Nigeria: 60 years of eventful independence

When Nigeria declared independence on 1er October 1960, all hopes are allowed for this former British colony. The country has many strengths: it is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, the largest exporter of peanuts, and the world’s third largest producer of cocoa behind Ghana and Brazil. The discovery in 1956 of oil deposits – what is more an oil says bonny light, easily refined – in the delta of the Niger river promises certain economic prosperity.

October 1, 1960, the representative of Queen Elizabeth II hands over to the new Prime Minister of Nigeria, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Constitution of the country. It was not until three years later that Nigeria became a federal republic, headed by its first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe.

On the political side, everything has been thought out so that the institutions agree with a very specific social reality. In Nigeria, regions have a strong influence and the communities that inhabit them distinguish them from one another. During colonization, the British Crown organized the country into three geographic areas. One in the West, controlled by the Yorubas, another in the East, dominated by Igbos, and a third in the North, under the domination of the Haussas and Fulanis (Peuls). The Constitution drafted in 1954 therefore established a federal system, with an elected Prime Minister and a Head of State. And it is the former Igbo governor of the East, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and his Hausa Prime Minister Alhaji Abukabar Tafawa Balewa, who have the task of leading independent Nigeria, enlarged in February 1961 by part of English-speaking Cameroon.

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From the start, inter-community tensions

At the very beginning of the 1960s, the country was ready to finally make its entry into the concert of nations, after more than half a century of British rule. But an evil, which will become endemic in Nigeria, will very quickly destabilize it: inter-community conflicts. These tensions, fueled by an economic imbalance – the south of the territory concentrates the majority of industries – and inequalities in education are growing over the years. They concern the Igbos, settled mainly in the East where there is a majority of Christians and animists. The Fulani and Hausa, Muslims, inhabit the north of the country, and the Yoruba, the west, both Muslims and Christians.

To defuse the surrounding discontent, Nnamdi Azikiwe created a new region in 1963, the Mid-West. Wasted effort. The 1965 elections, which led to the victory of the Nigerian National Alliance, the conservative Yoruba party, led to the insurrection of Igbo officers, who considered the vote fraudulent. They then overthrow the government, assassinate Alhaji Abukabar Tafawa Balewa and place General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi at the head of state on January 15, 1966.

In January 1966, President Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo (ethnic group from the Southeast), was overthrown in a coup led by Aguiyi Ironsi, of the same ethnic group. He was killed in July during a northern counter-coup which brought Yakubu Gowon to power.

In 1966, the first coup

On May 24, the new head of state put an end to federalism and centralized power around the capital, Lagos. A policy which, far from easing tensions, reinforces the frustration of Hausa and Yoruba communities. At the end of May, an anti-Igbo rebellion broke out in the North, triggering a massive exodus to the Eastern Province. Northern officers – among them a certain Muhammadu Buhari – then organized themselves to carry out a new coup. On July 29, 1966, Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was assassinated. The predominantly Muslim junta established a federal military government and placed a Christian, General Yakubu Gowon, at the head of the state. His mission ? Restore peace in the country and organize the change of the regime by leaving more room for civilians. Here again, its ambitions will quickly collide with the reality on the ground.

The birth and war of Biafra

In the north of the country, the tension does not come down. It is even reinforced even more with persecutions and pogroms perpetrated on the Igbos. The community feels all the more neglected when Yakubu Gowon changes the administrative structures of the country, causing it to lose the exploitation of the precious black gold located mainly to the east of the Delta.

The military governor of the eastern region, Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu, then refused to recognize the authority of the head of state. In January 1967, a compromise was proposed to Nigeria after a Ghanaian mediation. The Aburi agreement provides for the abandonment of the division of the country into regions and prefers a Federal Republic made up of twelve states. Yakubu Gowon also proposes a new administrative division, which deprives the Igbos of part of the oil resources. Proposals that Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu, a leader whose words find a certain echo internationally, rejects en bloc.

