The history of Nigeria prior to the beginnings of British administration is sparsely documented, but archaeological evidence indicates that an Iron Age culture was present sometime between 500 BC and AD 200, and agriculture and livestock raising long before then. About the 11th century AD , Yoruba city-states developed in western Nigeria, and some, such as Benin, became powerful kingdoms in later centuries. During medieval times, northern Nigeria had contact with the large kingdoms of the western Sudan (Ghana, Mali, and Songhai) and with countries of the Mediterranean across the Sahara. Islamic influence was firmly established by the end of the 15th century, and Kano was famous not only as a center of Islamic studies but also as a great commercial entrepôt of the western Sudan. Until the arrival of the British, northern Nigeria was economically oriented toward the north and east, and woven cloth and leatherwork were exported as far as the North African ports of the Mediterranean. At the beginning of the 19th century, a jihad, or holy war, led by a Fulani sheikh, Uthman dan Fodio, established Fulani rule over the surviving Hausa kingdoms, until the British conquest at the end of the century.
In the south, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish close relations with the coastal people. In the late 15th century, they established a depot to handle trade goods and slaves from Benin. The Portuguese monopoly was broken after a century, and other European nations participated in the burgeoning slave trade. The British abolished slave trading in 1807, and thereafter-British policy was directed at enforcing that ban on other nations. Interest in legitimate commerce developed slowly, but the discovery of the mouth of the Niger in 1830 provided an important impetus. The extension of British influence over Nigeria was gradual and, initially at least, unplanned. In 1861, the British annexed the island of Lagos, an important center of palm oil trade, and thereafter, they gradually extended their influence over the adjacent mainland of Yorubaland.
In 1887, British influence over the eastern coast, which had been promoted since 1849 by consular agents, was regularized by the establishment of the Oil Rivers Protectorate. This too was gradually extended inland and became the Niger Coast Protectorate in 1894. The acquisition of the interior of Nigeria, however, was accomplished largely by Sir George Goldie, founder of the Royal Niger Company, who by 1885 had eliminated commercial competition on the Niger and, by claiming treaties with responsible African authorities, had secured recognition of British influence over the Niger Basin by the European powers at the Berlin Conference. This influence was more fancied than real, but it provided the basis for British rule over northern Nigeria, which was consolidated by a series of punitive expeditions culminating in the establishment of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria in 1900.
The separate administrative units were finally amalgamated in 1914 into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria, with Sir Frederick Lugard as governor-general. Despite the ostensible unification, the administrative individuality of the three separate regions—North, East, and West—was maintained. The chief characteristic of British rule in Nigeria was its system of local administration, known as indirect rule. The success of the system depended on fairly centralized hierarchical political units. It functioned well in the North, with variable success in the West, and poorly in the East.
After World War II, increasing pressures for self-government resulted in a succession of short-lived constitutions. The constitution of 1954 established a federal form of government, greatly extending the functions of the regional governments. A constitutional conference of May and June 1957 decided upon immediate self-government for the Eastern and Western regions, the Northern to follow in 1959. The step from self-government to independence was quickly taken. On 1 October 1960, Nigeria became a fully independent member of the British Commonwealth, and on 1 October 1963 it became a republic. Nnamdi Azikiwe was elected the first president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Internal disorders, which began in 1962 and were caused mainly by regional resentment over the domination of the federal government by Northern elements, culminated in a military coup on 15 January 1966. Organized by a group of Eastern junior army officers, the coup led to the deaths of the federal prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa; the prime minister of the Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello; and the prime minister of the Western Region, Chief S. L. Akintola. By 17 January, Maj. Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, commander-in-chief of the army, had suppressed the revolt and assumed supreme power. He suspended the constitution and dissolved the legislature, established a military government, and appointed military governors to replace the popularly elected civilian governors in the regions. On 29 July 1966, mutinous elements in the army, largely Northern army officers, staged a countercoup, killed Gen. Ironsi, and replaced him with Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon as head of the military government. The July coup led to the massacre of thousands of Easterners residing in the Northern Region and to the exodus of more than 1 million persons (mostly Ibos) to the Eastern Region.
