History and People

Constitution & political system

  • Constitution - adopted 1979, re-introduced with amendments in 1999. Nigeria has embarked on a review of its constitution
  • Legal system - based on English common law, Islamic law, and Native law
  • Legislative branch - bicameral National Assembly consists of Senate (109 seats), and House of Representatives (360 seats)
  • Elections - last held February - April 2007, which ushered in the Administration of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.


The Federal Republic of Nigeria covers an area of 923,768 sq. km on the shores of the Gulf of Guinea. It has Benin on its Western side, Niger on the North, Chad to the north-east and Cameroon to the east and south-east. Its November 1991 census stood at 88,514,501 and has risen above 120 million currently. It is the most populated country in Africa. Its population is extremely diverse with well over 250 ethnic groups, some numbering fewer than 10,000 people. Ten ethnic groups including Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, Ibo, Kanuri, Tiv, Edo, Nupe, Ibibio and Ijaw account for nearly 80% of the total population. Most of its population is concentrated in the southern part of the country, as well as in the area of dense settlement around Kano in the north. Between the two areas is a sparsely populated middle belt.

Pre-colonial History

Between the 11th century and European colonial conquest in the late 19th century, the area in and around Nigeria was home to a number of sophisticated and influential societies. Among the most important were the northeastern kingdom of Borno, the Hausa city-state/kingdoms of Katsina, Kano, Zaria, and Gobir in northern-central Nigeria, the Yoruba city-states/kingdoms of Ife, Oyo, and Ijebu in southwestern Nigeria, the southern kingdom of Benin, and the Igbo communities of eastern Nigeria. Extensive trading networks developed among these societies and northwards across the Sahara.

During the 19th century, the abolition of the slave trade cleared the way for expansion of trade in agricultural produce from Africa to Europe, particularly palm oil from the West African coastal areas. The coastal enclave of Lagos became a British colony in 1861, a center for expansion of British trade, missions, and political influence. Late 19th century and early 20th century Lagos was also a center for educated West African elites who were to play prominent roles in the development of Pan-Africanism as well as Nigerian nationalism. By the end of the 19th century, Britain began an aggressive military expansion in the region. A protectorate was declared over northern Nigeria in 1900. Despite the loss of sovereignty, the strong political and cultural traditions of these societies initially enabled many to accommodate nominal British rule with little change in their way of life.

Colonial History

Nigeria came under the colonial rule of the British (United Kingdom) during the second half of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century. The United Kingdom conquered the territory of present-day Nigeria, except for the section of former German-controlled Kamerun in several stages. The British dependencies of Northern and Southern Nigeria were merged into a single territory in 1914, and a legislative council, initially with limited African representation was created in 1922. Traditional native rulers, however, administered various territories under the supervision of the colonial authorities. In 1947, a federal system of government was established under a new Nigerian constitution introduced by the United Kingdom. This system was based on three regions: Eastern, Western and Northern. The idea was to reconcile the regional and religious tensions as well as accommodating the interest of diverse ethnic groups: mainly the Ibo (in the east), the Yoruba (in the west) and the Hausa and Fulani (in the north).

Prior to independence, nationalists continued their demand for the extension of franchise and the holding of direct elections. This led to the abrogation of the 1947 constitution and the introduction of a ministerial government in 1951. The federation became self-governing in 1954. Among the key instigators for independence in the country were Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Herbert Macaulay, leaders of the National Council for Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC), an eastern region dominated party, Obafemi Awolowo (leader of the western based Action Group (AG) party) and Sir Ahmadu Bello and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa of the conservative Northern Peoples Congress (NPC).

Conflicting demands for autonomy and central government by the various political groupings compelled the British in 1954 to establish a measure of compromise to accommodate conflicting demands. In this arrangement, there was to be a federal government, in conjunction with considerable regional autonomy. Specific powers were to be allocated to the federal government including defence, the police force, the terms of national trade, custom duties, finance and banking. Responsibility for other services in the area of health, agriculture, education and economic development was to be with the Regions. The Federation of Nigeria achieved independence from Britain on 1 October 1960.

