General Gowon achieves an impressive degree of reconciliation in the country after the traumas of 1967-70. Nigeria now becomes one of the wealthiest countries in Africa thanks to its large reserves of oil (petroleum now, rather than the palm oil of the previous century). In the mid-1970s the output is more than two million barrels a day, the value of which is boosted by the high prices achieved during the oil crisis of 1973-4.
But with this wealth goes corruption, which Gowon fails to control. When he is abroad, in 1975, his government is toppled in a military coup. Gowon retires to Britain.
In the second half of the 1970s oil prices plummet. Nigeria rapidly suffers economic crisis and political disorder. Within a period of five years the average income per head slumps by 75%, from over $1000 a year to a mere $250.
Neither brief cilivian governments nor frequent military intervention prove able to rescue the situation. A regular response is to subdivide regional Nigeria into ever smaller parcels. The number of states is increased to nineteen in 1979 and to twenty-nine in 1991. By the end of the century it stands at thirty-six. Meanwhile the nation’s foreign debt has been increasing in parallel, to reach $36 billion by 1994.
In 1993 the military ruler (Ibrahim Babangida, in power from 1985) yields to international pressure and holds a presidential election. When it appears to have been conclusively won by Moshood Abiola, a chief of the western Yoruba tribe, Babangida cancels the election by decree.
This blatant act prompts Nigeria’s first energetic movement for democracy, which comes to international attention when one of its leaders – the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa – is among a group hanged in 1995 for the alleged murder of four rivals at a political rally in 1994. Saro-Wiwa has also been a campaigner for the rights of his Ogoni people, whose territory is ravaged – to no benefit to themselves – by the international companies extracting Nigeria’s oil.
The world-wide outcry at Saro-Wiwa’s death, without any pretence of a fair trial, prompts Nigeria’s generals to offer new elections in 1999. The presidential election is won by Olusegun Obasanjo, by now a civilian but for three years from 1976 the military ruler of the country – and therefore widely assumed to be the army’s preferred candidate. His People’s Democratic Party wins a majority of seats in both the house of representatives and the senate.
Early reports suggest that under Obasanjo’s government a ruthless disregard of civil liberties continues in Nigeria, with outbreaks of minority ethnic protest being brutally suppressed.
The election of Obasanjo, a Christian from the south, brings new tensions. As if in response, in November 1999, the predominantly Muslim northern state of Zamfara introduces strict Islamic law, the sharia. Other northern states discuss similar action. Local Christians take alarm. Violent street battles between the two communities are a feature of the early months of 2000.
The future of Nigeria is problematic but of considerable importance to Africa. The nation’s potential remains vast. With at least 115 million people (comprising some 200 tribes) it is the continent’s most populous country. And as the world’s fifth largest oil producer, it has the wherewithal to be one of the richest.