In the 56 years of Nigeria’s Independence, 13 individuals have ruled the country, out of these, eight were military heads of state, who ruled for a total of 28 years and 349 days.
With the exception of former President, Olusegun Obasanjo and current President, Muhammadu Buhari, who had ruled as military leaders between 1976 and 1979 and 1983 and 1985 respectively, five others ruled Nigerians as civilian leaders. KUNLE FALAYI writes
As Nigeria celebrates its Independence Day today, October 1, what has kept the country together in the last 56 years and the polarising issues that threaten the existence of the most populous black nation in the world is likely to dominate the topic of discussion in many parts of the country.
But in this report, we take a look back at the past regimes, some of the high points of their rule and what these might have taught Nigerians about what an ideal leader should be.
Nnamdi Azikiwe (Governor-General 1960-1963, President 1963-1966)
Azikiwe, a pan-Africanist, columnist and newspaper editor, who rose to prominence through nationalistic thoughts expressed in his writings led Nigeria out of colonial rule in 1960. He held degrees in Religion and Anthropology.
In a period characterised by nationalistic feelings in many parts of the country, the Onitsha, Anambra State born “Zik of Africa” became Governor-General on October 1, 1960 with Tafawa Balewa as Prime Minister until 1963 when Nigeria was proclaimed a republic and he became the young country’s first President.
He would be leader for those two periods for a total of five years and 51 days before the country’s first coup d’état led by a young military officer, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, ousted him in January 1966.
Azikiwe contested Presidential elections in 1979 but was unsuccessful.
Apart from his pro-Independence efforts, the regime of Azikiwe in conjunction with Balewa, was credited with putting the young country on a steady footing and establishing the country as one to be reckoned with in the global community.
He was widely seen as a genuine nation builder. The elder statesman died in May 1996 and was buried in his native Onitsha.
Maj.-Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi (Head of State January 1966-July 1966)
Ironsi came to power in the wake of the turmoil that gripped the country during the 1966 coup, in which Tafawa Balewa was assassinated. He became Nigeria’s first military leader only to be killed in another coup carried out by young soldiers disgruntled by the previous coup.
In his 194 days in office, Ironsi was criticised for not prosecuting the coup plotters alleged to be members of his ethnic group at a time the country had become polarised along ethnic lines. But he attempted to placate aggrieved ethnic groups with political appointments.
During a subsequent nationwide tour, a coup arose, he was surrounded at the government house in Ibadan, Oyo State, where he was hosted by Lt.- Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, the Military Governor of Western Nigeria. He was later questioned by soldiers for his role in the previous coup and later led to a bush along Iwo Road, on the way to Ibadan and killed along with Fajuyi. His family did not learn of his death until weeks later.
General Yakubu Gowon (Head of State 1966-1975)
Gowon, who was Ironsi’s Chief of Army Staff became the country’s leader, inheriting an even more fractured and polarised country. It is believed that Gowon would have been killed in the January 1966 coup too if not because he got back from a course at the Joint Staff College, Latimer, UK, just two days before the coup.
Ethnic sentiments solidified as the country was launched into a civil war in 1967 despite efforts like dividing the existing four regions into 12 states to prevent a secession by the eastern part of the country.
Gowon, a graduate of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, United Kingdom, superintended over a period of bitter civil war that would have disintegrated the country.
Records suggest the Nigerian military side lost between 35,000 and 50,000 men while the Biafra side lost between 10,000 and 25,000 men. It is estimated that more than one million people died in the war in total.
After the war, depending on the oil boom of the period, Gowon pronounced that there was no victor and no vanquished and announced his government would focus on rehabilitation, reconstruction, and reconciliation. But he was criticised for turning a blind eye to government corruption that characterised the post-war period.
The flood of soldiers coming from the war, the rise of individuals with oil wealth and the post-war economic woes in the eastern part of the country compounded the problems of the country.
Crime, corruption and kickbacks became rife as unemployment soared in the country.
