In February 2019 Nigerians will once again go to the polls to elect a president, National Assembly and leaders across the political sphere, at the federal and state levels. The incumbent head of state Muhammadu Buhari is seeking re-election, alongside a large pool of candidates. Meanwhile, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party will take on the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the other 77 candidates will all be hoping to make their mark on the national agenda. This will be the sixth general election to be held since the return of civilian rule in 1999, and there is widespread hope among the populace that the trend of peaceful, free and fair voting will continue, unhampered by security concerns.

Constitutional Government

Nigeria is a federal republic, consisting of 36 states, plus the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Since independence from the British Empire in 1960 the country has had four republican constitutions. The first ran from 1963-66 and was characterised by a Westminster style of government, although it included the removal of the British monarch as head of state. The First Republic ended in a military coup in 1966, after which constitutional politics was suspended until 1979 and the establishment of the Second Republic. This ran a US-style presidential system, with the National Party of Nigeria winning elections in both 1979 and 1983. In addition, some attempts were made to break from the regional divisions of the First Republic, with parties having to be represented in at least two of the three main areas of the country. A further coup in 1983, however, ushered in another period of military rule.

The Third Republic was founded 10 years later, based on a constitution drawn up by the military regime in 1989. Under it, only two parties were allowed, namely the centre-right National Republican Convention (NRC) and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP). Elections in 1993 saw Moshood Abiola’s SDP emerge victorious, but the instability that followed resulted in the Third Republic never officially beginning work, and giving rise to a further period of military rule. This ended in 1999 with the establishment of the Fourth Republic and a return to civilian governance. The current constitution is largely a return to the US-style presidential system of the Second Republic, with several amendments made in 2011 and again in 2017.

Executive Branch

The president is directly elected every four years for a maximum of two terms after a two-round ballot. He or she is the head of state, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and head of government. As such, the president appoints and heads the Cabinet, known as the Federal Executive Council. This consists of the heads of all federal ministries, with a convention that each of the 36 states must have at least one person in the Cabinet.

There are currently 24 federal ministries, and certain Cabinet members sometimes have more than one ministry in their portfolio. This means that there are minister of state appointments, as assistants to the heads of ministries, who also sit in Cabinet and ensure all states are represented. The current president, Muhammadu Buhari, is also minister for petroleum resources, while Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu is minister of state for petroleum resources.

Permanent secretaries from the civil service assist and are directly accountable to ministers, who in turn answer to the president. Ministers must also gain approval for their appointment from the Senate. Parastatals, such as the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, the National Broadcasting Commission and the country’s universities, also come under the relevant ministry. Others are under the president’s remit, among them Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent National Electoral Commission, which oversees elections. The president has wide powers to appoint judges for the Supreme Court on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council of Nigeria and subject to the Senate’s approval of nominees. He or she is also elected on a joint ticket with a vice-president, who sits in the Cabinet and other key government bodies. The current vice-president is Oluyemi Osinbajo.

Legislative Branch

There is a bicameral legislature comprising a lower chamber, the House of Representatives, and an upper chamber, the Senate. Together, these constitute the National Assembly. The lower chamber consists of 360 members, each elected by a first-past-the-post vote in single-member constituencies. Members serve for four years, with elections held concurrently with those for president. All adults over the age of 18 can vote. The chamber is presided over by the speaker of the House of Representatives, who is elected by members of the chamber. With the Fourth Republic modelled on the US political system, the lower chamber has oversight functions and a network of committees to interrogate government policy and appointments, as well as public officials. It also scrutinises bills and must ordinarily give its approval for a bill to become law, along with the Senate. As part of the National Assembly, the lower chamber may take action to remove a president or vice-president, following a two-thirds majority vote of both houses and after constitutional due process.

The Senate, meanwhile, consists of 109 members, with each of the 36 states electing three, while the FCT elects one. Senators are also elected for four-year terms, with no limit on the number of terms they can run. As with the House of Representatives, members may introduce, debate and vote on bills, although financial bills must originate in the lower chamber. The Senate also has the power of approval over some presidential appointments, and it must give its consent to treaties with foreign states. The chamber is presided over by the president of the Senate, a position currently held by Bukola Saraki of the PDP.


Four distinct legal traditions exist within the Nigerian judicial system: English law, common law (which has developed since independence), sharia law and customary law. The court system also consists of two levels: federal and state. At the federal level, the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court are above trial courts, which also exist at the state level. Within each state and the FCT, there are also appeals courts and sharia and customary law courts. Sharia law is in force across nine Muslim-majority states and in parts of three others with large Muslim populations. There is also a sharia Court of Appeals at the federal level. The National Judicial Council (NJC) exists to protect judicial independence, and it advises the president and National Assembly on judicial appointments.

