A supporter of Indigenous People of Biafra leader Nnamdi Kanu holds a Biafra flag during a rally in Abuja, Nigeria, December 1, 2015.
Afolabi Sotunde / Reuters

On October 1 Nigeria added to its list of vital statistics a new status as the world's fourth largest democracy. The list was already impressive. One African in four is a Nigerian; with a population of 80 million or more, Nigeria is larger than any country in Europe. It is also the world's eighth largest producer of crude oil and has been the United States' second largest supplier for six years, neither joining in the Arab boycott of 1973-74, nor cutting exports for policy reasons subsequently.

Any voluntary handover of government from military to civilian rulers is unusual. Nigeria's was, arguably, unique. Meticulously planned, and including civilians at all stages of the four-year process, it culminated in a change of government as smooth as in a Western democracy. Further, Nigerians set a precedent in breaking from their colonial constitutional heritage. Rejecting Britain's parliamentary form of democracy, which they had continued after their independence in 1960, they chose, in their first wholly Nigerian-made constitution, to follow the American model instead.

They made that choice with characteristic pragmatism: Nigeria, like the United States, is large, complex, heterogeneous; as one of Nigeria's constitution-makers said simply, "What works for you may work for us." Americans, unaccustomed these days to being seen as exemplary, even historically, need to consider the statement Nigerians have made, however indirectly.

Nigeria's new government looks remarkably familiar to an American. The newly elected President has ahead of him a four-year term, with the possibility of a second term thereafter. The national assembly is bicameral, with a Senate of 95-five from each of the 19 states-and a House of Representatives of 449 members, distributed among the states by population. The independent judiciary has at the apex of its federal structure a Supreme Court of up to 15 justices. Each state has a governor (and, parallel to the vice-president, a deputy-governor), a unicameral House of Assembly and an independent judiciary.

Certain procedures are also familiar. For example, appointments to the cabinet, the Supreme Court, and ambassadorial posts require Senate confirmation. Americans should feel comfortable looking at Nigeria's new form of government-more comfortable than Britons, certainly, and even than many Nigerians, who are having to unlearn the Westminster model.

But the Nigerian constitution also has important special provisions that differ from the American (or any other) model-particularly those intended to ensure regional balance. The President must, for instance, have in his cabinet at least one minister from each of the 19 states in the federation.

For Nigeria's constitution-makers were preeminently determined to make repetition of their nation's past mistakes impossible. Theirs is a country of extraordinary complexity, whose people speak several hundred mutually unintelligible languages. Half of them belong to the three largest ethnic groups-Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa-Fulani; the rest, called "minorities," come from the more than 300 other groups.1 This diversity has brought agonies of growth to Nigeria. After receiving its independence in 1960, the civilian government broke down in the middle of the decade in conflicts among the three major groups over the distribution of power and resources-in which the Hausa-dominated Northern Region and Ibo-dominated Eastern Region first formed a coalition against the largely Yoruba Western Region. Two military coups, both bloody, followed in 1966, and ethnic tension escalated in the north into violence directed against easterners resident there. After the secession by the Eastern Region (self-proclaimed as Biafra), the country was plunged into civil war from 1967 to 1970. Again, the abortive coup attempt in February 1976, in which the head of state was assassinated, had an ethnic component. In light of this history, building a genuinely united nation, with institutions which would clamp down on virulent ethnic feeling, was the priority.

To take the primary example, the Supreme Military Council (SMC)2 and the civilians who drew up the Constitution were agreed on one vital matter: no one could become President of Nigeria with only sectional-or, more bluntly, tribal-support. Thus, apart from the largest number of votes, an incoming president must have geographical spread as well: according to the new Constitution, he must receive "one-quarter of the votes cast in each of at least two-thirds of the states in the Federation."

As it turned out, the newly elected President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, did receive significantly broader support than any other candidate. In every state but Lagos, he came in first or second. Nor could anyone claim that "his own people,"-the Hausa-Fulani ethnic group-put him in office; they neither all supported him, nor did they outnumber his other supporters. Indeed, it can be argued that he was elected not by any of the three large groups who had dominated First Republic politics but by the "minorities" all over the country. That is a change of stunning significance for Nigeria.

But the significance of the transition reaches far beyond Nigeria, and even beyond Africa. As President Nyerere of Tanzania commented to Nigeria's head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo, in 1977, "No military government has worked so hard to get itself out of power." A year later, at the 1978 summit of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Khartoum, the Nigerian leaders found that they had, to their delight, disconcerted other African military leaders who were planning prolonged-even unending-regimes of their own.3 In October 1979, Nigeria's military rulers took the army back to the barracks.

Not only did Nigerians have to devise structural changes to cope with questions of unity and stability, they had to overcome obstacles inherent in introducing a complex version of democracy into a massively illiterate population. Although they had elected local government councils in 1976 as part of a reform often called "revolutionary" in its implications for traditional power, there had been no national elections since 1964. Those who remembered the First Republic thought in terms of choosing a single member of parliament, of casting one vote in one election. Instead, on five successive polling dates in the summer of 1979, Nigerian voters had to choose members of two federal legislatures and one state, state governors and finally a national president. If democracy presupposes an informed populace, a task as great as bringing institutional change itself was how to inform them.

