Devolution In Nigeria

How do you hold together a country comprised of hundreds of ethnic nations when some of those nations wish to break away and form their own countries and others don't get along with each other? For many countries, the answer might be "with a military dictatorship or a police state" because this could seem the easiest solution. The state or the military takes total control and can quell any rebellion or civil conflict before it begins.

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    But what if you want democracy? Can you allow people basic freedoms, including voting, and assume they won't use this power to break away anyway? It turns out that you can try a strategy called devolution, and if you do it right, and carefully, through a federal system, you can keep your country whole. If it doesn't work, as with devolution in Sudan, your country can collapse anyway, spiralling into chaos. But so far, devolution in Nigeria has worked without military rule now for over two decades. But the challenges the "giant of Africa" faces are still grave. Keep reading to learn more about the causes for devolution in Nigeria, the effects, and more.

    Devolution in Nigeria: Federalism

    Countries pursuing devolution have to be careful that it doesn't spiral out of control, as it did in the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Sudan. Those countries were either dictatorships or had fragile democratic systems, but even advanced democracies with devolved powers (e.g., Spain, Canada, UK), also have regions where sentiment and actions have favored secession.

    Devolution: the process of decentralization; central governments cede powers to regional governments, usually to grant autonomy, but not full independence, to ethnic nations and other groups with regional territories.

    First Federal Republic

    Nigeria became a federal republic in 1963, three years after independence from the UK. Independent Nigeria's first government was a parliamentary system modeled on the UK. For a multinational state with 500+ languages spoken and strong animosities between South and North, this was a way tensions could ease, it was thought. It didn't work out that way.

    Devolution in Nigeria, Nigeria map, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Nigeria's 36 states, and the Federal Capital Territory at the center

    The First Nigerian Republic lasted three years and ended in a coup. There had been the simplest governing structure modern Nigeria has seen, with just three regions representing major ethnic/religious nations: Western Region (Yoruba/traditional religions), Eastern Region (Igbo/Christian), Northern Region (Hausa and Fulani/Muslim).

    Because the Northern Region dominated in population and land area, they also dominated in politics, with their parties taking the most parliamentary seats. The Western Region, already dissolving from infighting, was not happy about this. The new military government created provinces from the regions to allow for more representation, but it was too late.

    The Eastern Region seceded to form the Republic of Biafra in 1967, and up to three million died in the Biafra War with the federal government until the republic was lost in 1970.

    Devolution in Nigeria, Biafra map, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Outline of the Republic of Biafra (approximate borders), 1967-1970

    Second, Third, and Fourth Republics

    The military governed reunited Nigeria until 1979 when there was a 4-year democratic interlude called the Second Nigerian Republic, with a new constitution. This time, they went for the US model: a president as head of government and head of state, over the Executive Branch; a Judicial Branch; a Legislative Branch with a bicameral legislature (National Assembly with Senate and House of Representatives).

    Widely seen as massively corrupt, this republic was overthrown by the military under General I.B. Babangida, who restored freedom of the press and carried out other measures to reform the system. This enormously powerful figure promised to restore power to the people in a 3rd Republic in 1993, but it never happened, though a new constitution was drafted.

    Finally, after Babangida retired and other military figures came and went, the country had democracy restored under a fourth constitution in 1999. Nigeria's Fourth Republic has stood since then, with multiple peaceful transfers of power from administration to administration. Given enormous challenges, it is still too early to tell whether the devolutionary tactics that have been pursued will hold Nigeria together.

    Devolution in Nigeria Causes

    Devolutionary strategies have always been favored in Nigeria as a way of allowing all peoples representation while balancing the influences of the most powerful ethnic groups and dealing with several other major factors.

