Nigerian Military Topples President Shagari

On December 31, 1983, two days after Nigerian president Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari gave a budget speech, the military took over the government of Nigeria in the wake of widespread tumult stemming from allegations of electoral malpractice against the ruling political party, the National Party of Nigeria.

Summary of Event

The short tenure of Nigeria’s second republic (1979-1983) was the outcome of a structural problem; the country never developed the required social terrain for democratic party politics. Beginning with its independence in 1960, Nigeria had suffered from what has been termed “clientelism” and “prebendalism,”: a network of patron-client ties involving ethnic, regional, and religious identities and the use of state offices and resources for the personal benefit of a dominant minority. Revolutions and coups;Nigeria
National Party of Nigeria
Buhari coup
[kw]Nigerian Military Topples President Shagari (Dec. 31, 1983)
[kw]Military Topples President Shagari, Nigerian (Dec. 31, 1983)
[kw]President Shagari, Nigerian Military Topples (Dec. 31, 1983)
[kw]Shagari, Nigerian Military Topples President (Dec. 31, 1983)
Revolutions and coups;Nigeria
National Party of Nigeria
Buhari coup
[g]Africa;Dec. 31, 1983: Nigerian Military Topples President Shagari[05320]
[g]Nigeria;Dec. 31, 1983: Nigerian Military Topples President Shagari[05320]
[c]Government and politics;Dec. 31, 1983: Nigerian Military Topples President Shagari[05320]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 31, 1983: Nigerian Military Topples President Shagari[05320]
Buhari, Muhammadu
Abacha, Sani
Obasanjo, Olusegun
Shagari, Shehu Usman Aliyu

The First Republic of Nigeria (1960-1966) organized the country into three semiautonomous regions represented by three dominant ethnic groups that formed three political parties: the Yoruba Action Group (AG), the party of the west; the Ibo National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), the party of the east (eventually changed to the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens); and the Hausa-Fulani Northern People’s Congress (NPC), the party of the north. The built-in ethnic complexities of these federated regions provoked the tragic Biafran War (1966-1969) and led to the creation of states.

When General Olusegun Obasanjo, military head of state (1976-1979), returned Nigeria to civilian rule, having promulgated a constitution for the country on September 21, 1978, Nigeria was still an oil-rich nation. Although the former three regions were broken into nineteen states by the Constitution of 1978, their ethnopolitical patterns and problems persisted. Each of the three main political parties fielded a presidential candidate: The candidate for the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), the party of the Hausa-Fulani of the north, was Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari; that for the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), the party of the Yoruba west, was Chief Obafemi Awolowo; and the candidate for the Nigerian People’s Party (NPP), of the Ibos of the east, was Nnamdi Azikiwe.

While Awolowo and Azikiwe had acquired legendary renown as the nation’s political ideologues and leaders, Shagari was a maverick with brief bureaucratic experience as a minister of finance. Shagari received backing from the powerful northern politicians and the Federal Electoral Commission created by the military government in May, 1977, following its pledge on October 1, 1975, to return Nigeria to civilian rule within four years and thus emerged as the president of the country’s second republic in 1979.

The Shagari regime suffered from government patronage, economic collapse, kickbacks, and corruption, heightened by the global oil glut in 1981. Nigeria became basically a “rentier” state that was a oil bonanza for a handful of businessmen, politicians, and bureaucrats. Visible signs of a precarious prosperity for the select few included fleets of new cars for government officials, ministers, and contractors of the infrastructural projects that were abandoned when funds ran out.

The oil prosperity led to the neglect of Nigeria’s agricultural sector. In turn, Nigeria became increasingly dependent on imported rice, and other agricultural produce, and consumer and capital goods. This dismal situation was further aggravated by corruption and waste. The swift depletion of the national foreign exchange reserves, a process that began following the oil glut, plagued Nigeria’s economy. Shortage of food and medical supplies, power failures, runaway inflation, unpaid government salaries, labor strikes, and an increasing incidence of armed robberies were the political and economical high watermarks of the profound structural problems in democratic Nigeria.

Despite his lackluster performance, on June 14, 1982, President Shagari was nominated unopposed to serve a second term. The presidential election of August 6, 1983, was deliberately rigged to ensure the incumbent candidate’s victory over Awolowo, Azikiwe, and Tunji Braithwaite (NPP).

The NPN candidates captured the gubernatorial seats in the August 13 election, through similarly underhanded means, and formed the majority in the legislative elections of August 20 and 27. Violence erupted in the states of Oyo and Ondo, but the NPN once again emerged victorious in the postponed elections in Oyo, held September 14-25.