Post Independence

Between 1960 and 1966, Nigeria was under civilian rule. Tafawa Balewa of NPC continued as the federal Prime Minister also becoming Minister for foreign affairs and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe of NCNC succeeded the pre-independence Governor-General-representing the British monarch as head of state. This continued until October 1963 when the country adopted a revised constitution and Dr. Azikiwe took office as Nigeria's first President. The major problems that confronted the federal government within the period were threats to federal unity evidenced by ethnic rivalry, factionalism and the desire for autonomy within the federal system. This led to the formation of various political groupings and political alliances.

After the exclusion from power at the federal level in the 1959 election, the AG party- with Yoruba sentiments- felt alienated and was also affected by factionalism. Awolowo thus decided to replace Akintola (the Prime Minister of the Western Region) with a protégé, provoking disorder in the Western regional assembly. After a six-month period of state of emergency, Akintola's new party United People's Party (UPP) controlled the government of the Western Region, in alliance with the NCNC, which had strong support in the non-Yoruba areas of the region.

In February 1964, further threats to the federal unity emerged when the ethnic tribe, Tiv of the Benue Plateau- who had sought autonomy since independence, launched attacks against NPC personnel and offices. The Nigerian federal army rapidly suppressed the insurgency. A two-week general strike staged in protest at wage levels the same year also reflected the widespread concern at economic disparities in the Nigerian society and the visible signs of corruption in public life.

The first election since independence to the federal House of Representatives took place in December 1964. This was preceded by a split in the coalition between the NPC and the NCNC (renamed the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens) and the formation of two new national coalitions. The Nigerian National Alliance (NNA), led by Ahmadu Bello was comprised of the NPC and the Akintola's breakaway Yoruba party, now renamed the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). The United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA), led by Dr. Michael Okpara, Prime Minister of the Eastern Region, was composed of NCNC, the remainder of the AG (whose leader was imprisoned for plotting to overthrow the federal government) and the minority, populist Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU). The NNA won the election by default and Azikiwe reluctantly asked Tafawa Balewa to form a new government.

The period between 1966 to 1979 was characterised by military intervention, takeovers and civil war. National rivalries and ethnic sentiments reflected in the national armed forces led to a military intervention in January 1966. Tafawa Balewa's government was overthrown by junior (mainly Ibo) army officers. He together with Sir Ahmadu Bello, Prime Minister of the Northern Region, Chief Akintola, Prime Minister of the Western Region and Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, the federal finance minister were killed in the coup d'état. Regional animosities flared, prompting massacres of Igbo-speakers living in the north. The Supreme Military Council was formed and the constitution suspended. Maj-Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, commander-in-chief of the army took control of government on the request of surviving federal ministers. Aguiyi-Ironsi was succeeded in a counter-coup in July 1966 by chief-of-staff of the army, Lt-Col (later Gen.) Yakubu Gowon. Gowon restored some degree of discipline in the army and attempted to revive the system, appointing a military governor for each region.

The Biafran civil war erupted in 1967 when the military governor of the Eastern Region, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu announced the succession of the Eastern Region and proclaimed its independence as the‘Republic of Biafra' on May 30 of the same year. During the civil war, military casualties reached an estimated 1,000,000. Biafran civilians died mainly from starvation as a result of the federal blockade.

A 12-state structure proposed by Gen. Gowon -intended to produce larger representation for ethnic groups other than the big three- came into effect in April 1968 and after the cease-fire in January 1970, East Central State was reintegrated into Nigeria. The military rule continued under Gowon till 1975 when he was‘forcibly' retired and allowed to go into exile.

Gowon however presided over the signing of the final agreements establishing the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); a Nigeria-funded initiative aimed at combining the economic potential of the West African sub-region. His interest in Nigeria's foreign policy culminated in his overthrow when he was attending an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit meeting in Uganda.

After his overthrow, Brigadier (later Gen.) Murtala Ramat Muhammed immediately dismissed the 12 state governors and undertook a radical and extremely popular purge of the public services. He announced the return to a civilian rule government by October 1979, following the adoption of a new constitution and the holding of local, state and federal elections.

