Presidents And Military Leaders Of Nigeria Since Independence

A portrait of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of independent Nigeria.
A portrait of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of independent Nigeria.

Nigeria has only been an independent country since 1960, and immediately thereafter, from 1960 until 1963, the British Queen (Elizabeth II) was still considered the head of state for the country. To learn and explore the leaders of Nigeria since that time of independence, read on below.

Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (1960-1963)

Balewa is the only leader in Nigerian history to have been bestowed with the title of Prime Minister. He played a very important role in the transitional period between colonial and indigenous rule of Nigeria. His legacy was created by cooperation between ethnic groups and mediation of other African conflicts. Today his face is pictured on the five Naira note. Balewa was murdered during the military coup of Nigeria in 1966. His death spurred bloody counter-coup protests, especially in the Northern part of the country.

President Nnamdi Azikiwe (1963-1966)

Azikiwe was the first President of Nigeria after the country became a fully independent republic and Nigeria cut ties with Britain almost completely. Azikiwe is well known for promoting modern Nigerian and African nationalism. Educated in the United States, Azikiwe worked as a journalist in Baltimore and Philadelphia and was already well known as a public figure on his return to Nigeria in 1937. In 1960, he established the University of Nigeria. Azikiwe held many political positions within Nigeria, including representing the Queen as head of state from 1960-1963, but he is best remembered as the first President of the country.

Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi (1966)

Aguiyi-Ironsi was a senior Nigerian officer in the military, and led the 1966 military coup against Azikiwe's government. The coup started by Aguiyi-Ironsi and his army killing the highest rank politicians in the North and West of the country (including Balewa, the first Prime Minister). His power grab did not last long in Nigeria, he was only in power for 194 days (January of 1966 until June of 1966), before being murdered in a counter coup by unhappy members of the Nigerian armed forces.

General Yakubu Gowon (1966-1975)

General Gowon seized power after the counter-coup against Aguiyi-Ironsi. Soon after he had grabbed power, Gowon implemented genocidal tactics against the Igbo people in the north, killing more than 50,000. In 1967 after tensions had reached a boiling point, the Nigerian Civil War broke out. This was was caused by Eastern Nigerians (namely the Igbo people) desiring to secede from Nigeria and form their own country. Over 100,000 soldiers and 1,000,000 civilians were killed in the war, known as the Biafran War. Leading the country during the early 1970's oil boom, Gowon endorsed modernization of Nigeria, creating infrastructure (international airport, a stadium, and an arts theater to name a few) that still stand today.

General Murtala Mohammed (1975-1976)

After the third army-led coup in Nigeria, Mohammed was put into power. Mohammed removed from power a number of former high-ranking politicians and officials in an effort to differentiate his government from that of Gowon. Many of these fired public servants were trialed for corruption. During his brief stint in office, the Nigerian government took over all broadcasting and media, creating a monopoly of communications for the government. As with many Nigerian leaders, Mohammed was assassinated. In February of 1976, after a failed coup attempt, Mohammed's vehicle was ambushed on his way to his offices and he was murdered.

Major General Olusegun Obasanjo (1976-1979)

Obasanjo did not actively participate in the 1975 military coup, although he supported the coup and General Mohammed at the time. Subsequently, Obasanjo was named as deputy in Mohammed's government and was also targeted for assassination but managed to escape. Obasanjo re-established security in the capital as well as army rule. By the time Obasanjo was in power (after Mohammed's murder), a program to restore civilian rule of Nigeria had been established and Obasanjo continued this program, holding general elections in 1979 and helping to create the Nigerian Constitution. On the 1st of October, 1979, Obasanjo peacefully handed power over to a civilian ruler, Shehu Shigari, marking the first time this happened in African history. Obasanjo was later democratically elected as President of Nigeria, which will be discussed later in this article.

President Shehu Shigari (1979-1983)

Shigari served as Nigeria's second President. Before becoming President, Shigari was appointed Minister of Economic Affairs in 1970, and later as the Minister of Finance by General Gowon in an attempt to include civilians in the rule of Nigeria. While running for President in 1979, the National Party of Nigeria's motto was "One Nation, One Destiny", which reflects Nigerian ethnic diversity as well as the common goal of Nigerian success. After the booming oil prices cooled off in 1981, the Nigerian economy was in trouble. The deterioration of the Nigerian economy, as well as consistent allegations of corruption and mismanagement, led to Shigari being overthrown in yet another military coup in 1983.

Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (1983-1985)

After successfully overthrowing the democratically elected government of Shigari, Buhari justified the Army's actions in 1983 by defining the civilian government as having been corrupt and hopeless. Buhari was quick to indefinitely suspend Nigeria's 1979 constitution. The harsh reality of how bad the Nigerian economy was during this time prompted Buhari to quickly implement policies that would encourage economic stability. These policies included the raising of interest rates, major cut back to public and government spending, and prohibiting the government from borrowing more money. Buhari also cut Nigeria's ties with the International Monetary Fund during this period. Buhari's tenure is known for the harsh policies the government implemented to protect itself, with many Nigerians, who were seen as a security threat by the government, being detained, jailed, and even executed during his rule.

