Nigeria’s democracy has been fragile and fluctuating since independence. Successive governments have struggled to create a sense of national unity in a complex country whose borders were drawn by British colonialists, incorporating more than 200 ethnic groups. Democratization and development have progressed at different speeds in the country’s disparate regions.
The less-developed north is more religiously conservative, with the Hausa and Fulani people forming a majority in far north-western states, and the Kanuri being the largest group in the north-east. Women in Nigeria’s northern states gained the vote decades later than women in the south, with universal suffrage not achieved until 1979.
The mostly Christian Igbo people are the largest ethnic grouping in the south-east, where there are less centralized and more egalitarian traditions, as well as a tense history of separatism from Nigeria.
The more religiously-diverse Yoruba people are the largest group concentrated in the south-west where identity is more influenced by regional culture and values.
Nigeria’s democracy also has a long and troubled relationship with its military. For almost half of its existence as an independent state, Nigeria has been under military rule instead of civilian administration.
Three republics have been overthrown by military coups since independence in 1960, and two of the four democratically-elected presidents of Nigeria’s fourth republic headed those military dictatorships.
This article explains the role of the military, the fluid influence of ethnicity, and the quest for a better democracy in Nigeria.
Is Nigeria a democracy?
Nigeria has a democratic constitution with a federal system modelled on the US. The executive is headed by the president, the legislature is formed by the National Assembly of Senate and House of Representatives, and the judiciary is headed by a supreme court.
But some commentators say Nigeria is not currently a true democracy due to its entrenched corrupt political class, its dwindling electoral participation, popular suspicion of the ruling class, shrinking civil liberties, and weak democratic institutions.
A history of democracy in Nigeria
Nigeria officially became a democracy on its independence from Britain in October 1960. But the history of Nigerian demands for greater representation go back to the 1920s.
A new constitution was created in 1922 under British colonial rule, largely due to Nigerian calls for reform. The country’s first general election – to a colonial legislative council – was held the following year.
The colonial administration hoped to contain demands for full independence but the elections failed to suppress Nigerians’ desire for control of their own affairs.
Civil resistance continued throughout the 1920s led mainly by women and student movements. The Aba Women’s Uprising of November 1929 saw protests by thousands of Nigerian women against the unjust rule of ‘Warrant Chief’ tribal officials appointed by the colonial government. Young nationalists in the Lagos area founded the Nigerian Youth Movement in 1934.
After World War Two, it became clear Nigeria would become independent. In the 1950s another new constitution created a structure for Nigeria’s federal government and paved the way for an end to British rule. The 1959 general election saw a victory for the Northern People’s Congress, which formed a coalition government with the south-eastern dominated National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons.
This created the first ever Nigerian led self-government, which would steer the nation into independence in 1960. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa served as Nigeria’s first – and only – prime minister and Nnamdi Azikiwe became governor-general. For the first three years of independence, Nigeria was a constitutional monarchy with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth remaining as head of state.
The first republic
In 1963 the country became a federal republic with Azikiwe as the first president and head of state, and Balewa continuing as prime minister and head of government.
But democracy under the first republic quickly deteriorated. Elections were held in 1964 but the event highlighted widespread resentment towards the domination of the central government by northern politicians. There were also outbursts of inter-ethnic violence and Balewa was assassinated in 1966 as part of a bloody, failed military coup.
In the chaos that followed Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi seized power but ruled for only six months before being overthrown in a counter-coup. He was replaced by Yakubu Gowon, beginning almost a decade of rule by a ‘supreme military council’.
Military rule under Yakubu Gowon
Gowon’s administration was rejected by Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military head of Nigeria’s eastern administrative region. In 1967 Ojukwu led the region’s secession, declaring himself president of the Republic of Biafra in protest against the Gowon regime and the pogroms of the Igbos in the north.
A brutal civil war followed, unleashing famine, death, and destruction in the south-east. Both sides were armed and supported by foreign actors interested in the future of the oil-rich country with Britain arming the Nigerian military government.
The civil war had an enormous impact both in Nigeria and internationally. In 1967, Nigeria was divided from three regions into 12 states in an effort to strengthen the central power in Lagos and undermine future secession attempts. A severely damaged Biafra surrendered in 1970.
Beyond Nigeria, images of the war’s famine led to an enormous international humanitarian appeal by charities such as the Red Cross and Save the Children. An expensive reconstruction effort followed the war, paid for by oil revenues.
But Gowon’s military government was seen as corrupt, incompetent, and failing to guide the country back towards democracy. Gowon was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1975, replaced by General Murtala Mohammed who was then assassinated during an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1976. His deputy, Lieutenant General Olusegun Obasanjo took charge and oversaw Nigeria’s transition to democracy.
The second republic
Elections In July and August 1979 saw Shehu Shagari become the first democratically-elected president of Nigeria and a new constitution introduced an American-style presidential system, rejecting the British parliamentary model. But Shagari’s government was characterized by extensive corruption, wastefulness, and a failure to thaw civil-war era ethnic and religious divisions in the country.