Historical And Political Evolution Of Nigeria From 1900-Present Day

Britain governed indirectly through the existing local institutions. Sir Frederick Lugard’s Indirect Rule worked well in the North and the West where Traditional rulers were already in place. It however, failed woefully in the East where there was no tradition of central governing authority. What the British did therefore, was to create artificial chiefs whom they called “Warrant chiefs”. Because of the alien authority so created in the East and because some of them were actually insignificant people, the warrant chiefs commanded little or no authority. People either ignored them or protested their rule. One of the upshots of this anomaly was the ‘Aba Riots’ of 1929, led by women who were protesting in the main, the imposition of tax by a warrant chief.


The Governor of Nigeria at this time, Sir Hugh Clifford had earlier attacked the National Congress of British West Africa, a political party which was formed and led from the Gold Coast by Casely Hayford, for having sent a petition to the secretary of state for the Colonies in London. One of the agitations of the educated minority in Lagos and Calabar areas was for proper constitutional representation, and the petition was rejected by Lord Milner, the secretary of state. Clifford himself had attacked the National Congress of British West Africa as a whole, but he fully appreciated the need for reform and especially for increased participation of Nigerians in the government of their own country.

One of the political consequences of the Clifford Constitution was that the introduction of elective principle in the Legislative Council stimulated political activity, particularly in Lagos, which had three seats. Political parties and newspapers were founded, though some were short-lived due to personal rivalries and inadequate funding. That was the early stage of Nigerian nationalism. Herbert Macaulay founded the first Nigerian political party – Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) – and which won all the elections of 1923, 1928 and 1933.

The supremacy in Lagos of the NNDP was not challenged until the foundation in 1934 of the Lagos Youth Movement, which changed its name to Nigeria Youth Movement (NYM) in 1936. The NYM emerged from relative obscurity at the 1938 General Elections to challenge the NNDP and it became the predominant Nigerian party under Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s leadership, until he resigned from it on an internal issue of confidence in 1941, after which it faded away.

The impact of the Second World War (1945-1949) upon Nationalist movements in British West Africa was the same in all territories. The impact was threefold: military, psychological, and economic.

Large numbers of West African troops were recruited and saw military service in East Africa, in North Africa, and most particularly, in South East Asia. They were taught that they were fighting for freedom, and were promised good resettlement facilities when they returned home and were demobilized. However, West African units in South East Asia had been issued with pamphlets describing demobilization and resettlement procedures applicable to British troops being demobilized in the United Kingdom for when they got back to their own countries the West African troops were summarily discharged from the armed forces, and swelled the ranks of the unemployed.

During the war, the propaganda of the Allies had been based upon the concept of freedom (as indeed had Nazi propaganda directed at the colonies). The United States, as an ex-colony, took an aggressively anti-colonialist line from the time of the Atlantic Charter of the United Nations.

Finally, following war-time and post-war shortages and inflation, the price of imported goods went up, though the prices received by local producers for export did not go up like the same extent. This led to dissentient and a belief that the Colonial masses were the victims of imperialist and capitalist exploitation.

The impact of Azikiwe’s newspaper – West African Pilot – and other factors energized the quest for freedom. Such other factors were the impact of organized labour, student unionism and the invigorating balm offered by the independence of India in 1947.


Sir Arthur Richards (later Lord Milverton) submitted his Constitutional proposals to the secretary of state for the Colonies in December 1944. The proposals were of two main characteristics: the pursuit of self-determination and the development of regional separatism.

There was sweeping condemnation of the Richards Constitution by a plethora of protests, viz, the June 1945 general strike of organized labour spearheaded by the labour leader, Pa Michael Imoudu, the formation and activities of the Zikist Movement and the increasing impatience and radicalism of the youths. The new mood of the moment was captured by Ogedemgbe Macaulay (son of Herbert Macaulay) and Mallam Habib Abdallah. The younger Macaulay was reported to have argued that “if we tell the governor to come down, he will not; we must drag him down and take over.”

