Political experiences in Nigeria

Bill Geddes (2010)


Nigeria as a postcolonial nation has experienced many of the problems common to other new nations. It began its independent existence in the enviable position of having proven reserves of oil (it currently produces between $US18 and $US30 billion of oil a year), a relatively developed infrastructure associated with strong primary industry development, and a fully functioning administrative bureaucracy. Yet, its subsequent history is one of economic difficulty, political violence, and growing poverty amongst its peoples. In the following outline of the political experiences of the country, an attempt is made to understand why these troubles have developed.

Nigeria is one of the largest countries in Africa, with an estimated population in mid-2005 of 133 million people and a very high average annual population growth rate of 2.98 per cent. There are over 400 different languages and dialects spoken and about 250 different ethnic groupings in the country. The major groupings are Hausa, Fulani, lbo, Yoruba, Edo Urhobo, Efik, Ijaw, Tiv and Kanuri, with many smaller, but distinct ethnic communities living contiguously with these groups. About 65 per cent of the population is made up of the Hausa-Fulani of the north, the Yoruba of the west and the Ibo of the east. Over the past 100 years there has been a great deal of movement of these groups between regions so that at the time of independence, there were enclaves of Yoruba in the east and north, of Ibos in the west and north and of Hausa-Fulani in the west and east. The country is also divided between the Moslem north majority (some 51-57 per cent of the population) and the Christian south and is currently administratively divided into thirty provinces and one territory.

In a book entitled Path to Nigerian Freedom, Obafemi Awolowo, later to be a prominent Yoruba politician in independent Nigeria, spelled out his view of the nature of the colonial territory known as Nigeria and of the relationship between Nigerians and their colonial masters:

The conquest of one nation by another in an unprovoked act of aggression cannot be justified by any standard of morality. Britain came to Nigeria of her own choosing, and with motives which are only too well known. She sought to impose her rule on the various tribes that inhabited the country in order to attain her own selfish ends. There was then no question of trusteeship. This was the result of a later compunction of conscience which usually dawns on any evil-doer who is not hardened beyond redemption. Those tribes with whom she first came into contact resisted the unwarranted attack on their political independence. They were overpowered by force of arms. Thereafter, each tribe was faced with a choice of one of two roads leading to subjection: defeat or surrender ... There are various national or ethnical groups in the country. Ten main groups were recorded during the 1931 census as follows: (1) Hausa, (2) lbo, (3) Yoruba, (4) Fulani, (5) Kanuri, (6) Ibibio, (7) Munshi or Tiv, (8) Edo, (9) Nupe, and (10) ljaw. According to Nigeria Handbook, eleventh edition, 'there are also a great number of other small tribes too numerous to enumerate separately[ ... ]'. It is a mistake to designate them 'tribes'. Each of them is a nation by itself with many tribes and clans. There is as much difference between them as there is between Germans, English, Russians and Turks for instance. The fact that they have a common overlord does not destroy this fundamental difference ... All these incompatibilities among the various peoples in the country militate against unification ... It is evident from the experiences of other nations that incompatibilities such as we have enumerated are barriers which cannot be overcome by glossing over them.

(Awolowo 1947, pp. 24, 48-9)


Historically, the northern, Moslem region was part of a north African caliphate, with a number of well-organised emirates whose territories existed within and overlapped parts of the current nations of Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and Cameroon. In the south a number of independent kingdoms existed which also often extended beyond present national and regional boundaries. The ethnic and clan composition and territorial extent of the states of West Africa, like states in most regions of the world, were continuously changing, with alliances being broken, groups of similar ethnic background fusing and fissioning, and territories expanding and contracting as the fortunes of the various states and emirates waxed and waned. The boundaries of any of these states, if fixed, would, inevitably, have been subjected to increasing pressures as the normal ebb and flow of political life made them increasingly anachronistic. In modern Nigeria, some of the consequences of rigidifying boundaries can be found in heightened inter-ethnic tensions focused on enclaves of people from other ethnic/ religious regions, and in the kaleidoscopic changes in party/ethnic political affiliations resulting from those migrations which have bedevilled political organisation and activity since independence.

In 1914, Nigeria was brought together under a single administration by the British, with three regions: the Northern Provinces, predominantly Hausa-Fulani and Moslem; the Western Provinces, predominantly Yoruba and Christian; and the Eastern Provinces, predominantly Ibo and Christian. In 1951 the first elections were held in the regions. The results were victory for the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) in the north; for the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in the east; and the Action Group (AG) in the west. These parties represented the interests of the dominant ethnic groupings in each of the regions. They remained the major political groups through the next fourteen years.

In 1957 the Eastern and Western regions were made self-governing within a federally-organised Nigeria, and in 1959 the Northern region was also made self-governing. Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960 and in 1963 was declared a republic. As it had in other colonies, Britain seems to have considered it both inevitable and desirable that Nigeria's independent political organisation should parallel that of Britain itself. As Paul Beckett describes:

Nigeria's Westminster-like parliamentary system was developed hurriedly, seemingly with little consideration given to possible alternative forms. Yet in Nigeria, as in other African colonies rushing toward independence, there seemed to be an assumption of permanence to the new institutions.

(Beckett 1987, p. 87)

Those responsible for preparing Nigeria for independence seem to have taken it for granted that the British system, transposed into Nigeria, would provide the best possible system of government for the new nation. At the time of independence there was widespread optimism about the new nation's future. It was felt that the new Nigeria, with its mineral wealth, its well-established bureaucracy, and its Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, would set the pattern for new African nations, providing a model of economic, political and social development which other nations could emulate. Yet, despite the euphoria and optimism of planners and politicians, Nigerians soon found themselves embroiled in all the problems and turmoils which have beset most postcolonial nations. As Whitaker describes:

Widely heralded in 1960-independence year-as a testing ground of democratic capacity in Africa, Nigeria subsequently experienced a serious breakdown of civil order, partisan rejection of constitutional arrangements, several coups d'etat, civil war, and out of five heads of state, the assassination of three and the exile of a fourth. Gross idealisation of Nigeria's democratic prospects gave way to deep despair. Perhaps both extremes of attitude stemmed from the same naive conception of political development in Nigeria as a straightforward (if troubled) process of transfer of institutions from Western to African settings.

