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[Published: Monday November 01 2010]

 Nigeria at 50: challenges persist

 Having lurched from one military coup to another, Nigeria now has an elected government but as it celebrates half a century of independence the country still faces the challenge of not breaking apart along ethnic and religious lines, writes Franklin Adesegha

 On October 1, 1960, Nigeria gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Newly independent, Nigeria's government was a coalition of conservative parties: the Nigerian People's Congress (NPC), a party dominated by Northerners and those of the Islamic faith, and the Igbo and Christian dominated National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) led by the late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, who became Nigeria's maiden Governor-General in 1960.

Forming the opposition was the comparatively liberal Action Group (AG), which was largely dominated by the Yoruba and led by the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. An imbalance was created in 1961 when Southern Cameroon opted to join the Republic of Cameroon while northern Cameroon chose to remain in Nigeria. The northern part of the country was now far larger than the southern part. Nigeria parted company with a British Governor-General representing Queen Elizabeth as head of state in 1963 by declaring itself a Federal Republic, with Azikiwe as its first president. When elections came about in 1965, the AG was outmanoeuvred for control of Nigeria's Western Region by the Nigerian National Democratic Party, an amalgamation of conservative Yoruba elements backed heavily by the Federal Government amid dubious electoral circumstances.

The perceived corruption of the electoral and political process led in 1966 to several back-to-back military coups. The first was in January and led by a collection of young leftists under Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu.  The coup plotters murdered the Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Premier of the Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, and the Premier of the Western Region, Sir Ladoke Akintola.

After failing to set up a central government, the coup plotters pressured Sir Nwafor Orizu, the acting President to hand over government to the Nigeria Army, under the Command of General J.T.U. Aguyi-Ironsi.

The coup was counter-acted by another successful plot, primarily by Northern military officers and Northerners who favoured the NPC. Lt Colonel Yakubu Gowon became head of state. Ethnic tension and violence increased and the violence against the Igbo increased their desire for autonomy and protection from the military. By May 1967, the Eastern Region had declared itself an independent state called the Republic of Biafra under the leadership of Lt Colonel Emeka Ojukwu. The Nigerian Civil War began as the Nigerian (Western and Northern) side attacked Biafra (South-eastern) on July 6, 1967 signalling the beginning of the 30-month war that ended in January 1970. More than one million people died in the three-year conflict.

Following the war, Nigeria became even more mired in ethnic strife, as the defeated southeast and indeed southern Nigeria was now conquered territory for the federal military regime, which changed heads of state twice, as army officers staged a bloodless coup against Gowon and enthroned Murtala Mohammed; Olusegun Obansanjo became head of state following the assassination of Murtala Mohammed.

During the oil boom of the 1970s, Nigeria joined the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and billions of dollars generated by production in the oil-rich Niger Delta flowed into the coffers of the government. However, increasing corruption and graft at all levels of government squandered most of these earnings.

As oil production and revenue rose, the Nigerian government became increasingly dependent on oil revenues and the international commodity markets for budgetary and economic concerns.

In 1979, Nigerians participated in a brief return to democracy when Obasanjo transferred power to the civilian regime of Shehu Shagari. The Shagari government was viewed as corrupt and incompetent by virtually all sectors of the Nigerian society, so when the regime was overthrown by the military coup of Mohammadu Buhari shortly after the regime's re-election in 1983, it was generally viewed as a positive development by most of the population. Buhari promised major reforms but his government fared little better than its predecessor, and his regime was overthrown by yet another military coup in 1985 led by Ibrahim Babangida.

Babangida promptly declared himself President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and the ruling Supreme Military Council and also set 1990 as the official deadline for a return to democratic governance. Babangida's tenure was marked by a flurry of political activities: he instituted the International Monetary Fund's Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) to aid in the repayment of the country's crushing international debt, which most federal revenue was dedicated to servicing. He also inflamed religious tensions in the nation and particularly the south by enrolling Nigeria in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

After Babangida survived an abortive coup, he pushed back the promised return to democracy to 1992. When free and fair elections were finally held on the 12 June 1993, Babangida declared null and void the results showing a presidential victory for Moshood Abiola, sparking mass civilian violence in protest which effectively shut down the country for weeks and forced Babangida to keep his shaky promise to relinquish office to a civilian run government. Babangida's caretaker regime headed by Ernest Shonekan survived only until late 1993 when General Sani Abacha took power in another military coup. Abacha proved to be perhaps Nigeria's most brutal ruler and employed violence on a wide scale to suppress the continuing pandemic of civilian unrest. Money had been found in various banks in western European countries were traced to him. The regime came to an end in 1998 when Abacha was found dead in mysterious circumstances. In 1999 Nigeria elected Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military head of state, as the new president ending almost 33 years of military rule (from 1966 until 1999) excluding the short-lived second republic (between 1979 and 1983).

Although the elections, which brought Obasanjo into power in 1999 and again in 2003, were condemned as not free and fair, Nigeria has shown marked improvements in attempts to tackle government corruption and to hasten development. In 2007, Umaru Yar'Adua of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) came to power in an election condemned by the international community as being massively flawed.

Yar'Adua died on 5 May 2010. His deputy Dr Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in as Yar'Adua's successor the following day, making him Nigeria's 14th head of state.

Corruption, violence in the oil-producing Niger Delta region and inadequate infrastructure are some of the current issues facing the country. So intense is the ethnic violence that as the country marked 50 years of independence, the militant group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) claimed, responsibility for bomb blasts that killed at least seven people in Abuja during the celebrations.

There is also the issue of presidential, gubernatorial and legislative elections scheduled for early next year. After months of speculation, Jonathan has confirmed that he will contest, saying the decision had been taken “after wide and thorough consultations”. Jonathan is the first president from Nigeria’s southern, hailing from the oil producing Delta region. Under an unwritten rule, the PDP candidate in 2011 should be from the largely Muslim north, rather than the mainly Christian and animist south.  Babangida’s entry into the race may have complicated matters for Jonathan as his other northern rivals, including former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, prepare to field a formidable candidate from the north.

Whoever triumphs will be in charge of mapping the start of the next 50 years of Africa’s most populous country. It definitely will not be an easy task. But a leader, who looks after the interests of ordinary Nigerians, rather than the tiny elite responsible for the country’s woes, can eventually make things work for Nigeria


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