    Ethnic and Religious Differences

    Ethnic nations have rivalries stretching back centuries. Nigeria is far more ethnically diverse than Europe, a continent that is still not united and has escalated its conflicts to the level of world wars. Unity, in other words, is not a quick or easy process. Many of Nigeria's ethnic groups once ruled powerful states such as the Sokoto Caliphate (1804-1903, Fulani), the Kanem-Bornu Empire (which lasted over 1,000 years), and so forth.

    In terms of religion, Nigeria has historically had extreme tensions between and among Muslims and Christians, and between both these groups and practitioners of traditional religions. Religious wars date back centuries.

    The Fulani waged jihad (religious wars) across West Africa for centuries, culminating in the wars of Usman dan Fodio against Hausa states and then what was left of the Kanem-Bornu Empire, establishing the large and powerful Sokoto Caliphate in 1804.

    Farmers vs Herders

    Nomadic pastoralists, principally Fulani cattle herders, have traditionally had difficult relationships with farmers of many ethnicities and religions. Farmers resent crop destruction by cattle; pastoralists resent farmers blocking cattle from free movement and water sources. Clashes have escalated at times into wars.

    Distinct Colonial and Historical Experiences

    The British kept Muslim states in the North largely intact in the Northern Nigeria Protectorate and governed them indirectly. They begrudgingly admired Northerners as "civilized" because of the scholarly written Islamic tradition stretching back centuries. In the South, the British engaged in Christian missionary activity, with discriminatory treatment toward people who held onto their traditional religions, who were seen as "backward" and "savages."

    As with any colonial regime, tactics of divide and conquer ended up pitting ethnic nations against each other, a recipe for disaster for an independent Nigeria.

    Devolution in Nigeria: Effects

    Nigeria has grown from three regions to 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja), evolving an increasingly complex system with a balance of powers modeled largely on the US system but with an inheritance from the British system and numerous local systems as well. Now with over 200 million people and Africa's largest economy, Nigeria has survived as a single country despite enormous problems.

    A major achievement has been increasing self-determination and local rule (there are 774 local government areas) with freedoms constitutionally guaranteed at all levels. Self-determination has allowed the restoration of Islamic law (Sharia) in 12 states, for example, which had been the case historically in the North.

    Separation of Powers and Other Features

    With a bicameral legislature, each state has proportional representation in the Nigerian House of Representatives, but also three Senators per state. The House and the Senate comprise the National Assembly.

    Through the separation of powers, the legislature, executive branch, and judicial branch work together to govern the country at the federal level; states have governors and their own governments.

    Devolution in Nigeria, Assembly in Abuja, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The National Assembly Complex in Abuja, built in 1999

    Unlike in earlier republics, the Fourth Republic has seen the dominance of two major political parties (All Progressives Congress and People's Democratic Party) who vie for seats at the state and federal levels.

    Nigeria has a court system that combines a US-like structure but incorporates four types of law to accommodate its history and culture. Sharia law was mentioned above; English law is inherited from the UK; Common law is comprised of the laws that have been passed since independence.

    Customary law is the fourth category and recognizes the customs, traditions, and ruling structures of hundreds of ethnic nations. Traditional rulers such as obas, emirs, and sultans do not have governing powers in Nigeria but have enormous influence. Some may be largely symbolic, while others can speak for entire cultural groups on many important issues.

    Devolution in Nigeria: Problems

    The same decentralization that has saved Nigeria thus far has also created many problems:

    Oil and Gold

    Gold in the north and oil in the south have been the source of conflict since the beginning. Valuable resources become the source of conflict in federal systems where regions with autonomy can exert increasing control over who gets the revenues. If they aren't able to benefit economically, as happened to the Ijaw people in the Niger Delta with oil, ethnic separatism can result.

    Wealth, Corruption, and the Spoils System

    Citing rampant corruption, military leaders dissolved the first and second republics and did not allow the third to exist. New constitutions have devolved more power, given more people a voice, and theoretically have made it more difficult for people in power to amass great fortunes, but both military and civilian leaders have been able to thrive regardless.

