Federal Republic of Nigeria

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Federal Republic of Nigeria

Type of Government

Nigeria is a federal republic with a popularly elected president—who serves as head of state, commander of the armed forces, and head of government—assisted by a vice president and an executive cabinet. The legislature’s two independent chambers, whose members represent constituencies in the nation’s thirty-six states and the federal capital, cooperate to develop laws and approve budgets. The judicial branch is led by the Supreme Court, with justices appointed by the president upon approval of the legislators.


Archaeological surveys of Nigeria indicate that tribal societies occupied the region from at least 2000 BC. By the ninth century BC many of the native tribes had coalesced into agricultural societies on the Jos Plateau. Through immigration and military conquest, they gradually came under the control of a series of powerful kingdoms.

In the sixteenth century the Kanem-Bornu Kingdom, which originated around Lake Chad in the ninth century, controlled what is now eastern Nigeria. The Kanem-Bornu adopted Islam in the thirteenth century and, by the fifteenth century, were trading slaves and other commodities along the trans–Saharan trade routes. The Benin Kingdom, which controlled the central forests and the southern coast, was the first of the Nigerian kingdoms to be visited by Portuguese explorers, who arrived in the fifteenth century. Benin society, which had highly developed artistic and sculptural traditions, was dominated by spiritual rituals. Stories of those rituals, including tales of human sacrifice, spread throughout Europe and fueled the perception that African societies were “uncivilized.”

In the sixteenth century Portuguese, British, French, and Dutch traders began purchasing slaves from merchants operating on the coast. In the following centuries millions of native Nigerians were captured and shipped to the colonies of the European powers.

In 1804 Usuman dan Fodio (1754–1817), a Muslim reformer from the Fulani tribal group, began a holy war to unite the tribes in northern Nigeria. He and his followers had eclipsed the Kanem-Bornu by 1809 and became the leaders of the Islamic slave trade from their capital city, Sokoto. By the mid nineteenth century the Fulani and the Benin were the most powerful states in the country.

After the British abolished slavery in 1807, they engaged in diplomatic and military efforts to disrupt the slave trade. For example, in the 1840s British negotiators met with leaders in the coastal city of Lagos, which had become the most active port in the Nigerian slave market. When negotiations proved unsuccessful, the British invaded and captured the city in 1851. Within forty years Britain controlled the coast and had begun to negotiate with the Benin, who controlled the central region. Britain’s aim was to “civilize” the Benin by persuading them to prohibit slavery and human sacrifice. When the Benin captured and killed a diplomatic detachment from Britain, the British army invaded Benin territory and toppled the monarchy.

In Lagos and Benin the British concentrated on developing an export industry while simultaneously conducting military expeditions into the northern parts of the region. The British army captured Sokoto in 1903, thereby subduing the last major kingdom in Nigeria. During the next decade the British established a colonial administration that maintained tribal and ethnic leaders under the supervision of appointed governors.

The British slowly improved—and urbanized—the infrastructure of Nigeria and developed the agricultural industry. Though Nigerian nationalists occasionally surfaced and engaged in protests, the British were able to restrain the population through economic incentives and a carefully metered system of reforms. In the 1920s the British allowed limited native representation in local governments and promoted foreign education for natives. In 1951 the British promulgated a new constitution that provided a timeline for full independence. Constitutional revisions in 1954 and 1956 divided the territory into three semiautonomous regions, each led by a territorial parliament.

Between 1951 and 1959 the British supervised the development of the nation’s first political parties, divided along regional and ethnic lines. Three major parties emerged: the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), the Action Group (AC), and the Northern People’s Congress (NPC). When elections were held in 1959, none of the major parties won a controlling majority, so the NCNC and NPC formed a coalition government. Nigeria officially gained its independence in 1960 and became a representative republic.

Government Structure

In 1999, after decades of intermittent military control, Nigeria adopted constitutional reforms that reinstated a civilian government. It operates as a federal republic, with governmental powers divided between executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

Nigeria is divided into thirty-six states and one federally administered capital region. Within each state, residents elect a chief executive, or governor, who serves a four-year term and can stand for re-election. In addition, each state has a single legislative chamber, known as the State Assembly. The states are further divided into a total of 774 local government areas, or LGAs, each of which has a council headed by an elected chairman.

At the federal level, the president is popularly elected for a maximum of two terms of four years and serves as head of state, head of government, and leader of the armed forces. The president is assisted and advised by a vice president, who is also a leading member of the legislature, and a Federal Executive Council, or cabinet. Its ministers are appointed by the president from a list of candidates submitted by the legislature. The president has the power to create legislative and budget proposals, declare emergency and military actions, and to call for the dissolution of the legislature in cases of governmental deadlock.

Nigeria’s legislature, known as the National Assembly, is bicameral. The lower chamber, the House of Representatives, has 306 members elected by popular vote. The Senate, or upper chamber, has 109 members, with three elected from each state and one elected from the capital region. Members of both houses serve four-year terms and can stand for re-election.

Legislation may originate in either chamber, but cannot become law until it receives majority votes in both chambers and the consent of the president. The assembly also has the authority to approve presidential appointments, emergency orders, and budgetary proposals.

The Nigerian legal system is based on English law, but twelve states have adopted Islamic law. The state assemblies appoint justices, either secular or Islamic, to serve on state courts. The Supreme Court, the highest body in the federal judiciary, has final authority over all criminal and civil disputes. It consists of a chief justice and not more than twenty-one justices, who are appointed by the president and approved by the legislature.