Though Gen. Muhammed had a substantial popular following, he was assassinated in February 1976 by a disaffected army officer, Lt-Col Bukar Dimka and a number of associates who demanded the reinstatement of Gen. Gowon. Lt-Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, Muhammed's deputy and chief-of-staff of the armed forces assumed power and led the country to a civilian rule- about 13 years after military rule- in 1979. A constitutional drafting committee's recommendations announced in September 1976, included among others: the creation of a federal system of government with an executive presidency; a moratorium on the creation of further states- the number of which had been increased by seven to 19 in March of that year; creation of genuinely national political parties; the holding of free and fair elections; and the transfer of federal capital from Lagos to Abuja. The new constitution was produced in 1978 and promulgated by the SMC in September. It envisaged an executive presidency and a separation of powers between executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

The second republic spanned the period 1979-83. The five approved parties that contested the elections were the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, former vice chairman of the SMC under Gen. Gowon's regime and leader of the AG in the 1950's, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), formed by veterans politicians like Alhaji Shehu Shagari and Makaman Bida both of whom had played prominent roles in the northern based NPC. The others were the People's Redemption Party (PRP), the northern based opposition to the NPN under the leadership of former member of the NPN, Alhaji Aminu Kano, the Nigerian People's Party (NPP) with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as its presidential candidate and the Greater Nigeria People's Party (GNPP) led by Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim, initial leader of NPP.

In the aftermath of the elections, the NPN received the most widespread support, securing 37% of seats in the house of representatives, 36% in the state assemblies, and 38% in the senate and winning seven of the 19 state governorships. In the presidential elections, Shagari obtained the 25% mandatory vote in 12 rather than 13 of the 19 states but following a legal debate on this, the supreme court upheld his election.

Under Shagari's leadership, the second republic was dominated by the problem of institutionalising the framework of the federal government, alleged issues of religious extremism, corruption and economic difficulty arising from volatility in world petroleum prices at the time. Nothing substantial was done to tackle these problems. Neither the regional tensions nor the issue of corruption had been resolved. The Shagari regime was perceived to be notoriously corrupt and incompetent. Despite these problems, the NPN used its entrenched position and financial influence to return to office in a six political party contested elections which took place in August to September 1983. Presiding, nevertheless, over a country that was more bitterly divided than it had been at the inception of the second republic, Shagari was deposed in a bloodless military coup, led by Maj.-Gen. Muhammed Buhari-a former military governor of Borno and federal commissioner for petroleum during 1976-78- on December 31, 1983.

The ushering in of the reconstituted SMC under Buhari, after the second republic brought with it, the usual military dictatorship and the banning of party political activity. With the promise to purge governance of corrupt and nefarious practices, the regime arrested, detained and tried past political leaders suspected of any criminal offence. Opinion leaders and activists including striking doctors and media personnel suffered similar fate. In July 1984, a diplomatic crisis arose between Nigeria and the United Kingdom as a result of an attempted kidnapping in London of Umaru Dikko, a political exile and a former government official in the Shagari administration being sought on charges of corruption. This resulted in a mutual withdrawal of the two countries' high commissioners. Full diplomatic relations were however restored in February 1986 though annual bilateral talks at the ministerial level remained suspended until 1988.

With the pronouncement in July 1985 by Maj.-Gen. Idiagbon -chief of staff at supreme military headquarters- that there was no schedule for a return to civilian rule and the prohibition of all debate on Nigeria's political future, the stage was set for another military takeover.

In August 1985, Buhari's regime was deposed in a peaceful military coup, led by Maj.-Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, an army chief of staff at the time. The Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) under the leadership of Babangida and the support of his chief of army staff, Maj.-Gen. Sani Abacha (who later became a Nigerian president) ruled the country from 1985 to 1993. Under his regime, Babangida promised to restore democracy. However, despite initial indications of the military's commitment to this goal, hopes for a swift transition began to fade by the end of the decade. The schedule was repeatedly revised and the government made increasingly intrusive attempts to "manage" the process of political party formation.

Apart from efforts to restore the country back to constitutional rule, the Babangida regime also had to deal with issues of corruption, declining economy under the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) and violent clashes between Christians and Muslims on the issue of the imposition of the Sharia law. It also had to suppress the attempted overthrow of the regime.



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   The Nigeria High Commission wishes to bring to the attention of the general public that the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 has issued the following REVISED QUARANTINE PROTOCOL for persons arriving Nigeria from United Kingdom.Read More...