Democratic Transition and the Militarization of Politics in Nigeria

Nigeria’s political parties have not been participatory because Nigerian politics is centered on individuals and personalities rather than on policies and programs that affect the country’s progress, law enforcement, and judicial accountability. There is a clear influence of wealth in the formation of the political godfathers or the so-called “strongmen” in Nigerian politics.

Nigeria is the largest African country in terms of population, estimated at 200 million people, and like most of its African sisters, its political transformations cannot be addressed without addressing the role of the army in it in terms of military coups, plans for the transition to civil administration and the organization of the electoral process. And if the current challenges in regions in the country make some Nigerians nostalgic for the era of military rule and compare it to civilian rule in terms of achievements and dealing with crises; Recent political developments indicate that the country continues to make progress in consolidating its fragile democracy; What made others see that these years of democratic experiments are much better than military rule.

Based on the above, this paper will address the democratic transition and the militarization of politics in Nigeria by addressing a summary of the political transitions before the Fourth Republic (pre-1999), the impact of the military factor on the peaceful transfer of power between 1999 and 2015, the role of the military in organizing the recent 2019 elections and expectations related to the upcoming 2023 elections.

Democratic transition before 1993

The first elective democracies in Nigeria can be traced back to May 1919 when British colonialism granted the right to vote to three members of the Lagos City Council in southwestern Nigeria. The first elections for the council were held on March 29, 1920 (1) . In 1922, the new colonial constitution added four elected seats in the legislature: three of these seats were for Lagos and one for Calabar. In September 1923, Nigeria’s first general election was held, in which the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) won three of the four elected seats in the legislature (2) . One of the important stages in the Nigerian democratic transition process was the 1959 parliamentary elections, which resulted in the “Northern People’s Congress” winning 134 out of 312 seats in the House of Representatives (3) .

However, the joy of independence in 1960 and the optimism that accompanied the hope of autonomy after decolonization did not last long; From 1966 to 1999, Nigeria witnessed five successful military coups, ruled by different military governments; This confirms the deep influence of the army in Nigerian politics and the fact that most of its political transitions were based on the conviction of the military ruler and his group that civilian rule is the demand of citizens and that what Nigerians expected from the army was to hand over power to civilians after performing the “rescue mission” through military intervention or coup (4) .

By recognizing the necessity of demilitarization, most Nigerian military rulers have sought to devise various political transition plans; Starting with the formation of the Constitutional Review Committee and programs for handing over power to civilians, as in the case in 1976 after the assassination of the military head of state, General “Mortala Muhammed”, where his successor General “Olusegun Obasanjo” launched the transition process to end military rule, which in 1979 led to elections that came through Alhaji “Shekhu Shagari” of the Nigerian National Party (NPN) to power (5) . Through this process, General Obasanjo became the first Nigerian head of state to willingly step down, while Alhaji Sheikhu Shagari became Nigeria’s first democratically elected president.

In August 1983, another presidential election was held in which the incumbent, Haji “Shaghari” won a second presidential term (6) , but he was soon overthrown on December 31, 1983 in another military coup led by General “Muhammad Bukhari” This was followed by another coup in 1985 led by General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, who in 1990 led a transition plan to civilian rule that resulted in the holding of presidential elections on June 12, 1993 (7) .

While the National Election Commission did not announce the results of the 1993 presidential elections, the unofficial result indicated the victory of Alhaji “Mashuhud Abiola”, a businessman from southwest Nigeria from the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Even in the view of the current Nigerian government, these elections are considered the fairest and freest since Nigeria’s independence. However, the army canceled its results on June 24 of the same year, citing irregularities. The cancellation led to protests and political turmoil, including the resignation of the military governor, General Babangida, and the establishment of a temporary civilian government weak under military control; Where this government was overthrown in the same year (in 1993) through a bloodless coup and General “Sani Abacha” ascended to power as the military head of the state (8) .