Thus, what has happened in Nigeria is significantly different. But it is only in following the processes that brought the transition, not simply in stating the outcome, that one can see why the differences matter. For those processes also show the complexity of the problems Nigerians have already had to solve, as well as their care in dealing with them. In both these respects, their solutions have meaning beyond their borders.


When on October 1, 1975 the late General Murtala Muhammed set forth the precise timetable that would hand over power to civilians exactly four years later, Nigerians were not hearing such a promise for the first time. From the coup in January 1966 that ended the political chaos of the First Republic, Nigeria's military rulers had continued to state explicitly that their rule was an aberration in Nigeria's governance. The end of the civil war, a conflict viewed in Nigeria now with near unanimity as tragically unnecessary, saw not only a program of reconciliation and reconstruction unprecedented in intrastate conflict of this sort, but also a pledge from the then head of state General Yakubu Gowon that civilians would rule Nigeria by 1976.

When Gowon reneged on that promise in October 1974, he opened the way for his own ouster, in the bloodless coup of July 29, 1975 that brought General Murtala Muhammed to power. The Muhammed government was popular particularly because it offered to Nigerians not merely a vague promise but a program to reach civilian rule, with specific steps coming at clear intervals.

Throughout this four-year period, the military government kept strictly to its proclaimed schedule. The abortive coup of February 13, 1976, took the life of General Muhammed and caused national trauma, but affected the political program of the government not at all. Most Nigerians say that the very survival of the new government, led by then Lieutenant-General Obasanjo, depended on its adhering to the timetable for the handover, and because of evident commitment as well, adhere it did. To arbitrate vexed electoral issues it created the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO). This body, whose 23 commissioners included one from each state, had procedural and logistical responsibility for everything from voter registration to announcing the final results. It was, by law, completely independent of everyone, including the Supreme Military Council itself.

By the time of Muhammed's speech the first steps of the process had been implemented. The SMC had already appointed 49 civilians-with a range of professional qualifications and coming from the 12 states into which Nigeria was then divided-to a constitutional drafting committee, which convened on October 18. The rest would follow: creation of new states, making 19 (February 1976); submission of the draft constitution (August 1976); reorganization of local government (also in August); followed by local government elections that December.

In October 1977, after a year's public debate on the draft constitution, the Constituent Assembly convened, its members having been chosen through local government councils in August. In August 1978, the SMC received the proposed constitution, which, with 17 amendments, the head of state promulgated on September 20. The following day, a week ahead of schedule, Obasanjo launched the next stage by lifting the ban on political parties. Then, in April 1979, came the announcement of the five elections.


When the SMC lifted the ban on politics on September 21, 1978, Nigerians were watching to see who would emerge as civilian political leaders. Many were bound to come from among members of the Constituent Assembly. In the days when politics was still technically banned, Satellite Town, a complex of bungalows along the expressway leading west from Lagos, where the members lived, was the ideal place for the gestation of political parties: the police were not welcome there, and stayed outside. By late October 1978, no fewer than 30 political associations had announced themselves. By the time for registering political parties in December, there were 52 applicants!

The desirable number of political parties had long been a subject for debate. The Constituent Assembly had considered a limit of three at most, but the view that any limit would be undemocratic prevailed. At its December meeting, FEDECO ruled that five parties met the stringent requirements for registration, the most important of which was an established party presence in two-thirds of the states of the Federation. Other requirements ensured that parties would not appeal for support on ethnic or religious or regional grounds.

The presidential candidates of the five parties were then chosen or ratified by nominating conventions staged in the federal capital, Lagos. These conventions varied in form, in the degree of actual democratic choice open to delegates, and in their accessibility to public scrutiny. One at least had a banner-waving atmosphere so like that of the Democratic Party in the 1950s that American-educated Nigerians present shivered in recognition. All conventions had party delegates from as many states as could muster sufficient support.

Each of the five presidential candidates was known to his countrymen from the politics of the First Republic. The first to announce his candidacy, to no one's surprise, was Chief Obafemi Awolowo, about to turn 70 and a central figure in Nigeria's politics since the late 1940s. The one-time Premier of the largely Yoruba former Western Region, Awolowo has continued to personify Yoruba politics. Despite his reputation for hard and serious work, coupled with brilliant organization and analysis, controversy has dogged his career-through a treason trial and conviction; release from jail after Nigeria's second military coup in July 1966; a term as Commissioner (minister) for Finance in the government of General Yakubu Gowon, who had released him; and his resignation from that position in 1971 in order, everyone believed, to prepare for the politics of civilian rule, which was theoretically imminent then. His countrymen took it in stride that when the ban on politics was lifted, Awolowo emerged with a fully organized political party, the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), with himself as its presidential candidate. Although the draft constitution would have barred from elected office anyone who had been "found guilty of corruption, unjust enrichment, or abuse of office between October 1, 1960 and the date when this section comes into force," one of the SMC's amendments changed the date to January 15, 1966-seemingly to permit Awolowo to run.

