Nigeria: Chronology Of The Struggle For Stability And Democracy

Washington DC — The forty years of independence for Africa's most populous nation have not been easy. Welding such a diverse community into a single nation with a stable political process is still at an early stage despite its advantages in oil resources, good agricultural land, and a solid core of well-educated citizens. Many Nigerians say that if there is any good coming out all the bad years of military dictatorship and ineffective civilian governance, it's that they have made enough mistakes to learn meaningful lessons from them.

Independence - October 1, 1960

Nigeria formally achieved independence as a Federation although it didn't become a full republic until 1963 when Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe took office as the Republic's first President.

Coup d'etat - January 15, 1966

Junior officers calling for radical reforms attempt a coup, killing Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and two regional leaders, including the powerful leader of the North, Ahmadu Bello. The coup fails but what was left of the federal cabinet surrenders power to General John Aguiyi-Ironsi thus starting years of military rule.

"Operation Araba" - July 1966

Northern Army officers led by Major Murtala Mohammed plot secession. Southern officers are murdered. Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon the highest-ranking Northern officer becomes head of state and leader of the Supreme Military Council. By September, mob violence in the North results in the deaths of thousands of easterners residing there. Hundreds of thousands more begin streaming back home, urged on by the military governor of the east, Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Oxford-educated son of a millionaire.

Biafra - May 1967

Colonel Ojukwu proclaims that the Southeastern corner of Nigeria is now the independent republic of Biafra. He is its president. Civil war between Biafran secessionists and the Federal government breaks out July 6. The war, which results in more than a million deaths, continues until January 1970 when Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo leading a marine division captures Biafran Radio. Ojukwu flees to Ivory Coast.

"No victor no vanquished" - 1970

General Gowon suprises all with a generous offer that blunts the impulse for revenge: "I solemnly repeat our guarantees of a general amnesty for those misled into rebellion. We guarantee the personal safety of everyone who submits to federal authority." He promises to hand over the government to civilian rule in 1976.

Civilian Rule "not realistic" - October 1, 1974

In a speech on the 14th anniversary of Nigerian independence, General Gowon declares that the 1976 date for handing over government to civilians was no longer realistic. The statement brings to a head, complaints and grumbling about corruption and government inefficiency. Inside the military a group of colonels and lieutenant colonels begin plotting "to put a stop to the slide."

Murtala takes over - July 29, 1975

While attending a summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity General Gowon is overthrown in a bloodless coup by Brigadier General Murtala Muhammed. He promises a return to civilian and constitutional rule. Seven more states are created to give minority groups more say in national politics. He begins an aggressive program of reform, targeting the civil service in particular, but less than six months later is assassinated while stuck in a Lagos "go slow" or traffic jam.

Obasanjo takes the stage - Late February 1976

For the first time there is public outrage. Student protestors take to the streets. Reluctantly, Murtala Muhammed's deputy, General Olusegun Obasanjo, takes the reins of government and promptly executes over thirty of the coup plotters. Over the next three years a new constitution is drafted with separation of powers provisions and establishing a U.S. style presidency. Local governments are given greater autonomy.

A U.S. President goes to Africa - March 1978

President Jimmy Carter comes to Lagos, becoming the first sitting U.S. President to visit sub-Saharan Africa. Speaking in Lagos, Carter says he is committed to the independence of Zimbabwe and Namibia.

Civilian rule again - 1979

Elections result in a civilian government and Obasanjo becomes the first modern African military ruler to voluntarily hand over power to an elected government. Alhaji Shehu Shagari, a northerner, becomes president. But there are questions. Although Shagari won a clear majority with 34 per cent of the vote, he failed to meet the constitutional requirement that a candidate get at least 25 percent of the vote for each of Nigeria's 19 states. Public disenchantment sets in quickly as politicians help themselves to the spoils of office. Politics and the winning of contracts become inextricably entwined. Elections in 1983 were considered by many to be rigged.

Military rule again - December 31, 1983

Shagari is overthrown in a popular coup led by General Mohammed Buhari who promises to crackdown on corruption. General Ibrahim Babangida becomes his chief of staff. The regime introduces a heavy-handed War Against Indiscipline (WAI) and repression in an effort to reorient the society.