In addition to the above, the military head of state at the time, General Babangida, later justified his cancellation of the 1993 elections on the grounds that it was “necessary” to save the Nigerian nation and that the political activities that preceded those elections were “hostile” to peace and stability (9) . Nevertheless, the 1993 elections were symbolic as a turning point in Nigeria’s political history in terms of the successful, transparent and popular election of the winner, which crossed ethnic and religious lines, and in terms of the political crisis that almost pushed the country to the brink due to the annulment of the results despite Abiola’s victory with a majority of 58 percent. of votes, and for his imprisonment by the military government for four years and his subsequent death in prison (10) .

It is worth noting that national demands for official recognition of Abiola’s victory in the 1993 presidency led to him being honored in 2018 by the Nigerian government with the “Commander in Chief of the Federal Republic” (GCFR) and changing the national official holiday to celebrate “Democracy Day” to June 12 June (the day of the 1993 elections) (11 )

1998-1999 Political Transition Agreement

It is difficult to address Nigerian political transformations without addressing the issue of regional divisions and the ethnic and religious factor in the affairs of Nigerian governments. Nigeria is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world with more than 250 ethnic groups, the most politically influential being the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, Kanuri, Ebibio and Tev. All of these ethnic groups struggle in one way or another to obtain their share of the resources and influence of the central authority (12) .

By tracking political programs and initiatives, it can be argued that most leaders of Nigerian political parties are not much interested in national cohesion; While the political parties in the First Republic (between 1963 and 1966) were more ethnically and culturally diverse, most efforts to form national political parties during the Second Republic (between 1979 and 1983) followed ethnic and regional lines.

Also, through the events of 1993, it can be said that the army did not expect the reactions that were attracted by the cancellation of the elections, as it believed that the popularity of Hajj “Abiola” was confined to the south only; Therefore, he was surprised by the level of crisis that followed, which marked the beginning of a decades-long struggle to restore the election result and restore rule to civilians through democratic mechanisms (13) especially since political leaders from southwestern Nigeria considered the cancellation of the election results a disregard for the region by the army; This contributed to the outbreak of civil violence in southwestern states and the rise of complaints of political exclusion by the northern political and military elite, the same complaints that led to the collapse of the first republics (between 1963 and 1966) and the second (between 1979 and 1983).

However, the death of the military head of state, General Sani Abacha, on 8 June 1998, made way for political reforms and inter-ethnic cohesion that made up Nigeria. These efforts were led by the military elite and its allies and came out with the Political Transition Agreement of 1998 and 1999, which was a deal that was not in the Nigerian constitution but was incorporated into the regulations of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that ruled Nigeria from 1999 to 2015. The agreement included among its main points the rotation of the presidency Every eight years between the south and the north. Its practical application means that if the presidential candidate is Christian, the vice presidential candidate will be Muslim, and vice versa. On this basis and the background of support and relations with the military elites, General Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian from the south, won the presidency in the 1999 elections (14).   

Obasanjo took office in 1999 as the third head of a government successfully elected by the Nigerian people; Which means the end of 16 years of military rule (from 1983 to 1999) and the beginning of the Fourth Republic that Nigeria enjoys today. Obasanjo pledged a new era of stability, peace and prosperity, committed to bridging the divisions between different ethnic and religious groups, and guiding the country through a process of democratization. The subsequent years of his rule proved his relative success and opened the way for freedoms of expression, religion, association, and so on. However, some have used these new democratic freedoms as justification to promote separatist sentiments and propagate destabilizing and undermining ideologies for the national integration efforts of government and political development in the country (15) .

For example, in late 1999 the northern state of Zamfara announced the adoption of Islamic law; Which brought Nigeria into a legal crisis and tension between the regions. In the Niger Delta region, violence intensified by armed militants demanding local control of the oil wealth. There are other separatist organizations; It has been estimated that in the years following the inauguration of President Obasanjo’s administration in 1999, Nigeria experienced more than 50 ethno-religious conflicts (16) .