Below the Supreme Court are the Court of Appeal and the Federal High Court. Members of the Court of Appeal are appointed by the legislature upon the advice of a special judicial advisory committee. The constitution stipulates that three members of the Court of Appeal must have knowledge of Islamic law. The Federal High Court has jurisdiction in all cases involving federal spending and taxation.

Though the 1999 constitution established a balanced governmental system with an independent judiciary, in practice the president exerts significant influence over the operation of the legislature and the courts. From 1999 to 2007 democratic reforms increased multiparty and civilian participation in the government; however, critics repeatedly accused the president of wielding authoritarian power.

Political Parties and Factions

The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is the leading party in Nigeria. Former military leader Olusegun Obasanjo (1937–) became the first PDP president in 1999 and won a second term in 2003, though monitoring agencies noted numerous irregularities in the elections. Umaru Yar’Adua (1951–), the PDP presidential candidate in 2007, reportedly won more than 60 percent of the popular vote, although those elections were also marred by controversy. The PDP is viewed as a socially conservative party, but it also supports moderately liberal economic policies.

The All-Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP) is the second-largest political party and the main opponent of the PDP. In 2003 the ANPP controlled ninety-six seats in the House and twenty-seven seats in the Senate, representing the largest percentage of any minority party. Its candidate, Muhammadu Buhari (1942–), got the second highest number of votes in the 2007 presidential election, approximately 18 percent. The ANPP is known as a radical, conservative party and generally represents the interests of northern Nigerian ethnic groups.

The Action Congress (AC) was formed in 2006 when several minority parties merged. Atiku Abubakar (1946–), the former vice president, was the AC’s presidential candidate in 2007 but was disqualified following allegations of corruption. Abubakar and his supporters accused the PDP party of engineering the disqualification. Unlike other minority parties, the AC refused to join in a coalition with the PDP government after the 2007 elections. The AC party is viewed as the more socially liberal party and focuses primarily on democratic reforms and increasing civilian representation in the government.

Major Events

In 1966 members of the Ibo ethnic group, in eastern Nigeria, rebelled against the ruling government coalition, accusing it of favoring northern Nigeria over the other provinces. The Ibo assault resulted in the deaths of the leaders of all three regional territories; military reprisals led to the death of many Ibo. In 1967 Ibo military leader Chukwuemeka O. Ojukwu (1933–) led the eastern province in seceding from the nation to found the Republic of Biafra.

The federal government refused to acknowledge Ojukwu’s government and threatened to invade. The United States and Britain gave military and financial aid to Nigeria in hopes of preventing disunion. When France agreed to aid Biafra’s independence movement, the conflict quickly escalated into civil war. Between 1967 and 1970 thousands were killed in military engagements, and the situation in Biafra deteriorated as the Nigerian military cut off crucial imports of food and medical supplies. Ojukwu surrendered in 1970 and fled to the Côte d’Ivoire.

Following the civil war Nigeria was led by a military regime under Colonel Yakubu Gowon (1934–), who adopted a policy colloquially known as “No Victor, No Vanquished,” which included measures to reintegrate the Ibo into Nigerian society. At the same time the discovery of oil reserves spurred economic growth and led to an explosion in industrial employment. Gowon slowly adopted democratic reforms but failed to consolidate power over the military, and his regime was overthrown in a bloodless coup led by Murtala Muhammad (1938–1976) in 1975.

Muhammad instituted a four-year plan to restore democracy, but the oil market plummeted, causing a financial crisis that made the population turn against the government. Muhammad was assassinated in 1976 and replaced by Obasanjo. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the Nigerian government was in a state of flux. While the government alternated between civilian and military leadership, legislation and economic initiatives were insufficient to address poverty levels. In the mid 1980s, the government became more authoritarian, restricting all popular demonstrations and arresting thousands of political dissidents.

In the late 1990s, when the government was suspected of assassinating several popular civilian political leaders, protests and demonstrations became more frequent. As the nation appeared close to popular revolt, the military government adopted constitutional reforms and, in 1999, held general elections. Obasanjo, who had relinquished his military title and returned as a civilian candidate, won the 1999 elections to become the twelfth president of Nigeria.

Twenty-First Century

Beginning shortly after the election of Obasanjo in 1999, several northern states declared their adherence to Islamic law, partly in response to Obasanjo’s devout Christianity. Hundreds died in intermittent conflicts between Muslims and Christians; the government was forced to intervene and declare military law. Peace agreements allowed some states to maintain Islamic law, so long as it did not conflict with the federal legal system.

Obasanjo won re-election in 2003, though many believed that the government had corrupted election procedures. In 2006 Obasanjo proposed a constitutional amendment to remove term limits on the presidency. Vice President Abubakar opposed the amendment. When he was chosen as the 2007 presidential candidate for a coalition of opposition parties, Obasanjo attempted to have him removed from the government, citing corruption. Abubakar made counterallegations. Obasanjo’s regime succeeded in barring Abubakar from running in the election, and Yar’Adua, the candidate of Obasanjo’s party, won. International observers, noting irregularities in voting and tabulation, said the elections should be considered invalid.

Smith, Daniel Jordan. A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Tijani, Hakeem Ibikunkle. Nigeria’s Urban History: Past and Present. Lanham: University Press of America, 2006.

Udogu, Emmanuelle Ike. Nigeria in the Twenty-First Century: Strategies for Political Stability and Peaceful Coexistence. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2005.

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Federal Republic of Nigeria