Nigeria gained independence from Britain on October 1, 1960, and the NPC soon took its place as the new nation’s leading political party. Nigeria’s First Republic enjoyed a few years of relative quiet, but ethnic tensions were building. Once the poor neighbors of the Christians in the south, the Muslim Hausa in the north now made up a majority of the population and dominated Nigerian politics and government. Yoruba and Igbo leaders complained about Hausa control but were unable to cooperate with one another to change the situation.
A military coup* by Igbo army officers overthrew the First Republic in January 1966. Igbo control was short lived, however, as another coup in July of that year brought Hausa colonel Yakubu Gowon to power. Hausa and other northerners then launched a campaign of violence against the Igbo, killing thousands across the country. The situation turned into civil war when an Igbo colonel, Odemegwu Ojukwu, proclaimed independence for the eastern (Igbo) half of southern Nigeria—called Biafra. The Igbo fought desperately, but by 1970 their rebellion was crushed. Some two million people lost their lives in the war.
During the relatively calm period that followed the war, Gowon’s government tried to smooth over ethnic differences. The challenge of rebuilding Nigeria was aided by the discovery of oil in the early 1970s. The prospect of national wealth and stability faded, though, as government officials and their friends stole much of the money produced by oil and political turmoil continued. Gowon was overthrown in 1975,
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and his successor was killed several months later. General Olesegun Obasanjo took control, but voluntarily stepped aside in 1979 to allow the election of a civilian government.
The new government, led by President Shehu Shagari, was marked by increasing corruption and rapidly declining oil revenues. This so-called Second Republic was even briefer than the first, lasting only four years before the military stepped in once again in 1983. The principal figure in Nigeria in the later 1980s was General Ibrahim Babangida, whose military regime* was marked by massive corruption and a complete lack of concern for public opinion. When Nigeria’s economy failed to improve, and the nation’s political situation remained unstable, Babangida came under increasing pressure to return Nigeria to civilian rule.