Another presidential candidate who has been a constant in Nigeria's political scene, and perhaps its greatest historical-political luminary, was Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. American-trained and a journalist from the Ibo-dominated former Eastern Region, Azikiwe (known popularly as Zik) founded Nigeria's first clearly nationalist political party, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, in 1944. At independence in 1960 he became the first Nigerian Governor-General, and then its largely honorary President. During the civil war, he at first supported Biafran secession, but later shifted his allegiance to the federal government. Zik was chosen to lead the Nigerian People's Party (NPP).

Two other candidates led parties largely based in the Muslim north-Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim and Alhaji Aminu Kano. A member of one of Nigeria's "minorities," rather than the largest of the main northern ethnic group, the Hausa-Fulani, Waziri was not himself a member of the Constituent Assembly; combining forces with other groups to create the NPP, his group split off to form the Great Nigeria People's Party (GNPP). Aminu Kano, 59 and active in Nigerian politics for some 20 years, led the People's Redemption Party (PRP), which continued its leader's long-time populist stand in opposition to traditional Hausa-Fulani aristocratic dominance.

Finally, many "heavyweights" of the old politics came together in Satellite Town to form the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). The party's claim to regional diversity was reflected in its many contenders for leadership from different areas of the country. (One member of the NPN commented that the party was-of necessity-formed in the dark, and when the lights went on, people were surprised to find who was with them.) Since the NPN did not form around a single and obvious presidential aspirant, it had to narrow the field and did so by what Nigerians called "zoning": allocating an office to each geographical section of the country. The presidential candidate would come from the old North (now the ten northern states); the vice-president from Iboland; the party chairman would be Yoruba; and the president of the newly elected Senate, if the party should control that post, would come from the "minorities."4

The man who emerged from a six-way final contest at the NPN convention, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, had always been described as a quiet unassuming man, and had been a reluctant candidate. He had, however, had continuous experience in government-as a junior minister in the First Republic, in several ministerial positions in the Gowon government, among them as Commissioner for Finance in succession to Awolowo-and had also been a member of the Constituent Assembly. He was, nonetheless, viewed by many at the time of his nomination as a pliable agent of his party's heavyweights. His ethnic background was also emotionally charged for many Nigerians: he was a Fulani from Sokoto, like the titan of First Republic politics, the Sardauna of Sokoto, the leader of the Northern People's Congress that dominated Nigeria's pre-civil war civilian government and for many non-northerners personified what they called "Fulani hegemony." (The Sardauna was assassinated in the January 1966 coup.)

After January 1979, the parties took to the road, covering the entire country in a fashion unimaginable in bygone days of wholly regional politics. The scrambling to find candidates was intense-the states would have to produce 95 senators; 449 members of the House of Representatives; 19 governors and their deputies; 1,347 members of state Houses of Assembly. Multiplied by five parties, the number became an impossible quota even for a large country. In the end, only the NPN could field candidates for most positions.

Only on April 1 did the SMC announce the dates of the elections that would come weekly, starting with the senatorial election on July 7, and continuing on July 14 with the election of the federal House of Representatives, on July 21 with the election of state legislators, on July 28 with state gubernatorial elections, and finally, on August 11, with the presidential election. Until then, their number, their order, and the intervals between them had been only speculation. Then, later in April, FEDECO cast doubt on the candidacies of Azikiwe and Aminu Kano, who they alleged had not met the requirement that candidates produce receipts for income tax payments (made when due) for the preceding three years. This requirement, in the end, disqualified some candidates for all elections, but the possible ouster of two presidential candidates stimulated a spate of conspiracy theories. First Azikiwe and then Aminu Kano asked the courts to clarify their tax status. Azikiwe's status was resolved less than three weeks before the August 11 presidential election, when an appeal by FEDECO against the Enugu high court's ruling in his favor in May was dismissed. As for Aminu Kano, the court decision in his favor came only on August 1.

All along, the electorate was in fact the greatest imponderable. How would Nigerians vote after more than 13 years? The hold of the old political ties and alignments, the youth of so many voters (all citizens over 18 were eligible to vote), the far larger number of women voters than ever before, would each affect the outcome. And the form of the elections created another conundrum: Would bandwagons roll from each election to the next? Most important, had the structural changes made by the military specifically to counteract the malign effects of ethnic and regional politics in fact brought fundamental change?

On July 7, the day of the first election, people throughout the southern states peered into an all-day downpour which even for the rainy season was a notable display. The optimists said, "It is washing away whatever bad anyone may be trying to do." In local symbolism rain is a good sign.

But the rains were the least of FEDECO's problems. They had dealt with extraordinary logistical difficulties already, registering 48 million voters, some in bush stations not accessible by road, placing 97,000 polling stations throughout the country and equipping them with ballots for each election and voters' registers. (The expenses of the election finally approached $100 million.) The inevitable flaws in execution provoked complaints and vividly retold stories about people wandering great distances, from polling place to polling place, looking for their names on the voters' registers. As the results trickled in, not over hours but days, the air was heavy with charges and countercharges of rigging and skull-duggery.

