BRIA 26 1 Nigeria After 50 Years Still Struggling to Be a Democracy

Bill of Rights in Action
FALL 2010 (Volume 26, No. 1)


The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom  |  Plato and Aristotle on Tyranny and the Rule of Law  |  Nigeria

Nigeria: After 50 Years, Still Struggling to Be a Democracy

When Nigeria became independent 50 years ago, it expected to lead Africa to prosperity and democracy. But ethnic and religious violence, rigged elections, military takeovers, and a greedy political class have drained the hopes of Nigerians.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is composed of more than 250 ethnic groups, speaking many languages. Three ethnic groups, however, dominate this West African country.

Today the Hausa-Fulani, two peoples who merged in the 1800s, is the largest ethnic group, making up nearly 30 percent of Nigeria’s population. The Hausa-Fulani live mainly in the country’s north region. The Yoruba and Igbo with homelands in the southwest and southeast each make up about 20 percent of Nigeria’s people. The remaining 30 percent are members of small ethnic minorities.

People first inhabited the area surrounding the Niger River thousands of years ago. Over the centuries, kingdoms and empires rose and fell, usually as the result of warfare.

In the 1300s, Muslim preachers who followed caravan routes from North Africa began to convert the Hausa, Fulani, and to a lesser extent the Yoruba to Islam. Their kings, however, did not enforce a strict form of it.

Around 1790, a Muslim preacher led a jihad (holy war) to establish a purified form of Islam. The result was the Sokoto Caliphate, an Islamic religious empire ruled by a sultan from the northern city of Sokoto.

In the 1500s, the British, French, and Dutch arrived along the southern coastline of Nigeria to trade guns, manufactured goods, and liquor for slaves. (The slave trade ended in the 1860s.) By the mid-1800s, European and American Christian missionaries were making many converts, especially among the Igbo in the southeast. Christian preachers were not successful in the heavily Muslim north.

In the 1860s, Nigeria expanded its trade with Britain. The British bought Nigerian products such as palm oil (for candles and soap), rubber, coffee, cacao, and tin. Soon, British companies controlled the production and sale of these products. As the demand for them grew, Britain conquered additional areas of Nigeria, including the Muslim Sokoto Caliphate.

In 1885, the European powers divided Africa among themselves and drew boundaries for their colonies, including those for Nigeria that remain to this day. The Europeans drew colony boundaries that often split apart ethnic groups or combined those hostile to one another, as in Nigeria.

In 1914, Britain combined the areas under its control in Nigeria into one colony. The British adopted an indirect form of colonial government. This permitted the Hausa-Fulani Muslim political class in the north to continue to rule, but under British supervision. In this region, the Hausa language and culture along with Islam remained strong.

In the Yoruba and Igbo regions of the south, the British educated a select class of Nigerians (frequently Christian converts) to assist in administering the colony. The Yoruba and Igbo political classes accepted Christianity, adopted European ways, and learned English, which is the official language of Nigeria today.

After World War II, many of Europe’s colonies in Africa demanded independence. To prepare Nigeria for independence, Britain created a Nigerian federal state with a central government and governments for each of the three regions. The Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo each formed a political party in the region they dominated. This tended to emphasize the ethnic differences of the country rather than Nigerian nationhood.

A few years before independence, European companies discovered vast oil deposits in the Niger River Delta. This seemed to assure a bright future for Nigeria. But many things went awfully wrong.

The First Republic

On October 1, 1960, Great Britain declared Nigeria an independent nation with Abubakar Balewa, a northern Muslim, as head of state. The Nigerians established a federal republic with a parliamentary government modeled on Great Britain’s.

Many Nigerians believed their country would become the “giant of Africa.” Nigeria had a large population, experienced government administrators, and valuable natural resources such as oil. Nigeria looked destined to show other African countries the way to prosperity and democracy.

As the Nigerians took over from the British, however, the three major ethnic political parties competed to win control of the national wealth. Most of this wealth came from selling oil production leases to foreign companies. The Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo political leaders wanted the oil money to enrich themselves, their followers, and their regions. Thus, greed and corruption soon became common in Nigerian politics.

The ethnic party that won control of Nigeria’s parliament controlled the oil leases, the import trade licenses, government construction projects, and jobs. Even more important were the bribes that went along with them.

The first national election under the newly formed federal republic, took place in 1964. Desperate to win to get their hands on Nigeria’s considerable oil wealth, politicians used bribery, vote rigging, and even violence to win.

Election fraud led to months of political party conflict and deal making. In the end, the Northern People’s Congress Party, representing mostly Hausa-Fulani Muslims, held a slight majority of seats in the parliament. The majority chose Abubakar Balewa as prime minister. He appointed government officials mostly from his party.

Over the next two years, corruption reigned. With oil money flowing into the pockets of government officials and their friends, the ruling party ignored the needs of the Nigerian people.

Military Rule I

Fearing the Muslim Hausa-Fulani would never give up control of the government, Igbo military officers from the heavily Christian southeast staged a military coup (government take-over) in 1966. Nearly 30 members of the government, including Prime Minister Balewa, were murdered.