(Whitaker 1991, p. 227)

The naivety of planners was evident in the way in which potential problems were handled in the lead-up to independence. Despite the early warnings of writers like Awolowo and experiences of other West African postcolonial countries, it was assumed that with the establishment of democracy, tribalism and ethnic difference would fade as people learned to identify themselves primarily with the nation rather than with their own ethnic communities.

In 1957, a number of minority groups complained to the British administration that they feared that in an independent Nigeria, dominated by the three major parties and ethnic groups, they would be severely disadvantaged. Their complaints were referred to a Minorities Commission which recommended that the three major divisions be retained, arguing that division into smaller states would accentuate and perpetuate tribal differences. So, as in many of its other colonies, Britain left some of the thorniest problems unresolved at independence. As Ugbana Okpu claimed:

To the extent that the structural imbalance derived from an arbitrary division into three 'natural' regions with diverse ethnic groups, many of which resented their 'inferior' status and challenged the right of the major political parties to a monopoly of political leadership and the distribution of the national cake, the presence of ethnic minority groups and the refusal to grant them equal status was a sine qua non for structural imbalance.

(cited by Anifowose 1982, p. 54)

Not only was there strong resentment amongst minority ethnic groups at the organisation of the new state, the rivalries which developed between the major ethnic groups and their parties in the pre-independence period produced equally strong antipathies and resentments. These resentments and tensions were to result in the destabilisation of both regional and federal governments over the first four years of the new nation's existence.

During the 1950s strong antagonism developed between the southern parties and their northern counterpart in the course of pre-independence jostling. As Nnoli describes the confrontation of politicians both in the pre-­independence House of Representatives and in the heat of campaigning:

The Southern leaders ... attacked the Northern leaders accusing them of colluding with the Britishers to perpetuate colonial rule. In response the Northerners were equally bitter and tempestuous. They accused the Southerners of being motivated merely by a partisan desire to outdo each other rather than by any genuine intention for the good of the country. The bitterness and acrimony continued outside the House. The AG and NCNC had, by this time, negotiated an alliance to press the issue of self-government in 1956. In the event of failure, they planned to summon a constituent assembly of Southern Nigerians, draft a constitution, and declare the independence of Southern Nigeria. Their supporters in Lagos hurled insults and abuses at the Northern delegates. Their newspapers subjected the Northerners to vitriolic criticism, and ridicule. These attacks exacerbated the anger of the Northerners, making them determined not to be subjected to such indignities again. Consequently, they adopted an eight point program which, in effect, would have meant Northern secession. This action, in turn, led to harsher criticisms by the NCNC, AG and their newspapers. The NPC leaders were not only vilified as imperialist stooges who had no minds of their own; they were also accused of being unrepresentative of their people. The Southern leaders' strong belief in the latter accusation caused them to send their party delegations to Northern cities to campaign for self-government in 1956

(Nnoli 1980, p. 236)

Loudest in denunciation of the northern leaders was the Action Group leader, Obafemi Awolowo who criticised not only the political leaders of the NPC, but also characterised northern emirs as 'backward, corrupt and oppressive', earning the deep resentment of northern leaders. As Anifowose says, 'It was against this back-ground of deep-rooted distrust and conflict among Nigerian politicians, that Nigeria became independent' (1982, p. 56).

The 1959 elections, establishing the governments which were to lead Nigeria into independence, resulted in victory for the three major parties in their respective regions. The NCNC, the Eastern Region party, decided, in the wake of the elections, to support the NPC from the north in a coalition government, with the AG of the west in opposition. The NCNC accused the Action Group of persecuting its supporters in the Western Region and threatened retaliation. As the national president of the party pronounced:

I am aware of the clamour in our rank and file to repay the Action Group in the Eastern Region in their own coin. In the past, our efforts to adhere rigidly to the tenets of Democracy in the Eastern Government have been misunderstood as weakness. I now issue a final warning that unless the Action Group abandons this inhuman policy of persecuting its opponents they can expect precisely the same treatment against their supporters in the East.

(Post & Vickers 1973, p. 69)

However, while each party seemed to speak with one voice, the reality was far more complex. As Lambert Ejiofor describes for the people of the eastern region:

The Igbo communities constitute one major ethnic and linguistic group, nevertheless they differ by modifications in culture, social orientation and thinking. This diversity may be minor but it is still strong enough to affect the political life of the people.

(Ejiofor 1981, p. 7)

The apparently politically unified regions were, in fact, divided amongst themselves, with as many tensions and possibilities for rupture of political relations within each region as there were within the nation as a whole. A national political structure which appeared, superficially, to be based on bloc politics, with major ethnic groups dominating proceedings, was, in fact, a series of weakly connected coalitions of interests which might unravel at any time given sufficient cause. This was to result, almost immediately after the election results, in new alliances being formed between politicians and supporters in each region and nationally, challenging the continued viability of the elected parties and their representatives. From the outset, those in political control had to spend a great deal of their time both in retaining the loyalties of their parliamentarians and confronting the political challenges of adversaries. In order to retain the following of their elected representatives, leaders had to deliver tangible rewards, and had to be able to do so more effectively than their adversaries. As Nnoli says:

... [this] involved efforts by the ethnically based ruling parties in the regions to secure the complete domination of the regional public service positions by the relevant regional functionaries, or, in their absence, to prevent rival ethnic groups from filling the relevant posts. This same strategy was evident in the inter ethnic struggle for positions in the federal public service.

(Nnoli 1980, p. 196)

Until 1962, despite a number of riots and disturbances involving minority ethnic groups in the three regions, the federal government and the three regional governments, through developing patron-client relationships with key supporters, maintained political control of their respective territories. The federal system of government pitted national and regional politicians against one another.

