Historical Background and Context

Nigeria is an inherently difficult country to govern. The country is an unlikely amalgam of peoples and cultures that were shoehorned into one territory by their British colonial rulers largely for the sake of administrative convenience.1 Nigeria is home to more than 250 separate ethnic groups, many of which either had no meaningful relationships with one another or long histories of mutual antagonism prior to the advent of colonialism.2 The country is also divided in roughly equal proportion between its two major religions—Islam and Christianity—and that religious divide often overlaps with some of Nigeria’s most important ethnic and cultural boundaries.3

Much of Nigeria’s political history has revolved around the need to devise institutions capable of governing the country’s diverse population in an inclusive and equitable manner. All of Nigeria’s post-independence governments have, at least in principle, adhered to some variation of Nigeria’s unique and complicated conception of federalism. That model of governance enjoys wide legitimacy as the best and most inclusive possible mode of governance for the country.4 But unfortunately, abusive, corrupt, and unaccountable Nigerian political leaders have undercut serious efforts to construct stable institutions to govern the country, solidify the rule of law, and promote respect for human rights.

Historical Overview: Dictatorship and Rigged Elections

Nigeria’s post-independence history had been overshadowed by the depredations of a series of corrupt, abusive, and unaccountable governments. The basic contours of that history illuminate the origin of the problems described in this report.

Between independence in 1960 and 1999, Nigeria produced only two elected governments and both were overthrown in military coups before completing a second term in office. All told, Nigeria’s military ruled the country for nearly 30 of its first 40 years of independence.5

Nigeria’s first post-independence government, led by Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, organized general and regional elections in 1964 and 1965. The polls returned the government to a second term in office but were characterized by widespread complaints of fraud, violence and intimidation.6 Protest in the wake of the regional elections, which in some areas had degenerated into a violent exercise in competitive rigging, led to widespread violence and intercommunal rioting that claimed more than 200 lives.7

In January 1966 a group of five army majors planned and executed Nigeria’s first attempted coup d’etat, seizing upon the lingering post-election crisis, corruption, and other alleged government failings as their justification. Their coup failed and the lead plotters were arrested, but the prime minister and other key government figures were murdered in the attempt.8 General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an ethnic Igbo, was soon “invited” by the tattered remains of Nigeria’s civilian government to step into the resulting power vacuum and became Nigeria’s first military head of state.

Many Nigerians initially welcomed the military’s 1966 takeover, hoping it would bring law and order along with more honest and effective government.9 The military retained power from 1966 until 1979 but this was not a period of stability or peace. Ironsi was murdered in a successful coup after less than seven months in office by a group of northern military officers. His death was followed by ethnic rioting across Nigeria that helped precipitate Nigeria’s horrific Biafran civil war.10

After the civil war ended in 1970, Nigeria’s ruling military continued to be wracked with violent power struggles. Aside from Ironsi’s murder the country saw one other head of state ousted in a coup and a third murdered in an attempted coup before the discredited military returned power to civilian hands in 1979.11 The head of state who organized that transition was General Olusegun Obasanjo, who would return to power as a civilian leader twenty years later, in 1999.

The civilian government under President Shehu Shagari that was elected to office in 1979 was in place for only four years. Shagari’s administration, which initially had the blessing of Nigeria’s military establishment, was blamed for widespread corruption at both the federal and state levels, deepening levels of poverty and internecine political warfare that led ultimately to the electoral debacle of 1983. The elections organized that year were massively rigged in favor of Shagari and his National Party of Nigeria. The country’s Federal Election Commission and the security forces were widely accused of actively colluding to rig the elections, and all parties deployed hired thugs to intimidate their opponents across the country. A nationwide outcry greeted the results and the government proved unable to quell the political chaos that ensued.12

Four months after the 1983 elections, the military struck again, overthrowing Shagari’s government and retaking control of the country under the leadership of General Muhammadu Buhari. As in 1966, the coup-plotters defended their actions by pointing to the chaotic and illegitimate 1983 elections along with massive corruption and the government’s failure to meet its basic responsibilities towards ordinary Nigerians.13 Nigeria’s military then clenched power for sixteen years, until May 1999.

From 1985 until 1998 Nigeria was governed by two military dictators, Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha.14 This period proved disastrous for Nigeria, as Babangida and Abacha helped to deepen and entrench patterns of corruption and human rights abuse from which the country has since made almost no progress in escaping. Babangida was widely accused of institutionalizing corruption as a tool of political control and as much as US$12.2 billion in oil revenues simply “disappeared” under his watch.15 Abacha alone is believed to have personally stolen between $1 and $3 billion while in office.16 Both subjected their critics to abuses including intimidation, arbitrary detention, and, allegedly, murder.17

Babangida organized elections in 1993 that were slated to pass power back into civilian hands. Today many Nigerians still describe those polls as the most free and fair in Nigerian history and as proof of the government’s capacity to hold credible elections should it choose to do so. However, Babangida annulled the results of the presidential poll and imprisoned winning candidate Moshood Abiola, who ultimately died behind bars.18

Nigeria did not return to elected civilian rule until after General Abacha died in office in 1998. By then, the excesses of the Abacha and Babangida years had thoroughly discredited the military’s claim on power and led to popular and international pressure for a return to civilian rule that had become impossible to resist. Abacha’s successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, soon organized elections that ushered the military out of power and installed retired General Olusegun Obasanjo as the first president of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic in May 1999.

