The Political and Governmental History of Nigeria

Last updated on August 4th, 2023 at 08:19 pm

This post is about the governmental and political history of Nigeria. On 1, March 1960, Nigeria, after several years of British Colonial rule, became an independent nation. This newly formed country would go on to become a Republic three years down the line on 1, May, 1963.

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Nigeria became a Federal Republic, modelling its Federal Structure to resemble that operated by the United States Government. The Federal structure vests Executive powers in the President. The President is both the Head of State and Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces, as well as the Head of Government.

The law of Nigeria is based on three parameters namely, the rule of law, the independence of the Judiciary and the British common law. The British Common Law is due to the long history of British colonial influence on the country.

The birth of a new country that would be known and called by the name, Nigeria on independence day in 1960 was a huge step in the right direction for the peoples and cultures of the country.

This new Nigerian dream was to be aborted because by the year 1966, it was obvious that the gains of independence were being eroded by corruption in the government and the military stepped in by means of a coup to overthrow the government.

Between 1966 and 1999, the military government ruled Nigeria with an iron hand, even if there were brief civilian rules in between. In all, there were eight military Coup d’etat attempts, five of which were successful and three abortive.

So from independence till date, the governmental and political history of Nigeria spans through four Republics, all of which we will discuss in the write-ups below.



In the first republic, the last Governor-General of Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe became the first President of independent Nigeria, with Sir. Tafawa Balewa serving as the first and only Prime Minister of the country.

The government of the first republic did not last as it came to a halt via several coup attempts with the first one taking place in March 1966 when junior officers in the Nigerian Army went on rampage and overthrew the government.

Balewa was eliminated in the process as well as the Premiers of the northern and western regions. This singular act caused unrest in the military ranks and would later lead to another counter coup just six months later.

At this point, there were already signs of a war brewing and by 1967. Reason was that the coup that killed top government officials from Northern extraction was carried out by predominantly Igbo officers of the Nigerian Army, this led to serious tension in the north as southerners, mainly Igbos were massacred in their numbers.

Even within the army, northern soldiers were beginning to see Igbo soldiers as enemies, this led the military Governor of the Eastern Region Lt. Col. Emeka Ojukwu, in order to protect his people from the bloodbath being meted upon them to declare the independence of the Eastern region and this new region was named the Republic of Biafra on the March 30, 1967.

The secession of the Eastern region from Nigeria led to the Nigerian civil war which had 3.5 million casualties between 1967 and 1970.

General Yakubu Gowon was the military head of state during and after the civil war. He ruled the country from 1966 to 1975. The post-war period was a time of oil boom and the Nigerian economy was greatly boosted by the rise in foreign exchange earnings. Thus, Nigeria became stupendously rich but lacked the brains to transform the economy from third world to first world.

This greatly increased corruption as top government officials sought ways to enrich themselves with Nigeria’s wealth. It was said that Yakubu Gowon turned a blind eye to the corrupt practices among the officials in his administration.

It was also expected that Gowon would return the country to civilian rule but he was quite slow in fulfilling this promise. As a result, he was overthrown based on these allegations. The coup happened while he was attending an OAU summit in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.

The coup plotters lead by Col Joe Garba appointed Brigadier Murtala Muhammed as the new head of the government and Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo as his deputy.

Murtala Muhammed would eventually be murdered in another bloody couple led by Buka Suka Dimka and his chief of Staff, General Olusegun Obasanjo became the head of State in 1976.


The processes that gave rise to the second republic came via the election of a constituent assembly which was elected to draft a new constitution that was published on March 21, 1978.

In 1979, five political parties were established and they all competed in a series of elections which led to the emergence of Alhaji Shehu Shagari as the first Civilian President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

In 1983, four years later, Shagari again contested and won the Presidential elections but the election was marred by allegations of widespread rigging.

This led the military to successfully stage a coup that overthrew the Shagari’s government and a new Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari emerged.

Buhari’s military rule lasted just 20 months as another bloodless coup was staged to oust him out of power and install General Ibrahim Babangida as the new military president.

Babangida promised to return the country to civilian rule by 1990 but held on to power till 1993. On March 12, 1993, the Presidential elections were held and there were many local and international observers who deemed it as the country’s freest and fairest elections ever. Chief M.K.O Abiola, a wealthy Yoruba business mogul emerged as the winner of the Presidential elections but on March 23, 1993, the election results were rendered null and void with Babangida using several pending lawsuits as pretense for the nullification.


The annulled election led to turmoil in the country and more than 100 people were killed during the riots. This forced Babangida to hand over to an interim government which was headed by the Yoruba chieftain, Ernest Shonekan. This signaled the start of the third republic and Shonekan was expected to rule until March 1994 when another election was to taken place.

The third republic was cut short as General Sani Abacha forced Chief Ernest Shonekan to resign. Abacha dissolved all democratic institutions and replaced all elected governors with military officers but he promised a transition to civilian rule. He announced the timetable for this transition on the March 1st, 1995. But his administration was marred with deceit and only 5 political parties were approved and the local elections had a turnout of less than 10%

Abacha was the most brutal of all the military heads of state and he died mysteriously in 1998 of heart attack and he was replaced by General Abdulsalami Abubakar who would later hand over to a democratic government on the March 29, 1999.


On March 29, 1999, the fourth republic was born. Three major political parties at that time contested for the Presidential elections and they were the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the All People’s Party (APP) and the Alliance for Democratic (AD). Chief Olusegun Obasanjo of the PDP defeated Chief Olu Falae of the AD and the APP in the presidential election.

Olusegun Obasanjo ruled for two terms of eight years from 1999 to 2007 when he handed over to Umaru Musa Yar’Adua who had won the elections in 2007. Yaradua’s time as president was short-lived as he died in 2010 after a prolonged illness. The vice President, at that time, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in as President and Commander-In-Chief after Yar’Adua’s demise. Jonathan would subsequently be re-elected in 2011. He ruled between 2011 and 2015 and handed over to General Muhammadu Buhari (Rtd) after he lost in the 2015 elections, who has been in power till date.

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Oluchi Chukwu

Oluchi is a seasoned Information blogger, content developer and the editor of Nigerian Queries. She is a tech enthusiast who loves reading, writing and research

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