In a 1948 lecture titled “The Age of Positive Action”, Mallam Abdallah said:

“I hate the Union Jack with all my heart because it divides the people wherever it goes…it is a symbol of persecution, of domination, a symbol of exploitation… of brutality…we have passed the age of petition…age of resolution…the age of diplomacy. This is the age of action – plain, blunt and positive action.”

The Nationalist leaders were strongly opposed to the Richards Constitution as they claimed that it had been arbitrarily imposed upon them, since Richards himself had not consulted either the political leaders or public opinion in general.


Sir John Macpherson took over from Sir Arthur Richards as Governor in April 1948. Macpherson attempted a rapprochement with the Nigerian Nationalists, thus securing their co-operation in a common effort towards self-government.

In the early part of his governorship, he carried out local government reforms which were intended to modernize and democratize local government structure of Southern Nigeria. He also set up a special commission, which included Dr. Azikiwe, to make recommendations on the ‘Nigerianization’ of the senior civil service. On 17th August 1948, Macpherson addressed the Legislative Council that “if it was the wish of the country” he was willing to make constitutional changes within three years.

Lengthy wrangling among the Nationalists led to constitutional reform with the feeling polarizing the three major parties based upon the three Regions then existing – the Action Group based on Yoruba support, the NCNC based upon Ibo support, and the NPC based upon Hausa/Fulani support, and thus establishing themselves as spokesmen of the three major tribal and regional interests.

The breakdown of the Macpherson Constitution – even though it represented a structure within which Nigerian political leaders could have worked out their political salvation had they wished on a basis of ‘Unity in Diversity’- its principal weakness lay in its failure to provide government at the center. For example, there was a determination of the relationships on the one hand between the political parties and on the other hand between Nigerian leaders and expatriate officials. A further constitutional impasse developed in the Federal House of Representatives as a result of the motion calling for, ‘as a primary political objective the attainment of self-government for Nigeria in 1956’ which was moved by chief Anthony Enahoro, an Action Group member, on March 31, 1953.


The political atmosphere throughout Nigeria rapidly deteriorated into party and ethnic intolerance, as evinced, for example, by the Kano Riots of 1953. Accordingly, Mr. Oliver Lyttleton, the secretary of state, stated in the House of Commons on 31st May 1953 that, since it appeared impossible for Nigerians to work together effectively in a tightly knit federation, ‘Her majesty’s Government had regretfully decided that the Nigerian Constitution would have to be withdrawn to provide for greater regional autonomy and for the removal of powers of intervention by the center in matters which could, without detriment to other regions, be placed entirely within regional competence.’ He accordingly invited Nigerian leaders to come to London for a Constitutional Review. The Nigerian political leaders after some political bickering visited London from 30th July to 22nd August 1953 for the constitutional conference, reaching agreement on some major issues. It was agreed that the conference should meet again in Lagos in January 1954 to deal with other issues like proposals for revenue allocation to the Regions.

The Lyttleton Constitution succeeded in giving the Regional legislatures a high degree of legislative autonomy being able to make laws on subjects included in the ‘regional’ list and in the ‘concurrent’ list (in which a Federal law could over-ride the Regional law). The Lyttleton Constitution had visualized that the Regions would eventually become self-governing in all matters within their legislative competence, as a transitional stage towards full self-government for Nigeria as a whole. As a result of the London constitutional conference in May and June 1957 under the chairmanship of the then secretary of state, Mr. Lennox- Boyd, both Eastern and Western Regions became self-governing on 8th August, 1957 and, in March 1959, the Northern Region became self-governing.


The fourth constitutional conference to be held in eight years took place in London in September and October 1958. Apart from some discussions of the position of minority in Nigeria, and the decision to hold a General Election for an enlarged House of Representatives in December 1959, the most important outcome of the conference was the decision that barring accidents, Nigeria should become independent on 1st October, 1960.

The general election having held in December 1959, no single party obtained an overall majority of the 312 seats in the new House of Representatives. The distribution of seats was as follows: Northern People’s Congress (NPC) 134, Nigerian Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) 89, and Action Group (AG) 73, while others had 16. It would thus have been possible for a coalition of the NCNC and the AG to command a working majority in the House, and discussions were held between the leaders to that effect. These negotiations broke down, partly owing to the hostility between the two parties and partly because of the fear that the Northern Government was based upon the two Southern parties only. In the end, the NPC and the NCNC formed a coalition government under Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. The AG, frustrated, became the official opposition. Dr. Azikiwe resigned his seat in the House and was appointed President of the newly established Senate.