Almost immediately, Hausa-Fulani soldiers began to attack Igbo soldiers. This led to a second coup that violently replaced Igbo rule with northern Hausa-Fulani military officers. The Igbo southeast region refused to accept control of the federal government by the northerners.

Ethnic hatred kept boiling over as the new military regime’s soldiers began to massacre Igbos. The Igbos retaliated against northerners. The slaughters resulted in the death of about 8,000 soldiers and civilians. More than a million Igbos fled back to their homeland.

In May 1967, the Igbo southeast region seceded from Nigeria and declared itself the Republic of Biafra. The Nigerian military regime invaded Biafra and established a naval blockade to cut off imports of weapons and food.

The Nigerian Civil War lasted more than two years and killed about 1 million people, mostly Biafrans. More of them died from starvation than bullets. Nigeria’s blockade and superior military force finally crushed Biafra by early 1970.

Nigeria had a chance to start all over again in the 1970s. The military regime’s leader, Gen. Jack Gowon, successfully drew the Igbos back into the Nigerian federation. He also created Nigerian states in order to increase the political influence of the minorities and lessen that of the three dominant ethnic groups. Finally, he promised a return to civilian elected government.

In the 1970s, high world oil prices injected huge amounts of cash into Nigeria’s treasury. In fact, Nigeria became one of the richest countries in the world. But the military officers in charge of running the government turned out to be just as greedy for a cut of the oil money as elected politicians had been.

The oil revenue could have modernized Nigeria’s agriculture, developed its manufacturing, built roads and electricity grids, financed schools and colleges, and accomplished many other things for the Nigerian people. Some progress toward these goals did happen in the “golden ’70s.”

But Nigeria soon became what economists call a classic “rentier state.” These states usually depend on the world market price of a single valuable natural resource such as gold, diamonds, or oil. Rentier states often make the mistake of collecting and spending their unearned revenues on expensive imports rather than investing them in economic development and the welfare of their people. Nigeria made this mistake by neglecting manufacturing and food and cash crop agriculture. Thus, Nigeria became vulnerable to economic booms and busts, depending on the price of oil.

By 1975, money from oil leases and exports made up 80 percent of Nigeria’s total national income. Nigeria got used to importing luxuries like expensive cars, most of its other manufactured goods, and even food. The military regime created many government jobs and boosted wages to gain public support.

Many Nigerians abandoned farms for the high-paying government jobs in the cities. Food got more expensive. The country’s traditional export crops like coffee and rubber declined. Nigerians invested little in private enterprises. After all, the oil money kept rolling in without anybody really having to work for it.

In the late 1970s, however, world oil prices crashed. Nigeria suddenly found itself short of cash. It became a nation in debt. Unemployment kept rising.

The Second Republic

Faced with economic decline and the growing unpopularity of military rule, a new regime leader, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, supervised the writing of a second constitution. It enabled the people to elect a president directly. The constitution also required all political parties to include different ethnic groups from all parts of the country.

In 1979, Shehu Shagari of the conservative National Party of Nigeria won the presidency in a relatively fair election. Thus began Nigeria’s Second Republic.

At first, Shagari’s government took positive steps to improve Nigeria by expanding the public school system, universities, and hospitals. It did not take long, however, for party politicians to capture the machinery of the federal government and distribute jobs, contracts, and favors to their followers. Government officials again feasted on bribery and other kinds of corruption while most Nigerians suffered high unemployment and inflated food prices.

In the heavily Muslim north, an Islamic preacher provoked riots against the corrupt and secular (non-religious) government. He called for the revival of pure Islamic faith throughout Nigeria and demanded death to those who opposed it. Rioting killed more than 10,000 persons, often brutally with machetes, before the army finally restored order.

In 1983, amid widespread reports of massive election fraud, Shagari and his party were re-elected to power. The Nigerian people seemed to lose confidence in the civilian government and even democracy itself. At the end of the year, another military coup overthrew President Shagari’s government. Military rule returned to Nigeria.

Military Rule II

A new string of military rulers proved to be just as incompetent as the civilians in managing Nigeria’s worsening economy. Continuing low oil prices caused more unemployment and a drastic drop in the standard of living for all Nigerians except for the corrupt officials in the military government. In the midst of this economic disaster, religious conflict between Muslims and Christians erupted.

Since Muslims make up the country’s largest religious group, some have long demanded that Nigeria become an officially Islamic nation. They have called for Islamic religious law, called Sharia, to apply throughout the land. The Christian minority has opposed such a move, fearing second-class citizenship and even their mass slaughter.

In 1989, the military government oversaw the writing of another constitution. The new document declared that federal and state governments “shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.” It did, however, permit states to create Islamic courts to apply the Sharia, but only to Muslims. Christians and other non-Muslims could still go to civil courts that applied secular laws passed by the federal government.