The Federal Court of Appeal consists of at least 35 justices, a minimum of three of whom must have expertise in sharia law and three in customary law. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is headed by the chief justice and 13 associate justices, appointed by the president on the advice of the NJC. The current chief justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen has occupied that position since he was appointed in 2017.

Local Government

Under the constitution, states share sovereignty with the federal government, giving them important rights. Each state has a unicameral House of Assembly, with the number of members set at three times the number of members the state has within the National Assembly.

The executive authority is the governor, who appoints a state executive council as his or her Cabinet, subject to approval by the state’s House of Assembly. State level ministries are headed by commissioners. Members of the House of Assembly and the governor are directly elected for four-year terms, with governors serving a maximum of two terms. The 36 states then break down into a total of 774 local government areas (LGAs). Each has a Local Government Council, consisting of a single elected chairperson and councillors.

The LGAs further subdivide into wards, from which councillors are elected. The local councils have some tax-raising, oversight, registration and licensing roles, along with provision of some public services, such as waste collection and street cleaning. The number of LGAs in a state depends on its size, with the largest being Kano, which has 44.


The last national elections were held on March 28 and 29, 2015, with the next scheduled for February 16, 2019. In the presidential ballot, northerner and former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari won with 53.96% of the vote against the incumbent southerner Goodluck Jonathan. A total of 29.4m votes were cast out of an electorate of 67.4m. Buhari ended up winning 15.4m votes, a margin of victory of 2.6m. This was the first time an incumbent had failed to gain re-election in Nigeria’s history, with Jonathan conceding defeat soon after the official result was announced. Buhari’s victory was attributed to a number of factors, among them accusations of corruption made against Jonathan’s government. In the House of Representatives, the APC emerged victorious, which resulted in 225 seats, while the PDP won 125 and 10 went to other parties. The APC repeated its victory in the Senate, although with a smaller majority, winning 60 seats to the PDP’s 49. This resulted in the PDP losing control of the Senate. Given that President Buhari is also an APC candidate, this result gave the party majority control of all branches of the federal polity.

Buhari had campaigned on an agenda of reform, and in the years leading up to the ballot he had helped forge an alliance of opposition groups in the APC capable of taking on the PDP. Issues such as corruption, poverty and unemployment were key, as was the security situation in north-east Nigeria, where jihadist militant group Boko Haram continues to operate. The victory of a northerner was also seen as evidence that voters were beginning to see tackling the aforementioned issues as more important than the religious, ethnic or regional identity of the country’s rulers.


One of the main challenges facing the current and any future administration are ongoing disputes between farmers and herders over land and cattle, which have deepened ethnic and religious divisions in some areas of the country. The presence of the Boko Haram in the north-eastern states also continues to be a concern. The army – in conjunction with contingents from other African nations – has, however, achieved some success in reducing this in recent years, with hopes that the states most affected, such as Adamawa, may see a reduction in violence during the election period. The region remains badly affected by the conflict, with some 2m people displaced by the fighting.

Elsewhere, the Niger Delta region saw clashes in the 1990s, beginning with non-violent opposition from the Ogoni people, and instances of armed resistance in the early 2000s led by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. This ended in 2009, when the government made the militants an offer of an amnesty and a cash reward. Since then, the region has witnessed relative peace, although there are periodic armed attacks, although there are pockets of armed attacks on oil installations, along with illegal oil lifting and kidnapping.


The president and the EFCC have moved against some officials in recent years, as well as recovered some embezzled funds. Buhari also addressed corruption in his election campaign in 2015, yet a widespread perception of federal and state institutions and authorities as corrupt remains. In its most recent report, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2017”, Transparency International ranked Nigeria 148th out of 180 countries surveyed.


The perceived success or failure of this drive may well be a factor in the upcoming elections on February 16, 2019, which have dominated the Nigerian agenda for much of 2018. At the same time, among those casting their ballots will be the many Nigerians who have come of age since the return to civilian rule – the so-called “born free” generation. Their outlook may prove critical in shaping the result.

High voter registration and a concerted interest in the political process indicates that Nigerians still see that participatory democracy is an important component of their country’s future. Whatever the outcome of the general elections, however, the incoming administration will face some major security and corruption challenges for a republic that is multi-faceted and complex, but also multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural, each citizen with a genuine interest of moving the country forwards.