In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nigerian Politics and Government

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Independence and Post-independence Politics
  • Presidentialism and Politics in the Second Republic (1979–1983)
  • Failed Democratic Transition and Politics of the Third Republic
  • The Fourth Republic (1999–)
  • Military Rule in Nigerian Politics
  • Politics of Federalism
  • Political Economy of Oil
  • Ethnic Politics
  • Religion and Politics
  • Insurgency and Separatist Violence

Political Science Nigerian Politics and Government
Hakeem Onapajo
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0361


Nigeria’s status as the “Giant of Africa” is not only an expression suggesting it has the largest population size in the region, but also implies the immense influence the Nigerian state has on African politics and society. It is arguable that a proper understanding of politics and government in Nigeria should provide a good understanding of African politics. Nigeria is a product of British colonialism and gained its independence in 1960. Being a plural society with multiple ethnic groups, the Nigerian political system is built on a three-tier federal system (federal, state, and local governments). Modeled after the American model of democracy, Nigeria operates a presidential system that produces a president exercising enormous executive power at the federal level and a governor as head of the executive in the thirty-six (subnational) states in the federation. The legislative system is bicameral at the federal level and unicameral at the state level. With an estimated 300 ethnic groups, Nigeria is often considered the most diverse society in Africa. Despite the multiple ethnic groupings, three major ethnic groups dominate the political space given their population and linguistic spread over other groups. The majority groups are the Hausa-Fulani (northern region), Yoruba (western region) and the Igbo (eastern region). Besides these majority groups, there are hundreds of minority groups spread across the different regions of the country. In addition to ethnicity, religion represents another significant component of Nigerian society and has a major influence on politics. Nigerians mostly identify with Christianity or Islam, while a few associate with the African Traditional Religion. In geographical spread, there are more Muslims in the northern region and more Christians in the southern region. Over the years, ethnicity and religion have been a major factor in Nigerian politics, determining access to power and distribution of values. These factors have become a major driver of politics and therefore feature prominently in any discourse about politics and government in Nigeria. Politics in Nigeria since independence has oscillated between civilian democracy and military rule. Democracy failed at three different periods before the present democratic regime, which began in 1999. The military interventions and abrupt end to democratic rules give room for the periodization of the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Republics that is often employed as a framework of analysis in the study of Nigerian politics and government.

General Overview

Scholarship on Nigerian politics and government is abundantly available. The topic has been one of the most studied in African politics. Major works that have become more influential on politics and government in Nigeria belong to different generations based on political phenomena at politico-historical phases of the state. The first generation of work, which can be referred to as classical studies of Nigerian political science, are books that offer compelling analysis of politics in the pre-independence and early post-independence eras. These include Sklar 1963, which is the foundational and most referenced work on political parties and electoral politics in Nigeria. Post 1963 examines the politics of the 1959 federal elections that preceded Nigeria’s independence in 1960. Awa 1964 provides a useful analysis of the institutional framework for the government that emerged after independence. Dudley 1968 is a study of political parties in northern Nigeria. Another major contribution by the same author, Dudley 1973 provides a rich account of the politics that led to the collapse of the First Republic (1960–1966) in Nigeria’s political history. The second generation of works emerged in the 1970s and 1980s and focused more on the politics of military rule, after the first military coup of 1966, and the politics of the second attempt at democratic rule, otherwise known as the Second Republic (1979–1983). Some of the most visible among them include Adamolekun 1985, Falola and Ihonvbere 1985 and Joseph 1987. The period that followed saw the consolidation of power by military regimes and controversial democratic transition periods. The politics of this era, particularly from 1983 to 1993, was sufficiently studied in the third-generation studies, including the edited volume Diamond, et al. 1997 and Osaghae 1998. Nigeria’s politics and government under the recent transition to democracy in 1999 are examined in the fourth generation of works on Nigerian political studies, including Said Adejumobi 2010 and Agbu 2016.

  • Adamolekun, Ladipo. The Fall of the Second Republic. Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum Books, 1985.

    The contribution of Adamolekun remains one of the most visible in the second generation of Nigerian political studies. It gives useful analysis of the factors that accounted for the collapse of democracy after the military coup of 1983.

  • Adejumobi, Said, ed. Governance and Politics in Post-military Nigeria: Changes and Challenges. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    Adejumobi’s edited book is a typical example of the current generation of Nigerian political studies that captures politics and government after the transition to democracy in 1999.

  • Agbu, Osita, ed. Elections and Governance in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA, 2016.

    Agbu’s edited volume approaches the present Nigerian democratic journey from the lens of elections since 1999.

  • Awa, Eme. Federal Government in Nigeria. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520339064

    The book is a major foundational study to understand the structure of Nigerian federalism.

  • Diamond, Larry, Anthony Kirk-Greene, Oyeleye Oyediran. Transition without End: Nigerian Politics and Civil Society under Babangida. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781685856199

    An edited volume that provides different perspectives of the politics of military rule, with emphasis on the Babangida-led regime.

  • Dudley, Billy. Parties and Politics in Northern Nigeria. London: Frank Cass, 1968.

    The most detailed study on politics and the party system in northern Nigeria in the post-independence era.

  • Dudley, Billy. Instability and Political Order: Politics and Crisis in Nigeria. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1973.

    The book is a well-referenced study on the politics of the First Republic, as it provides a profound analysis of the factors responsible for the fall of the civilian regime in 1966.

  • Falola, Toyin, and Julius Ihonvbere. The Rise and Fall of Nigeria’s Second Republic, 1979–84. London: Zed Books, 1985.

    This book provides a comprehensive analysis of the politics, government, and economy in the Second Republic.

  • Joseph, Richard. Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria: The Rise and Fall of the Second Republic. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    Perhaps the best account of the politics of neo-patrimonialism in the Second Republic. The author’s arguments are used as a framework to understand contemporary politics in Nigeria. Subsequent books have been published to advance the author’s perspective.

  • Osaghae, Eghosa E. Crippled Giant: Nigeria since Independence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

    Belonging to the third generation, the book offers a highly comprehensive account of Nigerian government and politics since independence.

  • Post, Kenneth W. J. The Nigerian Federal Election of 1959. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963.

    The book provides a comprehensive account of the federal election that ushered in Nigeria’s independence in 1960. It belongs to the classical works that introduce Nigerian political system to the international audience.

  • Sklar, Richard. Nigerian Political Parties: Power in an Emergent African Nation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.

    Being one of the pioneer studies in Nigerian political studies, the book is one of the most cited contributions produced by the first set of political scientists, mostly foreign scholars, in Nigeria.

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