And yet, during that and subsequent elections, a tour of polling places revealed scenes of impressive order: queues, scarcely an argument, and, most of all, no violence. For many Nigerians this was their first national election. The 18-year-olds were small children in 1964. Women in the northern states had not had the franchise 15 years ago, and now, in the Muslim areas, they worked out systems to deal with the challenges purdah presented, waiting with their own line stretched out at right angles to that of the men. Most striking was the contrast with the 1960s, when thugs frequently broke up political meetings, arson and murder were common, and intimidation was the context for voting itself.

The results of the senatorial election brought some answers about how voters would behave. Awolowo's party, UPN, won overwhelmingly in five states-all part of the old Western Region and four solidly Yoruba-and came in second in one other, also with a large Yoruba population. Zik's party, the NPP, won almost as massively in the two Ibo states, but also had more than 50 percent of the vote in Plateau, a northern state located in an area at the mid-section of the country known as the Middle Belt. The northern-based parties led by Aminu Kano and Waziri Ibrahim (PRP and GNPP) each led in one or two northern states, and GNPP came in second in a number of others. The NPN, however, had clearly the greatest and widest support, having received the most votes in eight states, and the second-largest number in ten others; only in Lagos was it as low as third.

The results provoked general distress over the tenacity of old political ties-which translates as "tribalism." The solid Ibo support for Zik showed the persistence of ethnically based interest groups. This was even clearer in the case of the Yoruba, whose support for UPN scarcely fell below 80 percent, and in some states was over 90. The Yoruba have since the war gained an ascendancy that they want to preserve in many arenas: in the private sector of the economy, the civil service, the foreign service, even the army. Perhaps more importantly, the Yoruba remember vividly the politics of the First Republic, when they were excluded from power and their part of the country was made the literal battleground during the elections of 1964 and 1965. In Nigeria people do not forget their own past traumas-but as one of them said, "We will truly have a nation when we also remember each other's."

In other parts of the country, voting was far less consistent, perhaps because the northern counterpart of Zik and Awolowo, the Sardauna, was not there to become a historic focal point, perhaps because there were three presidential candidates from the far north. (Those states with no favorite son went heavily with NPN.)

Significant changes had, however, taken place. The NPN could now claim a national base. Perhaps most important for outside observers, the political reintegration of the Ibo seemed resoundingly accomplished. They had played a central role, with every presidential ticket carrying an Ibo. All vice-presidential candidates save Zik's were Ibo; his own presidential candidacy was the clearest statement of how far reconciliation had been achieved.

As Saturday followed Saturday, voters went to the polls in larger numbers each week, but the voting patterns remained roughly the same. Nationally, there was no bandwagon, though winning parties tended to increase their margins in each state as the elections progressed. Possibly because the registration figures were inflated, the voter turnout was smaller than expected: the highest turnout, for the presidency, was just under 35 percent.5 But when voters come to the polls five times in six weeks-in steadily growing numbers-they can hardly be called apathetic.


As August 11 and the presidential election approached, the results seemed nearly predictable, but whether the NPN would get the required quarter of the votes in two-thirds of the states was highly questionable. In each of the previous elections, NPN had done so in 12 states; only in the State Assembly election had they done so in 13. If no candidate received one-quarter of the vote in two-thirds of the states, the election would, according to the Constitution, be thrown to the electoral college, comprising all just-elected federal and state legislators, who would choose between the two top candidates (presumably Shagari and Awolowo). Indeed, for weeks Awolowo and Waziri had been working to forge an alliance explicitly to "stop NPN"-in the elections if possible, but in the electoral college if necessary. Moreover, since electoral votes were not constitutionally tied to popular votes, no one knew what would determine the choices individuals might make. If the alliance had held and the election had been thrown into the electoral college, the President could have been Awolowo (who had received 4,916,651 votes concentrated in Yoruba areas to Shagari's significantly spread 5,688,857).

After the results showed that Shagari had the required 25 percent in 12 states but only 20 percent in a 13th (Kano), FEDECO announced that Shagari was elected President. FEDECO had by-passed the electoral college by unexpectedly interpreting the two-thirds requirement as twelve and two-thirds, rather than 13-and arguing that Shagari had achieved this by taking 25 percent of two-thirds of the votes cast in Kano State. Awolowo took the issue to the courts, as vociferous, emotional and partisan reaction poured in. "We are always waiting for the other shoe to drop," commented a tired Nigerian, "and Nigeria is a centipede."

The electoral decree had provided for tribunals all over the country (which eventually reviewed hundreds of petitions, though only 25 elections were finally declared void), and, in the case of the presidential election only, for appeal to the Supreme Court. In the event, Chief Awolowo took his case all the way to the highest court, which handed down its decision affirming the FEDECO ruling on September 26, five days before the scheduled inauguration. Most of the nation breathed a sigh of relief.

Despite the fact that FEDECO had been placed explicitly above-or at least beyond-the law, it had faced the courts three times, abiding by all decisions. Thus, the role of the courts became critical in resolving electoral dilemmas, which gave a boost to the operation of an independent judiciary under the new government. And finally, in what may be construed as a farewell gift to the nation, the SMC at its last meeting on September 28 abolished the electoral college in favor of a runoff vote when another round may prove necessary in the future.