On 28 May 1967, Col. Gowon assumed emergency powers as head of the Federal Military Government and announced the division of the country into 12 states; 6 states were formed from the Northern Region; 3 states from the Eastern Region; and the Mid-West, Western, and Lagos areas became separate states. Rejecting the realignment, Eastern Region leaders announced on 30 May the independent Republic of Biafra, with Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu as head of state. On 6 July, the federal government declared war on the fledgling republic. By the time the war ended, on 12 January 1970, Biafra had been reduced to about one-tenth of its original 78,000-sq-km (30,000-sq-mi) area, and a million or more persons had perished, many of disease and starvation. Following the surrender, many Ibos returned to their former positions in Lagos, and Gen. Gowon's military regime sought to rehabilitate the three Eastern states as quickly as possible.
In October 1970, with the civil war behind him, Gen. Gowon set 1976 as the target date for Nigeria's return to civilian rule. Political change came slowly, however, and in October 1974, Gowon announced an indefinite postponement in plans for the transfer of power. The regime's recalcitrance in this and other areas, including its failure to check the power of the state governors and to reduce the general level of corruption, led to Gowon's overthrow on 29 July 1975. His successor, Brig. Murtala Ramat Muhammad, moved vigorously in dismissing inefficient and corrupt officials and in establishing an ombudsman commission. One of his plans was to establish a new capital territory in the center of the country, at Abuja. On 13 February 1976, Muhammad was assassinated in the course of an abortive insurgency. He was replaced as head of the government by the former chief of staff of the armed forces, Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, who pledged to carry on his predecessor's program. In March 1976, a decree established a 19-state federation. Political party activity was again permitted in late 1978, and a new constitution took effect on 1 October 1979, the day Alhaji Shehu Shagari took office as president. Leader of the conservative National Party of Nigeria, he also had the support of the Nigerian People's Party (NPP), led by former president Azikiwe. The NPP withdrew its support in 1981, leaving Shagari at the head of a minority government. In August 1983, Shagari won reelection to a second term as president; in late December, however, he was ousted in a military coup.
The new military regime, led by Maj.-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, provoked growing public dissatisfaction because of its increasingly authoritarian character, and a military coup on 27 August 1985 brought Maj.-Gen. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida to power. Assuming the title of president, Babangida banned Second Republic (1979–83) officials from participation in politics for 10 years. A return to full civilian rule was pledged by 1992, with local elections on a nonparty basis, the creation of a constituent assembly, the establishment of no more than two political parties, state elections, a national census, and finally presidential elections. The first step in the process—local elections on 12 December 1987—were marred by irregularities. To deal with Nigeria's economic troubles, stemming from the fall of world oil prices in the 1980s, Babangida inaugurated a "homegrown" Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) prompted by the IMF but not directed by them. It involved cuts in public spending, decreased state control over the economy, stimulation of exports, devaluation of the currency, and rescheduling of debt. Yet, government's own budgetary excesses undermined the SAP.
A mostly elected Constituent Assembly met in 1988 and approved modifications in the 1979 constitution. The process of party formation proved awkward in a society as heterogeneous as Nigeria's. None of the 13 potential parties gained Babangida's approval. Instead, he decided to create two new parties, one "a little to the right" of center, another "a little to the left." Neither challenged government effectively.
Babangida's guided transitional program from military to a democratic civilian Third Republic was scheduled to be completed in 1992. But, despite growing prodemocracy demands, it was marked by crisis after crisis. Clashes between Muslims and Christians in 1991 and 1992 spread through northern cities. Hundreds were killed in the rioting itself and then by the army seeking to contain the riots.
In elections for state governors and assemblies, the National Republican Convention (NRC) won 13 of 30 assemblies and 16 governorships. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) carried 17 and 14, respectively. But voter indifference and fear of intimidation was high. When state governments took office, intraparty wrangling and political violence marred their performance.
Nonetheless, by January 1992, Nigerians geared up for the national presidential and legislative elections scheduled for later in the year. Nigeria's first successful census since independence (results announced in March 1992) indicated a population of 88.5 million, some 20 million fewer than estimated. The election register had to be revised downward, from 70 million to 39 million voters. On 20 May 1992, the government banned all political, religious, and ethnic organizations other than the two approved political parties.
Legislative elections were conducted on 4 July and the SDP won 47 of the 91 Senate seats and 310 of the 593 seats in the House of Representatives. The NRC won 37 and 267 seats, respectively. The ruling military council pushed back the transition date until January 1993 and postponed the inauguration of the National Assembly to coincide with the establishment of the Third Republic.
