ISSN 2330-717X

Nigeria 1960-2022: The Unresolved Leadership Question – OpEd

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Nigeria’s independence was ushered in with fanfare, pomp and ceremony on October 1, 1960. The Union Jack was lowered, and Nigeria’s flag hoisted at full mast, marking the end of British colonial rule and the beginning of self-government and independence. By 1963 the nation had thrown off the yoke of British dominion when it voted to be a republic and no longer under the British monarchy. Naturally, the cast of actors in the independence struggle later emerged as the new leaders of the new nation. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa of the Northern Peoples Congress emerged the first prime minister of independent Nigeria, while Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was installed as Governor General of the federation.

Nigeria held so much hope and promise at independence not only for the nation but Africa as a whole. Even though a multicultural and multi ethnic and multi religious society there was every hope that the leaders of independence would get things right and forge ahead to instill the spirit of nationalism and set the nation on the path of irreversible progress, development and prosperity. At that time, Nigeria was at par if not a notch above countries like China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia among other nations in the south. Not only that the nation was endowed with both natural and mineral resources, also it had arable land for both cash crops and subsistence farming. In fact, agriculture was the mainstay of the economy. Cocoa, palm oil, rubber and timber were the main exports.

As expected the nation adopted the parliamentary system of government modeled after British democracy and basically a system developed through the years by custom, tradition, precedent and which takes its roots in the Magna Carta built on the principle of freedom, justice, equity, democracy and representative government. The British system is an unwritten constitution not in the manner of the American presidential system of government.

Prior to independence, the main cast of emergent leaders had between 1952 and 1959 undergone tutelage having agitated for self-government and later served as leaders of Government Business in the three regions bequeathed to us by the British. Because of this learning curve provided by the British it held out hope that things can only get better as the nation continued its onward march towards nationhood.

At independence, the nation rested on the tripod of the three regions namely the Northern region, Eastern region and the Western region. The Northern region loomed large over the two other Southern regions, generally it was an unstable tripod bequeathed by the British. After independence, the Midwest region was carved out of the Western region following agitations by the minorities. The balkanization of the West further meant the Northern region will be the dominant force in an unbalanced federation. Agitations by minorities in both the Northern and Eastern regions were ignored.

At the onset the leadership of the three regions displayed healthy rivalry as they worked hard to provide basic infrastructure and make life more meaningful for their people. However, as time went on struggle for control of power at the centre between the opposition Action Group party and the ruling party the Northern People’s Congress, NPC further led to tension in the polity and also exacerbated the existing situation. Also, cracks in the leadership of the AG led to a crisis of confidence and resulted in a splinter group led by the Premier of the Western Region, Chief Ladoke Akintola who was expelled from the party in 1962, and later formed the Nigeria National Democratic Party, NNDP which aligned with the NPC. At independence Awolowo had relinquished his position as premier of the Western region and became Opposition leader at the federal level. As elections approached in 1964, there was widespread violence in the Western region and it earned the moniker Wild Wild West. 

Earlier in 1963 the opposition leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was arraigned and tried on treasonable felony charges. He was found guilty and jailed along with some of his party members. Besides, there were widespread disaffection over the outcome of the 1964 general elections which observers said were characterised by massive rigging and violence. Also, there was boycott of the elections by the United Peoples Grand Alliance, UPGA, an alliance of the AG and NCNC. Despite protestations over the elections, the NPC later formed the government at the centre in alliance with the NNDP. 

Shortly thereafter there was a military coup on January 15, 1966 which led to the overthrow of the government of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Both the prime minister and the premier of the Northern region, Sir Ahmadu Bello as well as the premier of the Western region, Chief Ladoke Akintola were killed in the military coup led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and five other majors. The coup plotters had cited mismanagement, corruption, bribery, electoral violence as part of the reasons for the coup.

Thereafter, the coup plotters were neutralized and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces Major General Aguiyi Ironsi emerged as the new head of state. Generally, the coup was described as sectional since most of the casualties including both leading politicians and senior military officers were from the northern and Western regions. Besides, the cast of the coup plotters was mostly a preponderance of military officers from the Eastern region.

