Democracy in Nigeria

Explaining the history of Africa’s largest democracy and the influence of the military, ethnicity, and religious belief.

Published 29 June 2022 Updated 11 May 2023 8 minute READ

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.

Civil war had an enormous impact both in Nigeria and internationally

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.

Article part 2

The second period of military rule

The government declared itself the winner of 1983’s heavily-disputed election. A violent response in Nigeria’s south-west saw another military coup take place with Major General Muhammadu Buhari declaring himself leader of a new military council.

His government was overthrown in August 1985 by General Ibrahim Babangida who promised a transition from military rule by 1990 but would stay in power until 1993. He expanded a corrupt patronage network mostly sustained by oil revenues which has been reorganized but still endures in Nigeria.

Babangida refused to recognize the outcome of the free and fair elections held in June 1993 and stymied the creation of a full-fledged third republic. But he struggled to contain domestic pro-democracy demands. He created an interim government council later that year which was then quickly replaced by a new military ruler General Sani Abacha.

Abacha imprisoned Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, the winner of the disputed 1993 election, and began a cruel period of government marked by human rights abuses such as the case of the ‘Ogoni Nine’. This group of environmental activists protested about oil pollution in the Niger delta but were executed in 1995 on fabricated murder allegations. Under Abacha’s corrupt and brutal leadership, Nigeria became a pariah nation.

The fourth republic

Abacha died in mysterious circumstances in 1998. Another transitional military government led by General Abdulsalami Abubakar oversaw a return to democracy with elections held in April 1999. Former military ruler Olusegun Obasanjo was elected president on the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), a broad coalition of political elites and power brokers.

Obasanjo served two complete four-year terms in office, beginning the longest period of uninterrupted democratic government. The current incumbent is another former military leader, Muhammadu Buhari.

Challenges of democracy in Nigeria

Nigeria’s democracy was severely weakened by the civil war and centralization of power during the military era. The conflict helped concentrate oil revenues in the hands of army officials and seeded a powerful, wealthy, and often corrupt military elite. The dictatorships militarized Nigeria’s political space and disrupted the flourishing of democratic institutions and culture.

Nigeria’s army – once regarded as the continent’s most capable – has been dramatically weakened over the past decade. It has failed to provide basic security in large parts of the country, struggling to contain an insurgency by the terrorist group Boko Haram in the north-east.

Its officer corps has been implicated in numerous corruption scandals. Nigeria’s federally-controlled police is overstretched, understaffed, underfunded, and endemically corrupt.

These security and law enforcement challenges are aggravated by the fledgling state of Nigeria’s democratic institutions.

Freedom of speech

A vibrant media industry exists in Nigeria, much of it based in the south-west, but the government has been cracking down on the free press as evidenced by its actions during the #ENDSARS protests of 2020.

Twitter was banned for more than a year following the protests, while big media houses closed and journalists fled, diminishing open debate. Security incidents go unreported or misrepresented for fear of reprisals by the government.


Most elections in the fourth republic have been regular, generally free, and credible, although this varies considerably by region and election cycle. Violence is a lingering feature of elections in Nigeria.

Voter turnout has steadily decreased as voters have become disillusioned by the recycling of political candidates, the lack of internal democracy in political parties, and the failure of government to deliver real progress.


The constitution guarantees Nigerians freedom of religion, expression, movement, and assembly and protects them from discrimination based on sex, religion, origin, or political opinions. Yet basic rights are continually challenged in a failing justice environment.

Nigeria’s police have a reputation for brutality which led directly to the #ENDSARS protests of 2020, demanding the dismantling of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a unit accused of kidnapping, murder, theft, rape, and torture.

Sharia criminal law, which was previously limited to civil matters, was reintroduced in 12 northern states, directly challenging the constitution and civil liberties of non-Muslim residents.

In April 2022 a man was sentenced to 24 years in jail by a Sharia court in Kano on a charge of blasphemy for declaring himself an atheist.

The judicial system is too weak and compromised to step in and enforce civil liberties. This reflects the state of the political class in northern Nigeria and the absence of mechanisms to defend constitutional democracy. Religious legitimacy shapes political power in the north in a way that challenges national cohesion and a common citizenship. Parallel legal systems undermine the main pillars of the constitution.

Benefits of democracy in Nigeria

To many Nigerians democracy seems to have few benefits. Between 2015 and 2022, the democratically-elected government of Buhari presided over worsening security, continuing corruption, and two recessions.

Nigeria became the poverty capital of the world, consistently ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt nations.

But the #ENDSARS movement showed the democratic dynamism of young Nigerians. And technology has helped demands for better government to transcend old ethnic, religious, and linguistic divides.

#ENDSARS did not produce a political party and in many ways its separation from traditional politics was its power. But it showed a hunger for more democracy, not less, among Nigerians and a solidarity among Nigeria’s enormous population of young people.

Nigeria needs more young people to engage with politics, offer new ideas and run for office on issues which affect all Nigerians, from employment and security to climate and energy policy. Nigeria also needs its youth committed to the kind of long-term civic activism and community organizing which expands the narrow focus on electoral cycles, strengthens democratic institutions, and delivers long-term change.

The main challenge for these young democrats and future politicians is Nigeria’s clientelist party politics, which is mostly a contest for power to distribute patronage.

Nigeria’s democracy can only be strengthened through a revolutionized political system, better quality political parties, more independent and diversified media, a stronger electoral management body and well-resourced judiciary.

Law enforcement and security forces must be devoted to constitutional democracy rather than regime security and protecting elites. And entrenched networks of patronage and privilege need to be weakened.

Sustaining democracy in Nigeria will require more than just free elections. It will also mean ending a system in which corruption is not just tolerated, but widely encouraged and hugely profitable.

Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist, poet and critic

The importance of democracy in Nigeria

Given its history and its current trajectory, democracy is essential to the survival of the Nigerian nation. Military government was not more just, accountable, or efficient than democracy, nor was it less corrupt.

Democracy has not yet delivered a considerable uplift in living standards for most Nigerians. But it remains the only system of government which can offer the hope of reconciling the extraordinary plurality of religions, ethnicities, and political traditions of its large population.

It is the only system of government which can create a fair society without resorting to oppression or the exclusion of considerable parts of the population.

It is also essential for the rest of Africa that democracy survives in Nigeria. Half of West Africans are Nigerians and if democracy were to fail there it would have enormous implications for the rest of the continent and for the world.

Nigeria’s democracy needs to serve the rights, aspirations, and potential of its citizens for a good, dignified and fulfilled life.

This article was updated on 20 December 2022.