While the Obasanjo administration was able to successfully conduct a series of elections, including the presidential elections, which were held on April 19, 2003, in which Obasanjo defeated his closest opponent, Muhammad Bukhari, by more than 24 million votes (17) ; The constitutional challenges and practical problems of functional federalism since 1999 have led some Nigerians to consider the transition to civilian rule in 1999 as nothing but a “false transition” (18) , and that its constitution is a military industry that did not involve the various political and civil parties in its drafting and status (19) .

The Peaceful Transfer of Power: The Cases of 2007 and 2015

President Obasanjo tried to stay in power as the end of his second term approached; Between 2005 and 2006, he sought to amend the national constitution to allow him to run for a third presidential term, which is illegal under the constitution and in violation of the 1998-1999 transition deal (20) .

President Obasanjo backed down from the third term plan after opposition moves by members of the Nigerian National Assembly. In April 2007, general elections were held and President Omar Musa Yar’Adua was declared the winner. This represented the first peaceful transition of power between civilians in Nigeria even though the two presidents, Obasanjo and Umar Yar’Adua, were from the same party (People’s Democratic Party or PDP), and although the transition is a continuation of the Obasanjo administration. Those elections were marred by serious irregularities in favor of his successor, “Omar Yar’Adua,” noting that President “Omar Yar’Adua” is from the northern state of Katsina and the younger brother of “Shehu Musa Yar’Adua,” the military commander who served as the second man in chief of staff of the Supreme Command in the Nigerian military government From 1976 to 1979 (21) .

In a surprising new twist in 2010; President Umar Yar’Adua died in office and Goodluck Jonathan, his southern and Christian vice president, completed his term. The northerners expected Jonathan not to run for president in 2011 because the presidential role is still for the north according to the 1998 and 1999 deal. But “Jonathan” ignored the deal and was re-elected president of Nigeria in 2011, and the announcement of the results of this election was followed by riots in northern cities (22) .

In 2015, Nigeria achieved a new milestone in its democracy when former General Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north, won the 2015 presidency after alliances with other opposition parties and capitalizing on the Jonathan administration’s failure to fight corruption and address the security crisis. With this, Buhari was the first opposition leader in Nigeria to oust the incumbent in a relatively free and fair election. Jonathan’s acceptance of his loss of Nigeria spared a political crisis and ethnic conflict and reinforced the general sense that dissatisfaction and public discontent could be expressed through the ballot box.

Thus, the 2015 elections were a watershed moment in Nigeria’s democratic growth, even if all the democratic transitions between 2007 and 2015 had one point in common: the role of the military elite and its civilian political partners in choosing the country’s president. This point was made clear in the moves of the PDP governments (from Obasanjo to Jonathan) that reduced the military’s involvement in the political process by appointing its leaders to ministerial positions and opening sectors such as oil, gas, and other economic fields to them.

The army and the organization of elections

The role of the military in organizing elections was evident during periods of military rule, and this role was relatively lessened in the general elections that were held between 1999 and 2011. But this role came to prominence again in 2014 during the state gubernatorial elections in Ekiti and Osun in the southwest Nigeria. This is despite the fact that the Nigerian police are constitutionally mandated to protect and monitor the country during elections; This means that there is no relationship between the army and other security services in electoral practice, except in exceptional cases when the army is required to do so. The criticism that the army was subjected to forced its leadership to form a board of inquiry to look into the practices of which they were accused at the time (23) .

And if the Nigerian army, following the 2014 practices, indicated that it would continue to strengthen democratic values ​​and structures in the country; However, the general elections in 2019 in which current President Buhari won his second and last term in office made some say that the army has become a tool driven by civilian and democratically elected presidents to advance their partisan interests. In 2019, the military was accused of direct interference in the voting process, voter intimidation and other accusations. The direct intervention of the army during these elections contributed to the deepening of partisanship among the army members themselves, accusing them by citizens and opposition parties of bias towards a specific candidate and party (24) .

