A (not so) short history of Nigerian Presidents, Part 1
Before 1914, Nigeria did not officially exist. The areas of present-day Nigeria were a smattering of ethnic tribes organized into a country by the Royal Niger Company which ruled via a charter authorized by the crown. Its job was to administer territories surrendered to it by treaties with native chiefs. The British had tried this model in the so-called East Indies with the British East India Company. This soon became unsustainable and was eventually dissolved in 1874 following heavy criticisms and local rebellion.
However, a stronger case was made for the Royal Niger Company by its most influential player, George Goldie, and led to the British Crown accepting its proposal to manage the territories around the Niger. By 1885, the Royal Nigeria Company had developed a fierce grip on the lower areas of the Niger and most territories of present-day Nigeria. It wasn’t until 1900 that it would lose this grip and be stripped of its charter by the British government. By then, it had done a lot in enabling total British control over the areas it held.
By 1914, there was a Southern protectorate (comprised of the Niger Coast Protectorate and Lagos) and a Northern protectorate, chiefly made up of Northern tribes and villages. These were territories dependent on the parent British power but with some measure of local autonomy. Britain had exercised some dominance over these areas way before 1914 and as early as the second-half of the 19th century through the Royal Niger Company. During the Scramble for Africa, it followed naturally that parts of present-day Nigeria were allotted to Britain, then an imperial power and one of the world’s superpowers.
In 1914, more for economic reasons than for political ones the Southern and Northern protectorates were merged together to create Nigeria with Lord Frederick Lugard assigned as Governor. Attempts followed to mold Nigeria into a state, complete with federal institutions and laws after the style of Britain. Several years later in 1960 and after incessant fights by democratic leaders who wanted self-rule, Nigeria, now comprised of a Northern, Southern and Eastern region, got independence and began producing its own presidents.
Just as it was in Britain, Nigeria’s first head of government was a Prime Minister. With a population of some 29 million people, arrived at after an intensely contested census, the Northern region looked destined to produce the country’s leader. The Northern People’s Congress, NPC won the majority seats in the parliament and with the National Convention of Nigeria Citizens, the NCNC led by Nnamdi Azikiwe, formed a ruling coalition. A member of the NPC, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa got enough majority in Parliament to lead it, becoming the Prime Minister. Born in 1912 in Bauchi to a district head in the Bauchi divisional district of Lere, Balewa’s education through to the tertiary stage reflected what rarely was the norm in the then less-educated Northern region of Nigeria. He acquired a teaching certificate after studying in college and proceeded in 1944 to study a year at the University of London. Shortly after, he entered politics, starting out in the Northern House of Assembly and then proceeding to the Legislative Assembly in 1947. He served in the colonial government as its Minister of Works in 1952 after it began giving more responsibilities to indigenous leaders and in 1959 became Prime Minister following pre-independence elections, a position he maintained after Nigeria’s independence in 1960. In 1964, he was reelected to the same position.
As the country’s first leader he played an important role in its formative years, striking important foreign alliances every baby nation would need and visiting other countries to establish profitable strategic alliances. He also managed to calm growing tensions among the several tribes in the country yet unaccustomed to local rule. Besides his national role, he also played a key part in shaping the continent’s efforts at indigenous rule, a paramount topic in those colonial days. There is good reason to believe the started Nigeria out on the big brotherly role now often played by this economic power in West Africa and in larger Africa. Sadly, on 5 January 1966, two years after his reelection, he was kidnapped from his home by armed soldiers and killed in Nigeria’s first military coup. Today his face adorns the five naira note.
The chaos which saw his exit from power had been predicted by some who rightly observed the jockeying for power happening among the Nigerian elites. Tribal sensitivities were high, even among so-called leaders, and individual Nigerians knew rather too little about their neighbors of different ethnicity. Everyone held their peoples’ interests close to chest and neglected the greater purpose of a country.