In August and September, the country began the process of narrowing the field of presidential candidates from 20 to 2 in preparation for the December elections. But on 17 November 1992, Babangida announced a third delay in the transfer of power from 2 January until 27 August 1993. Political violence and charges of electoral fraud disrupted the first round of presidential primaries. The second round in September was flawed, too. Faced with a virtual breakdown of the electoral machinery, the military council suspended the primary results in October. All 23 of the presidential aspirants were banned from future political competition. These disruptions were compounded by high levels of student and labor unrest, detentions of dissidents, and ethnic and religious fighting. Nonetheless, the military council had promised civilian government in 1993.
A new round of presidential nominations took place in March 1993. Chief M.K.O. Abiola (SDP) and Alhaji Bashir Tofay (NRC), both Muslim businessmen with ties to Babangida, won nomination. The presidential election of 12 June took place amid a flurry of legal efforts to halt it and great voter confusion. Abiola apparently defeated Tofa handily, 58.4% to 41.6% according to unofficial results.
But the National Electoral Commission set aside the results on 16 June and Babangida annulled the election a week later citing irregularities, poor turnout, and legal complications. Abiola, backed largely by the Yoruba people, demanded to be certified as president-elect. Civil unrest, especially in Lagos, followed.
After weeks of uncertainty and tension, Babangida resigned the presidency and his military commission on 26 August 1993. He handpicked a transitional council headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan. By mid-November, Gen. Sani Abacha forced Shonekan to resign and he installed himself as head of state. On 18 November 1993, he abolished all state and local governments and the national legislature. He replaced many civilian officials with military commanders. He banned political parties and all political activity and ordered strikers to return to work. The following week, he named an 11-member Provisional Ruling Council composed mainly of generals and police officials. He also created a 32-member Federal Executive Council to head government ministries. It included prominent civilians and some prodemocracy and human rights activists.
On 11 June 1994, Abiola proclaimed himself president and then went into hiding. He was arrested later that month, an action that portended much that was to come for Nigeria. Massive protests followed Abiola's arrest, but Abacha's military repressed the demonstrators violently. On 6 July Abiola pleaded not guilty to three counts of treason; the following day laborers went on strike to protest the Abacha regime. In the following months millions of Nigerian workers reportedly walked out in support of Abiola and refused to attend scheduled government talks. Abiola remained in prison through June 1996, when his outspoken wife Kudirat Abiola was assassinated. Strikes and protests continued on Abiola's behalf.
In August, the General fired his army and navy commanders. Two weeks later he banned several newspapers, declaring that his government had absolute power and would not give in to prodemocracy demonstrators. Late in September, claiming that it was part of his plan to "rejuvenate the machinery of government," Abacha removed all civilians from his ruling council. Three months later he suspended habeas corpus and continued to round up and jail opponents. At the same time he rejected a court order demanding the release of Abiola from prison for medical treatment. In March 1995 Abacha ordered the arrest of former Nigerian leader Olusegun Obasanjo on suspicion of treason. Later in the month he dissolved labor unions and jailed their leaders. On 25 April Abacha canceled a 1 January 1996 deadline for the return of civilian rule and refused to discuss the matter. Though he lifted a ban on political parties in June 1995, Abacha placed tight restrictions on their operations. The July convictions in secret trials of 40 suspected traitors brought international condemnation and demands of leniency from critics of the Nigerian government. Ultimately Abacha relented on 1 October, commuting the death sentences of his convicted opponents and declaring that he would relinquish power to an elected government in 1998.
Despite these promises, many outside observers remained skeptical, largely due to fallout from the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa, leader of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People. Sentenced to death in October 1995 for a quadruple murder, many believed that Saro-Wiwa had been convicted on trumpedup charges stemming from his opposition to a proposed drilling agreement in Nigeria's main oil-producing region. The executions in early November of Saro-Wiwa and eight others brought a torrent of criticism from the international community and resulted in Nigeria's suspension from the British Commonwealth and an embargo from the European Union on arms and aid to Nigeria. Bowing to this pressure, the Abacha government amended in May 1996 the law under which Saro-Wiwa and the others had been convicted and offered to hold talks on the matter with the UK.
Abacha announced efforts in November 1996 to spur economic change and raise living standards in the country, a pronouncement met with skepticism by an increasingly angry opposition. By December, opponents of the government detonated two bombs aimed at Col. Mohammed Marwa, head of the Nigerian military. Col. Marwa escaped both attacks.