On the other hand, there is a general perception that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is biased towards the ruling party and that its officials have colluded in some regions and states with the military and security agencies, although the legal basis is that the Electoral Commission is independent and responsible for organizing and supervising elections and preventing electoral misconduct. In addition to the loss of confidence in the judiciary as it is considered corrupt and dishonest, and the prevailing belief that the Nigerian judiciary is often subject to pressure and influence from the executive and legislative authorities, and commercial interests, which hinders the independent performance of its civil role. Therefore, civic organizations described the 2018-2019 run-off elections in Ocean and Kano states as “fraudulent and anti-democratic” due to high vote-buying, violence and intimidation (25) .

Presidencies of 2023 and the dwindling of the military factor

One of the expectations for the upcoming elections in 2023 is that after eight years of rule by a Muslim president from the north, the role of a Christian ruler will come from the south. Ironically, the People’s Democratic Party, which pioneered the inter-religious and inter-religious alternation of power deal in 1999, chose a Muslim from the North as its presidential candidate for 2023 (26) . Whereas other major political parties, including the ruling All-Progressive Congress which did not formally endorse the presidential rotation deal, have chosen a Muslim from the south as their presidential candidate for 2023 (27) .

If the holding of elections in 2023 and the handing over of power to the elected winner will consolidate what Nigeria has achieved in terms of peaceful democratic transitions; The follow-up of the various party campaigns of these elections indicates that it may be the first time that the support of the military elite and the civilian league will not matter, and that it may be the inevitable end of the 1998-1999 deal on the rotation of power given that the parties have recently ignored this principle in choosing their candidates. And it could be a real start to the post-military period because most of the top contenders in this upcoming election are not retired military generals.

It is worth noting that, despite previous expectations, there are those who have argued that the political backgrounds of some of the main candidates in the 2023 elections date back to periods of military coups and the era of military rule. and for example; Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the main opposition party (PDP) candidate in 2023, worked with the Nigerian Customs Service for 20 years before retiring in 1989 to work with General Alhaji Shehu Yar’Adua and later became one of his trusted political colleagues. Atiku was the deputy head of the Peoples Front of Nigeria, which was led by Shehu Yar’Adua and, with others, oversaw the success of the transitional program initiated by General Ibrahim Babangida. Atiku has also been involved in various domestic politics and was from 1999 to 2007 Vice President Obasanjo (also a retired general) 28 .

On the other hand, Alhaji Paula Ahmed Tinubu, the ruling All Progressive Congress candidate for the 2023 presidency, was a Lagosian businessman who started his political career when he joined the Social Democratic Party where he was a member of the Nigeria People’s Front; This means that both the main candidates of the ruling party and the main opposition, Tinubu and Atiku, are old friends. Tinubu was also involved in the movements against military rule and was forced to leave Nigeria and remain in exile during the military dictatorship in the 1990s, in addition to being a former Senator of the Third Nigerian Republic (between 1992 and 1993), then Governor of Lagos State from 1999 to 2007. He has been the national leader of the ruling All-Progressive Congress since its formation in 2013; Which automatically means that he has an exceptional relationship with retired General Muhammad Bukhari.(29) .


It follows from the foregoing that political parties have not yet been participatory enough because Nigerian politics is centered on individuals and personalities rather than on policies, programs and ideologies that affect the country’s progress, law enforcement, and judicial accountability. There is a clear impact of wealth in the formation of political godfathers or who have come to be called “strong men” in Nigerian politics.

Finally, the current state of Nigerian democracy indicates that a long-term transition process alone is not sufficient, as there is still a need to address the social, economic, security, and interregional problems that may lead to a future military resurgence and another transition. Among the proposals for strengthening Nigerian democratic practices are; That the National Assembly stimulate youth activities by enacting additional laws facilitating youth participation in politics and entering Parliament to advance their interests and agendas. There are those who see the need for a serious national dialogue to re-establish relations between the regions and ethnicities that made up Nigeria and implement its outcomes on a fair basis in order to support the realization of true federalism, in addition to supporting the independence of the judiciary and issuing strict orders that limit interference in the affairs and administration of the courts.

About the author


Hakim Aladi Najmuddin

Nigerian researcher specializing in educational issues and interested in African affairs.REFERENCE

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SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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