Ironically, as October 1 approached, demands by the disgruntled that the army enter the process increased. The military, however, displayed a commitment to the successful implementation of the transition process that provides the best assurance of their genuine support for civilian rule. Through it all, the SMC played an unobtrusive but important role. At the outset, General Muhammed clearly told the Constitutional Drafting Committee that the former parliamentary system must be changed to ensure the unity of the country; thereafter, the military entered the process only to set it straight when dissension seemed about to derail it-as when the head of state met with members of the Constituent Assembly to end a walkout over the issue of Islamic courts.

Although Nigerians claimed that the military was "teleguiding" events, the SMC held to its decision that conduct of the election would rest with FEDECO and the courts. While running Nigeria, the military was also preparing itself for the civilian era. The specific withdrawal and reorientation of the most senior officers had begun in July 1978 with General Obasanjo's announcement that all who continued to hold political positions would, at the handover, retire from the army. He and Brigadier (later Major General) Shehu Yar'adua, the Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters and in effect a kind of prime minister, committed themselves to leave the scene entirely-retiring from the military and politics alike. Brigadier (now Major General) Nanven Garba, the internationally respected Foreign Minister, on the other hand, left that "political" post in November 1978 to become Commandant of the Nigerian Defence Academy, which enabled him to continue his military career at the handover.

In addition, plans for general military reorganization and demobilization went into high gear from 1975 onward. Both have produced a much smaller army-down to 150,000 from 250,000 at the end of the civil war. Barracks have gone up all over the country to house soldiers previously living among civilians and in cities. And as October 1979 drew nearer, discussion seminars, tours and speeches by senior officers aimed at preparing all levels of the armed forces for the changes ahead. The goal of the army reorganization, as one of the now retired senior officers remarked, has been to bring the military "back to what we knew in the days before and just after independence, when the army was a truly national but nonpolitical institution." In striking contrast to departures of military governments elsewhere, Nigeria's former rulers, though young men-General Obasanjo, the oldest, is 42-have left the barracks completely for civilian life, thereby much reducing any implicit possibility of their return. Moreover, Nigerians widely believe that coups succeed only when the people support them (they point to the 1975 success and the 1976 failure), and thus the civilian leaders acknowledge that their firmest guarantee against any future coup is governing well.

The Obasanjo government was determined to leave the best possible economic legacy to the civilians. Development progress during military rule emphasized large expenditures on infrastructure-with enormous road-building and construction projects; a high priority for education and communications; major new ports; dams and irrigation projects. New universities brought the total to 13, and universal primary education got underway. The important political decision to move the capital from Lagos to Abuja in the center of the country entailed substantial expenditures even in the initial stages.

But despite oil, Nigeria is not a rich country, when one considers the size of its growing population. Further, material problems abound. Serious inflation-growing at a rate of at least 15 percent annually-administrative bottlenecks, slow growth in the industrial sector, and, critically, declining agricultural productivity continue to plague the economy.

Dependence on oil results in considerable uncertainty about revenues. In 1978, a decline in world demand, compounded by Nigeria's pricing itself out of the market, brought a drop in oil revenues. In addition, oil companies, complaining of insufficient incentives, had stopped exploration. By March 1978, production was down from 2.3 million barrels a day to 1.5 million. Subsequently, revisions in pricing and incentives renewed exploration: by October 1978, output had risen to 2.1 million barrels a day, though in each month it was lower than it had been in its counterpart the previous year.

Then, with events in Iran, the vagaries of the oil market changed in Nigeria's favor. Production rose to 2.4 million barrels a day at its height in the first part of 1979, and was then reined in by government policy to 2.2 million. Further, the price of Nigerian crude had risen 65 percent by October 1979, so that government revenue from oil has increased from $9.5 billion to at least $15 billion. Consequently, foreign exchange reserves, down to $2.4 billion at the end of 1978 (from $7.5 billion in 1976), were up to $4.42 billion by the end of September 1979.

But another source of strength came from the unpopular austerity budgets of 1978 and 1979, which banned many imports and licensed others. In addition, an anti-inflationary wage freeze had been in effect since 1976. Through these measures the military government took on itself the onus for austerity.

On the eve of the turnover, at the end of September, came a sudden discovery of "improved revenue" in both the oil and non-oil sectors, of some $5.1 billion, which was announced along with the $3.6 billion supplementary budget that revenue made possible. Thus, if the Shagari government faces enormous economic challenges, the SMC has left it in a far stronger position than might have been predicted. And, importantly, the Nigerian public has become attuned to some of the harsher economic realities. Indeed, the outgoing military government may be credited with taking austerity a step further than absolutely necessary-precisely to give the new civilian regime a chance to meet some popular expectations for improvement.


President Shagari, at 55 the second youngest of the aspirants, has, since his election, shown a forcefulness and confidence that belie the standard description of him during the campaign as "quiet, unassuming and modest." His long experience in government and familiarity with Nigeria's problems is one source of strength. Another is that, in contrast to so many of his countrymen, he has studied the new political system carefully and mastered especially the President's role in it.

In a period of adjustment, dramatic actions are unlikely from Shagari's administration. After the Supreme Court's verdict, he stressed his commitment to building the nation: "It is so urgent and so important that we cannot afford any more rancor, division or strife. In order to make . . . progress possible, we must work for peace, unity and stability." Nation-building beyond the structural changes already in place is a painstaking process.

