country's economy. Seven new
states were created in 1976, bringing the total to 19. The process of creating
additional states continued until, in 1996, there were 36.
The Second Republic
A constituent assembly was elected in 1977 to draft a new constitution,
which was published on September 21, 1978, when the ban on political activity--in
effect since the advent of military rule--was lifted. Political parties
were formed, and candidates were nominated for president and vice president,
the two houses of the National Assembly, governorships, and state houses
of assembly. In 1979, five political parties competed in a series of elections
in which a northerner, Alhaji Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria
(NPN), was elected President. All five parties won representation in the
In August 1983, Shagari and the NPN were returned to power in a landslide
victory, with a majority of seats in the National Assembly and control
of 12 state governments. But the elections were marred by violence, and
allegations of widespread vote rigging and electoral malfeasance led to
legal battles over the results.
On December 31, 1983, the military overthrew the Second Republic. Maj.
Gen. Muhammadu Buhari emerged as the leader of the Supreme Military Council
(SMC), the country's new ruling body. He charged the civilian government
with economic mismanagement, widespread corruption, election fraud, and
a general lack of concern for the problems of Nigerians. He also pledged
to restore prosperity to Nigeria and to return the government to civilian
rule but proved unable to deal with Nigeria's severe economic problems.
The Buhari government was peacefully overthrown by the SMC's third-ranking
member, Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, in August 1985.
Babangida cited the misuse of power, violations of human rights by key
officers of the SMC, and the government's failure to deal with the country's
deepening economic crisis as justifications for the takeover. During his
first few days in office, President Babangida moved to restore freedom
of the press and to release political detainees being held without charge.
As part of a 15-month economic emergency, he announced stringent pay cuts
for the military, police, and civil servants and proceeded to enact similar
cuts for the private sector. Imports of rice, maize, and later wheat were
banned. President Babangida demonstrated his intent to encourage public
participation in government decisionmaking by opening a national debate
on proposed economic reform and recovery measures. The public response
convinced Babangida of intense opposition to an economic recovery package
dependent on an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan.
The Abortive Third Republic
President Babangida promised to return the country to civilian rule
by 1990; this date was later extended until January 1993. In early 1989,
a constituent assembly completed work on a constitution for the Third Republic.
In the spring of 1989, political activity was again permitted. In October
1989 the government established two "grassroots" parties: the National
Republican Convention (NRC), which was to be "a little to the right," and
the Social Democratic (SDP), "a little to the left." Other parties were
not allowed to register by the Babangida government.
In April 1990, mid-level officers attempted to overthrow the Babangida
government. The coup failed, and 69 accused coup plotters were later executed
after secret trials before military tribunals. The transition resumed after
the failed coup. In December 1990 the first stage of partisan elections
was held at the local government level. While turnout was low, there was
no violence, and both parties demonstrated strength in all regions of the
country, with the SDP winning control of a majority of local government
In December 1991, gubernatorial and state legislative elections were
held throughout the country. Babangida decreed in December 1991 that previously
banned politicians would be allowed to contest in primaries scheduled for
August 1992. These were canceled due to fraud, and subsequent primaries
scheduled for September also were canceled. All announced candidates were
disqualified from again standing for president once a new election format
was selected. The presidential election was finally held on June 12, 1993,
with the inauguration of the new president scheduled to take place August
27, 1993, the eighth anniversary of President Babangida's coming to power.
In the historic June 12, 1993 presidential elections, which most observers
deemed to be Nigeria's fairest, early returns indicated that wealthy Yoruba
businessman M.K.O. Abiola had won a decisive victory. However, on June
23, Babangida, using several pending lawsuits as a pretense, annulled the
election, throwing Nigeria into turmoil. More than 100 persons were killed
in riots before Babangida agreed to hand power to an "interim government"
on August 27, 1993. Babangida then attempted to renege on his decision.