“His alarmist speech which claims that there is an ongoing genocide committed by Muslims against Christians is working very well, explains researcher Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos on the airwaves of France Inter. He is relayed by the Pope and by the French secret services, who are more interested in the dismantling of the English-speaking giant of Africa. On May 30, 1967, Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu went further and declared the independence of Biafra. The federal government’s response is scathing: an economic blockade is applied to the region, where nearly 12 million people live, and the roads between Biafra and the rest of the country are cut. In July, war breaks out.

Read also: Nigeria: the Biafran war, like embers under ashes

In 1967, after massacres in the North, the Igbo country seceded. Until 1970, the Biafra war killed more than a million people and remained one of the greatest traumas in the country.

The humanitarian shock behind an internationalized war

The first images of the conflict are a shock to the rest of the world. For the first time, famine is photographed, filmed. Images of children suffering from kwashiorkor – a malnutrition syndrome where the skeletal body contrasts with a belly swollen by the lack of protein – are widely disseminated. The violence of the conflict is considerable. For Ivorian President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, there were “more deaths in Biafra in ten months than in three years in Vietnam”, he laments on May 9, 1968 on France Inter. A year and a half later the war finally ended, after a final offensive by the federal power, supported by the British. The very young Republic of Biafra is no more. Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu went into exile in Ivory Coast and it was his Prime Minister, Philip Effiong, who signed the ceasefire on January 12, 1970. In three years, the war would have killed a million people.

After Biafra, the era of the oil boom

With the end of the war, Nigeria turns a bloody page in its history. In 1970, by becoming a member of OPEC, the country was about to enter a new era: that of the oil boom. Nigeria is the eighth largest producer in the world, which generates a trade surplus of more than 4 billion naira. The oil industry also drives up the country’s gross national product. But does it really benefit everyone?

For Hervé Lado, author of Politico-economic dynamics in the history of Nigeria, “Oil activity will reduce the power of non-elite populations”. Because unlike the exploitation of coal, which played in 19th century Europee century “a role of awakening the conscience of the workers”, oil does not allow a working population to rise up. “The oil value chain is less extensive, and does not allow a very small workforce to mobilize to eventually block activity,” he explains. Economic power is concentrated in the hands of the elites. “

Between 1975 and 1985 the coups d’etat punctuated political life: in 1975, Yakubu Gowon, visiting abroad, was overthrown by Murtala Mohammed, assassinated in 1976. His successor Olusegun Obasanjo voluntarily ceded power to a civilian, Shehu Shagari in 1979, but the latter was overthrown in 1983 by General Muhammadu Buhari.

Corruption, coups, assassination

A situation which has created a favorable ground for corruption, against which General Gowon assures that he wants to tackle. He will not have the time to do so since on July 29, 1975, the Head of State was dismissed, without a shot, while he was sitting at the Conference of Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African unity in Kampala, Uganda. Murtala Ramat Mohammed, 37, takes power and promises a swift return to democracy. He will not be able to go to the end of his will either. The general was in fact assassinated six months later. He is replaced by Chief of Staff Olusegun Obasanjo who hands over power to a civilian, elected Head of State Shehu Shagari, on 1er October 1979. The Second Republic is established. But Nigerians don’t have a long taste of democracy. Four years later, a new coup overthrows the government.

Read also: Nigeria: the bitter taste of oil addiction

Presidency Buhari I: evictions, famine, authoritarianism

In 2015, the country’s first democratic and peaceful alternation: Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the North, was elected president. He succeeds Goodluck Jonathan who himself succeeded Umaru Yar’Adua, elected in 2007 but died during his mandate.
© STRINGER / Anadolu Agency via AFP

On December 31, 1983, Muhammadu Buhari, commanding general officer (OGC) of the 3e Jos’ armored division, confiscates power. An act justified according to him by the corruption of the authorities which had to be put to an end. Upon his arrival at the head of state, Muhammadu Buhari suspended the 1979 Constitution and embarked on a policy of industrialization. But the restriction of imports causes many job losses and the closure of businesses. In two years, the general takes radical decisions that will shock the world, as in 1984 when he expelled the million Nigeriens who then lived in Nigeria.