Comment: the union between the NPC and the NCNC became a subject of life-long bitter feeling between Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe with the former believing that the latter’s political alignment with the NPC signified an unwarranted compromise and a sell-out.


The first Constitution of an independent Nigeria was contained in the Nigerian (Constitution) Order in Council, 1960, which came into effect on 1st October, 1960. Note that in July 1960, the United Kingdom; Parliament had passed the Nigerian Independence Act, 1960, which made provision for the independence of all Nigeria except the British Cameroons.

The 1960 Independence Constitution contained some important provisions, as follows:

i. The Governor-General representing the Queen became constitutional Head of State, acting only on the advice of his ministers. The same applied to the Governors at the Regions.

ii. Judges of the Supreme and High Courts were to be appointed upon the advice of the Judicial Service Commission, made up of the existing Judges. They could only be dismissed on the recommendation of a Tribunal of Judges, confirmed by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

iii. Constitutional provision was made for Nigerian citizenship.

iv. A procedure for constitutional amendment hitherto the prerogative of the United Kingdom authorities was incorporated in the Constitution.

FROM 1960 – 1983

Nigeria having attained political independence on 1st October 1960, it must be admitted that hope and anxiety defined the first five years of self-rule. But hope soon petered out, as anxiety soon yielded way to tension, then to crises.

The Western Region Crisis of 1962

Within two years of independence, the emergency powers of the Federal Government had to be called into play, and it became the subject of considerable political acrimony. By declaring a state of emergency and supplanting the government of a Region was demonstrably so great as to raise the question of whether Nigeria was a true Federation at all.

The Western Region crisis which developed from a personality conflict between Chief Awolowo, the leader of the Action Group and his deputy, Chief S.L. Akintola, the Premier of Western Region and split the Action Group completely, resulted in the suspension of the Western Region Government by the Federal Government under its emergency powers. Having declared emergency rule the Federal Government appointed Senator Majekodumi, the Federal Minister of Health, as Administrator, with full powers as if he were himself the Western Region Government.

Meanwhile, Chief Awolowo and a group of his supporters were charged with treasonable felony and conspiracy to overthrow the Federal Government. After a lengthy trial, he was convicted and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Chief Akintola was allowed to resume his premiership on 1st January, 1963, and up to the date of his assassination during the first military coup in January 1966, remained in office as leader of a new party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party.

The Mid-West State

On 23rd March 1962, the Federal Parliament approved a Constitutional amendment to provide for a fourth Region in Nigeria. The proposal was then approved by the legislatures of Eastern and Northern Regions, although rejected at the time by the Western legislature. A referendum was held in the area affected on 13th July 1963, which gave an overwhelming support to the creation of a new Region.

The Mid-West Region, formed out the non-Yoruba areas of Western Region, came into existence on the 12th August 1963. It received a Constitution on 9th January 1964 similar to that of Western Region, after having been administered under the aegis of the Federal Government for the first six months.

How Nigeria Became a Republic

Proposals for the transformation of Nigeria into a Republic were drawn up by the Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, in consultation with the Regional Premiers and presented to the delegates of all the political parties at the Constitutional Conference held in Lagos on the 25th and 26th July 1963. The Conference agreed that Nigeria should become a Federal Republic within the Commonwealth on 1st October 1963. It was decided that the first president should be Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, previously the Governor-General of the Federation, and that subsequent Presidents should be elected for a period of five years at a time by the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives sitting together.

The Republican Constitution of 1963

The new Constitution incorporated the decisions of the Constitutional Conference, and was passed into law by the Federal Parliament on 19th September 1963. It came into effect on 1st October 1963. The Republican Constitution was titled “The 1963 Constitution (Act No. 20 of 1963) and it was a lengthy document running into twelve chapters with numerous sections. One very significant section of the 1963 Constitution was Section 157 which named Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as President of the Republic with effect from the date of commencement of the Constitution. It must be noted that the 1963 Constitution was Federal, Republican, Written and Rigid.