The continuing problems of development are constants. While the GDP for 1978-79 is $50.2 billion (up from $33.8 billion in 1975-76), and the rate of economic growth is again rising after dropping to 2.9 percent during 1977-78, population is growing at around 2.6 percent. The military governments aimed to move quickly in building infrastructure, but a good many mistakes-and waste-resulted. In the projected 1980-85 development plan, whose guidelines are already drafted, the keynote is consolidation; for the Shagari government this approach is congenial and correct.

The similarity of the political parties' programs testified to the clarity of Nigeria's problems. Ideology continues to play a very minor role in the country's politics, reflecting a popular consensus about solving problems within the framework of what Nigerians have long been calling a "mixed economy."6

The manifestos of all the parties stressed agriculture, industry, rural development, education, housing, medical facilities and care, and full employment. The differences were in emphasis, most strikingly with UPN's promise of free education immediately at all levels, and NPN's highest priorities placed on agriculture and housing.

Shagari, when asked, quipped that his "Green Revolution would begin at 10 a.m. on October 1," but added with intense seriousness that agricultural problems are not susceptible to dramatic and instant solutions. "I don't believe in rash actions," he said a week before his inauguration. "I take my time whatever I'm doing, and I must be sure of myself. In 1975 the regime did everything in a flash, made a great impression-and then found they had made some mistakes. I am not going to do that. I am not a military man. I will endeavor to do what I've promised within my term of office. I don't want you to expect miracles from October."

If improvement in the agricultural sector is vital (the slight increase of 1.8 percent in cash and food crop production in the last year was the first encouraging sign in about a decade of stagnation), what buys time for Nigeria is oil. Because the oil and natural gas will not last forever-Nigerians estimate reserves conservatively at 15 to 20 years-oil policy is critical to Nigeria's long-term future.

Shagari will have a special adviser on petroleum, which will be handled from the President's office. Decisions about production are likely to place upper limits in the interest of conservation, but will keep production as high as possible-simply because the oil revenue is essential to all development plans, including the diversification needed to decrease dependence on it. Nigeria's November price increase of $2.77 a barrel officially reflects "the present market situation"; that is, with Libya and Algeria raising their prices on comparable grades of crude, Nigeria, by holding down its own, stood to lose some $5.5 million a day in revenue. Concurrently, Nigeria is moving to exploit its sizable gas reserves; finding customers for a planned liquefied natural gas project will command special attention.

In other economic sectors, Shagari's government has set a high priority on improving the climate for foreign investment to assure not only necessary capital for agricultural and industrial development, but also technical know-how. For some time, foreign enterprises have apparently viewed this climate as decidedly chill, probably reflecting less a judgment about Nigeria's economic potential than uncertainty about politics and policies during the time of flux. Foreign companies have complained that sudden actions taken by the military-especially changes in indigenization policy (requiring foreign enterprises to hire Nigerians and sell part interests to Nigerian partners)-created the kind of unpredictable environment which, when compounded by bureaucratic delays and restrictions, made entry into Nigeria less attractive than it would otherwise be. The new administration plans to remove such uncertainties, for overseas, as well as domestic, capital is essential for implementing its programs in agriculture and industry, and also for obtaining equally essential technical know-how.

An endemic problem, bringing complaints from inside Nigeria and overseas alike, is corruption. The new constitution provides codes of conduct for government officials, elected and appointed, with tribunals to penalize proven violators. Officeholders must also declare their assets before they assume office, and when they leave. But, as Shagari says when asked how he will assure probity in his government, "We also have to educate people to detest anything that is immoral or corrupt. When society condones corruption there is little a government can do. In Nigeria we do not yet detest it enough."

Speculations about the directions an NPN government would take often rested on oversimplifications about its "conservatism," as a "wealthy man's party." But the electorate had knocked out most of the "heavyweights" on whom that reputation had rested, and Shagari followed the voters' lead in his cabinet appointments. All appointees are younger than he, and few are yet well known. From all 19 states, as they must be, they also show the President's proclivity to stress technical and administrative qualifications rather than political achievements. But importantly, such appointments show that opportunities will continue for people not yet established. That chance for upward mobility is vital to Nigerians' belief in the system, which offers change within a context of stability. Deflating further the image of a rich, establishment party, Shagari announced early in October that he would continue both the military's ban on imports, especially luxuries, and their "low profile"-that is, lack of ostentation by government officials.

It is, of course, in the political arena that many of the new administration's greatest challenges lie. Nigeria's military governments brought both revenue and power to the center, taking the oil revenues from the states that produced them. The question of derivation in allocating revenue has been a sensitive one since independence, and is now, especially in oil-producing states. The new Constitution will produce a more truly federal system: it provides an outline for the division of functions between the states and the center which should allow for diffusion of power and of resources in response to pressures from the localities. The President has stated the need for "more even development" throughout the country, agreeing with many that elected representation will go further to guarantee its likelihood than military administration could have done. Further, the recently introduced democratic local government system is already bringing government closer to the villages.