Although the duties and responsibilities of each administration were clearly spelt out, and though federal and regional parliamentarians did not directly compete with each other in elections, they both competed as patrons within the same constituencies, and this proved to be an important field of contest. So, not only was there rivalry between politicians of different party and ethnic affiliation, there was also strong rivalry between politicians of the same party / ethnic background. Since regional politicians were more immediately in touch with their electorates, this produced, over a short period, a bias toward regional rather than federal governments. As Arthur Nwankwo claims:

The regions constituted the political base for the contenders of power at the Federal level, and tribal or ethnic sentiments were used by these politicians to whip up support for their equally regionally and ethnically based parties ... In the struggle, the powerful regional governments overwhelmed and incapacitated the Federal Government, regardless of the central government's constitutional superiority.

(Nwankwo 1984, p. 6)1


In May 1962, the party of government in the Western region, the Action Group, split and bitter infighting developed between two major factions. At the end of May, the federal government declared a state of emergency in the Western Region, deposed the elected government and appointed a federal administrator to run the region. After six months, the federal government handed control back to the former Prime Minister of the Western Region, Chief Akintola, who had been forced to step down by opponents in the Action Group. Following his reinstatement, he formed a new party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) which, at the next elections, formed a coalition with the Northern People's Congress. Amongst people in the Western Region there was a strongly-held view that the political troubles of the region had been engineered by the NPC and the NCNC in retaliation for what they perceived to be Action Group hostility against them. This produced a widespread, deep-seated animosity toward the Eastern Region among westerners.

In 1963, Obafemi Awolowo, leader of the Action Group and of the opposition in the federal parliament, and a number of other Action Group leaders were charged with plotting to overthrow the federal government. As Anifowose says:

During the treason trial, which lasted nearly eight months, arms and ammunition were 'discovered' in Lagos, and at the Ikenne house of Chief Awolowo as well as in the premises of the houses of his supporters ... This evidence ... led the presiding judge, Sowemimo, to declare ... that there was overwhelming evidence of a plot to overthrow the Federal Government by force of arms and that Awolowo was privy to it ... Awolowo and some others were found guilty and imprisoned.

(Anifowose 1982, p. 59)

In late 1964, a general election was held during which new alliances were struck between parties. The NPC joined with the Western Region Nigerian National Democratic Party and a number of smaller parties to form the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA), leaving the Eastern Region NCNC to uneasily join with the Action Group from the west and two small northern parties in opposition.

The split between the Northern People's Congress and the NCNC resulted from a dispute over a 1962 census of Nigeria which seemed likely to reduce the estimated population of the Eastern Region, thus reducing the number of federal seats for the region. Because of the dispute, the census was taken again in November 1963, with even less satisfactory results for the Eastern Region. It produced apparently inflated population estimates for the Northern and Western regions but no increase in population from the previous census for the Eastern Region. As Robin Luckham describes:

Both the NPC and Chief Akintola's government in the West ... stood by the result, and, protest as it might, the NCNC was quite powerless to prevent the apportionment of seats in the forthcoming Federal election on the basis of the census figures. This dispute also led to vitriolic exchanges between the North and the East in politicians' speeches and the regional government-controlled newspapers ... In the North, the Ibos were already the focus of much hostility as a large and successful immigrant group and the open conflict between the regions at a national level was made the occasion for punitive measures against Easterners at a local level, such as expulsion from market stalls by the Native Authorities.

(Luckham 1971, p. 213)

The problems between Ibos and northerners quickly spread to the west where, in March 1964, the regional government accused Ibos of nepotism within federal educational and bureaucratic organisations and moved to 'correct' the situation.

As might be expected, the 1964 election was a turbulent one. As Post and Vickers describe:

... the institutional trappings of the democratic electoral model of the Western world were faithfully reproduced. Electors were enumerated and registered, candidates nominated, and security arranged. Parties set organisation machinery in motion, issued manifestoes, and even signed pledges ensuring non-interference in the campaigns of rival parties [but] ... the parties ignored or only paid lip-service to electoral provisions laid down by the administration. In place of these provisions others, designed to give grater assurance of success at the polls, were adopted. Thuggery (a term used by Nigerians to describe beatings and killings) and rigging (another term meaning illegal alteration of administrative procedures to influence the election outcome) became favoured methods through which the parties gained and maintained support.

(Post & Vickers 1973, p. 3)

Major parties were accused of hiring thugs to disrupt campaign meetings and intimidate candidates, local and regional government resources were used by those in control to make electioneering difficult for rival parties and rumours of possible coup attempts were rife-none of which seem to have had any substance. The result of all this was a sweeping victory for the NPC in the north and the NNDP in the west, with the results for other parties badly affected by threatened electoral boycotts and by the tactics of the winning parties.

In 1965, with a new coalition in power federally, patronage shifted from incumbents of positions in federal institutions to those who had earned favour with the new leadership. The big losers in the reshuffle seem to have been Ibos who, with the loss of coalition status by the NCNC, lost federal government patronage.

Since the NPC controlled the north and the NNDP the west, opposition parties looked forward to the 1965 regional election in the Western Region, hoping that the Action Group, which had lost ground to the NNDP in the 1994 election, would regain control of the west, thus counteracting the NNA strength in the federal parliament. This was not, however, to eventuate. As Luckham describes:

The campaign was the most violent in Nigerian politics so far; and the election itself, which took place in October 1965, was openly rigged by the NNDP. Candidates were prevented from filing their nominations, local government police and thugs kept political opponents from the polls, ballot boxes were stuffed with extra ballot papers and when all else failed, NNDP candidates were declared elected by the regional radio station in contests that went against them. The outcome was popularly regarded as unjust and illegitimate and the AG refused to recognise the result. Widespread rioting ensued, from October 1965 to January 1966, and the conditions of disorder permitted gangs of party thugs or brigands purporting to be party members, to rob, loot, burn and kill.

(Luckham 1971, pp. 218-9)

The stage had been set in January 1966 for the first of Nigeria's military coups.