Even though the coup was welcomed in the south, the north’s leadership had been decapitated and an uneasy calm reigned in the region. Things further worsened as Ironsi failed to bring the coup plotters to justice. Ironsi was on the horns of a dilemma. It was a popular coup in the south but at the same time, northern leaders had been wiped out. Besides, there was disquiet in the military, especially among the northern officers’ corps. The promulgation of the Unification decree further stoked division as the decree was seen by the north as a ploy for Eastern domination. The dice were cast.

Not long after, young northern military officers launched a revenge coup on July 29, 1966, during which the Head of State, Major General Aguiyi Ironsi was abducted while on a visit to the Western region along with his host Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi. Both of them were later executed by their abductors. Also, several military officers of the Eastern Region were rounded up in the barracks and killed during the bloody coup. At this point in time, Nigeria tethered on the edge of the precipice as the young northern officers wanted to precipitate secession. However, wise counsel prevailed, and, in the end, Lt. Col Yakubu Gowon emerged as head of state.

The aftermath of the January coup was the widespread killings of Easterners in the north leading to the mass migration of Easterners back to the Eastern heartland. The killings in the north were described as the first genocide in Africa. All this and other constellation of events led to the declaration of the Biafra Republic by the Governor of Eastern Region, Lt Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, claiming the Easterners could no longer coexist within the federation as a result of widespread killings and arguing that the safety and security of the easterners could not be guaranteed.

By July 6, 1967, the Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon declared a police operation to crush the Biafran rebellion. This later led to a full-blown war between the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Biafran secessionists led by Lt Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. The war lasted 30 months and by January 15, 1970, the Federal Government had accepted the instrument of surrender from the rump of the Biafran secessionists’ forces. It was estimated that about 100,000 combatants were killed while more than 2 million people died of starvation during the war. In the spirit of national reconciliation, Gen Yakubu Gowon declared a policy of ‘No Victor, No Vanquished.’ Gen Gowon also introduced the policy of rehabilitation, reconstruction, and reintegration with the aim of national reconciliation and healing of wounds created by the war. 

The Gowon era witnessed a boom as petro-dollars flowed into national coffers. Several infrastructure projects were commenced and completed by the Gowon administration. That was Nigeria’s golden era. Having won the war, Gowon had promised to relinquish power in 1976. However, he reneged on this promise, saying that 1976 was no longer realistic and that politicians had not learned their lesson.

By July 1975, Gowon was ousted in a bloodless coup. This led to the emergence of Brigadier Murtala Mohammed, a war hero as the new head of state. Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo was appointed Chief of Staff, Supreme headquarters. Murtala Mohammed acted with dispatch, purging the civil service and carrying out general reforms. Many deadwoods were removed from the public service. Murtala Mohammed set up the Constituent Assembly headed by Chief Rotimi Williams to fashion out a new constitution. Later the Constituent Assembly settled for the American presidential system of government. He also set up the Akinola Aguda committee to choose a new federal capital as a result of the congestion in Lagos and other security concerns. The Aguda committee later picked Abuja as the new Federal Capital Territory. 

General Murtala Mohammed’s reign was short-lived as he was cut down in his prime in a bloody military coup led by Col Buka Suka Dimka on February 13, 1976. Thereafter his second in command General Olusegun Obasanjo succeeded him as the head of state, The Obasanjo caretaker administration followed the programme of his predecessor to the script and later handed over power to the civilians. In 1978, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, a former commissioner of finance in the Gowon administration emerged as the first Executive President under the banner of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). The Shagari administration came on board after 12 years of military rule. Shagari a veteran of the parliamentary system gingerly navigated the American-style democracy. 

Shortly after the administration was sworn in the economy began to tank due to mismanagement and corruption. The 1983 election which was massively rigged by the ruling party eventually led to another military takeover on December 31, 1983. Thereafter Major General Muhammadu Buhari emerged as the new military head of state. Buhari inherited an economy that was in dire straits. He introduced countertrade and imported essential commodities to cushion the effect of the harsh economy. Buhari’s regime introduced the War Against Indiscipline (WAI) and also promised to tamper with press freedom. 