In April 1998 four of Nigeria's five major political parties nominated Abacha as their presidential candidate. Amid opposition accusations that the transition plan was designed to prolong Abacha's rule, legislative elections held on 25 April were heavily boycotted. Nigeria's political fortunes changed suddenly on 8 June when Abacha died of an apparent heart attack. General Abdoulsalami Abubakar took charge and promised to continue Abacha's transition. On 7 July Abiola died of heart failure while still in custody.
On 20 July General Abubakar announced a new plan for return to civilian rule culminating in a transfer of power in May 1999. On 5 December local council elections took place with three parties qualifying to move on to state and national elections by winning 5% of the vote in 24 of 36 states. On 11 January 1999 elections for state governorships and legislatures were held.
Elections for president and the national legislature were held on 27 February 1999. Obasanjo (PDP) won the presidential elections with 62% of the vote, Olu Falae received 38%, and the All Peoples Party (APP) was unable to settle on a presidential candidate. Despite Falae's charges of election rigging, international observers from the Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute reported no evidence that electoral abuses changed the overall results. In April Olu Falae closed his case against Obasanjo after a federal appeals court in Abuja rejected two pleas. Power was handed over officially to the new government in May. Twenty heads of state attended Obasanjo's inauguration on 4 June.
Obasanjo's agenda includes restoration of law and order, fighting corruption, and unifying Nigeria's ethnically and religiously diverse peoples. The Federal Government increased the oil-producing states' share of revenue from 3% to 13%. However, these states were demanding a 50% share, and the increase may not resolve disputes over local ownership, control of resources, and embezzlement. In 1999, Nigeria was second on Transparency International's list of most corrupt countries (Cameroon was first). Some $700 million assets of Abacha and his associates had been frozen in Swiss bank accounts.
In 1999 fighting in the Delta region killed several hundred people while outbreaks of fighting between Yorubas and Hausa in the area of Lagos resulted in hundreds more deaths. The Igbo have demanded reparations of $87 billion for the 1967–70 civil war. In February 2000, days of violent clashes between Muslims and Christians killed as many as 750 persons (mostly Igbo Christians, other south easterners and some Yorubas) in Kaduna, and destroyed several churches and mosques following announcements that a fuller or full application of Islamic law, Shari'ah, would be introduced in Zamfara and at least five other northern states. The code includes punishments such as flogging and amputation, and in principle only affects Muslims, but has caused great consternation among non-Muslims.
In June and July 2001, between 100 and 200 people were killed in Nasarawa state in fighting between the Tiv and other ethnic groups. In October, more than 200 villagers were killed by the army in the east-central state of Benue in retaliation for the murder of 19 soldiers amid fighting between the Tiv and Junkun. From 7–13 September 2001 in the central city of Jos, a total of 915 lives were lost in inter-communal violence between Muslims and Christians, although the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch described the conflict as more political and economic than religious.
On 27 January 2002, more than 1,000 people died as a result of a series of explosions at an army munitions dump in Lagos. Many of the victims fell into a canal and drowned as they tried to leave the northern neighborhood of Ikeja. In February, some 100 people were killed in Lagos in ethnic clashes between Yorubas and Hausa. Thousands fled their homes. In November, more than 200 people were killed in riots between Muslims and Christians in Kaduna, following the publication of a newspaper article suggesting that the prophet Mohammed would have wished to marry one of the Miss World contestants competing in that beauty pageant to be held in Abuja on 7 December. The pageant was subsequently moved to London. Also in November, the Nigerian government stated that it would intervene to save the life of Amina Lawal, a 30-year old woman sentenced to death by stoning after she was found guilty in a Shari'ah court of having had extra-marital sex. Her case provoked large-scale protests from the international community.
In October 2002, the International Court of Justice ruled in favor of Cameroon in its territorial dispute with Nigeria over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula. Fighting between the two countries over the region broke out in 1994, at which point Cameroon requested a world court ruling on the border dispute. The decision cannot be appealed.
Nigerians, once dominated by the military, have become disappointed in the civilian rule initiated in 1999, due to the increasing poverty, ethnic strife, religious intolerance, declining standards in health and education, and a stagnant economy. From 1999 until the end of 2002, approximately 10,000 Nigerians were killed in political and sectarian violence. Presidential elections due on 19 April 2003 are seen to be critical in moving the country forward. It was hoped that the first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power since independence was achieved in 1960 would be successful.