A Flawed Transition

Since 1999, Nigeria’s military has kept to its barracks. In that sense, the country’s transition to civilian rule has been successful. But Nigeria’s civilian government has failed to realize hopes that an end to military rule would lead to democratic governance, progress in combating poverty and corruption, and respect for human rights on the part of those in power.

Since the end of military rule, Nigeria has only added to its history of fraudulent and violent elections. The 1999 elections that brought President Olusegun Obasanjo to power were marred by such widespread fraud that observers from the US-based Carter Center concluded that “it is not possible for us to make an accurate judgment about the outcome of the presidential election.”19

Nigeria’s next round of general elections, in 2003, were widely seen as a test of Nigeria’s progress towards more open and accountable governance after four years of civilian rule under Obasanjo. The polls were an abject failure. The 2003 elections were more pervasively and openly rigged than the flawed 1999 polls, and far more bloody. More than 100 people died in the two weeks surrounding the voting itself, many in political clashes spawned by politicians’ efforts to employ and arm criminal gangs to defend their interests and attack their opponents.20

Elections for Nigeria’s 774 local government councils were held in 2004 and followed much the same pattern of violence, intimidation and fraud that characterized the 2003 general elections. Nigeria’s Transition Monitoring Group observed those polls and concluded that “It is doubtful whether…the elections can in any way be considered to be reflective of the will of the people.”21

Nigeria’s 2007 Milestone

Nigeria’s April 2007 elections were widely regarded as a crucial barometer of the federal government’s commitment to some meaningful notion of democratic reform. But the polls marked a dramatic step backwards, even measured against the dismal standard set by the 2003 election.

Elected officials, alongside the very government agencies charged with ensuring the credibility of the polls, reduced the elections to a violent and fraud-riddled farce. Across much of the country armed gangs in the employ of politicians raided polling stations and carried off ballot boxes. Electoral officials reported massive turnout figures in areas where no voting took place at all. In many areas ballot boxes were openly stuffed or results fabricated out of thin air.22 The final results bore little resemblance to the realities reported by all credible election observers, domestic and foreign, but the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) reported a landslide victory for the ruling PDP.23

Foreign observers and Nigerian civil society groups were unusually blunt in their criticism of the polls, with many Nigerian activists labeling them the worst in Nigerian history.24 Several seasoned foreign observers said that the 2007 poll ranked among the worst conducted anywhere in the world in recent times.25 The Head of the European Union Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) said that, “The whole thing was not at all living up to the hopes of the Nigerian people, chaotic, and I would say it left them behind, demoralized.”26 The EUEOM’s final report stated that “Given the lack of transparency and evidence of fraud, there can be no confidence in the results of these elections.”27 The US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) said in its post-election statement that the electoral process “failed the Nigerian people.”28

Nigeria’s failed 2007 polls cast a harsh and very public light on patterns of violence, corruption and outright criminality that have come to characterize Nigeria’s political system—and on the extent to which officials and institutions at all levels of government accept, encourage and participate in those abuses.

1 The territories that now make up Northern and Southern Nigeria were administered by British authorities as two separate colonies until being combined in 1914. Nigeria achieved independence in 1960.

2 For example, many of numerous ethnic minorities of the Middle Belt region were long the victims of conquest and slave raids at the hands of their far more numerous and militarily powerful Hausa neighbors to the North.

3 For further discussion and reference on the links between Nigeria’s historical diversity and modern-day problems of governance, human rights and conflicts, see Rotimi Suberu, Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria (Washington: United States Institute of Peace, 2001) and Human Rights Watch, They Do Not Own This Place: Government Discrimination Against ‘Non-Indigenes’ in Nigeria, Vol. 18, No. 3(A), April 2006,

4 For a detailed discussion of the intricacies of Nigerian federalism, see Suberu, Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria.

5 A succession of military dictators ruled Nigeria from 1966-1979 and from 1983-1999, with the exception of a three-month period in 1993 that saw the short-lived establishment of a civilian Interim National Government.

6 See, e.g.,Eghosa E. Osaghae, Crippled Giant: Nigeria Since Independence (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998) pp.31-54.

7 Ibid. The aftermath of the 1965 elections was especially chaotic and violent in Nigeria’s predominantly Yoruba southwest. See Remi Anifowose, Violence and Politics in Nigeria: The Tiv and Yoruba Experience (New York: Nok Publishers, 1982) pp. 201-257. Official figures at the time indicated that “more than 160” people were killed, with police noting that they had been unable to ascertain the toll exacted by fighting in many remote areas. See, e.g., Lloyd Garrison, Toll Exceeds 160 in Nigeria Strife, New York Times, January 13, 1965.