On August 27, 1985, Buhari was toppled in a palace coup. The coup plotters named Major-General Ibrahim Babangida as the new military president. Babangida introduced economic reforms. He went ahead to foist on the nation the IMF inspired Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) and also liberalized the economy. The SAP led to widespread dislocation of the economy and further worsened the cost-of-living crisis. In addition, Babangida set in motion a political programme which led to the June 12, 1993, presidential elections. The election was adjudged free and fair, and presumably won by Bashorun MKO Abiola. But the election was later annulled by the ruling military junta. The annulment of the June 12 election led to widespread riots and there were calls by civil society and human rights activists for the revalidation of the election. 

To assuage the populace, Babangida constituted an Interim National Government on August 27, 1993, after which he stepped aside and relinquished power to head of the ING Chief Ernest Shonekan, Chairman of the UAC. The Chief of Defence Staff, General Sani Abacha was left behind to provide stability for the ING. Shonekan began moves to douse tension, but all his entreaties were spurned by civil society and human rights activists. All along the ING lacked legitimacy and there were widespread calls for the revalidation of the June 12 elections. Things came to a head when a Lagos High Court declared the ING illegitimate, without any backing in law. Thereafter, General Sani Abacha seized power and sacked the ING on November 17, 1993. 

General Sani Abacha wielded power from 1993 to June 1998. His regime was draconian as he neither brooked any opposition nor tolerated critics and that era was considered one of the darkest periods in Nigeria’s history. His rule saw economic growth. He has been dubbed a kleptocrat and a dictator by several modern commentators. With hindsight, General Abacha skimmed about $5 billion from the national coffers. Of that amount, about $3.65 billion has been recovered by the federal government. In September 1994, he issued a decree that placed his government above the jurisdiction of the courts effectively giving him absolute power. Also, the presumed winner of the June 12, 1993, presidential elections, Bashorun MKO Abiola was clamped into detention after his public declaration for the revalidation of his victory. Again, former head of state, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was jailed along with his former deputy Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua who later died in prison, on their alleged involvement in a planned coup. In addition, Abacha’s deputy Lt General Oladipo Diya as well as some senior military officers were also charged and jailed for the alleged planned coup. Also, human rights activist Ken Saro Wiwa and the Ogoni five activists from the Niger Delta were executed in what was described as judicial murder by the international community. At this turn, Nigeria became a pariah state shunned by the international community. Abacha had plans to transmute to a civilian president and he was adopted by five political parties in 1998 as the consensus candidate. His sudden death on June 8, 1998, put paid to that harebrained scheme. He was succeeded by the Chief of Defence Staff, General Abdulsalam Abubakar. 

On assumption of power, General Abubakar announced a transition programme. The transition programme was faithfully executed and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, who was granted a state pardon for his alleged involvement in a planned coup, later emerged as the second executive president on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. However, Abubakar’s transition programme was tainted by the sudden death of Bashorun MKO Abiola shortly before his release from detention. Still, he’s regarded as the architect of the nation’s nascent democracy.

Chief Obasanjo who served for two terms between 1999 and 2007 was able to stabilize democracy due to the hard-headed decision to retire military officers who had held political offices. Such officers were perceived as a major threat to the nascent democracy. Obasanjo also helped restore Nigeria’s battered image after it became a pariah nation during the Abacha era. He also had to contend with the adoption of Sharia law in many parts of the north. His deft handling of the matter helped douse tension. At the same time, President Obasanjo secured a debt reprieve from the Paris Club, and he repaid all $18 billion in outstanding loans owed to external creditors. Recall that the Paris Club announced a final agreement for debt relief worth $18 billion and an overall reduction of Nigeria’s debt stock by $30 billion. The deal was said to be a landmark achievement of Olusegun Obasanjo’s Presidency. He also introduced reforms through the commercialization and privatization of government-owned companies. The Global System of Mobile Communication GSM was licensed during his rule, which enabled millions of Nigerians to have access to telecommunications services. The Obasanjo administration was accused of gross human rights abuses as a result of the Odi and Zaki-Biam massacre by security forces. Also, a major blot during his era was the alleged move for a third term which was roundly defeated in the National Assembly. Though Obasanjo has denied any interest in a tenure elongation.