But in the midst of these, Gowon has to his credit the establishment of the National Youth Service Corp, which was aimed at fostering national unity. He also developed Lagos to the status of an international commercial city.
General Murtala Muhammed (Head of State July 1975-February 1976)
Immediately after the overthrow of Gowon in a bloodless military coup led by one Colonel Joe Garba, Muhammed (as a Brigadier and later General) was installed as head of state and Olusegun Obasanjo as his deputy.
Muhammed’s government embarked on a purge of the public service in the country, which saw more than 10,000 employees across the judiciary, civil service, military, police and even diplomatic service being dismissed on allegations of corruption, incompetence and malpractices.
The expansion of the private sector into areas dominated by public corporations was first considered as a major policy by the Muhammed’s regime as part of his Third National Development Plan.
A military officer known for his low profile and ability to handle issues with dispatch, Muhammed even announced that all public officers must not live a flamboyant lifestyle and he showed an example by choosing to live in his own home in Ikoyi rather than a Dodan Barracks official residence.
He announced that there would be a return to civilian rule on October 1, 1979. To this effect, he appointed a 50-man Constitution Drafting Committee headed by Chief Rotimi Williams.
But before his dream could materialise, Muhammed was assassinated in a coup led by Lt.-Col. Buka Dimka in Lagos.
Major-General Olusegun Obasanjo (Head of State February 1976-October 1979)
After escaping death in the coup that claimed the life of his boss, Obasanjo became military leader, ruling Nigeria at a period of oil boom, which his predecessor also enjoyed.
The oil boom during the Muhammed-Obasanjo era gave the opportunity for the development of infrastructure such as steel mills, refineries in Warri and Kaduna and the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos.
Obasanjo’s government also established the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and the Corrupt Practice Bureau, (a version of what is now called the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which he again established as a civilian President). He also organised the African Festival of Arts and Culture, the first and last of its kind in Nigeria.
Obasanjo became the first military leader to hand over to a civilian regime when he handed over to Shehu Shagari in 1979.
Alhaji Shehu Shagari (President October 1979-December 1983)
After defeating Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the 1979 presidential election, Shagari became Nigeria’s second republic President exactly 35 years today and also enjoyed part of Nigeria’s oil boom before the fall in oil prices began in 1981.
He made housing, industries, transportation and agriculture the major focus of his regime, constructing a network of roads nationwide and initiating a programme to ensure more use of machineries in farming. His government also introduced the 6-3-3-4 education policy. But efforts in all these areas would later be marred by allegations of widespread corruption as he became a victim of a lot of insults and criticisms.
As the economy slumped, Shagari’s government expelled about two million immigrants in the country, mostly Ghanaians in what today is still popularly called “Ghana-Must-Go”.
Maj.-General Muhammadu Buhari (Head of State December 1983-August 1985)
Shagari’s increasingly unpopular government was overthrown by military leaders among whom was Buhari, who later made the hallmark of his regime war against corruption.
During Buhari’s administration, 200,000 civil servants were retrenched as he announced a national budget which raised interest rates, prohibited borrowing by state governments, cut imports, and gave priority to importation of raw materials and spare parts for machineries needed in agriculture and industry.
He became the “father of queuing” in Nigeria after establishing the War Against Indiscipline which aimed to ensure orderly queuing in public, environmental sanitation, healthy work ethic, anti-corruption and patriotism.
Buhari’s government got under international spotlight for what the intelligence community refers to as “extraordinary rendition” today. On the orders of his government, the transport minister under Shagari, Alhaji Umaru Dikko, was abducted from his London residence, drugged and locked in a crate tagged diplomatic baggage to be transported back to the country.
Buhari was overthrown by General Ibrahim Babangida, his Chief of Army Staff, who criticised him for failing to deal with the economic woes of the country. He was detained in Benin City between 1985 and 1988.
General Ibrahim Babangida (Head of State August 1985-August 1993)
The notable effort of the Babangida’s regime was the introduction of the austerity measure called the Structural Adjustment Programme, which involved deregulation of the agricultural sector, elimination of price controls, privatisation of public enterprises and Naira devaluation to aid the competitiveness of export among others.