8 Arguably the most prominent victims of the coup attempt were Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and Ahmadu Bello. Bello was Premier of Nigeria’s Northern Region and one of three men widely remembered as Nigeria’s triumvirate of political “founding fathers” along with Nnamdi Azikwe and Obafemi Owalowo.

9 See, e.g., Osaghe, Crippled Giant pp.54-55, noting that the military “carved for itself the role of saviour and guardian of the nation, and has indeed been invited to play this role by vocal sections of the public during periods of serious national crisis.”

10 Ironsi, like the majors who staged the abortive coup that set the stage for his takeover of power, was an Igbo—and Nigeria’s last Igbo head of state. Resistance to his rule in northern Nigeria grew rapidly, stoked by fears of Igbo domination and anger at the murder of northern political scions Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa during the 1966 coup attempt. Northern opposition to Ironsi’s policies led to ethnic riots in parts of northern Nigeria that saw tens of thousands of Igbo murdered; the violence continued unabated after Ironsi was abducted and murdered by Northern military officers in a countercoup. Igbo refugees streamed into southeastern Nigeria for safety and relations between military officials in the East and the federal government quickly broke down. The ensuing Biafran civil war lasted from May 1967 to January 1970 and claimed more than one million lives through violence, starvation, and disease. See, eg, Osaghe, Crippled Giant pp. 54-64.

11 Yakubu Gowon succeeded General Ironsi in power and led Nigeria through the Biafran civil war. Gowon was overthrown in July 1975 and his successor, Murtala Mohammed, was murdered during a failed coup attempt in February 1976. Mohammed was succeeded by his deputy at the time of his death, General Olusegun Obasanjo.

12 See Richard Joseph, Prebendal Politics in Nigeria: the rise and fall of the Second Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) pp. 151-184.

13 Ibid.

14 When Babangida left office in 1993 he handed over power to a civilian Interim National Government (ING) under Ernest Shonekan. The ING was weak and lacked legitimacy because of the annulled 1992 elections, which are described below. The government was overthrown after just three months in office by General Sani Abacha.

15 International Crisis Group, “Want in the Midst of Plenty,” Africa Report No. 113, July 19, 2006, (accessed July 12, 2007).

16 Between 1999 and 2007 the government of Olusegun Obasanjo secured the return of more than US$450 million of “Abacha loot” from Swiss banks where the money had been salted away. See “Switzerland to Give Back Abacha Millions,” BBC News Online, April 17, 2002, (accessed September 17, 2007).

17 Babangida is widely accused of complicity in the murder by parcel bomb of outspoken journalist Dele Giwa in October 1986. Babangida has consistently denied any link with Giwa’s death. See “Ex-Nigerian Military Ruler Snubs Panel,” BBC News Online, September 25, 2001, (accessed September 17, 2007).

18 Since leaving office Babangida has refused to provide any public explanation for his decision to annul the poll. Abiola died in July 1998—allegedly from a heart attack just as his release from prison appeared to have become imminent.

19 “Observing the 1998-1999 Nigeria Elections: Final Report,” Carter Center and National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, November 1999, p.12, (accessed July 12, 2007).

20 See European Union Election Observation Mission in Nigeria, “Final Report on the National Assembly, Presidential, Gubernatorial and State Houses of Assembly Elections,” (accessed July 12, 2007); Human Rights Watch, Nigeria’s 2003 Elections: The Unacknowledged Violence, June 2004,

21 Transition Monitoring Group, “Preliminary Report issued by the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) on the Local Government Council Elections held on Saturday, March 27, 2004.”

22 See “Nigeria: Polls Marred by Violence, Fraud,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 17, 2007,; “Nigeria: Presidential Election Marred by Fraud, Violence,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 25, 2007,

23 President Umaru Yar’Adua was awarded more than 70 percent of the total vote and the PDP also won control over 28 of the country’s 36 state governorships and a commanding majority in the National Assembly. In many areas, such as throughout the oil-producing Niger Delta, turnout figures in excess of 90% were reported in areas were little or no voting took place.

24 Human Rights Watch interviews, Abuja and Port Harcourt, April 2007.

25 Human Rights Watch interviews with foreign election observers, Nigeria, April 2007. See also “Big Men, Big Fraud and Big Trouble,” The Economist, April 26, 2007, (accessed July 12, 2007), noting that EU monitors described their report as “the most damning it had ever issued anywhere in the world.”

26 “What Nigerian Election Observers Say,” BBC News Online, April 23, 2007, (accessed July 12, 2007).

27 Camillus Eboh, “No Confidence in Nigerian Election Result: EU,” Reuters, August 23, 2007.

28 National Democratic Institute, “Statement of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) International Election Observer Delegation to Nigeria’s April 21 Presidential and National Assembly Elections,” April 23, 2007,