In the eyes of many Nigerians, politics had become irredeemably corrupt and there seemed no way out of the political morass into which the country had drifted over the preceding three years. The big losers in the political infighting of the period had been the NCNC which represented the majority of Ibos and the AG which claimed to represent a majority of the Yoruba. The Action Group was under siege in the Western Region and in some disarray, with violence escalating. As Anifowose says:

... a section of the army finally intervened in a coup which led to the overthrow of civilian governments throughout Nigeria. ...Among the Yoruba, the immediate reaction to the violent change of government was one of relief at the elimination of the hated government of Akintola.

(Anifowose 1982, p. 251)

During the latter half of 1965, a number of military officers began discussing the possibility of a coup to restore' order' to Nigerian politics. In November, with the regional elections resulting in widespread violence and fraud, they completed plans for the overthrow of civilian government and the establishment of interim military rule. Arthur Nwankwo spells out his view of the situation:

On 15 January 1966 Nigeria's postcolonial experiment with democracy ended when soldiers struck, killing some politicians, sacking the civilian government, and imposing military rule. Several factors were responsible for the collapse of Nigeria's First Republic, but among the most crucial was Regionalism, with its attendant ethnic dominance of each of the three regional governments .... it was not the Constitution that failed, but the politicians who operated it, for they were too narrow-minded, too reckless and intellectually and emotionally unprepared for the functions the Constitution placed on them. It was the violent rivalry for power among the politicians, coupled with massive corruption, brazen injustice and political and religious intolerance which brought about the demise of the First Republic.

(Nwankwo 1984, pp. 6-7)

The military coups of Nigeria have, in almost all cases, been justified as necessary in order to stamp out corruption in high places and restore law and order to the country prior to civilian rule being once again established. As the leader of the first coup put it:

Neither myself nor any of the other lads was in the least interested in governing the country-we are soldiers and not politicians ... We were going to make civilians of proven honesty and efficiency who would be thoroughly handpicked to do all the governing.

(cited in lhonvbere 1992, p. 108)

Because the military have often enjoyed widespread support from people disenchanted with the consequences of democratic party politics, they have usually been able to co-opt civilians to serve in key government posts, so that, despite there being a military head of state, many of the key bureaucratic positions have been held by civilians. Democratic party politics, in a country where people's primary allegiances are to their ethnic groups and clans, seem to lead not to democratic government but rather to ethnic and/ or clan-based warfare, with leaders of groups competing for the spoils of electoral office. Given the historical relationships between the groups in Nigeria, and the lack of a sense of national identity amongst most people, the presumption by the planners of independence that the federal government would dominate the political scene seems naive indeed. As Isawa Elaigwu puts it:

... the regional governments had become so powerful that they relegated the federal government to obscurity. They violated the constitution with reckless abandon. Politicians, in making their exit from the political arena, extracted no sympathy tears from Nigerians. They had prostituted political power, adulterated the political process, and bastardised the rules of politics. As politics was drastically transformed from a game into a battle, the political stadium was grossly polluted ... politics became dangerous for politicians and spectators alike.

(Elaigwu 1988, p. 176)

Those under threat from the political developments of late 1965 were the Action Group in the west and the lbo-dominated NCNC in the east. Coup leaders could clearly be identified with these disadvantaged groups, and the consequences of the coup seemed to favour them. As Oyediran describes:

Even if the coup was planned with the best of intentions, its outcome looked patently to the other ethnic groups, particularly in the North and West, like an lbo conspiracy. Firstly ... of the seven ringleaders, six were lbo. Secondly, but more importantly, the victims were virtually all non-lbo, even though the lbo political leaders ... were as solidly steeped in the vices of the First Republic as any other ethnic group. However, matters grew even worse when the dust of the January coup settled and General lronsi eventually took over ... Even in the North where there was scepticism, the attitude was that of wait-and-see rather than of outright hostility. Unfortunately, lronsi wasted this goodwill and in this he was not helped by the post-coup actions and words of his fellow lbos who in public places in Northern towns jeered at and taunted the people of the Northern Region for their losses.

(Oyediran 1979, pp. 27-8)

Within the first six months of the coup, in order to counter the strength of the regions, which many commentators of the time saw as one of the major reasons for the failure of democracy in Nigeria, Ironsi announced the abolition of the federal system of government in Nigeria. To consolidate his own position he also promoted a large number of Ibos to high rank in the military. Northerners and those westerners who supported the NNDP saw the abolition of the federal system as an attempt by the east to grab control of the whole country to their advantage. This seemed to be corroborated by the promotion of Ibos through the military ranks. Consequently, rioting erupted in both the north and west over the next six months, aimed mainly at Ibo populations in those regions. This resulted in increasing numbers of Ibos migrating back to the east to escape the escalating hostility.

In July 1966, Yakubu Gowon led a successful counter-coup against the military leadership. Ironsi and numbers of his Ibo officers were killed and hostility toward Ibos spread throughout Nigeria. For the next three months, military leaders were more concerned with establishing power within the military than with governing the country, and the rioting of the pre-coup period 'degenerated into mass killings of Ibos in September 1966' (Oyediran 1979, p. 28).

Finally, Gowon, who was regarded by many as representing northern interests, emerged as head of state, to the dismay of Ibos, and the scene was set for civil war. As Oyediran says:

This unacceptability of Gowon as the head of state ... had its source in the September killings. However, it eventually became a factor in its own right; Gowon was seen as a symbol of 'Northern domination' which in turn was considered as a threat to the very existence of Ibos. For the Ibos therefore the solution to this crisis lay not merely in removing Gowon but in breaking up the country and allowing the Ibos a separate existence.