The Breakdown of Law and Order

The Western Region was already politically divided since the rift between Awolowo and Akintola in 1962, lived through a period of increasing political tension during the Federal General Election Campaign of 1964. This political tension was not given a chance to subside after the election, owing partly to the charges and counter-charges of illicit practices during the election. A fresh wave of election fever which was stimulated by the knowledge that the Regional General Election was bound to take place during 1965, and rumors had it that the election might take place as early as April 1965, but in the event Chief Akintola concealed his intentions, thus allowing the fever to continue, until the announcement that the date had been fixed for the autumn of 1965.

The Regional electoral results were announced by the Regional Electoral Commission, and showed an overwhelming majority for Chief Akintola’s NNDP. In reaction, the Action Group immediately declared that in fact their acting leader, Alhaji Adegbenro, had won the election and was therefore the lawful Premier, but the courts ruled that Chief Akintola retained the Premiership. The Action Group had alleged that the elections had been ‘rigged’ and they were supported in a statement made by the chairman of the Electoral Commission.

Political dissension and violence between the two parties increased to such a point that by the end of December 1965, the Nigerian police force, seriously undermanned and physically exhausted from the strain of a year or more of violence in the Region, found itself losing its grip on the situation and unable to guarantee the maintenance of law and order. [This was a period the political violence in the Region was euphemistically nick-named “operation wetice” during which political hooligans and arsonists poured petrol on political opponents and burnt them alive, including their houses and other material possessions].


As a result of the deteriorating situation in Western Region coupled with the impotence of the police to contain the widespread violence from the end of December 1965 to the middle of January 1966 during which gangs of hooligans erected road blocks on the main roads between Lagos and Ibadan.

Still in the grip of its fatal indecision, the Federal Government did not act. In the early hours of Saturday, 15th January 1966, drastic action for which the situation called and with which the Federal Government had not responded, was taken. Troops under the command of Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu assassinated Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of Northern Nigeria and killed a number of senior army officers who were not willing to support their actions. Other troops assassinated Chief Akintola, the Premier of Western Nigeria, and kidnapped his deputy, Chief Fani-Kayode. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, the Federal Minister of Finance, were also kidnapped in Laos, and a preventive guard was put on the residences of the Eastern Nigeria Ministers. The bodies of Abubakar and Okotie-Eboh were not found until 21st January, until which time their fate remained unknown.

The remaining members of the Federal Council of Ministers met on 15th January, announced that an army mutiny had taken place, and stated that the General Officer Commanding, Major General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi (who had succeeded Major-General Sir Charles Welby-Everard less than a year previously) remained completely loyal to the Federal Government.

The next day, Sunday, 16th January, the President of the Senate, Dr. Nwafor Orizu, who was Acting President of Nigeria in the absence overseas on sick leave of Dr. Azikiwe, broadcast to the nation announcing that the Council of Ministers had advised him to hand over the powers of government to Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi.

Immediately on assuming power, Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi in a broadcast to the people of Nigeria, stated that he had set up a military government and promulgated the first Decrees to suspend those Sections of the Constitution making provisions for the President of the Republic, Prime Minister, Council of Ministers, Parliament, Regional Governors, Regional Premiers, Regional Executive Councils, and Regional Assemblies. Aguiyi-Ironsi made it clear that the ‘primary objective of the military government was to re-establish law and order, and to reactivate the Civil administration. Its longer term objectives were to eradicate tribalism and regionalism in any shape or form and to lead a unified Nigeria towards the adoption of a new civilian constitution.

Military Governors were appointed for each of the Regions, with Aguiyi-Ironsi as Supreme Commander and Head of the Military Government.

A study group had been set up on 21st March 1966 under Chief Rotimi Williams to make recommendations for a unitary form of government. After serious rioting by Northerners against Southerners (in particular Ibos) in the North because Northerners feared that the proposed unitary form of government was designed to subject them to Southern domination, the army once again intervened in July 1966. Northern troops seized General Aguiyi-Ironsi in Ibadan, together with his host, Lt-Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, military Governor of the West, and assassinated both of them. This sad event occurred on 29th July 1966.