A great famine nicknamed “El Buhari” ensued in Niger. It also adopts many decrees, which drastically limit individual freedoms. Decree number 2, for example, provides for three months of detention, without trial or charges, for any individual considered to be a risk to the security of the country. An authoritarian policy that Fela Kuti experienced despite himself on September 4, 1984, when he was arrested at the airport for illegally exporting currency. His brother Olukoye Ransome-Kuti will take part in the coup d’état which will overthrow Muhammadu Buhari on August 27, 1985. Ibrahim Babangida becomes president.

Read also: Muhammadu Buhari, facing himself, at the time of his assessment

Image from a video released by Boko Haram showing Abubakar Shekau.

Oil conflict and anti-Ogoni repression

In the early 1990s, Nigeria faced a whole new conflict related to the oil industry. The Niger Delta becomes the scene of violent clashes between the local Ogoni populations, who accuse the Shell oil company of damaging their culture and their environment, and the Nigerian security forces responsible for protecting the oil installations. In 1993, when the presidency was now held by General Sani Abacha, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop), led by writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, succeeded in mobilizing tens of thousands of people against Shell, which produces 40% of Nigerian oil. The world’s number one oil collapses and ceases production. It is too much for the head of state, baptized Bloody Dictator by the Nigerian press. He orders repression. Hundreds of people are imprisoned, some are executed. In November 1995, five Mosop leaders were killed, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed on November 10. The incumbent president died suddenly on June 8, 1998. His death enabled the West African country to organize elections.

Election of Obasanjo and start of the jihadist insurgency of Boko Haram

In 1999, Nigerians elected Olusegun Obasanjo, Yoruba from the city of Abeokuta. Reelected in 2003, he was quickly confronted with violence that had not yet affected Nigeria: the jihadist insurgency. Created in 2002 in Maiduguri by Mohamed Yusuf, the Boko Haram group advocates a rigorous Islam which loathes Western influence. Its leader died in 2009 and was killed by Nigerian security forces. His replacement, Abubakar Shekau, radicalized the movement. Attacks and assassinations are increasing, especially in the Northeast.

On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 high school girls in Chibok. Their fate knows an international impact. That year, the sect would have killed a total of 6,664 people according to the Global Terrorism Index. And according to Human Rights Watch, from 2009 to 2015, 910 schools were destroyed and 611 teachers murdered. “Unlike the guerrillas of the last century rooted in rebellions for independence, this is a holy war, a war of civilizations. We are not far from the Taliban ”, writes Hervé Bourges in his book African love dictionary.

Read also: Nigeria: one year after kidnapping their daughters, the suffering of Chibok families

Presidency Buhari II: a weakened country

In 2019, Muhammadu Buhari is re-elected. The opposition contests the result of the ballot, finally validated by justice.
© Henry Chukwuedo / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Yet it was at the same time, in 2013, that Nigeria also became Africa’s leading economy, with a gross domestic product of 510 billion dollars. Goodluck Jonathan is then the president. He succeeded Umaru Yar’Adua, elected in 2007 and died in 2010. But the president will be forced to leave his place in 2015 with the return of a man well known to Nigerians: Muhammadu Buhari. At 72 years old, the former soldier takes the head of a country weakened by terrorism, and the fall in oil prices in 2014. In 2016, Nigeria entered a recession for the first time.

Read also: Nigeria: Buhari’s poor economic record

Under his power, unemployment skyrocketed: according to the National Statistics Office, from 8% in 2015, it rose to 23% in July 2018. The head of state also fails to eradicate Boko Haram, a promise he had nevertheless made during his campaign in 2015. Above all, Nigeria is, according to the World Poverty Clock barometer, the country in the world with the largest number of people living in extreme poverty, that is 87 millions of people. While the country is now suffering the full brunt of the economic crisis linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, the challenge is great for Nigeria, which still derives 90% of its export revenues from oil manna. Muhammadu Buhari, reelected in 2019, has a free hand to implement the economic reforms long awaited by the population. The question is whether he will be able to seize this opportunity.

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