(Oyediran 1979, p. 29)

In May 1967, as a result of Eastern Region moves to declare itself independent as the Republic of Biafra, Gowon declared a state of emergency throughout the country and reorganised it into twelve states, to replace the three-region organisation which seemed responsible for the present problems. As Onyeoziri says:

... by altering the structure of the federation, state creation enhanced the visibility of the centre as a focus of attachment of national sentiments. Besides, by rescuing some of the minority groups from majority group domination, state creation strengthened minority faith in the national unit. And by reducing the size of the constituent units of the federation, state creation reduced the capacity of large and majority groups to challenge the centre. Such a reduced capacity can also rationally induce the people of those units to look up to the centre as a more realistic hope for protection.

(As Onyeoziri 1990, p. 86)

What this reorganisation did, of course, was increase the authority and visibility of the centre through decreasing the power of the regions. At the same time, it gave more effective voice to minorities whose interests had been swamped by the political machinations of the major groups through the preceding six years.

Unfortunately, since Gowon was seen as representing northern interests, the new military leadership was as unacceptable to the east as the displaced leadership had been to the north. When Gowon announced that the eastern region was to be divided into three separate states, easterners saw this as an attempt to dismember the east and destroy its political effectiveness. Within a month, the country was plunged into a bitter and bloody three-year civil war.

Unlike many of the internal conflicts in postcolonial nations of the period, the Nigerian war could scarcely be seen as a confrontation between capitalism and communism. The central government and the military leadership which displaced it were strongly supportive of Western interests and received support from the major Western nations. On the other hand, the Ibo had long been regarded as the most 'educated' and Westernised of Nigerians, those who were strongly orientated toward private enterprise and capitalism and amongst the most successful business leaders in Africa. Many people, and particularly a large part of the Western press, identified with them in their struggle for independence and readily supported the war effort. So both parties were given arms and other forms of support by Western interests. As Oyediran describes:

The May-September 1966 killing of Ibos made the Nigerian case difficult to understand not only for the Western press but also their readers. Moreover there was a generalised sympathy for the Ibos arising from the belief that they were the Jews of Africa and certainly the most Westernised Africans.

(Oyediran 1979, pp. 37-8)

Without external support the war would have been of much shorter duration since the Ibos had very limited military power at the start and relied on external supplies to continue their resistance. The Nigerian military increased its size twenty-fold during the war, giving it a far stronger hold on the country after the war than it had before.

The leadership gained wide approval for the restraint it showed in victory, providing it with a sense of legitimacy amongst Nigerians and in international forums. Over the next five years, however, Gowon governed Nigeria in an increasingly autocratic manner. States were governed by military governors who, in the words of Martin Dent:

... were behaving in an increasingly arrogant way, more so even than their colonial predecessors, and were, in addition, almost all practising financial corruption on a large scale. They provoked great unpopularity among the populations of their states and anger and jealousy among their colleagues in the services ... Gowon seems to have had an inexplicable timidity in dealing with them, and to have feared that they might gang up on him if he swept them out of office.

(Dent 1975, p. 354)

In 1970, Gowon promised that Nigeria would be returned to civilian rule by 1976, but during the next five years little was done to prepare the country for this return. His failure to deal with the blatant corruption of his military governors made many people suspect that he was as guilty as they. This escalating corruption was accompanied by mounting economic problems which seem, in part, to have been due to unwise decisions made by the leadership at both regional and federal levels.

Despite problems of corruption and an apparent unwillingness to move the country back toward civilian rule, Gowon's term seems to have been characterised by an attempt to secure efficient local administration. The effect of this was to move the country back to pre-independence forms of administration, with district officers responsible to state authorities overseeing area councils, and states directly responsible to the central administration. Above all, in the wake of the civil war, a new emphasis was placed on the need for a strong and efficient defence force. As the Second National Development Plan spelt out:

... although the defence and security sector can be regarded as largely unproductive from an economic stand-point, recent experience shows that its effective performance is very crucial to the very existence of the nation.

(Adekson 1981, p. 4)

The military was to emphasise the need for firm directive control, focused in its central council. As Elaigwu suggests, by the time Gowon was deposed, 'he had successfully centralised the political system. No state was in a position to secede any longer' (Elaigwu 1988, p. 187). In 1974, Gowon announced that the military would remain in control indefinitely, not returning the country to civilian rule. This was strongly resented in many quarters and was to be a major contributing factor to his downfall the following year. Although the leadership was military, this did not entirely insulate it from public scrutiny and criticism. As the Nigerian experience has shown over the years, military rule needs to take account of civilian opinion if it is to minimise opposition. Since members of the military hierarchy are strongly connected to the various ethnic and clan-based communities of the country, leaders respond to pressures placed on them by non-military groups.

At the end of July 1975, while Gowon was out of the country, the military staged a coup and Murtala Mohammed replaced him as head of state. Mohammed quickly responded to the main criticisms of the Gowon regime. The military governors of the states were replaced by military personnel of lower ranks and less power, with all but three of them appointed to states outside their regions of origin, and with their term of office considerably shortened; all officers of the rank of general were removed from their positions; a date 'not later than October 1st 1979' was set for new elections and a return to civilian rule; a committee was appointed to examine the need for reform of the state organisation of 1967; a fifty-member constitutional committee was appointed with responsibility for drafting a new constitution to be ready for the next elections; and work was started on the reorganisation of local authorities. All this in the first six months of the new administration.

Mohammed was assassinated in February 1976 and General Obasanjo took over as head of state, maintaining the initiatives of his predecessor. In September 1978, the new constitution was promulgated, modelled on the US constitution. It broke with the Westminster parliamentary system and instituted an American-style presidential system with an elected president of Nigeria and elected governors of each of the states. Legislatures were to be elected at the state level, with two houses, a senate and a house of representatives, at the federal level. Having found that the Westminster system did not work in Nigeria, another Western model was to be used for the next attempt at civilian rule in Nigeria. The number of states was also increased from twelve to nineteen, in an attempt. to break the stranglehold of the three major ethnic groups and their related political parties.