The compromise over religion and the law did not satisfy Muslims who wanted the Sharia applied everywhere or Christians who wanted no mention of the Sharia in the constitution. This dispute led to outbreaks of violence between the two religious groups.

In 1993, Gen. Sanni Abacha grabbed control of the military government and brought on Nigeria’s worst period of dictatorship. He imprisoned his opponents, gagged the press, and staged a phony election in which all “official” political parties nominated him for president. He also looted the treasury and encouraged a “rush to steal” among others in his government.

Gen. Abacha suddenly died under mysterious circumstances in 1998. His military replacement announced a timetable for the return of civilian-elected government

A New Try for Democracy

In 1999, a new try for democracy resulted in the election of Olusegun Obasanjo as president. Obasanjo, a retired general and former military ruler, along with his People’s Democratic Party, won control of the government by a wide margin.

Despite many reports of election fraud, the Nigerian people accepted the new civilian government. They did this to prevent another military take-over.

In 2003, President Obasanjo won re-election in another vote tainted with ballot-box stuffing, the use of child voters, and other forms of fraud. During his two terms, corruption continued among the civilian political class that ran the government.

By this time, Nigeria was one of the 20 poorest nations in the world. This astounding development mocked Nigeria’s ambition to become the “giant of Africa.”

During President Obasanjo’s two terms, a major dispute arose over the distribution of oil revenues. Complaints came from the Nigerian states and especially the ethnic minorities who lived in the Niger River Delta, the country’s main oil producing area. The U.S. gets 10 percent of its oil imports from the Delta.

The Delta minorities complained bitterly that they got little money from the oil taken from their lands. Moreover, 50 years of careless oil spills by big foreign companies like Shell Petroleum severely polluted Delta farmlands and fishing waters.

The Delta minorities began to organize peaceful protests against Nigeria’s government and the oil companies in the early 1990s. The minorities demanded a fair share of oil revenue from the government and help from oil companies to get clean water, electricity, and health care. The Ogoni minority declared, “[I]t is intolerable that one of the richest areas of Nigeria should wallow in abject poverty and destitution.”

When their peaceful demands got nowhere, some protesters turned violent. They sabotaged oil facilities and pipelines, kidnapped and killed company workers, and clashed with the army. In addition, widespread stealing of oil caused up to a 15 percent drop in daily production. As time went on, youth gangs emerged to kidnap, steal, and extort money for their own benefit.

President Obasanjo tried and failed to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. Obasanjo, a Christian from the south, then handpicked a former Muslim governor of a northern state, Umaru Yar’Adua, to run as the presidential candidate of his People’s Democratic Party. The party has an unwritten rule that candidates for president must rotate between a southerner and a northerner after two terms.

Known as an honest politician, Yar’Adua promised to reform the government. In 2007, he won easily, but in perhaps Nigeria’s most corrupt election. Nevertheless, he became the first elected Nigerian president to take power from another elected president. Moreover, a Gallup Poll found that 82 percent of Nigerians favored democracy as the best form of government followed by 8 percent for military rule and 6 percent for a religious government.

Illness prevented Yar’Adua from accomplishing much reform. He did, however, negotiate a shaky truce in the Delta that reduced violence there. After an extended period of medical treatment, Yar’Adua died on May 5, 2010. The vice president with the unlikely name of Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, replaced him.

President Jonathan faces numerous longstanding problems in Nigeria. Great distrust still prevails between the Hausa-Fulani in the north and the Yoruba and Igbo in the south. Violence between Muslims and Christians recently broke out again. No agreement exists on a fair distribution of oil revenue among the states and Delta minorities. The fragile truce in the Delta is starting to fall apart.

In addition, the dependence on oil money for most of Nigeria’s income rather than a diverse economy has enabled a deeply entrenched and corrupt political class. One historian has called Nigeria a “kleptocracy,” a form of government that exists for the political class to loot it.

A new presidential election is due in 2011. If southerner Goodluck Jonathan decides to run, he will violate his party’s rule that another northerner should fill what would have been Yar’Adua’s second term. More political turmoil could result. Whatever the outcome, the military will be lurking in the background.

For Discussion and Writing

1.  Why was Nigeria referred to as the potential “giant of Africa”?

2.  What prevented it from achieving its potential? What do you think is Nigeria’s most serious problem today? Why?

3.  What is a “rentier state”? What examples other than Nigeria can you think of in the world today?

For Further Reading

Falola, Toyin. The History of Nigeria. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Joseph, Richard and Gillies, Alexandra. “Nigeria’s Season of Uncertainty.” Current History. May 2010: 179-185.


The Future of Nigeria

The article identifies three major problems that Nigeria faces: (1) ethnic divisions, (2) its economic dependence on oil, and (3) corruption. Imagine that the Nigerian government has hired you to advise it on how to address these problems.

Form small groups. Each group should:

1.  Look in the article to identify each problem and what, if anything, has already been tried to address it.

2.  Discuss possible solutions for each problem.

3.  Select your best solutions and prepare to discuss them with the class.



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