After a period of confusion, in which the country was leaderless, Lt-Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a Christian Northerner from Angas ethnic group (in present day Plateau State), although not the most senior officer in the army, proved to be the only leader to whom the troops would rally. He thus became the Head of the Federal Military Government.

The first step taken by the new Gowon administration was to reverse Ironsi’s decision to establish a unitary form of government. The interim was to allay Northern fears of Southern (and in particular Ibo) domination, since Ironsi had surrounded himself with Ibo advisors, within his six months in office. The new Gowon regime pacified the people of the West and the Mid-West by releasing Chief Awolowo and Chief Enahoro, and by convening a Conference, which was to include representatives from all the regions, to draft a new Federal Constitution.

The new administration, however, ran into difficulties immediately, as the Military Governor of the Eastern Region Lt-Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu (an Ibo) bitter about the massacre of his people in the North, refused to come to Lagos unless his safety would be guaranteed. The Supreme Miltary Council met in Lagos from 14th to 16th October, 1966, with Lt-Colonel Ojukwu absenting himself as he had not been given a guarantee of personal safety. There was majority support at the conference for the creation of more states in Nigeria, and that a plebiscite should take place to determine the wishes of the people.

Aburi Meeting and Subsequent Secession of the East from Nigeria

Since Ojukwu and Gowon could not see eye-to-eye with each other on the various problems confronting the country as a whole, with particular reference to the Eastern question, a committee of Western Nigeria Obas and Chiefs led by Chief Awolowo, started a round of talks with regional leaders in an attempt to solve the problem of continued Federation. The Eastern leaders persisted in their refusal to sit down to talk, and the result was that the committee had to abandon its efforts in mid-November.

The National Liberation Council in Ghana tried in December 1966, to mediate between Gowon and the military governors in the Regions, including Ojukwu. The meeting took place in Aburi, Ghana, on 4th and 5th January 1967. After the Aburi meeting, all parties returned to Nigeria convinced that a worthwhile agreement had been reached, however, Ojukwu’s interpretation of the meaning of agreement differed from those of the other participants. (It should be noted that it had generally been agreed at the Aburi meeting that each regional governor should be given the power of veto over any decision of the Supreme Military Council which might affect this, as they felt it seriously undermined the power of the Federal Military Government).

A decree published by the Federal Military Government on 17th March, purporting to implement the Aburi agreement made secession illegal and empowered the SMC to take over the powers of government in any region where it had declared a state of emergency.

On 31st March, Ojukwu published an edict, the effect of which was to ascribe to the Regional Government all revenues (Oil royalties, etc.) which had previously been ascribable to the Federal Military Government. On 18th April 1967, he took over Federal installations on Eastern soil, including the railways, posts, and Telecommunications, etc.

On 27th May, 1967, Ojukwu secured an overwhelming vote in the 300 – member Regional Consultative Assembly authorizing him to proclaim the Region’s independence as the ‘Republic of Biafra’ at the earliest possible date. The next day, Gowon declared a state of emergency throughout Nigeria, assumed full powers as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and promulgated a decree dividing Nigeria into twelve states. The former Northern Region was divided into six states and the Eastern Region into three. The Mid-West became one state, while the Western Region minus Colony Province became the new Western State. The Colony Province joined the former Federal Territory of Lagos to become Lagos State.

Ojukwu announced that the decree dismembering Eastern Region would not be implemented and proclaimed the Republic of Biafra on 30th May, 1967. In reaction, Gowon denounced this as an act of rebellion, imposed financial and economic sanctions on the territory and ordered general mobilization.


