Nigeria's Dictators & Their Impact on the Country

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  • 0:00 Dictators of Nigeria
  • 0:44 Nigerian Independence
  • 1:56 The First Junta (1966-1979)
  • 3:14 The Second Junta (1983-1998)
  • 4:34 The Fourth Nigerian Republic
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The nation of Nigeria has struggled with democracy since their independence, but they are recovering today. Explore the legacies of almost half a century of military dictators, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Dictators of Nigeria

Politics exist in a world of drama. We all know that. Sometimes, this crosses from simply dramatic into something else entirely. Nigeria, one of the nations of West Africa, has just such a political history. For Nigeria, the second half of the 20th century was dominated by the perpetual rise and fall of dictators, political leaders with absolute power, generally obtained through military force. For 50 years, Nigerian politics were unlike any other, marked by turbulent bids for power that rocked the nation.

Nigerian Independence

Nigeria is not the only country with a legacy of violent dictators, and like many other countries with this history, this began when it was a colony of a European empire, fighting for independence. Nigeria became a colony of the British Empire in the early 20th century but didn't gain its independence until 1960.

Nigeria set up a representative government with executive, legislative, and judicial branches, but was immediately caught between fierce ethnic and regional tensions. The boundaries of Nigeria were largely determined by the British Empire, not because this was a region of people with a shared identity. Once Nigeria became independent, the country was divided into northern, eastern, and southern factions, each dominated by powerful leaders. Despite their differences, they managed to elect their first president in 1963, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and turned themselves into a federal republic.

Unfortunately, Nigeria was still deeply divided. By 1965, Nigeria was on a path likely leading to civil war.

The First Junta (1966-1979)

In 1966, a Nigerian military officer named Chukwuma Nzeogwu, and a series of other majors in the army overthrew the government and began setting up a junta, or military dictatorship. The leader of this junta was Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, who was himself overthrown and murdered in a second coup, or military overthrow of the government, that same year. The general who led that coup held power for about a decade before also being overthrown by soldiers who wanted to end the power of dictators in Nigeria. The leader of that coup was assassinated in 1976, which is when Olusegun Obasanjo rose to power. Life in Nigeria was difficult during this period, with starvation, poverty, and murder at the hands of the government dominating daily life.

Under Obasanjo, a committee was formed to draft a new constitution, giving Nigeria a chance to start over as the Second Nigerian Republic. That new republic was officially formed when Obasanjo handed over power to Shehu Shagari, a man elected president in 1979.

The Second Junta (1983-1998)

Nigerian democracy was not, unfortunately, to last. Shagari was overthrown in a coup with no deaths, also known as a bloodless coup, in 1983, and a new junta was established led by Muhammadu Buhari. Buhari was overthrown in two years by a general promising a return to democracy; then, that regime was overthrown by another general who ruled until his death from heart failure in 1998. During this time, Nigeria wrote another new constitution in 1989, leading to the creation of the Third Nigerian Republic, which planned to re-introduce democracy but was never really implemented.

In 1998, when the ruling dictator died, General Abdulsalami Abubakar rose to power and began the process of actually restoring democracy to Nigeria. He released the many political prisoners of the junta, introduced government reforms, and oversaw new practices for fair elections. Abubakar peacefully left office a year later when Nigeria democratically elected one of the political prisoners released by Abubakar. As it turns out, it was Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military dictator who ended the first junta back in 1976!

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