Independence & Modern Political Rule (1960-present)

At independence in 1960, appeals to regional identity, ethnicity, and religion became the most salient means of mobilizing political support. Early nationalists shared a vision of a unified Nigeria, but competition for political power and access to economic resources in an immensely divided state made this impossible. Indeed, not all politicians sought independence—many were afraid of losing power granted to them by the British and therefore resisted a central government. This was especially true of the North, which feared ascendency by the much more economically developed South. In response, northern politicians promoted a shared Islamic identity, while some Middle Belt groups converted to Christianity to resist Islamization and to join a rising Christian political elite. The First Republic was composed of multiple regionally-based parties led by a coalition government headed by Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a passionate advocate for northern interests. He was joined by Ahmadu Bello, who pursued a “One North, One Islam” Islamization policy that endeavored to unify northern Muslims behind an umbrella organization, the Jama’tu Nasril Islam (JNI).[1] The heavy representation of the North in the post-independence government was a result of its massive size, and therefore the greater number of northern politicians in the House of Representatives (174 out of 312), which led to resentment in the south and east. Some Christians felt betrayed that Britain didn’t ensure the ascendency of Christian groups, assuming that as a “Christian” country it would put more weight behind coreligionists’ interests.[2]

This first government was ousted in a bloody military coup in 1966, which members of the JNI perceived as being led by the Christian Igbo, prompting widespread fear in the North that Muslims were being politically disempowered. Violent retaliation against the Igbo ensued, which was a major factor leading to the secession of the largely Igbo Republic of Biafra (it also contained several non‐Igbo ethnic groups in the Southeast), and subsequent civil war that nearly tore the nation apart and killed over a million Nigerians.[3] The civil war was framed by its leader, Lieutenant Colonel—later General—O. C. Ojukwu, as a religious conflict (Christians against hegemonic northern Muslim power). The war devastated the East, with echoes to this day. Following the civil war, Yakubu Gowon, the Chief of Staff of the Army and a Middle Belt Christian, took over Nigeria’s leadership. Over the next thirty years, the Nigerian government passed between various military dictatorships, though some were more inclined towards democracy than others.


Following a decision by the military to annul elections in 1993 General Sani Abacha, a northern Muslim), seized power. General Abacha’s time in office is remembered as one of the worst periods in contemporary Nigerian history; his government was accused of corruption and various human rights violations, perhaps the most notable being the hanging of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, an important figure in the protest movement against multinational oil companies (in particular the Royal Dutch Shell Group) for their exploitation of the Niger Delta. Following Abacha’s death in 1998, Nigeria’s Defense Chief of Staff Major General Abdulsalami Abubakar stepped in and announced a transition to democracy. In 1999 former military leader and People’s Democratic Party member Olusegun Obasanjo (a Baptist Christian and Yoruba from the Southwest) won the presidency.


Nigerians have held democratic elections in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015, though each election has been followed by a stormy aftermath. Some of the anger in recent elections comes from the fact that they have seemed to upend the unwritten rule of Nigerian politics; the People’s Democratic Party— which has since 1999 consistently fielded the winning candidate—would alternate candidacy between southerners and northerners. Goodluck Jonathan (a Christian from the Ijaw people of the southern delta region) had been elected vice president in the 2007 election, and assumed power in 2010 after the sudden death of late President Umaru Yar’Adua. In 2011, Jonathan went on to win the election outright and ran for re-election in 2015 where he was defeated by Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the All Progressives Congress party.


Muhammadu Buhari won the presidential election in March 2015, after the election had been delayed because of Boko Haram insurgency. Aged seventy-two, the former military ruler is the first opposition candidate to win an election in Nigeria, and he won by a margin of 2.5 million votes over his opponent Goodluck Jonathan.[4] Buhari is a Muslim with strong support in the North of Nigeria. He appointed Yemi Osinbajo, a Christian, as his Vice-President in a show of interfaith collaboration. It is a common, though unfixed, trend for the President to appoint a Vice President belonging to the alternate religious tradition. Jonathan, a Christian, had a Muslim Vice-President when he was in power.


His military background seems to have appealed to voters in the midst of the ongoing conflict with Boko Haram. Buhari’s current role as President is preceded by three election losses (2003, 2007, and 2011), in addition to a short-lived military coup in 1983–1985. As leader of Nigeria in the ‘80s, Buhari implemented an austere economic policy, and was known for his hardline disciplinarian tactics. (Civil servants who arrived late for work were reportedly forced to do frog jumps in the office.)[5] His rule was ended by Ibrahim Babangida, and was largely motivated by a widespread dissatisfaction with the economy.[6]



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[1] Don Ohadike, “Muslim-Christian Conflict and Political Instability in Nigeria,” in Religion and National Integration in Nigeria: Islam, Christianity, and Politics in the Sudan and Nigeria, ed. John O. Hunwick (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992), pp. 101–124.

[2] Ogbu Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 90.

[3] Barnaby Philips, “Biafra: Thirty Years On,” BBC, January 13, 2000,, accessed November 22, 2013; Trevor Rubenzer, “Nigeria: 1967–1970,” in Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts Since World War II, eds. Karl DeRouen and Uk Heo (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2007), pp. 567–584.

[4] “Muhammadu Buhari,” Britannica,, accessed 12 February, 2016.

[5] “Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari in profile, BBC, March 30, 2015,, accessed 12 February, 2016.

[6] “Muhammadu Buhari,” Britannica,, accessed 12 February, 2016.


Image Credits:

"Abubakar Tafawa Balewa," Nigerian Government photograph (1962), from Wikimedia Commons.