Nigerian government focuses on security and anti-corruption


Following a peaceful handover of power – the country’s first – in 2015, Nigeria is currently enjoying its longest uninterrupted period of democratic rule. The government, led by President Muhammadu Buhari – who also served as head of state briefly in the 1980s – was elected in part as a result of a campaign that promised a zero-tolerance approach to both corruption and the militant group Boko Haram.

However, the first full year of the new government has proven to be a difficult one, with a struggling economy and the president’s extended illness, along with militant activity in the oil-rich Delta region.

Yet the worst appears to be over, following the passing of some complex but necessary reforms, including a floating of the currency and a push to encourage greater import substitution. The government outlined its strategy going forward in April 2017 with the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan 2017-20 and has forecast a return to positive growth in 2017.

Federal Government

Nigeria is defined as a presidential federal republic, with 36 states that have a degree of autonomy in both revenue-generation and spending. A separation of powers exists between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, while legislative authority is also divided between the national and state governments.

Relations between the federal and state governments are defined in large part by the distribution of hydrocarbons revenues. Currently, states receive a monthly distribution from the federal government, the majority of which comes from these hydrocarbons revenues. Under the derivation formula instituted under the 1999 constitution, oil-producing states receive 13% of onshore oil tax revenues. The remainder is divided between the federal government (52.68%), the state governments (26.72%) and local governments (20.6%). The distribution of these revenues is a highly contested issue, with both the oil-producing and non-oil-producing states calling for larger distributions of earnings.

Federal Origins

The federal system has its origins in British colonial rule, which created the territory of Nigeria in 1914 by amalgamating the Northern and Southern territories. To avoid the expense of governing Nigeria’s vast territory directly, the colonial authorities employed a system of indirect rule, co-opting the existing authority wielded by local leaders. This system retained executive power in the hands of the colonial authorities while allowing local authorities to govern in their own fashion, laying the groundwork for the decentralised federal model in place in Nigeria today.

The country first officially became a federation in 1954, bringing together its three regions, at this point named the Northern, Western and Eastern regions. Following independence in 1960, regional dominance of majority ethnic groups – the west by the Yoruba, the east by the Igbo and the north by the Hausa-Fulani – became the country’s dominant political issue, as minority ethnic groups strived for representation, and each majority ethnic group feared the dominance of the others at the national level.

The desire to resolve these conflicts was a central driving force behind Nigeria’s multiple constitutional redesigns, through which its three regions became 12 in 1967, 19 in 1976 and 30 in 1991, before the federation assumed its current form of 36 states and the federal territory of Abuja in 1996.

Executive Branch

The president serves as the head of state, head of government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces and is limited to two four-year terms in office. The president is elected by a majority of the popular vote and at least 25% of the vote in 24 of the 36 states of the federation. The president then chooses the vice-president and has responsibility for appointing the Cabinet, which is known as the Federal Executive Council.

Traditionally, successive presidential administrations have alternated between northerners and southerners – a reflection in part of the historic tensions between the two regions during the 1960s and 1970s. Though this practice is not formalised, both the constitution and manifesto of the one of the country’s largest political parties – the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which held office from 1999 until 2015 – make reference to “geo-political balancing” as a central principle of power sharing.

Legislative Branch

The legislative branch is made up of the 109-seat Senate and the 360-seat House of Representatives. The latter is the directly elected lower house of the parliament, while the former is composed of regional state representatives. Elections to both houses are for four years and are achieved by a simple majority in single-seat constituencies.


The Nigerian legal system is based on English common law and traditional law, with 12 northern states also implementing sharia law in some capacity. The highest federal court is the Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over lower federal appellate courts as well as state courts. Each state has its own judicial system. Judges are appointed by the president, with a recommendation from the National Judicial Council, and are then confirmed by the Senate.

Landmark Elections

In the last elections, which took place in March 2015, a relatively newly formed opposition party won the presidency and a majority in both houses – a first in the country’s history. The election was won by the All Progressives Congress (APC), which beat out the PDP, the party that until that point had dominated the country’s electoral scene.

The APC was formed in 2013 by a coalition of opposition parties – the Action Congress of Nigeria, the All Nigeria People’s Party and a faction of the All Progressive Grand Alliance – which independently had varying degrees of support in both the north and the south of the country. The APC won a substantial portion of its votes in the south, but also returned a strong performance in the largely Muslim north.

On the eve of the 2015 election, former Ghanaian President John Kufuor, head of the ECOWAS Election Observation Mission, and the leaders of other international poll observers such as those from the African Union, the Commonwealth and the US, expressed confidence in the ability and efforts of the country’s Independent Electoral Commission to deliver free, fair, transparent and credible elections.