In 2007, the nation witnessed a smooth transfer of power with the emergence of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua of the Peoples Democratic Party. Yar’Adua continued with Obasanjo’s reform programme. But he discontinued plans to sell off the four refineries to private investors. He also resolved the restiveness in the Niger Delta area which had hampered oil operations by granting amnesty to the various Niger Delta militant groups agitating for a better deal in the region. On the other hand, the mishandling of the Boko Haram group led to the growth of the insurgents in the northeast region. The leader of the group Mohammed Yusuf was later killed in police custody after he was arrested by the military and handed over to the police. 

When President Yar’Adua died on May 5, 2010, he was succeeded by his deputy Dr Goodluck Jonathan. Prior to that Jonathan had assumed as Acting President following the decision of the National Assembly to invoke the doctrine of necessity which paved the way for the vice president to act for his principal in light of the president’s inability to exercise his function due to ill health. President Jonathan went on to win reelection in 2011. He consolidated the amnesty programme for the Niger Delta militants. However, insecurity was rife, especially in the northeast region where Boko Haram had taken over 14 Local Government Areas and almost threatened the 2015 general election. In fact, the 2015 general election was shifted due to insecurity. Moreover, the opposition accused the PDP administration of mismanagement and corruption. Be that as it may, Dr. Jonathan displayed rare statesmanship when he conceded defeat to General Muhammadu Buhari, presidential candidate of the APC in the 2015 presidential elections. Jonathan was the first incumbent to be defeated by the opposition. 

President Buhari was sworn into office as the fifth executive president and he promised to tackle insecurity, fight corruption and fix the economy. Efforts have been made to contain insurgency in the northeast. However, seven years down the line insecurity has further festered with banditry, terrorism, and kidnapping expanding towards the northwest and parts of the north-central. The war against corruption seems to have lost steam and has been diluted as several cases of corruption have been unearthed. Gains made in agriculture have been distorted by the high level of insecurity that has chased farmers away from their farmlands, posing a major threat to food insecurity. Now the economy is in dire straits as inflation has hit 20% pushing prices of consumer goods and foodstuffs to the roof. Under the Buhari administration, the debt profile has risen to about $100 billion dollars. There’s an acute revenue shortfall occasioned by large-scale oil thefts in the Niger Delta, which has put government finances in jeopardy, hence the government has had to resort to borrowing to finance most of its projects and to pay salaries. Nonetheless, the Buhari administration has made some strides in infrastructure development such as railways, roads, and bridges.

More than 62 years after independence Nigeria is still punching below its weight. Ethnic tensions are streaming on the surface, insecurity is rife, and many more Nigerians are still living in poverty, with the World Bank projecting that at least 90 million people will sink into poverty in 2022. The economy has contracted instead of expanding. The nation is suffocating under a huge debt burden. There are widespread calls for restructuring of the federation to devolve more power to the constituent units.

Despite all these challenges, there’s every hope that the nation will turn the corner the moment it gets the right leadership. Leadership has been the bane of our underdevelopment. Over the years, poor leadership has hobbled the nation’s potential and greatness. Most of the leaders had been reluctant candidates propelled to power by chance or circumstance. The 2023 general elections offer the nation a rare opportunity to select the candidate with the right mix of vision, capacity, and character to propel the nation to the path of greatness and prosperity.

Kola King

Kola King is a Nigerian journalist and novelist. He worked for more than two decades as a reporter, correspondent and editor in major national newspapers in Nigeria. He's the founder of Metro newsletter published on Substack. His debut novel A Place in the Sun and was published and released in 2016 by Verity Publishers, Pretoria, South Africa. His writing has appeared in Kalahari Review, The Missing Slate Literary Journal, The New Black Magazine and Litro magazine. He earned a Bachelors degree in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos.

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