The coup, led by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, had failed and the coup plotters couldn’t follow through with their succession plans. In the chaos that followed, a more senior command of the army seized power and Major-Gen Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi assumed control of the nation. In his broadcast, he stated that “interim administration of the republic of Nigeria had been taken over by the Military following the invitation of the council of ministers.” This invitation had indeed been extended by the Acting President, Dr. Nwafor Orizu, to whom power lawfully went to after Balewa’s death. The role naturally fell to Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the General Officer Commanding of the Nigerian Army, even if he hadn’t wanted it. An erudite officer, Ironsi had distinguished himself in national service, serving in the Congo Crisis of the 1960s. However, he inherited a deeply splintered country held only together by virulent ethnic and religious views, which had grown from small misgivings at the beginning of the 60’s into seething hatred towards the latter part of the decade. From the start, his administration was already susceptible to mutiny and that didn’t take long in coming. On 29 July 1966, barely six months after the beginning of his rule, Ironsi was seized by a fraction of military mutineers who killed him in a counter-coup. He spent only 194 days in office. Perhaps to forestall sinister intentions, his death was not immediately made known to the public, so that even 3 days after his death official reports did not disclose it. It wasn’t until 14 January 1967 that the General was officially announced dead by the newly constituted Federal Military Government. This culture of secrecy around deaths or illnesses of leaders will come to stay in the Nigerian political scene.
Aguiyi-Ironsi was succeeded by Yakubu Gowon in the aftermath of the second Nigerian military coup. The fifth of eleven children, Gowon was born an Ngas in a small village in Plateau state. Trained at Sandhurst, as were many other top military officers in Nigeria’s early post-independence years, Yakubu Gowon was until 1966 a career soldier with no involvement in politics. Following the death of Aguiyi-Ironsi, he became a fitting choice for the country’s leadership position since he had no apparent ties to the three warring Nigerian tribes. At 31, he became Nigeria’s youngest ever head of government.
As a leader, Gowon did quite well in the administration of Nigeria. Though he may have failed in sufficiently eliminating both official and national corruption, by that time the country’s way of life, some of his economic and national policy plans paved the way in opening the country to somewhat better development. His indigenization degree of 1972 empowered a lot of Nigerians and contributed to the temporary improvement in the standard of living enjoyed by the Nigerian middle class. Undoubtedly, the greatest threat his government faced was the failed secession of the Eastern region led by Lt. Col Ojukwu.
Gowon spent 9 years in power, enjoying the second longest time spent in the highest position in the country. However, his dismissal as unrealistic the 1976 deadline for return to civilian rule did not endear him to the Nigerian public. On 29 July 1975, the 9th anniversary of the second coup, Gowon was ousted from power while on a visit to Kampala to attend the 12th Summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity. In a radio broadcast on that day, Col Joseph Garba, then head of the Brigade of Guards, announced, “The Nigerian armed forces have decided to effect a change of leadership of the military government and from now, Gen Gowon ceases to be the Commander in Chief…”
Unlike the first and second coups which were motivated, in part, by ethnic and religious rivalries, this third coup was more as a result of what the coupists felt was “neglect or inattention” by the Gowon leadership to the moves and advices of the junior military brass. There is good reason to believe the success of this coup provided reason for other subsequent military takeovers and set the informal procedure for military “handovers”, many of which followed in the coming decades. It invariably established that any ambitious military officer in the right office can set in motion moves to assumed country leadership irrespective of the current administration’s reach.
At the end of this swift and bloodless operation, Nigeria’s third coup, huge changes followed and Gen Murtala Mohammed emerged the new leader to succeed Gowon. A quiet, but astute leader, Mohammed began with a clean-up of the federal service. In the great purge that followed, several civil commissioners, military and police officers, public corporation managers, top police officers, envoys, judges, top civil servants and several others were relieved, retired or dismissed for various reasons from incompetence to gross misconduct. The federal service, perceived to be corrupt at that time, was worst hit and these dismissals met with public acceptance, gradually furnishing Mohammed’s government with people’s acceptance. He also appointed new administrators and governors, as the government looked to start afresh with the Nigerian project. However, on 13 February 1976, another coup struck the country. Yet another junior officer felt the government demonstrated enough hypocrisy to want it out.