Nigeria is in the midst of its third and longest attempt at sustained democratic rule, with the latest landmark coming with the 2015 presidential election, which saw the country’s first peaceful handover of power in more than three decades. The March poll, which involved a new biometric identity system, saw Muhammadu Buhari, a candidate from the All Progressives Congress (APC), an umbrella opposition party formed in 2013 by a coalition of smaller parties, eke out a narrow victory over Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent and candidate for the governing People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

The elections followed four previous successive elections that saw the PDP emerge as victorious under the country’s fourth constitution. The fourth constitution, adopted in May 1999, followed decades of military rule, short bouts of civilian governments (1960-66 and 1979-83) and a bloody civil war ( 1967-70). The tumultuousness of the country’s history is a reflection of its vast ethnic, religious and geographic diversity, a relic of colonial rule but also a testament to the commitment of the population to the democratic process.


Nigeria’s path towards democracy has been a long one indeed. The country’s first attempt at establishing a democratic government followed its independence from British colonial rule in 1960. Nigerian politics at the time was comprised primarily of an amalgamation of different regional and ethnic groupings contesting national polls.

After a spate of initial elections, followed in turn by a number of military coups, sparked in part by concerns related to exclusion and ethnic discrimination, the country dissolved into civil war. This led to the unilateral succession of three eastern Igbo states in 1967, forming what would briefly be known as the Republic of Biafra, but the ensuing conflict left over a million people dead, largely due to famine and disease. By 1970 the conflict had largely subsided, and the states were reintegrated back into the country.

Coups, counter-coups and periods of violence set the tone for the next three decades. A second attempt at democracy took place between 1979 and 1983, and an abortive third effort took place in 1993. General Sani Abacha assumed power in 1993 with the country in turmoil following the annulment of elections. Abacha’s rule earned Nigeria EU sanctions and a suspension from the Commonwealth as a result of violent repression and human rights abuses. Abacha’s successor, Abdulsalami Abubakar, laid the groundwork for a transition back to civilian rule with the Provision Ruling Council, which would go on to draft the fourth constitution.

Olusegun Obasanjo, a military general and former head of state, would subsequently win the 1999 elections, marking the beginning of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. Obasanjo stepped down after two terms, and was succeeded in 2007 by the PDP’s Umaru Yar’Adua, a former governor of Katsina State in the north. Yar’Adua soon fell ill and died in 2010, leaving Jonathan, the vice-president and former governor of Bayelsa State, to ascend to the presidency. Jonathan held on to the presidency in the 2011 elections before being defeated by Buhari in 2015.


The Federal Republic of Nigeria, as it is officially known, is made up of 36 states and is modelled on the US federal system of government. The government is led by the president, who serves as head of state, chief executive of the federation, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces and is limited to two four-year terms in office. The president nominates a vice-presidential running mate and appoints a Cabinet. Buhari, the victor of the March 2015 elections, assumes office on May 29, 2015, taking over from Jonathan.

The National Assembly is the country’s bicameral legislature, composed of a Senate (the upper house) and House of Representatives (the lower house). The Senate is made up of 109 senators, with three senators elected from each of the 36 states and one from the federal capital, Abuja. The House of Representatives is composed of 360 members drawn from the 36 states based on proportional representation. The current National Assembly, in both the House and Senate, is led by the PDP, while the APC is the primary opposition party.

Similarly to the US, the separation of powers exists between the three branches of government in the country, giving the judiciary autonomy and independence, and providing for a federalist breakdown in legislative authority between the national and state governments. 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.

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, most of which comes from hydrocarbons revenues.

Under the derivation formula stemming from the 1999 constitution, oil-producing states receive 13% of onshore oil tax revenues. The residual is divided amongst the federal government (52.68%), state governments (26.72%) and local governments (20.60%). The distribution of these revenues is a hotly contested issue, with both oil producing and nonoil producing states calling for larger distributions.

Electoral System

Since its transition back to democracy in 1999, Nigeria has seen substantial progress in terms of both the robustness of its partisan politics and the legitimacy of the electoral process. Elections are contested by some 28 registered parties, according to information from the Independent National Electoral Commission. By law, Nigerian political parties, in an effort to diffuse regional tensions, are required to spread beyond specific geographic regions and maintain a presence in a minimum of 24 of the 36 states.

Furthermore, by broad if unspoken consensus and to help further minimise the risk of sustained exclusion from the political process, electoral victors have generally sought to rotate the presidency between candidates from the north and the south, while also ensuring a ticket split between a president from one region and a vice-president from another.

The PDP has dominated the political scene since the return of civilian rule in 1999, with its members sweeping the presidential races and maintaining dominant block in both the House and Senate over the past 16 years. The PDP is a secular, right-to-centre political party, with conservative social views and liberal economic policies.

The APC is the primary opposition party, and the most formidable opponent to PDP dominance since the end of military rule. The APC formed in February 2013 as a result of a union between Nigeria’s largest opposition parties – the Action Congress of Nigeria, the Congress for Progressive Change, the All Nigeria Peoples Party and a faction of the All Progressives Grand Alliance – and in the years since its establishment the party has seen a significant increase in membership.