The election, which saw Buhari win out over incumbent president and PDP candidate Goodluck Jonathan by 2.5m votes, was hailed as a landmark moment for Nigerian politics for its adherence to international electoral practices and the peaceful transition of power that followed it. While in 2011 Jonathan’s defeat of Buhari had led to violent protests in which more than 800 people were killed, both candidates sought to defuse tensions after the 2015 ballot, publicly praising each other’s campaigns and encouraging supporters to focus on moving Nigeria forward in unity.

New Administration

President Buhari’s government faced several major challenges when it assumed office, including high levels of fiscal debt and low international oil prices. These were exacerbated in 2016 by an increase in militant activity, a struggling currency and a GDP contraction of 1.6% for the year.

The government has taken a number of difficult steps to mitigate the external pressures and rebalance the economy, including reducing subsidies, restructuring the oil sector and encouraging import substitution (see Energy and Industry chapters). Perhaps the most significant move was the removal of the naira’s peg to the dollar in late 2016, which over the course of more than a year had contributed to a large parallel market and a depletion of foreign reserves. The naira is now in a managed float (see Economy chapter).


One of the key issues of President Buhari’s tenure has been improving the country’s security environment, both in the south and north of the country. In February 2016 a number of militant groups began carrying out attacks on hydrocarbons infrastructure owned by international companies operating in the Niger Delta, reigniting a conflict that had been at peace since a government amnesty programme started in 2009. The attacks forced several oil plants to close and temporarily lowered national production levels by as much as one-third. Attacks in the Delta region have subsided in 2017, and the government is in talks with local communities to encourage disarmament and demobilisation. Since 2009 Nigeria has also grappled with attacks by Boko Haram, a terrorist group operating primarily in the north of the country and seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate by violent means. By April 2016 attacks by the group had killed more than 10,000 people and internally displaced several millions more. A number of Boko Haram incidents have made international headlines, including the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from a boarding school in the Chibok region of Borno State in April 2014. Three of the girls have since escaped, while a further 103 girls were released in negotiated exchanges for Boko Haram militants. Around 100 of the girls are still classified as missing.

President Buhari has had some key successes in limiting the group’s activities, with attacks in 2017 decreasing in lethality and being limited to the group’s Borno base, according to a May 2017 “Conflict Trends” report by Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which collates data on political violence in developing states. Nonetheless, managing the ongoing fallout of the conflict presents a major governance challenge in some of the country’s poorest regions, with the UN reporting in late 2016 that up to 14m citizens will require aid in 2017 as a result of the conflict.


Another major priority for the government has been the eradication of corruption. The country was ranked 136th out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index for 2016. The survey indicates corruption has declined under Buhari’s presidency, with the country scoring six points better on the scale than it did in 2015. Its score of 28 still falls well below the international average of 43. The government has had some notable successes in the battle against corruption, including the 2015 arrest of a former minister of defence for his role in misappropriating $2bn worth of funds designated for the fight against Boko Haram. In April 2017 the government suspended the director-general of the National Intelligence Agency following the seizure of over $43m at a Lagos residence by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

In Absentia

In what could be perceived as a strong testament to the stability of Nigeria’s democratic system, a lingering illness saw President Buhari forced to spend an extensive period overseas during the course of 2017, resulting in his vice-president, Oluyemi Osinbajo, acting in his stead.

As of July 2017 President Buhari had not made a public appearance in several months during a series of visits to the UK for the treatment of an undisclosed illness. The first of trips these occurred in January and February 2017, as part of what were described as “routine medical tests”. However, official statements from the State House said that the president was feeling better and in good spirits, having hosted a number of officials over the course of the summer and conducted multiple phone calls with his Cabinet members. He returned to Nigeria in mid-August 2017.


A number of external factors – including low international oil prices, an increase in militant activity and the poor fiscal situation – have created a difficult set of circumstances for President Buhari and his administration to govern in. Nonetheless, substantial progress in the fight against Boko Haram and strong leadership on internal corruption have contributed crucial positive feeling towards the presidency, and the country is on course to return to positive GDP growth in 2017. While making his first state address since his return from the UK in August 2017, President Buhari condemned renewed calls for Biafran secession and promised vigilance in the fight against Boko Haram. A measure of internal stability will be essential for the government to make much-needed economic progress before the 2019 presidential elections.

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Nigeria 2017. Explore other chapters from this report.

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