Without popular and military support, he was forced to hand over to Ernest
Shonekan, a prominent nonpartisan businessman. Shonekan was to rule until
new elections, scheduled for February 1994. Although he had led Babangida's
Transitional Council since early 1993, Shonekan was unable to reverse Nigeria's
ever-growing economic problems or to defuse lingering political tension.
With the country sliding into chaos, Defense Minister Sani Abacha quickly
assumed power and forced Shonekan's "resignation" on November 17, 1993.
Abacha dissolved all democratic political institutions and replaced elected
governors with military officers. Abacha promised to return the government
to civilian rule but refused to announce a timetable until his October
1, 1995 Independence Day address.
Following the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election, the United States
and other nations imposed various sanctions on Nigeria, including restrictions
on travel by government officials and their families and suspension of
arms sales and military assistance. Additional sanctions were imposed as
a result of Nigeria's failure to gain full certification for its counter-narcotics
efforts. In addition, direct flights between Nigeria and the United States
were suspended on August 11, 1993, when the Secretary of Transportation
determined that Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) did
not meet the security standards established by the Federal Aviation Administration
(FAA). The FAA in December 1999 certified security at MMIA, opening the
way for operation of direct flights between Lagos and U.S. airports.
Although Abacha's takeover was initially welcomed by many Nigerians,
disenchantment grew rapidly. A number of opposition figures united to form
a new organization, the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), which campaigned
for an immediate return to civilian rule. The government arrested NADECO
members who attempted to reconvene the Senate and other disbanded democratic
institutions. Most Nigerians boycotted the elections held from May 23-28,
1994, for delegates to the government-sponsored constitutional conference.
On June 11, 1994, using the groundwork laid by NADECO, Abiola declared
himself President and went into hiding. He reemerged and was promptly arrested
on June 23. With Abiola in prison and tempers rising, Abacha convened the
constitutional conference June 27, but it almost immediately went into
recess and did not reconvene until July 11, 1994.
On July 4, a petroleum workers union called a strike demanding that
Abacha release Abiola and hand over power to him. Other unions then joined
the strike, which brought economic life around the Lagos area and in much
of the southwest to a standstill. After calling off a threatened general
strike in July, the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) reconsidered a general
strike in August, after the government imposed "conditions" on Abiola's
release. On August 17, 1994, the government dismissed the leadership of
the NLC and the petroleum unions, placed the unions under appointed administrators,
and arrested Frank Kokori and other labor leaders. Although striking unions
returned to work, the government arrested opponents, closed media houses,
and moved strongly to curb dissent.
The government alleged in early 1995 that some 40 military officers
and civilians were engaged in a coup plot. Security officers quickly rounded
up the accused, including former head of state Obasanjo and his deputy,
retired Gen. Shehu Musa Yar'Adua. After a secret tribunal, most of the
accused were convicted, and several death sentences were handed down. The
tribunal also charged, convicted, and sentenced prominent human rights
activists, journalists, and others--including relatives of the coup suspects--for
their alleged "anti-regime" activities. In October, the government announced
that the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC--see below: Abubakar's Transition
to Civilian Rule) and Abacha had approved final sentences for those convicted
of participation in the coup plot.
In late 1994 the government set up the Ogoni Civil Disturbances Special
Tribunal to try prominent author and Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and others
for their alleged roles in the killings of four prominent Ogoni politicians
in May 1994. Saro-Wiwa and 14 others pleaded not guilty to charges that
they procured and counseled others to murder the politicians. On October
31, 1995, the tribunal sentenced Saro-Wiwa and eight others to death by
hanging. In early November Abacha and the PRC confirmed the death sentence.
Saro-Wiwa and his eight co-defendants were executed on November 10.
In an October 1, 1995 address to the nation, Gen. Sani Abacha announced
the timetable for a 3-year transition to civilian rule. Only five of the
political parties which applied for registration were approved by the regime.