As a result of frontier clashes between Ojukwu’s forces and those of Gowon, Ojukwu threatened total war on 30th June, 1967 if Nigeria entered his territory. This resulted in Gowon dismissing Ojukwu both as a military governor and as an army officer. The invasion of the East by the Federal forces started on July 6th, 1967. The collapse of Biafra’s side came suddenly; it was signaled in a broadcast by Ojukwu on 11th January 1970, announcing that he was handing over power to his deputy Major-General Phillip-Effiong and that ‘his presence outside Biafra was vital in the search for an early and honorable end to the Civil war.’ Effiong the next day ordered the ‘orderly disengagement’ of his troops and a delegation was ready to negotiate a peace settlement with the Federal authorities. By 14th January, Federal troops had occupied the whole of the territory, and the next day, Lt-Colonel Effiong (he reversed to his substantive rank in the Nigerian army) formally surrendered in Lagos.

The military government of Gowon lasted nine years from, from 1966 to 1975, when he was overthrown, while on an official trip to Uganda, by General Murtala Muhammed. One of the major reasons for Gowon’s overthrow was that he over-stayed in power without any clear objectives about setting the time-frame to hand over power to a civilian administration over which he severally reneged.

General Muhammed himself was toppled in a coup after only six months in power on 13th February 1976, by Lt-Colonel Buka Dimka. Following the assassination of General Muhammed, the mantle of leadership fell on the then Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo who was immediate deputy of General Muhammed. Obasanjo piloted the affairs of Nigeria and conducted a General Election, in which an elected Executive civilian President in the person of Alhaji Shehu Shagari became President of Nigeria, on the platform of the National Party of Nigeria, on 1st October, 1979.

Shagari ruled Nigeria for four years and massive ineptitude and political corruption were the order of the day. It was indeed a testy period in Nigeria’s chequered history as the ‘years of the Locusts’ really entered the center-stage in Nigeria’s political scene.

The Era of Tunde Idiagbon and Muhammadu Buhari

Shagari’s regime was boted out on 31st December, 1983 by the duo of Brigadier Tunde Idiagbo and Major-General Muhammadu Buhari who rode into the system with great promise. They wore long faces and tried to whip everybody into line. They made ‘disciplie’ their watch word and didn’t miss any opportunity to boast that they were in charge. But after sixteen months in the saddle, they were kicked out to the immediate joy of many (in August 1985).

Babangida’s Era

General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, popularly called IBB, came in August 1985, with a winning smile. Like others before him, he started well. It took almost all his eight-year reign for his hidden agenda to become apparent. By then, Nigerians had been made to swallow the bitter pill of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in which the country’s per capita income of about $1200 of the eighties plummeted to $250. The General turned Nigeria into a political laboratory, as he banned and unbanned politicians, endlessly tinkering with the process. The greatest political crisis that Babangida bequeathed to the country was the annulment of the Presidential Election victory won by Chief M.K.O. Abiola on June 12th, 1993 and for reasons best known to him, the country was given the June 12 crisis. Babangida stepped aside and strung together an interim government that was later declared illegal by the courts.

The Era of Sani Abacha

One of the upshots of that crisis was the emergence of General Sani Abacha, the dictator who for five years squeezed the country to submission. Abacha, it was who jailed Abiola, the winner of the elections, for daring to his many detention camps, closed down media houses, hanged activists and sent his killer squads after opposition figures. Nigerians lived in fear and misery. During this period, Nigeria waded through its darkest phase in history.

The Era of Abdulsalam Abubakar

When Abacha passed on, General Abdulsalam Abubakar came in 1988, managed a fair transition, and set the country up on the path of dreams and hope. On May 29, 1999, a new day dawned when Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was sworn in as the President, having won the General Elections under the People Democratic Party (PDP), for a four year term which terminated in year 2003.

Again, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo mounted the saddle again for a second term as Nigeria’s elected civilian President after having won the 2003 General Elections under the platform of People Democratic Party. He entered his second term as President on May 29th, 2007, when the baton fell on late President Musa Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua, following a protracted illness, died on May 5th, 2009.

The Era of Goodluck Jonathan

The era of Goodluck Ebele Jonathan became the substantive President after his boss, President Musa Yar’Adua died in 2009. After a successful primary election of his Party, the PDP, Jonathan was thrown up as the flag bearer and Presidential candidate for the 2011 General Elections to which he finally won in a landslide on April 16, 2011. He was sworn in as President of Nigeria on May 29, 2011.

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