Political parties were also required to have certain characteristics before they could be registered for the 1979 elections. Amongst other requirements, they had to demonstrate that they were genuinely Nigeria­wide parties, with active party organisation in each of the nineteen states. The range of requirements was detailed and aimed at ensuring that politics could not devolve into competition for power between major regions (Beckett 1987). However, despite all efforts, three major parties emerged from the 1979 elections with voting profiles which all-too-closely echoed those of the early 1960s. The stage was set for all the political manoeuvring of the first democratic period. As Beckett says, by 1983, the economy was in disarray and:

The public's sense of economic disorder was heightened by a rapidly growing public awareness of a level of corruption, especially on the part of many of the elected officials and their allies in the large-scale business sector, that, in terms of scale, was without Nigerian precedent.

(Beckett 1987, p. 105)

The 1983 elections, the first since the handover of power from the military to civilian leaders, were marked by levels of rigging, violence and intimidation that echoed the elections of 1964 and 1965: In early 1984, the military once again took control of the country:

Interestingly, despite the participation by so many in the democratic electoral processes just four months earlier, scarcely a voice was raised against the suspension of the Second Republic. To the contrary, there was every evidence of public rejoicing at the overthrow of the Shagari regime. And there was evidence as well of anger directed against the corruption, violence and mismanagement that was now said to have been the essence of Second Republic' democracy'.

(Beckett 1987, pp. 106-7)

It appeared that civilian Nigerians in political life were prone to the kinds of competition and violence which Sangmpam (1994, p. 4) claims are common in Third World countries. It seems that for violence and intimidation to be lessened in political life in countries where such competition inevitably divides people into competing ethnic and clan communities, Western-style electioneering needs to be minimised, for it is in the lead-up to elections that the problems arise, and in the aftermath of elections that recriminations lead to rioting and bloodshed directed against rival communities.

What military rule has offered in Nigeria is political leadership without the initial party competition which is inherent in Western democratic politics. Of course, there has been competition for position during military rule, as the coups and counter-coups have demonstrated throughout Nigerian postcolonial experience, but that competition has been constrained and channelled through the military. It does not result in open competition between ethnic and clan groups, each jockeying for power in a world where those who hold power gain access to wealth which can be passed to their supporters. The competition between ethnic communities shifts from electioneering to political manoeuvring within the military hierarchy.

Any military head of state who wishes to secure his hold on power needs to recognise and negotiate with leaders of important regional and ethnic groups. As Ironsi and Gowon both found, control of the military, without acceptance from the range of pressure groups in the country, will, almost inevitably, lead to leadership challenges and attempted coups. The upshot becomes a balancing of interests within the military and civilian bureaucratic hierarchies reflecting those pressures. Those leaders, in turn, need to shore up their support within their own groups through ensuring that a variety of forms of 'favour' flow to their supporters. Nigeria, in common with many Third World countries, is organised in terms of patron­-client relations, with patrons distributing favours and clients delivering support. Nnoli describes the situation as it developed in Nigeria during periods of both democratic and military government:

Most Nigerians have come to believe that unless their 'own men' are in government they are unable to secure those socio-economic amenities that are disbursed by the government. Hence, governmental decisions about the siting of industries, the building of roads, award of scholarships, and appointments to positions in the public services, are closely examined in terms of their benefits to the various ethnic groups in the country. In fact, there has emerged a crop of 'ethnic watchers' who devote much of their time and energy to assessing the differential benefits of the various groups from any government project.

(Nnoli 1980, p. 176)

Since 1984, Nigeria has been ruled by military heads of state, each on record as claiming that his administration would move the country back towards democratic civilian rule. In 1985, Ibrahim Babangida organised a bloodless coup which displaced the existing military leadership with his own supporters. He faced two pressing problems.

First, as a military leader, it was assumed that he was an interim head of state with a prime responsibility to reorganise the political landscape to ensure more effective civilian government. Having done so, he would organise national elections and return the country to democracy. In December 1985 he started the process. As Larry Diamond describes:

Babangida effectively inaugurated the transition back to civilian, democratic rule. His rhetoric was blunt and incisive, like countless pronouncements from former military regimes, in identifying 'the main contributors to our political instability' -political intolerance, economic mismanagement, electoral fraud and violence, abuse of power, 'crass opportunism' and corruption. He was no less accurate in noting the 'social chaos, cynicism, apathy and total disaffection of the general citizenry from the political leadership and processes' which those abuses generated.

(Diamond 1991-2, p. 33)

As had happened before, the gap between rhetoric and action was important. Although politicians were condemned as corrupt, Babangida, in fact, brought trials for corruption to a halt and freed those who had been arrested by the previous military leadership. This, given the patron-client nature of politics in the nation, is scarcely surprising. Any astute head of state, given the task of balancing the interests of the wide range of pressure groups within the country, knows that, inevitably, he also will one day be  accused of corruption, of siphoning wealth and power to himself and his supporters. To set a precedent which could only rebound on oneself is hardly wise.

As in most Third World countries, the dividing line between political and economic activity is very blurred. As Terisa Turner described economic activity in Nigeria in the 1970s:

The relationship between foreign businessmen and local actors from the national private and public sectors is called a 'commercial triangle' in this study, because it involves three parties to a buying or selling transaction. These parties are first, the businessman who represents the multinational corporation; second, the local middleman from the national private sector; and third, the state official who assists the foreign businessman in gaining access to the local market ... If a contract materialises, the state official is usually rewarded with a payment arranged by the go-between or middleman.

(Turner 1978, p. 167)

This has resulted in the emergence of a number of extremely wealthy 'capitalists' whose wealth, in large measure, comes from their ability to network transnational corporations with political leaders and provide those companies with means of circumventing indigenisation regulations. Very often these Nigerian 'economic leaders' appear to own and control major economic enterprises without, in fact, having any real authority within them (see Robison 1990 for a discussion of similar arrangements within Indonesia). As Biersteker explains, 'Several foreign executives commented that they deliberately have "no management role by their board of directors'" (1987, p. 268). Their role, of course, is not to manage day-to-day business activities, nor to formulate company policy, but to ensure an ongoing positive relationship between the company and relevant politicians and bureaucrats. They are the political partners in a political/ economic marriage, ensuring that businesses, which otherwise would encounter countless delays and obstructions in dealing with government, receive prompt attention and favourable consideration. Inevitably, there is a positive, affirming relationship between these major wealth holders and political and administrative leaders. Both benefit from the patronial relationships between them. Since those holding political power are, by definition, closely involved with such wealth holders, it is less than rational for politicians to institute stringent legal proceedings against them, even if those being prosecuted belong to other patron-client networks. Babangida was well aware of these matters when he moved to close proceedings against those accused of corruption in the civilian government.