His government moved the federal capital from Lagos to Abuja in 1991 and also enrolled Nigeria as a member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a step that brought widespread outcry.
His government opened Lagos’ Third Mainland Bridge (then Africa’s longest bridge until 1996). Babangida’s government also opened the way for private broadcasting, established the Federal Road Safety Corps, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency and the National Directorate of Employment among others.
Apart from allegations of repression against his regime and clampdown on the media, his government annulled what is known as the most free and fair election so far in Nigeria, won by the late Moshood Abiola in 1993.
Ernest Shonekan (President, Interim National Government August 1993-November 1993)
Babangida handed over the government to Shonekan, an independent statesman amidst strikes and protests that had paralysed economic activities in the country.
Shonekan, who took over as head of interim government amidst huge debts and high inflation, and international sanctions imposed on the Babangida government, campaigned for debts cancellation but was overthrown within three months.
Within the short time in office, he effected the release of some political prisoners like Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti and Mr. Femi Falana, who were champions of the annulled 1993 election.
General Sani Abacha (Head of State November 1993-June 1998)
Abacha overthrew the short-lived transitional government and became known for widespread human rights abuses. Notable among these was the killing of Ogoni environmental activists, among whom was Ken Saro Wiwa.
During his rule, the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers and Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association embarked on the longest strike in Nigerian history as a protest against the annulled June election. The strike created one of the worst fuel crises ever in the country.
Abacha responded with a widespread clampdown on newspapers, labour and many activists all over the country.
His government established the last six states that brought Nigerian states to 36 and also brought the number of local governments to 774.
Under his government, Kudirat, wife of the winner of the June 1993 election, Abiola, was assassinated.
Nigeria’s refineries started to pack up under Abacha’s rule as Nigeria was forced to depend heavily on importation of oil.
Despite huge increase in foreign exchange achieved by his government, he is considered to have engaged in the greatest level of looting of public fund by any Nigerian leader.
Abacha died suddenly in the Presidential Villa in June 1998.
General Abdusalam Abubakar (Head of State June 1998-May 1999)
Shortly after assuming office, Abubakar promised democratic transition within a year and established the Independent National Electoral Commission. He fulfilled this promise on May 29, 1999 when former military leader, Obasanjo, was sworn in as President. Abubakar had earlier released Obasanjo along with eight other key political prisoners from prison following Abacha’s death.
Chief Olusegun Obasanjo (President May 1999-May 2007)
The civilian administration of the former military leader saw a period of economic growth aided by high oil prices. His government secured debt pardons from the Paris and London clubs. Telecommunication developed during his administration.
By the time he left office, Nigeria’s foreign reserves had grown from the $2bn in 1999 to $43bn in 2007. The country’s economy was one of the fastest growing in Africa.
Obasanjo was credited with choosing cabinet members that were technocrats.
His government would later be marred by efforts to secure a third term in office.
Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua (President May 2007-May 2010)
Yar’Adua’s short rule witnessed a relative stability in Nigeria but he became the second President to ever die on the seat of power when he succumbed to the complications of a terminal illness, pericarditis in May 2010.
Goodluck Jonathan (President May 2010-May 2015)
After becoming acting President following the death of Yar’Adua whom he deputised, Jonathan announced electoral reforms and anti-corruption as the focus of his government. But war against Boko Haram insurgency took over most of the efforts of his government.
Jonathan was praised for his relative non-interference in election outcomes in the country. He was also credited with reviving the nation’s railway sector that had remained dead before his administration.
Telecommunications and internet penetration also become higher during his rule.
His government was credited with managing the Ebola crisis well, thereby preventing a bigger calamity.
After running in and winning the presidential election of 2011, he failed to achieve the same success for a second term in 2015.
Muhammadu Buhari (President May 2015-till date)
Buhari became the second former military leader to become civilian President in Nigeria after winning the 2015 Presidential election.
His government has so far repeated the main focus of his ‘83-‘85 military regime – anti-corruption.
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