The Nigerian Political System

The Nigerian Political System

The geographical area that is known as Nigeria today is a composition of divergent ethnic groups, tribes, dissenting cultures, and like the rest of the African world, varying religious traditions. Yet, by the amalgamation act of 1914, it came to be known and referred to as the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The present political situation of Nigeria is infected with myriads of problems, a sign of weak foundation and invariably weak superstructure made worse by bad leadership and administration.

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Going by the history of her experiences and external influences, Nigeria has gone through a lot of periods, which taken together will give the clearest view of whatever contemporary issue about her that is being studied. As a result, the Nigerian political system has gone through many changes in government since the so-called Independence of October 1, 1960.That Nigeria has not got an adequate political system is evidently clear, well substantiated by the daily events. But to evolve a true political system for the country, recourse has to be made to the manner in which Nigeria came into being for a possible political redress. This is how we shall approach the subject matter of this research.


In terms of modern political state, Nigeria was a result of British imperial adventure and ambition. However, what really existed in this part of West Africa were a number of independent ethnic nationalities or ethnic groups. These nationalities had lived politically and geographically separate from one another and in some cases linguistically and culturally different.[1]

Therefore, there was nothing like Nigeria in the pre-British era of the Nigerian history. The name Nigeria is itself an English coinage suggested by Flora Shaw, who later became Lady Lord F. Lugard, to describe the various British protectorates in the Niger-Delta area. However, for an easy flow of our discourse, we shall make use of the name “Nigeria” in all periods of our history.

It is estimated that Nigeria is composed of about 250 ethno-linguistic groups, which lived as independent kingdoms. Among these ethnic groups were the Yoruba nation, the Igbo nation and the Hausa- Fulani nation as major ethnic groups. There were other ethnic minority groups like the Tiv, Nupe, Igala, Gwari, Ijo, Itsekiri, Efik, Ibibio, Annang, Eket, Oron, and a host of others. According to D. Chukwu, some of the ethnic nationalities were of old antiquity with evidence of thousands of years of existence before the coming of British colonialism.[2] There existed also kingdoms like Oyo, Lagos, Calabar, Borno, Sokoto, Bonny, Opobo, e.t.c. There were functional groups and organizations traditionally used as the government of the people to administer justice and ensure the unity and peace of the various ethnic groups or kingdoms.

The independent existence of the ethnic groups was not limitless. No, it had limit. In terms of economic and social relations, they had related with one another. Trade relations, for instance, as D.O. Chukwu reports, between the EfiK and the Mbembe, and other ethnic nationalities of the Ogoja province were known to have been facilitated through the Cross River basins.[3] These relations continued until the Colonial governors brought in division by inducing disunity for fear of the people forming a sort of amalgam of strong tribes in order to drive them away.[4]

The ethnic groups had their distinct traditional systems of administration before the contact with the West through colonialism. For instance, the Hausa- Fulani had the Emirate system, the Yorubas had the Oba system, while the Igbos developed and used the village system, typical of today’s democratic set up. It was these groups that were, on the imposition of the colonial rule, merged to produce the modern Nigerian state not minding the diversity of their cultural inclinations. One can immediately begin to visualize the genesis of the Nigerian political instability.

In the colonial era, it was all exploitation; the welfare to the people was given a thought only when it would benefit the colonial administrators. Of course, this is no welfare at all. It was mere display of colonial egoistic altruism. Although the people were suffering, they were helpless. However, there was a growing tension between the British and the educated Nigerians, which later metamorphosed into the powerful nationalist movement that fought for the Independence. Added to this, the period of the World War 11 quickened the fires of nationalism in Nigeria. The Nigerian servicemen, fighting alongside their British masters, experienced other peoples and systems of government. On coming back, they told their villages about the new idea of democracy and self-government they had seen and heard discussed.[5] The efforts of these nationalists – Zik, Awolowo, Tafawa Balewa, Herbert Marcaulay e.t.c, secured Nigeria self-rule in 1960.


            Nationalist agitation began to grow in the 1930s in Nigeria and was given a boost by the events of the Second World War. The colonial administrators, being sensitive to the indications of the wind of change, decided to give up their rule and allow Nigerians self-rule.

At independence in 1960, Nigerians were allowed to participate in the administration of their country although not fully. The British were still in control and we continued to pay allegiance to the Queen of England. Even our own president, Rt. Hon. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was mere ceremonial president. It was not until 1963 when Nigeria became a Republic that we were allowed to have full control of our national affairs. With independence, Nigeria embarked upon a democratic British pattern of politics both at the center and in the regions. Under the 1960 (Independence) and 1963 (Republican) constitutions, a federal system of political administration was instituted.

However, the unity of Nigeria could not be sustained given the fact that the nationalist leaders began to overtly and covertly revive ethnic chauvinism. Apparently, they started well, but not long after, they began to be politicized, regionalized and ethnicised. Even so, one would recall that the political parties that were operational and that sought for power from the colonial hands, ‘followed ethnic, not national lines’. In the North, the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) was comprised of Hausa – Fulani. The West’s Action Group (AG) was Yoruba and in the East, the Ibos dominated the National Council For Nigeria And Cameroon (NCNC).[6] As a result, Nigeria till date has remained unstable, swerving from one regime/administration and system to the other. It has been a long period of the trial – and – error self –government in Nigeria.