Babangida takes over - August 27, 1985

In another bloodless coup, Babangida ousts Buhari and is acclaimed by the public as "the Redeemer." Journalists and human rights activists were set free. Babangida pledges to do away with "old breed" politicians. In addition to his position as military head of state, Babangida assumes the titles of "executive president" and minister of defense. He promises to quit office by October 1990. Rioting throughout the country over religious, economic, and political issues led to a repressive crackdown followed by the banning of all political parties and Babangida pushes the date for civilian rule back to October 1992.

Coup attempt - April 22, 1990

Middle-ranking army officers attempt to overthrow Babangida. General Sani Abacha, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff and Chief of Army Staff, reaffirms the military's loyalty to Babangida and to continuing an effort to make a transition to a democratic, multi-party civilian-ruled state. The coup leader, a major, and 200 lower-ranking soldiers are arrested. By July, the major and forty-two of the soldiers are executed. Eventually more than 800 people are put on trial because of the coup attempt. In September, twenty-seven more of the arrested soldiers are executed.

Presidential elections - June 12, 1993

Only two political parties - both sponsored by the military - were allowed to contest. Moshood Dashimawao "MKO" Abiola, a Muslim Youruba, gets the okay to campaign representing one of them, and declares that he has won. Observers and the vast majority of Nigerians agree and say it is the fairest election Nigeria has ever held. Abiola asks the international community to stand with him against the military. Babangida decides there should be a new vote and that Abiola will be banned from participating. Protestors bring Lagos to a halt, blocking streets and calling for the immediate installation of Abiola who flees Nigeria after getting death threats. Security forces begin rounding up democracy activists and leaders. Ogoni writer and environmental activist and founder of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, Ken Saro-Wiwa is arrested and imprisoned.

Babangida steps down - August 26, 1993

Babangida hands over power to a non-elected military-civillian Interim National Government(ING). The ING is rejected by most of Nigeria's unions who launch a national strike. In September Abiola returns to Nigeria and in November the High Court rules that the ING is unconstitutional and illegal. Sani Abacha steps in.

Abacha - November 18, 1993

Abacha dismisses almost every political appointment and government structure created under Babangida. He calls on the unions to return to work immediately. He promises to establish a constitutional conference. By the end of the month the unions have called off the general strike, the 1979 constitution has been reinstated and several prominent backers of Abiola are included in his cabinet.

Abiola arrested - June 23, 1994

Pressure continues to have Abiola form a government. Finally he is arrested and charged with sedition. Pro-democracy demonstrations have resulted in more than 100 deaths. Abiola is jailed. Abacha is now ruling with an iron fist. Jailed opponents now include General Olusengun Obasanjo and Beko Ransome-Kuti, leader of the prodemocracy movement as well as Abiola and numerousl journalists, lawyers and other intellectuals. Nigeria has extracted over $200 billon in oil. Per capita income has not risen. It remains at $300.

Saro-Wiwa executed - November 10, 1995

Ken Saro-Wiwa is eventually hanged, shocking the international community and drawing intense condemnation from world leaders gathered at the Commonwealth Summit in Auckland, New Zealand.

Abacha dies - June 8, 1998

Abacha dies suddenly while with two prostitutes. The official cause is a heart attack. Many believe he was a victim of foul play.

Abiola dies - July 1998

After four years in detention a now ill Abiola still refuses to renounce his claim to the presidency. On July 7 a U.S. delegation meets Abiola in an Abuja guest house. After a few minutes of conversation he excuses himself saying that he is having trouble breathing. He is taken to a clinic where an hour and a half later he is pronounced dead. The official cause given is a heart attack.

Obasanjo President again - May 29, 1999

With Abacha and Abiola gone, General Abdulsalami Abubakar who has taken over the helm of Nigeria begins a transition to civilian rule. The ban on political activities is lifted, exiles are urged to return home, and political prisoners are freed. On February 19th Obasanjo wins election to the presidency.

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