However, having freed those accused of corruption, Babangida then banned all politicians who had been involved in the Second Republic (from 1979 to 1983) from holding political office or engaging in party political activity. He later extended this ban to all those who had held military or government posts and had been convicted of misconduct, and all those who currently held high positions in either the military establishment or in government. As Diamond says, 'The blanket ban effectively excluded every Nigerian who had ever played a prominent role in party politics' (Diamond 1991-2, p. 34). (These measures were repealed in 1991.) Then, in 1989, faced with very similar electoral problems to those encountered in previous Nigerian elections, Babangida decided to reorganise party politics in a way c which is reminiscent of the reorganisation undertaken in Indonesia in 1967 (see ch. 2). The military government would, itself, create two parties: the Social Democratic Party (SOP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC), 'one "a little to the left" and the other "a little to the right' (Diamond 1991-2, p. 36). As Diamond argues:

Since the early 1960s, Nigeria has had one broad plane of cleavage that cuts across ethnicity, uniting more 'progressive' forces north and south against a loose, northern-based coalition of conservatives and certain ethnic minorities ... By forcing all the existing parties and politicians to join the SDP or NRC on an equal footing, the government's fiat may have facilitated the reformation of these two coalitions without the violence and with less of the bribery than would otherwise have occurred. It also became possible for new leaders to emerge from 'the grassroots' in the successive elections that took place at the ward, local, state and federal levels during the first half of 1990.

(Diamond 1991-2, p. 36)

In 1987 and again in 1991, local government elections were held under regulations which minimised the possibility of states interfering in the process. Babangida's aim seems to have been to strengthen local governments at the expense of state governments, decentralising political decision making and reducing the power of political centres other than at the federal level.

As part of the move towards full civilian government, state governors and legislative bodies were elected during 1992 and 1993. This returned the thirty states to civilian rule, but left the military in federal control. In June 1993, a federal election was held to elect a federal president. The new organisation of the country into two political parties greatly reduced the violence and rigging of previous elections, so that the new elections were hailed in many quarters as the fairest in Nigerian history.

However, whereas Indonesian leaders have managed to control the electoral process by tying both the armed forces and civil service to their party organisation and controlling the leadership and philosophy of the opposition parties (see ch. 2, n. 24), the Nigerian military leadership failed to maintain such firm control of the process. Rather than organising a party which represented the interests of military and civil service personnel, headed by senior military officers and civil service leaders as a Nigeria­-wide alternative to the other two parties, the Nigerian military chose to step back from the process, yet attempt to influence the result; a dangerous practice unless the electoral result is accepted whatever the outcome. The consequence seems to have been that the victor in the federal election, Moshood Abiola, was not the one preferred by the leadership. Babangida was, therefore, left with the choice of either accepting the election result and losing control of government, or of declaring the election results null and void. He chose the second option and handed federal control to an interim-­appointed government, giving it responsibility for organising fresh elections.

A court challenge to this move resulted in a ruling which declared the interim government illegal. This was accompanied by widespread economically-based strikes through the country. In November 1993, Sani Abacha led a military takeover of the interim government. He immediately moved to reimpose firm military control of the country. He replaced the elected state governors with military appointees, disbanded the elected state and federal legislative bodies and banned all political activity within the country. This coup, unlike those in prior Nigerian history, was not to ensure a return to civilian rule, but an attempt to perpetuate military control. It has, therefore, faced mounting opposition from the very forces which, in prior coups, supported military takeover as the only means of combating political corruption and ensuring that new civilian leaders ruled in the best interests of the nation.

The second pressing problem faced by Babangida when he assumed office in 1985 was that of pending economic chaos. In 1986, in attempting to deal with the deepening crisis, Babangida adopted a World Bank-designed structural adjustment program, through which the economy, and therefore, of course, the government, would be subjected to structural reorganisation. This was to entail devaluation of the currency, the removal of subsidies, the 'downsizing' of the administrative bureaucracy and of state-run and/or state-controlled institutions, the privatisation of as much of current government activity as possible, and the deregulation of the financial system and economy. As in other Third World countries which have attempted such reorganisation, the results in Nigeria have been, at very best, mixed. Devaluation made local businesses less competitive; the removal of subsidies shifted the burden of economic reform squarely onto the shoulders of ordinary people, greatly reducing standards of living and placing increasing numbers of people in economic jeopardy; and deregulation handed increasing control of the Nigerian economy to outside forces, making the country increasingly vulnerable to the ebb and flow of international economic forces, with the government decreasingly effective in directing economic activity and organisation.

Babangida was fully aware of the thorough politicisation of economic activity in Nigeria. In countries where political organisation is based upon patron-client principles, economic activity is politically controlled. Those who control the political system therefore also control the economy. This is a feature of such government wherever it might be found. The economies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and of many other countries are intimately intertwined with politics, and economic success, in large measure, requires political patronage. As Ihonvbere says:

The Babangida regime had no illusions about the role of money in Nigerian politics. Politics in Nigeria has historically been an investment, a business into which someone invested heavily in order to reap huge rewards through access to state power and the control of public funds. The regime therefore decided to take the place of money and the place of the bourgeois class in the political transition process.

