Democracy Returns to Nigeria

Africa’s most populous country returned to democracy as military rulers handed power over to the newly elected President Olusegun Obasanjo. This event marked the restoration of democratic practice to the country for the third time since independence on October 1, 1960.

Summary of Event

Before May 29, 1999, Nigeria was a nation at a crossroads. The preceding twelve months were particularly chaotic for the country, which had seen three presidents within a year: Sani Abacha, Abdulsalam Abubakar, and Olusegun Obasanjo. During this period, Nigeria encountered its gravest social, political, and economic crises since its civil war (1967-1970). Internally, incessant strikes, riots, and demonstrations greeted the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election. Democracy;Nigeria
[kw]Democracy Returns to Nigeria (May 29, 1999)
[kw]Nigeria, Democracy Returns to (May 29, 1999)
[g]Africa;May 29, 1999: Democracy Returns to Nigeria[10370]
[g]Nigeria;May 29, 1999: Democracy Returns to Nigeria[10370]
[c]Government and politics;May 29, 1999: Democracy Returns to Nigeria[10370]
[c]Independence movements;May 29, 1999: Democracy Returns to Nigeria[10370]
[c]Human rights;May 29, 1999: Democracy Returns to Nigeria[10370]
Obasanjo, Olusegun
Abubakar, Abdulsalam
Abacha, Sani
Babangida, Ibrahim
Abiola, Moshood Kashimawo Olawale

The already fragile economy was further battered. On the international scene, the country became a pariah state, with the United States and some European nations imposing isolatory sanctions. Indeed, according to historian Eghosa E. Osaghae, this period marked “the greatest catalyst of Nigeria’s descent into anarchy.” Nobody could have predicted the series of astounding events that culminated in the return to democratic rule in Nigeria on May 29, 1999, and the emergence of Obasanjo as president.

Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo attends a meeting at the Pentagon in May, 2001. In May, 1999, General Abdulsalam Abubakar stepped down as president, ending sixteen years of military rule.

(U.S. Department of Defense)

For the most populous black country, May 29, 1999, marked the grand finale of a yearlong transition from military domination and international isolationism to the end of acute despondency, embraced enthusiastically by the Nigerian people. On this historic day, Nigeria began a new democratic voyage after sixteen ferocious years of military autocracy. The military had governed the country for twenty-nine out of the past thirty-nine years of political independence. This military rule was in two phases: from January 15, 1966, to October 1, 1979, and from December 30, 1983, to May 29, 1999.

On June 8, 1998, the rule of General Abacha came to an end. Abacha’s successor, General Abubakar, critically studied the prevailing mood and promptly promised to return Nigeria to civilian rule. In keen pursuit of his populist agenda, Abubakar immediately called for the return of all exiles, so that they could help in “rebuilding the nation.” Abubakar also effected the release of more than four hundred political prisoners, one of whom was Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the annulled June 12, 1993, presidential election. The annulment, ordered by General Ibrahim Babangida’s military regime, generated an imbroglio that shook the country to its foundation. The 1993 election was subsequently referred to as the “freest and fairest” election in Nigeria’s political history. Abacha died on June 8, 1998; Abiola died almost a month later, on July 7, 1998. The news of Abiola’s death enraged the nation, especially in the southwest, from which he hailed. Many alleged that his death was the result of an international conspiracy.

On July 20, 1998, General Abubakar released his timetable for transition with a pledge of political stability and economic reform. He emphatically assured Nigerians that a “new democratic elected president will be sworn in on May 29, 1999.” In August, Abubakar inaugurated the Independent National Electoral Commission, headed by Chief Dagogo Jack. The commission successfully conducted elections in local-government areas, the Nigerian state assemblies, and the Nigerian National Assembly. These elections were held on December 5, 1998, and January 9, February 20, and February 27, 1999.

Although nine political parties out of a total of twentyfive were granted provisional registration, a handful dominated the scene. Political parties;Nigeria The main three were the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the All Peoples Party (APP), and the Alliance for Democracy (AD). Others were the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ), the Democratic Advanced Movement (DAM), the People’s Redemption Party (PRP), the National Solidarity Movement (NSM), the United Democratic Party (UDP), and the United People’s Party (UPP).

After a keen contest, former military head of state General Obasanjo, released from prison by Abubakar, won a presidential election that was marred by irregularities. Consequently, the defeated candidate, Chief Olu Falae, challenged Obasanjo’s victory in court. The challenge failed, and the court finally ratified the election results. On May 29, 1999, General Abubakar handed power to Obasanjo.


President Obasanjo later acknowledged Abubakar’s sincerity in keeping his promise to step down and relinquish power. Through a rare display of statesmanship, Abubakar not only had restored Nigerians’ confidence in democratic principles but also had returned Nigeria to its rightful place in the comity of nations with the inauguration of the civilian administration. Sanctions were lifted and Nigeria regained her membership of some international organizations, such as the Commonwealth of Nations.

Nigerians, however, would remain divided on the real historical significance of May 29, 1999, a date that is still celebrated nationwide as Democracy Day. Many, including Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka, Soyinka, Wole consider June 12, 1993, the true date for the reemergence of democracy in that country. Democracy;Nigeria

Further Reading

  • Diamond, Larry, Anthony Kirk-Greene, and Oyeleye Oyediran. Transition Without End: Nigerian Politics and Civil Society Under Babangida. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1997. Exposes the machinations and manipulation of Nigerians by General Babangida that resulted in the truncation of the Third Republic.
  • Dudley, B. J. Instability and Political Order: Politics and Crisis in Nigeria. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1973. One of the most discerning studies of efforts toward democracy in Nigeria. Uses social science theories to analyze the roots of political crisis in Nigeria at both micro and macro levels. Creatively analyzes the Nigerian First Republic and the origins of military involvement in politics.
  • Osaghae, Eghosa E. Crippled Giant: Nigeria Since Independence. Ibadan, Nigeria: John Archers, 2002. An interpretive historical account of events in Nigeria, including military rule, the June 12, 1993, annulment of presidential election results, the murder of Chief Abiola, and the return to democratic rule on May 29, 1999.
  • Oshun, Olawale. Clapping with One Hand: June 12 and the Crisis of State Nation. London: Josel, 1999. Chronicles the events that led to May 29, 1999, from the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential elections to the killing of Chief Abiola.

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