In the weeks after October 1, Nigerians in and out of government watched as their unfamiliar political system began slowly to work. How exactly the presidential system and the separation of powers will function in Nigeria will only become clear in time. For one reason, with five parties instead of two, achieving the majority essential just to get the machinery of government moving-to confirm the cabinet, for example-will take maneuvering. Further, in the new political circumstances, no one knows how the legislators will behave: after the Supreme Court's decision, UPN and GNPP stalwarts threatened to immobilize the government by blocking presidential appointments and legislation.

In setting a slow pace initially-delaying the National Assembly's first sitting a week and submitting cabinet nominees ten days later-the administration had a purpose: to familiarize legislators with the new system and let them see concretely their stake in its functioning.

To some extent, talk of coalitions is left over from parliamentary days and based on Westminster assumptions about party discipline. But, confident of its staying power, Shagari has acted to encourage discussion of the system. Asked in August about just such problems in the National Assembly, he said that the critical new point was that the legislators could not bring down the government-"and something that you cannot bring down, you'd better help to build."

Some sort of cooperative arrangement between NPN and NPP was logical. The gains for NPN were obvious: majority support for their appointments and programs. The NPP aimed for cabinet posts and cooperation on specific policies-such as special assistance to the areas damaged in the civil war, and to newly created states needing to catch up in infrastructure and economic activity with the older ones-both of which were important to the Ibo and the minorities supporters of NPP. Further, NPP asked for, and got, assurances that Nigeria is, and will be, a secular state. That is provided for in the Constitution and Shagari is committed to it, but religious fears still underlie the passions of electoral politics: the spectre of an Islamic republic à la Khomeini frightened some non-Muslims faced with a Muslim President-elect from Sokoto-the home of Nigeria's nineteenth-century jihad.

The first test of the "cooperation"-resolutely not called coalition-came over electing the officers of the Senate and House of Representatives, and in the event half of those positions went to NPP members. NPP's senators voting with the NPN formed a comfortable majority, 52 out of 95. Similarly, the House total came to 245 out of 449.

How the party system will shake down may be clearer after the upcoming elections to local governments, whose present life-span ends in December. Already fluidity indicates possible realignments, combinations, or even something new ahead. Particularly PRP, now putting general statements into concrete action with programs in Kano and Kaduna states, may come to have a broader appeal throughout the country as a result of offering a genuinely different approach to solving social and economic problems. Perhaps, in one form or another, the two-party system which many Nigerians hope for may have emerged by the next national elections four years hence.


On foreign policy, Shagari has no inclination to play down the increasingly visible role carved out by the military government from 1975 onward and widely supported by his countrymen. Far more active in mediation, peacekeeping, and in international organizations than ever before, the SMC had proclaimed African issues and Africa as the "centerpiece" of their policy. Starting with Angola in 1975 and later over Zimbabwe and Namibia especially, Nigeria dealt with the United States and other non-African powers as it perceived its own and Africa's self interest. It opposed the de facto U.S. alliance with South Africa in Angola in 1975, but worked later to advance Western attempts to find peaceful solutions bringing genuine majority rule in southern Africa.

Shagari has committed himself to his predecessors' lines of policy, out of conviction and to maintain continuity. As his U.N. Ambassador, B.A. Clark, said before the General Assembly on October 11, "Those who speculate that our new civilian government will be less dynamic in the pursuit of our foreign policy objectives will be disillusioned. If anything, and because we shall be operating from a firm foundation, we intend to pursue them with greater drive and vigor."

During the past year, the particular thrust of Nigeria's African efforts north of the Zambezi has been toward resolving intra-African conflicts. Their efforts to mediate the intricate crisis in Chad (complicated especially by the continuing French presence which they deplore) included three major constitutional negotiations and the deployment of a peacekeeping force of 800 (later withdrawn). They also tried, without success, to mediate the dispute between Uganda and Tanzania, and in the end took a strong stand against physical intervention by African states in each others' affairs. (Nigeria's leaders see this stance as essential, given their own sizable capacity for such intervention.) Further, General Obasanjo took part as one of the "wise men" in the OAU's 1979 effort to try to solve the problems of Western Sahara.

Among international issues, southern Africa is, and will undoubtedly remain, primary for Nigerians at large. When it seemed in June that the U.S. Congress might lift sanctions against Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, the negative reaction of the Nigerian press reflected the depth of feeling all over the country. Although Nigeria did not, as reported in the United States, specifically threaten to use the oil weapon, it warned it would consider "an appropriate response" if sanctions were lifted.7 In the event, approval of President Carter's extension of sanctions was spontaneous and enthusiastic.

Apart from southern Africa, relations with the United States are likely to turn, as they have since 1975, on issues of economics. The development and marketing of Nigeria's natural gas in the United States may become a necessary basis for continuing good relations. In addition, the similarity between the U.S. and Nigerian constitutions should increase, however serendipitously, contact between people in government at all levels, consequently bringing a time of closer relations-or at least better communication. In one vital sphere the results of such contact are already evident. For years the Nigerian military has sent in increasing numbers its officers and other ranks to the United States for training (Nigeria spent some $10 million on it in 1978). In consequence more and more of the young Nigerian military have learned that the constitution must be inviolable in the system their country has just adopted. Lieutenant-General T.Y. Danjuma, just retired as Chief of Army Staff and indispensable in insuring the smooth handover, stated the likely continuity of that relationship: "America has the largest English-speaking army in the world. We value the training we get there highly, and will continue to subscribe to it for a very long time to come"-and the non-military impact will also continue thereby.