(lhonvbere 1992, p. 110)

The regime attempted to circumvent the influence of the rich and powerful on party politics by using government sources to fund the infrastructures required by the two parties. This policy required massive government expenditures in establishing the offices and positions required by two national political parties. However, although the intent was clearly laudable, the results appear to have been less than satisfactory. Those with access to funds simply spent their money, not on establishing political party infrastructure, but on a direct, aggressive buying of votes. As Ray Ekpu, a journalist, described the 1990 election of officers in the NRC:

Money-and this includes dollars and pounds sterling-changed pockets. Votes were freely auctioned at N1000 or $100 per piece and many of the voters who were carted in mammy wagons from their villages to Abuja smiled home with bulging pockets. One more proof that politics, Nigerian politics, is a high yielding investment.

(lhonvbere 1992, p. 115)

Over the past three years, with Abacha firmly in control of the country, despite mounting opposition and unrest within Nigeria and increasing pressure from First World governments, the country has suffered increasing political repression and the evidence suggests that there has been massive siphoning of government resources into private hands. As David Bacon claims:

Behind its military rulers, five companies tower over Nigeria: the British/Dutch Shell, the Italian AGIP, the French Elf-Aquitaine, and the U.S. giants Chevron and Mobil. They operate in partnership with the Nigerian National Petroleum Company, a government-run corporation. Control of the NNPC is rumored to have made General Sani Abacha, head of the country's military junta, a billionaire, and his military associates millionaires. According to Emmanuel Abisoye, a retired general who headed a 1994 investigation into oil-related corruption, 'the unwritten code in the NNPC style of management would appear to be everyone for himself and God for us all, make hay while the sun shines, and loot all lootables'.

(Bacon 1995)

On 30 May 1994, a National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) was formed to oppose the military rule of Abacha. On 12 June, the President­elect Abiola declared himself President of Nigeria. On 16 June, Abiola was jailed for treason. This led to massive protest both inside and outside the country and on 29 September, the Provisional Ruling Council was dissolved with Abacha passing a range of draconian laws to insulate himself from popular anger. On 4 November, Abacha ignored a Federal Appeal Court ruling ordering Abiola's release on bail. Over the next year, with corruption and incompetence escalating, the economy went into serious decline and the government went into massive deficit. The Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) owed its foreign partners nearly $1 billion in operating fees and companies began to close down oil rigs in an effort to force the government to meet its commitments.

On 10 November 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni were hanged by the Abacha government for speaking out against environmental damage to the Niger Delta caused by Shell Oil through its thirty-seven years of drilling in the region. This resulted in expulsion from the Commonwealth and in major protests around the world against Abacha's continued rule. In June 1996, Kudirat Abiola, wife of the gaoled winner of the presidential elections in 1993, was shot and killed, leading to further protests around the world and to an escalation in opposition to the military government.

During the 1990s there has been evidence of escalating violence throughout Nigeria. On 24 April 1996, the All Africa Press Service reported the deaths of nearly 800 people in inter-ethnic fighting in all parts of the country, with many more injured, and with thousands of people fleeing their homes and villages to escape the violence.

Since 1992, the government has issued a range of backdated decrees, legalising acts of repression against those who oppose its continued rule. These include a sweeping removal of the jurisdiction of the courts to challenge government authority and actions, and detention without trial for up to three months.

Over the past three years there have been many rumours of attempted coups. Numbers of senior military officers have been gaoled, and many more demoted or 'retired'. Nigeria, in the 1990s, seems to be facing all the problems it has faced over the preceding forty years, with little evidence of an improvement in the political fortunes of the nation. As an Earth Action report claims:

A wave of popular anger against military rule is sweeping across Nigeria. As peaceful protest is replaced by violent confrontation, Nigeria's fragile unity is threatened and there are ominous echoes of the 1967-70 Biafran war, one of the bloodiest conflicts in African history. As the political crisis escalates, dangerous separatist tendencies are being unleashed, and the country risks once again spiralling towards civil war. Nigeria has many different ethnic groups, and a north-south religious split. The three biggest groupings are the Moslem Hausa of the north, and the Yoruba and Igbo in the south. Human Rights Watch/Africa warns that the widespread abuses committed by the military regime 'are contributing directly to the creation of a climate of ethnic and regional mistrust and violence'. Many southerners resent what they see as continued domination by a northern elite, and the generals' close identification with the northern Moslems means that ethnic and religious considerations become important in any standoff between military and civilians ... Amnesty International warns 'The growing polarisation of Nigerian politics, compounded by increasing ethnic tension ... could spell the beginnings of the bloodiest conflict since Biafra'. Momodu Kasim Momodu, chair of Amnesty's Nigerian section, says: 'I have never witnessed a potentially more explosive human rights disaster such as this. The wounds left by the Biafran war have never healed. They run deep in the collective consciousness of Nigerian society. If the world continues to ignore what is happening in this country, we could have carnage on our hands.'

(EarthAction Nigeria Campaign 1994)

The emergence of Nigeria as a new nation-state in 1960 was heralded as providing Africa's best chance at the successful establishment of multi­party democratic government. Its history, however, seems to have confirmed Julius Ihonvbere's assertion that:

... the masses in Africa, relate to the state as an exploitative, coercive and alien structure [whose] custodians lack credibility and legitimacy and are thus incapable of mobilising or leading the people.

(Ihonvbere 1994, p. 43)

As we have seen, the past forty years have not produced a flourishing multi-party democratic nation-state, nor have they seen the emergence of 'national consciousness' in an increasingly legitimised nation-state. Rather, Nigeria has experienced continued ethnic conflict, political and economic turmoil, and governmental repression. Nigeria seems to be heading down a road from which there may be no national return. It seems unlikely that multi-party democracy will be successful in the foreseeable future, yet military rule has become increasingly oppressive and dictatorial. This story is not peculiar to Nigeria.

Throughout the Third World, new nations have experienced continued ethnic and religious conflict, and their governments have had difficulty in establishing their legitimacy and credibility amongst their populations. All too often, they remain unstable, faced by escalating economic, environmental and population difficulties, and by condemnation from international and First World organisations and governments. The future looks bleak and there seem few answers to the enormous difficulties with which these governments are confronted.


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