    Political office can be a means of enrichment through nepotism (having one's friends/family appointed to lucrative posts), graft, and other ways of misappropriating public funds. Corruption has become endemic in Nigeria's open, democratic system.

    Religious Divide

    The Muslim-Christian divide has been enflamed by the herder-farmer conflict and animosity against Fulanis. In the North, extremist groups, such as Boko Haram, associated with al Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS), have waged genocidal wars on Christians and Muslims alike since the 2000s. These irredentist extremists support a "Caliphate" wiping away current boundaries and restoring a political map that last existed a millennium ago.

    Bandit Groups

    Dozens, if not hundreds, of organized, heavily-armed criminal groups run by warlords exist across Nigeria and particularly in the northwest. They take advantage of freedoms such as freedom of movement and the press that exist in this democracy and control autonomous areas with up to 1,000 or more fighters in a single group.

    Devolution in Nigeria Example

    The fact that the twice-elected President Buhari, once a military leader as well, is a Fulani himself, has led to charges that the Federal government is Northerner-biased, Muslim-biased, and Fulani-biased, and that it turns a blind eye to the herder-farmer conflicts across much of the country in which thousands have died.

    In Nigeria, with climate change, access to medicines that make cattle more resistant to diseases and the tsetse fly, and government support, Fulani pastoralists have been forced or enabled (depending on whether you take the side of the herders or the farmers) to move ever southward through the Middle Belt.

    Though the ethnic hatreds across Nigeria involving Fulani cannot be understated, it is the pastoralists' encroachment on the former Biafra separatist region in the southeast that is creating the greatest devolutionary threat. Half a century ago, the Igbo lost a war and were forced to rejoin Nigeria, but tensions have become enflamed as many feel they can go it alone, perhaps in league with Ambazonia separatist movements to the east in Cameroon, where devolution is also splintering the country.

    The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) began a guerrilla war against the federal government in 2021 with the stated aim of secession. Discontent is so extreme that militant Ijaw of the Niger Delta to the West, who have suffered human rights abuses for decades and fought their own guerrilla wars over oil with the federal government, have voiced support for the Igbo. This is significant because the Ijaw were on the federal side in the Biafra War.

    Devolution in Nigeria - Key takeaways

    • Nigeria is a federal republic with a government modeled on the US.
    • Nigeria has pursued decentralization progressively since independence in the 1960s and is now in the Fourth Republic.
    • Devolution threatens to lead to state collapse due to inter-ethnic strife and hatred, perceived unequal treatment by the federal government, corruption, and unequal access to resources such as oil.
    • Successes of Nigeria's devolutionary strategy include a constitution that guarantees basic freedoms and allows people to rule themselves according to different forms and combinations of laws.


    1. Fig. 2: Biafra map ( by Eric Gaba ( licensed by CC BY-S.A 3.0 (
    2. Fig. 3: National Assembly ( by Kabusa16 ( licensed by CC BY-S.A. 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Devolution In Nigeria

    How is Nigeria an example of devolution?

    Nigeria is a federal republic with separation of powers and substantial power devolved to the state level and four types of judicial systems.

    How is Nigeria divided?

    Nigeria is divided into 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory; there are 774 local government areas.

    What system of government does Nigeria use?

    Nigeria uses a presidential system and is a federal republic with a bicameral legislature.

    What is the principle of devolution?

    Devolution is the decentralization of power from a central government to regional governments to allow ethnic nations and other groups a degree of autonomy; this can ease tensions and guard against regions seceding and forming their own countries, as Biafra did in Nigeria.

    What are some examples of devolution?

    Examples of devolution include systems in place in Canada, Spain, Belgium, the UK, and Nigeria. Failed examples included Sudan, the USSR, and Yugoslavia.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is NOT a group seeking to secede from or otherwise separate from Nigeria?

    Which has long been seen by opponents as the "favored" region in Nigeria, dating back to colonialism?

    The Fulani are:

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