In local elections held in December 1997, turnout was under 10%. By the
April 1998 state assembly and gubernatorial elections, all five of the
approved parties had nominated Abacha as their presidential candidate in
controversial party conventions. Public reaction to this development in
the transition program was apathy and a near-complete boycott of the elections.
On December 21, 1997, the government announced the arrest of the country's
second highest-ranking military officer, Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen.
Oladipo Diya, 10 other officers, and eight civilians on charges of coup
plotting. Subsequently, the government arrested a number of additional
persons for roles in the purported coup plot and tried the accused before
a closed-door military tribunal in April 1998 in which Diya and eight others
were sentenced to death.
Abacha, widely expected to succeed himself as a civilian president on
October 1, 1998, remained head of state until his death on June 8 of that
year. He was replaced by Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, who had been third
in command until the arrest of Diya. The PRC, under new head of state Abubakar,
commuted the sentences of those accused in the alleged 1997 coup in July
1998. In March 1999, Diya and 54 others accused or convicted of participation
in coups in 1990, 1995, and 1997 were released. Following the death of
former head of state Abacha in June, Nigeria released almost all known
civilian political detainees, including the Ogoni 19.
During the Abacha regime, the government continued to enforce its arbitrary
authority through the federal security system--the military, the state
security service, and the courts. Under Abacha, all branches of the security
forces committed serious human rights abuses. After Abubakar's assumption
of power and consolidation of support within the PRC, human rights abuses
decreased. Other human rights problems included infringements on freedom
of speech, press, assembly, association, and travel; violence and discrimination
against women; and female genital mutilation.
Worker rights suffered as the government continued to interfere with
organized labor by restricting the fundamental rights of association and
the independence of the labor movement. After it came to power in June
1998, the Abubakar government took several important steps toward restoring
worker rights and freedom of association for trade unions, which had deteriorated
seriously between 1993 and June 1998 under the Abacha regime. The Abubakar
government released two imprisoned leaders of the petroleum sector unions,
Frank Kokori and Milton Dabibi; abolished two decrees that had removed
elected leadership from the Nigeria Labor Congress and the oil workers
unions; and allowed leadership elections in these bodies.
Abubakar's Transition to Civilian Rule
During both the Abacha and Abubakar eras, Nigeria's main decisionmaking
organ was the exclusively military Provisional Ruling Council (PRC), which
governed by decree. The PRC oversaw the 32-member federal executive council
composed of civilians and military officers. Pending the promulgation of
the constitution written by the constitutional conference in 1995, the
government observed some provisions of the 1979 and 1989 constitutions.
Neither Abacha nor Abubakar lifted the decree suspending the 1979 constitution,
and the 1989 constitution was not implemented. The judiciary's authority
and independence was significantly impaired during the Abacha era by the
military regime's arrogation of judicial power and prohibition of court
review of its action. The court system continued to be hampered by corruption
and lack of resources after Abacha's death. In an attempt to alleviate
such problems, Abubakar's government implemented a civil service pay raise
and other reforms.
In August 1998, the Abubakar government appointed the Independent National
Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct elections for local government councils,
state legislatures and governors, the national assembly, and president.
INEC successfully held these elections on December 5, 1998, January 9,
1999, February 20, and February 27, 1999, respectively. For the local elections,
a total of nine parties were granted provisional registration, with three
fulfilling the requirements to contest the following elections. These parties
were the People's Democratic Party (PDP), the All Peoples Party (APP),
and the predominantly Yoruba Alliance for Democracy (AD). Former military
head of state Olusegun Obasanjo, freed from prison by Abubakar, ran as
a civilian candidate and won the presidential election. Irregularities
marred the vote, and the defeated candidate, Chief Olu Falae, challenged
the electoral results and Obasanjo's victory in court. Before the May 29,
1999 inauguration of the new civilian president, the PRC promulgated a
new constitution based largely on the suspended 1979 constitution.