General Ibrahim Babangida (1985-1993)

Nigerians, in particular the Army leadership, were becoming unhappy with Buhari's harsh methods of keeping corruption and poor discipline to a minimum. This led to an uncharacteristically bloodless coup whose leaders promised to end the constant human rights abuses by the previous regime. Babangida took power with support of loyal mid-level military personnel which he had strategically placed into positions to benefit his aspirations of power. In 1990, Babangida's government was almost overthrown by a failed coup attempt from the Army. In June of 1993, Presidential elections were held in Nigeria with the goal of civilian rule being restored. After these elections, Babangida and his government decided to nullify the results, which led to civil unrest and labor strikes in the country. Many Nigerians believe this government was the most corrupt in Nigerian history.

President Ernest Shonekan (1993)

After the civil and economic unrest of 1993, Babangida caved to public pressure and appointed Shonekan as the interim President of the country in August of 1993. By this point in time, inflation in Nigeria had become uncontrollable, and foreign investments in non-oil related industries had significantly waned. During his brief time as President, Shonekan tried to create a timetable that would lead the Nigerian people back to a democratic rule. This initiative failed as Shonekan's interim administration only lasted three months until he was overthrown by his own Secretary of Defence, Sani Abacha. Interestingly, many democratic supporters saw Shonekan as an obstacle to Nigerian prosperity and growth, as well as social justice within the nation.

General Sani Abacha (1993-1998)

Shortly after overthrowing President Shonekan, Abacha issued a decree that essentially gave his government absolute power and immunity to prosecution. Abacha was involved with the 1966 counter-coup, the 1983 military coup as well as the 1985 coup, and he led the 1993 military coup against the interim government. Abacha's military legacy is one of successful coup attempts. His political legacy rests upon his remarkable economic achievements, which seem to overshadow some of the more controversial aspects of his government such as human rights abuses and corruption. Abacha managed to increased Nigerian foreign reserves from $494 million in 1993 to $9.6 billion by the middle of 1997, Abacha also reduced the debt of Nigeria from $36 billion in 1993 to $27 billion in 1997. Abacha died mysteriously in 1998 and many Nigerians celebrated his death.

General Abdulsalami Abubakar (1998-1999)

Although Abubakar was reluctant to accept the leadership of Nigeria when Abacha passed away, Abubakar was sworn in on the 9th of June, 1998. At this time, Nigeria needed a leader of Abubakar's caliber to avoid plunging into civil conflict, as he was a peaceful man who had Nigeria's best interests at heart. Abubakar and his government created a new Nigerian constitution, which would be implemented once a democratically elected leader was in place. Shortly after he was sworn in, Abubakar promised to hold general elections and step down as leader of Nigeria within one year. Critics of military leadership doubted that he would keep this promise, but he did.

President Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007)

Obasanjo had already led Nigeria as a military leader, but his election to the office of President in 1999 marked Nigeria's return to civilian rule. Obasanjo won 62% of the vote and his election day is now marked as Democracy Day, a public holiday in the country. In his first term in office, Obasanjo spent most of his time travelling abroad to reassure potential investors, especially those in the USA and UK, that the oil industry was stable, and that Nigeria was a fair and democratic country. Obasanjo was granted a second term in office in 2003 by Nigerians, winning 61% of the vote and defeating former military leader Muhammad Buhari.

President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua (2007-2010)

After the controversial elections of 2007, Yar'Adua was declared the winner and assumed the Presidential office of Nigeria. Former President Obasanjo endorsed his candidacy, as his record showed no signs of corruption and/or ethnic favoritism. While in office, Yar'Adua fell ill and was unable to uphold his Presidential duties. This led to him being absent from public life and a dangerous situation was arising in Nigeria. His powers were transferred to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, who took over as an acting President during this time. Yar'Adua's legacy while in office was one of democracy, fairness, peace, and prosperity for Nigerians.

President Goodluck Jonathan (2010-2015)

As Yar'Adua's Vice President, Jonathan was known for keeping a low profile, although as Vice President he was instrumental in negotiating with Nigerian militants to achieve stability. After becoming President due to the illness and death of Yar'Adua, Jonathan contested the 2011 Nigerian elections, winning the Presidency. Jonathan implemented a major strategy to stabilize the power supply of Nigeria, as blackouts were costing the economy millions, if not billions of dollars. Jonathan was also considered by many to be a staunch opposition of Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group, even though his armed forces were not able to defeat the group that still operates today. Jonathan's legacy is one of contrast, he improved the lives of many Nigerians but at the same time his government was hopelessly corrupt.

President Muhammadu Buhari (2015-Present)

Having contested in the previous Presidential election, Buhari was finally successful in his 2015 bid to become President. Sworn in on May 29, 2015, Buhari became the second ex-military leader to become a President of Nigeria. After being elected, Buhari was also known as a strong voice against Boko Haram, urging Nigerians to put aside their differences in order to crush the Islamic insurgency. On the 6th of June, 2016, Buhari went to the United Kingdom to seek medical treatment for a persistent ear infection. Only time will tell if his legacy will remain one of human rights abuses during his first term in power or will become one of fighting and defeating Boko Haram which is terrorizing Nigeria.

Nigerian Presidents And Military Leaders Since Independence

OrderNigerian Heads of StateTerm in Office
1Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa1960-1963
2President Nnamdi Azikiwe1963-1966
3Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi
4General Yakubu Gowon
5General Murtala Mohammed
6Major-General Olusegun Obasanjo
7President Shehu Shagari1979-1983
8Major-General Muhammadu Buhari
9General Ibrahim Babangida
10President Ernest Shonekan1993
11General Sani Abacha
12General Abdulsalami Abubakar
13President Olusegun Obasanjo1999-2007
14President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua2007-2010
15President Goodluck Jonathan2010-2015
16President Muhammadu Buhari2015-Present

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