The history of Nigeria, 45 years as an independent state, has witnessed several ugly events in her leadership process and administration. In general, eleven regimes have passed through the corridors of power; a whole lot of eight being military and only three were civilians. Records of coups and counter coups also graced the nation blessed with rich human and natural resources.

With the Independence, Nigeria stepped into the first Republic. This lasted from 1960 to January 15, 1966 with Abubaka Tafawa Balewa as the Federal Prime Minister and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as the President. At this time, the country was still divided into the three regions, which the colonial masters decreed. Balewa was too weak to manage the country and so his rule was fraught with problems and managerial inadequacies. As it were, the candidates from NPC and NCNC coalition dominated the Federal Government. However, the NPC focused on the problems of the North and favoured Islamism. The NCNC were nationalists, Christians and populists. This brought in the initial friction coupled with the opposition of the AG. Internal squabbles between the prime minister and the President worsened until the army came in to restore order, on January 15, 1966.

Thus, Aguiyi Ironsi headed the first military government, from May – July 1966. Ironsi and his advisors favoured a unitary form of government, which they thought would eliminate the problems of regionalism. The Decree Number 34 of 1966 issued by Ironsi annulled the Federal system of government and substituted it with a unitary system. The northerners feared that given their poor development pace compared with the South, a unitary system will give the southerners an upper hand. They launched a counter coup, which saw Ironsi and many others dead. Then Gowon came to power.

The Gowon regime came under fire owing to the widespread scandal and corruption at every level of the national life. In 1975, there were signs that Gowon was not prepared to fulfill his promise of transition to Civilian rule. A bloodless coup was conducted and he was deposed while attending the OAU (now AU) summit in Kampala, Uganda. Gerneral Murtala Mohammed, 1975-1976, headed the third military government. The regime took actions on issues Gowon was too weak to act upon and redressed his (Gowon’s) excesses. Significantly, he introduced the “low profile” policy, a radical departure from the ostentation of the Gowon era. It was the decision of the General to do away with the elaborate security system of the Gowon era that cost him his life as he was killed on Feb. 13, 1976.

The appearance of Obasanjo as the fourth military head of state was quite eventful as he armed himself with the courage to restore the life of Nigerians. He championed the growth of agriculture, expansion of education, growth in petroleum production and embarked on numerous economic and constitutional reform programmes. As Obasanjo retired in 1979, Shehu Shagari was elected under the new democratic constitution. This marked the second Republic of Nigeria. The regime adopted the American- style executive presidential system as against the parliamentary system of the first Republic. But the government could not last because it squandered and stole the riches of the Nigerian people until the soldiers, who looted and destroyed what was left, overthrew it four years later. Muhammedu Buhari took over power in 1983 and held it till 1985. Faced with the problem of how to do away with the foreign debt, the regime introduced austerity measures. Gradually, it became increasingly authoritarian and proved unable to tackle the Nigerian severe economic problems. It was peacefully overthrown in 1985 and Babangida became the 6th military head of state. This was the most agonizing regime in the history of Nigeria and corruption was enthroned in the polity. Babangida appeared too terrible for Nigerians but the annullement of the June 12, 1993 general elections, which became the aborted third Republic of Nigeria, saw him out of office.

Babangida was equally replaced by another fierce monster as head of state, Gen. Sani Abacha. On Nov. 17, 1993, Abacha seized power from Ernest Shonekan and installed himself as the new leader. Abacha dismissed all his enemies from office, military as well as civilians, so as to ensure that his government was secured. He never thought of handing over power, rather he was bent on self-succession. But the election could not be concluded and the dictator died suddenly on June 8, 1998. General Abdusalami Abubakar was appointed as the head of state. Gen. Abubakar successfully handed over power to civilian administrators in May 1999.The third republic saw Gen. Obasanjo as the President. He, who was the fourth military Head of state, now came back as a civilian president. On May 29, 1999, the oath of office was administered to president Obasanjo. His second term in office will expire in 2007.

Such has been the Nigerian trial- and- error; change of policy and instability of administration. The dominance of the nation’s leadership by the military is the greatest obstacle to the survival and sanity of the nation. In the same way, the experiences of the civil wars from 1967-1970, together with the annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections, dealt the nation the heaviest blows. Even with the installation of the long-hoped- for civilian rule, it is not all over. There is no distinct segment of the administration that is functionally sound and the polity is fraught with problems.


Since her political Independence in 1960, Nigeria is plagued by many problems – political, economic, cultural, social and otherwise. Actually, this makes people doubt the authenticity and the real autonomy of the country. The fact of the foregoing is made clearer when one recalls the satirical publication of Chinua Achebe in 1983 – The Trouble With Nigeria. It leaves one dumbfounded at the realization of the series of problems that face Nigeria and Nigerians as Achebe articulated in his work. In any case, the gravity of the situation is better assessed through conscious experience of the nation than mere narration. Nevertheless, we shall identify and discuss the problems under cultural alienation, corruption and inauthenticity.

[1] cf. Obafemi Awolowo, Path to Nigerian Freedom (London: Faber, 1947), pp. 47-48.

[2] D. O. Chukwu, An Introduction To Nigeria Political (Enugu: Rhema Publ., 2000), p. 8

[3] Ibid., P. 7

[4] cf O. I. Anyabolu, Nigeria: Past to the Present (Enugu: Classic Publ. Co. Ltd., 2000), p. 26

[5] O.I. Anyabolu, Op. Cit., p. 97

[6] Ibid., p. 102

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