2015 Elections

The most recent presidential elections that saw Buhari emerge victorious were initially scheduled to be held on February 14, 2015, but the government pushed back the date by six weeks due to its concerns over violence in the north affecting the voting process. The military has regularly been deployed in past elections to maintain peace – indeed, more than 800 people died in violence following the 2011 elections – but the flare-up of the Boko Haram insurgency in Borno State in the northeast of Nigeria strained the army’s resources, according to government statements.

The elections were finally held on March 28, 2015, but technical delays as a result of new electronic biometric identity kits led to extended voting hours that saw some voters standing in lines for most of the day. However, international observers gave largely positive endorsements of the elections, in spite of limited allegations of fraud in a handful of areas, and the Independent National Electoral Commission tallied a 2.7m vote lead for Buhari.

According to elections law, the victor must have a minimum of 25% of the vote in 24 states, which both candidates had, highlighting the close-run nature of the race. General legislative and gubernatorial elections are to be held in early April 2015.


During his swearing-in ceremony in 1999, former President Obasanjo stated that corruption was “the greatest single bane of our society”, a message echoed by his successors. The issue has remained a blemish on domestic politics since the 1960s, when bureaucrats were often nicknamed “10 percenters”, in reference to the amount they pocketed through government contracts. Both the Obasanjo and Yar’Adua administrations took measures to address the issue, and President Yar’Adua was the first Nigerian president to declare all of his assets upon being sworn into office.

Investigations & Audits

Among the most critical steps in the country’s campaign against corruption was the establishment of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in 2003. Tackling everything from money laundering to bribery, the commission has exposed a range of incidents of graft and bribery that have involved state governors, serving senators, and the former ministers of health and aviation, as well as corporate executives and lower-level bureaucrats.

At one point 31 of Nigeria’s 36 state governors were under investigation, as was the chief of the PDP. As of July 2013, the EFCC declared that it had uncovered more than $9bn in stolen assets and secured around 400 convictions, as well as reporting that the country had been removed from the blacklist of non-cooperative countries by the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental organisation set up in 1989 on the initiative of the G7 to develop policies to combat money laundering.

Nonetheless, much remains to be done. In early 2013, John Magbadelo, the deputy director in charge of reforms at the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, said that around $400bn had been illegally siphoned out of the economy between 1966 and 1999. Further, a report published in September 2013 by London-based think-tank Chatham House noted that 100,000 barrels per day of oil, or 5% of Nigeria’s total output, “vanished from facilities on land, in swamps and in shallow water in the first quarter of 2013” (see Energy chapter).

Similar statements were made by Lamido Sanusi, the former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who announced in 2014 that $20bn in oil revenues had gone missing. The announcement prompted an audit by the government, conducted by accounting firm PwC, into the allegations. The firm released highlights of the report in February 2015, concluding that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and its subsidiaries owed the national treasury a total of $1.48bn. As of early April 2015 the full report was yet to be published, however.

International Relations & Trade

Nigeria’s clout both in Africa and globally has risen as the country’s economic heft has increased, which in turn has benefitted its diplomatic profile.

The US in particular has made efforts to rekindle the relationship it has with Nigeria and Africa at large. Over the past decade the US has seen its position as leading trading partner with Nigeria slip, with China taking over pole position. In 2013 Nigeria was the 35th largest trading partner for the US following a 38.3% decrease in imports during the year. This drop, due to increased domestic oil production in the US as a result of the shale boom, continued in 2014.

In an effort to reinvigorate the relations, the US hosted the US-Africa Leaders Summit in August, which committed $2bn in grants to Nigeria ( according to the Nigerian federal government), as well as commitments from US companies such as Procter & Gamble and General Electric. The US has also sought to provide technical and military assistance to the country as it tackles the Boko Haram insurgency in the north of Nigeria.

Looking to Asia

Trade with Asian countries, in particular China and India, has jumped to record new levels in recent years, with total Asian trade now amounting to around $40bn per annum. China’s trade volume has increased over six-fold over the past decade, amounting to $13bn in 2013, which represents 30% of China’s overall trade in West Africa. Chinese interests aim beyond the traditional hydrocarbons sector as well, with investments in banking, construction and power generation.

India, currently Nigeria’s largest trade partner, is expected to see trade volumes pass $20bn in 2014, according to figures from the Indian High Commission to Nigeria. The bulk of Nigerian exports to India is crude oil, making up 95% of total exports to the country in the first quarter of 2014.

However, the relationship between the two countries is a more dynamic than this figure would suggest, with over 150 different Indian companies operating in Nigeria. In September 2014 the Indian government announced its interest in signing a free trade agreement with ECOWAS, the regional economic and political bloc of which Nigeria is a member.


The EU continues to be Nigeria’s largest trading partner, accounting for 35.4% of the country’s exports and 30% of its imports, according to Michel Arrion, the EU delegation’s ambassador to Nigeria. In September 2014 the EU announced plans to invest €600m over five years for infrastructure development in an effort to spur FDI to the country. This builds upon the 50% increase in FDI from the EU in 2013.