For Nigeria, the next few years will be a time of national on-the-job training. But despite some acrimony, the outcome of the elections has given something to everyone. Because each of the five parties controls the government in at least one state, each has a stake in the new system and its success. Most important of all, the overwhelming wish, throughout the country, is for peace and stability.

Debate over how to solve ongoing problems will be vociferous, and so will criticism of whatever solutions this or any government tries. For Nigerians are vocal, self-critical, energetic, imaginative, impossible to regiment; their virtues also make them difficult to govern. They are, above all, intensely political, engaging in continuous debate of the issues not just in cities and on university campuses but also in remote villages, in markets, in lorry parks. It is only the decibels that vary from one group to the next. Thirteen daily newspapers both add to and reflect intense political interest.

Although expectations are high and disappointments therefore likely, some salutary realism on the part of the electorate is already evident in two respects: for one, Nigeria has had several military governments as well as an earlier civilian one. Nigerians are, for the first time, admitting to a certain admiration for a government that has left power; it may be a sign that people know no panaceas exist, and that the public may temper its usual impatience. Additionally, NPN was not a party of extravagant promises, and Shagari's statements have been aimed at conditioning his countrymen not to expect quick solutions.

While Nigeria's political fate will depend on how the civilians in power meet the country's challenges, Nigerians in and out of politics and the army have made clear their overwhelming will to have their experiment work. Their example will reach far beyond their borders and even Africa, profoundly affecting assumptions about the future of democracy.

1 Even though the term "tribalism" persists, especially in outsiders' analyses of African politics, many of Nigeria's ethnic groups are more accurately "nations," both in size-several are over ten million-and history.

2 The SMC was made up of the senior officers constituting the country's executive, including the Commander in Chief, and head of state; the chief of staff, Supreme Headquarters; the chiefs of army, navy, and air staff; the general officers commanding the four divisions of the Nigerian Army; the Inspector-General of Police; and some other senior military and police officers. Importantly, it did not, in contrast to its counterpart of the Gowon era, include the military governors of the states, who therefore did not participate in formulating the national political program.

3 The OAU applauded Nigeria's achievement, however, in a unanimous resolution commending General Obasanjo's government at its 1979 summit at Monrovia.

4 All Nigeria's parties concerned themselves with ticket-balancing, but the other parties were, in a sense, pre-zoned by the origins of their presidential candidate, and could balance their tickets without seeming to say what part of the country must produce the President; the critical and highly controversial difference was that NPN declared before the fact that the presidency was reserved for the northern zone.

5 The number of registered voters (48,633,782) exceeded expectations by about ten million. Nigerians have found counting themselves accurately impossible. No issue has, throughout the country's political history, colonial and postcolonial alike, given more problems. Nigerians well know the political and economic implications of numbers in a setting where the winner took, if not all, as much as he could get. It is scarcely too much to say that the census crisis of 1962-63 precipitated the tragedy of coups and war, nor that the attempt to conduct a census in 1973 led directly to the downfall of Gowon's government. The result of the voter registration drive came as a shock to officials, not least because it suggested by demographic extrapolation that Nigeria's population could well be 100 million, rather than 80 million, as planners had been calculating. One FEDECO official says, candidly, that he simply cannot estimate what percentage would be a reasonable correction. Until the national identity card system-the military government's latest effort to count Nigerians above 18-is in place, accurate voter registration will be well-nigh impossible.

6 Despite socialist rhetoric in some parties' programs, few Nigerians appear to have either taken them seriously or found them persuasive. Comments about the affluent outnumbering the ideologically committed among the leadership of UPN were frequent, and PRP, whose message was most strongly worded in terms of class conflict, gained support only in Aminu Kano's traditional base, and virtually none in the rest of the country, indicating that specific historic resentments, and not ideology, were the basis of appeal.

7 Shagari applauds his predecessors' nationalization of British Petroleum, agreeing that that was a necessary political message for the British government on Zimbabwe. But the BP takeover was not, for his or Obasanjo's government, a precedent. It was a specific action aimed at a defined target in circumstances whose repetition Nigerians do not expect. And critically, it was unique in having virtually no potential cost to Nigeria and to its economy. Because only two people in Lagos were on the staff of the parent company, their departure left management intact. It should be noted, too, that challenges about Nigeria's political will ("bark or bite"), such as that which appeared in The Economist (26 May-1 June, 1979) contributed in no small measure to the nationalization of BP.



You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Jean Herskovits is Professor of History at the State University of New York at Purchase and spent 18 months of the transition in Nigeria. She is the author of A Preface to Modern Nigeria, editor of the "Subsaharan Africa" volume in Dynamics of World Power: Documentary History of U.S. Foreign Policy, 1945-1973, and currently at work on a political history of contemporary Nigeria.
  • More By Jean Herskovits