From 1960, when the nation gained independence, to 1998, Nigeria only experienced ten years of civilian, as opposed to military, rule. Following the collapse of the first republic in 1966, the civil war and subsequent military rule under Generals Gowon, Muhammed, and Obasanjo, Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1979. The second republic under Shehu Shagari lasted from the elections of 1979 until the end of 1983 when the army, which by then had clearly acquired a permanent taste for political power, again seized control.
Major General Muhammed Buhari was the new military ruler. He emphasized the corruption and immorality of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which he had ousted, and dissolved or banned all political institutions and reinstated the Supreme Military Council (SMC). The coup met with widespread approval.
The economy was in faced serious problems, and in 1984 the military government broke off negotiations with the IMF and initiated its own austerity budget. Special tribunals dealt with former politicians and state governors, a number of whom were sentenced to prison for corruption.
Buhari became increasingly unpopular because of his inept handling of the economy, which reduced Nigeria to bartering its oil for imports, and because of his authoritarianism and the imposition of severe restrictions upon the media. In May 1985 Buhari expelled 700,000 “unauthorized foreigners” including 300,000 Ghanaians, positioning them as scapegoats for the declining state of the economy.
On August 27, 1985, the army declared Buhari deposed, the SMC was dissolved, and a new Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) was set up with Major General Ibrahim Babangida as head of state. As with Buhari, Babangida faced a declining economy, with a static demand for oil (the country’s principal export and foreign exchange earner). He was thus obliged to impose further austerity measures upon the nation.
In January 1986 Babangida announced that the army would hand back power to civilians in 1990. Unrest in northern Nigeria, mainly Islamic discontent, persuaded Babangida to apply for Nigeria to join the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in February 1986. Continuing clashes between Muslims and Christians led the government to set up an Advisory Council on Religious Affairs (ACRA) in April 1987.
The next five years were taken up with a great deal of discussion about the form of a new constitution, and the government postponed the return to civilian rule to 1992. During these years the continuing decline of the economy and the way in which Nigeria could return to civilian rule dominated politics. In October 1989 Babangida rejected the credentials of all thirteen political parties that had emerged to take part in the elections. Instead, the government announced that it would create two parties which all politicians would be allowed to join. Antigovernment riots during 1989 focused upon desires for civilian rule and a strengthened economy.
In April 1990 middle-ranking officers mounted a coup attempt, attacked Dodan Barracks (headquarters of the ruling military), and took over Radio Nigeria. The coup, which collapsed after ten hours of fighting, highlighted north-south rivalries and Christian fears of Muslim domination. On July 27 Major Gideon Orkar, the coup leader, and forty-one other soldiers were executed.
The year 1991 saw further religious riots in the north but also moves toward a return to civilian rule. The number of states was increased to thirty and the two government-authorized parties, the Social Democratic
Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC), held countrywide congresses in June to select delegates for primary elections. Early in 1992 dates were set for the elections: November 7 for the Senate and House of Representatives, and December 5 for the presidential elections. However, although the elections for the Senate and House of Representatives were advanced to July (the SDP won a majority of seats in both houses), the results of the first round of presidential primaries were thrown out in August due to allegations of corruption and other irregularities. Fresh elections were set for September but following further setbacks and cancellations, President Babangida postponed the return to civilian rule until August 1993.
Although 1993 began with preparations for elections, it would turn out to be one of the worst years for Nigeria since independence. In January, as an apparent move toward instituting a civilian government, a transitional council composed mainly of civilians was set up. Chief Ernest Adegunle Shonekan was named head of government, although the real power remained with President Babangida. At the end of March the two political parties selected their presidential candidates: the SDP chose Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (“M. K.O.”) Abiola, while the NRC chose Bashir Othma Tofu. The elections were scheduled for June 12, and despite a legal attempt to stop them, they were held. By June 14 it was clear that Abiola was winning by a wide margin and on June 18, the Campaign for Democracy claimed that he had won outright in nineteen of thirty states. However, in June the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), which had been set up the previous January ostensibly to oversee the elections, annulled the results “to protect our legal system and the judiciary from being ridiculed and politicized both nationally and internationally.”
The United States described the annulment as outrageous; Britain cut off aid in protest. In August General Babangida stood down, handing power over to an interim national government led by Chief Shonekan that would rule through March 1994. Shonekan’s defense minister was General Sani Abacha, who had played a key role in the 1983 coup and was generally considered as Babangida’s right hand man. Abiola, meanwhile, had fled to London. On November 17, Abacha forced Shonekan to resign and made himself head of state. He dissolved the existing organs of state and set up a provisional ruling council (PRC). By the end of the year Abacha was presiding over a country where living standards were plummeting, inflation was soaring, and corruption was rife, while the price of oil stood at a ten-year low.
Nigeria was in a state of political crisis throughout 1994. In mid-June Abiola was arrested and despite calls by the courts to do so, the government twice refused to produce Abiola for trial. The awful state of the economy was emphasized in April when Nigeria was obliged to import 100,000 tons of petrol due to production problems at its refineries.
Throughout 1995 the political uncertainty continued with demands for a return to civilian rule. Abacha announced the extension of military rule until 1998. A low point in Nigeria’s international relations was reached on November tenth when, at the beginning of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in New Zealand, Abacha had nine Ogoni activists, led by Ken Saro-Wiwa (who had been protesting at the activities of the oil companies in the Delta region) executed. The Commonwealth suspended Nigeria’s membership.
At odds with the Commonwealth over the Saro-Wiwa affair and his record on human rights, and widely criticized by Nigerians both inside and outside the country throughout 1996, Abacha paid scant attention to such criticisms, athough he did twice dismiss numbers of senior army officers, clearly pre-empting coup actions. New rules for eventual elections were announced by the National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) and five political associations were registered as political parties.
A rise in the price of oil enabled the Finance Minister, Anthony Ani, to increase budgets for rural development, education, and health in his January 1996 budget. In February General Abacha announced that he might stand in the 1998 presidential elections; he claimed that his program to return the country to civilian rule was on schedule. Registration of voters at over 100,000 centers took place in February, and local elections were held on March 15. The turnout was massive; these were the first elections to be held since the Abacha takeover in November 1993. The electoral timetable for a return to civilian rule was set as October 1,
1998. Abiola remained in prison and Nigeria remained at odds with the Commonwealth.
The death of General Sani Abacha on June 8, 1998, followed a month later by that of Chief Moshood
M. K. O. Abiola, fundamentally altered the political outlook for Nigeria. The chief of the General Staff, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, succeeded Abacha as head of state; he promised to reinstate civilian rule. In August Abubakar announced a new electoral timetable for the elections, and in September he published the draft of a civilian constitution and invited public comments on it. Meanwhile twenty-five of thirty-two political parties had registered for the forthcoming elections and the former head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo, announced his candidacy as leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
On March 1, 1999, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared General Obasanjo of the PDP winner of the presidential elections; in his victory speech General Obasanjo promised to continue Nigeria’s transition back to democracy.
See also: Nigeria: Army.
Ekineh, A. Nigeria: Foundations of Disintegration. London: New Millenium, 1997.
Falola, T. Violence in Nigeria: The Crisis of Religious Politics and Secular Ideologies. Rochester, N. Y.: Woodbridge: University of Rochester Press, 1998.
Na’allah, A. R. (ed.). Ogoni’s Agonies: Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Crisis in Nigeria. Trenton, N. J.: Africa World and London: Turnaround, 1998.
Osaghae, E. E. Crippled Giant: Nigeria since Independence. London: Hurst, 1998.
Saro-Wiwa, K. Nigeria: The Brink of Disaster. Epsom: Saros International, 1991.