Once ensconced in power, the president sought to restore popular confidence in his leadership and, following up on his call made prior to the elections for an “ethical revolution,” addressed the country’s serious economic problems by appointing a new ministry of national guidance. Even though a severe austerity measure was instituted, effective economic strategies, containing specific remedies, were not offered.

Meanwhile, Nigeria’s oil revenue had dropped drastically, from $22.4 billion in 1980 to $9.6 billion in 1983, due to competition from non-OPEC oil producers such as Great Britain, Mexico, and the Soviet Union. Consequently, Nigeria was forced to cut prices and enter negotiations with the British. The development plans of 1980, based on a projected 2.1 million barrels of oil a day at forty dollars per barrel, now had to be adjusted to 1.3 million barrels at thirty dollars per barrel.

The revenue losses affected the country’s food supplies. The national agricultural program was grievously mismanaged, and this situation was further aggravated by unmanageable natural disasters such as insect pests, a rinderpest epidemic, and drought. To make matters worse, the government faced a crisis of mounting debt from 1.1 billion naira in 1977 to 7.7 billion naira in1983. The president presented his budget speech on December 29, 1983, and then retired to his lodge in Abuja for the holiday season. On that day, a coup d’état was planned by a few senior military officers. Shagari initially escaped arrest because of the death of the conspirators’ ringleader Brigadier Ibrahim Bako, at a roadblock on his way to arrest the president.

On December 31, at 7:00 a.m., Brigadier Sani Abacha announced the “change of leadership” carried out by the armed forces to save the nation from “the grave economic predicament and uncertainty which an inept and corrupt leadership ha[d] imposed on . . . [the] nation for the [previous] four years.” That evening, Major General Muhammadu Buhari was declared the new head of state. His administration began a public campaign against rampant and ubiquitous disorderliness, known as the War Against Indiscipline (WAI).

However, though initially popular, the Buhari government resorted to severe methods to stifle public criticism by issuing the State Security Decree No. 2 and the Public Officers Decree No. 4. His government lasted twenty months, until the bloodless coup of August 27, 1985, carried out by General Ibrahim Babangida.

On July 1, 1987, the Armed Forces Ruling Council established a process to prepare the country for civilian rule, which was scheduled to take place in 1992. However, when the presidential elections of June 12, 1993 widely acclaimed by Nigerians and foreign observers as “the best the nation ever had” were annulled by the military on June 26, Babangida had to step down on August 26, faced with public outcry. The interim government of Ernest Shonekan, a businessman, was toppled by Abacha on November 17.

Abacha’s military dictatorship ended with his sudden death on June 8, 1998, and was followed by the rule of Major General Abdusalam Abubakar. The new head of state promptly returned the country to civilian rule. An erstwhile military head of state, Obasanjo, won the presidential election of May 25, 1999, and established the Third Republic of Nigeria.


The democratic process and ethnic and prebendal politics have been two sides of the same coin in Nigeria. These factors were responsible for the presence of corrective and redemptive military regimes, seeking to restore ethnic balance and civil order. Nevertheless, as a Nigerian diplomat has claimed: “Democracy is ingrained in us we will go back to it.” Revolutions and coups;Nigeria
National Party of Nigeria
Buhari coup

Further Reading

  • Falola, Toyin, and Julius Ihonvbere. The Rise and Fall of Nigeria’s Second Republic. London: Zed Books, 1985. An analysis of the Shagari administration’s demise, in the larger context of the history of postcolonial Nigeria, by two distinguished scholars.
  • Hart, Christopher. “The Nigerian Elections of 1983.” Africa 63, no. 3 (1993): 397-418. A detailed critical analysis based on extensive field research by an officer of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
  • Herskovits, Jean. “Dateline Nigeria: Democracy Down But Not Out.” Foreign Policy 54 (Spring 1984): 171-190. A succinct and sympathetic assessment of Nigeria’s democratic future.
  • Ihonvbere, Julius O. The 1983 Elections and the Buhari Coup in Nigeria: Contradictions in a (Semi-)Peripheral Political Economy. Halifax, N.S.: Center for African Studies, Dalhousie University, 1985. A critical, scholarly analysis of Nigeria’s political problems.
  • Joseph, Richard A. Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria: The Rise and Fall of the Second Republic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. A pioneering analysis of corruption in Nigerian civilian and military politics.
  • “Nigeria: A Squandering of Riches.” Videocassette. Produced by Richard Taylor and Adeboyego Arulogun. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Nigerian Television, 1984. A helpful documentary on social and political corruption in the Second Republic of Nigeria.

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