The Past Leaders of Nigeria Right from the Days of the Coup

Past leaders of Nigeria
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Nigeria gained independence on October 1st, 1960…

However, from 1960 to 1963, Nigeria’s head of state was Queen Elizabeth II, who also ruled the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries. Since the Queen stayed outside Nigeria, she was represented in Nigeria by a governor-general. Briefly by Sir James Robertson and then by Nnamdi Azikiwe.

  • Phones and Tablets

In 1963, when Nigeria became a republic within the Commonwealth, the queen/monarch and governor-general were replaced by a Ceremonial President and Prime Minister, in person of Nnamdi Azikiwe and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. This event marked the beginning of Nigeria’s First Republic (1963–1966).

This article aims to provide a historical overview of Nigeria’s leadership from independence to the present day, referencing key political figures and their roles within various Nigerian republics and military governments

Some Fun Facts About Past Nigerian Leaders

  1. Heroes Becoming Leaders: Nigerian Nationalists like Tafawa Balewa and Nnamdi Azikiwe were among the Nationalists who fought for the independence of Nigeria. They served as the President and Prime Minister respectively.
  2. Historic Transfer of Power: Alhaji Shehu Shagari’s emergence as the first democratically elected president marked a historic power shift from military rule to a civilian government.
  3. End of Coup Era with Abacha: General Sani Abacha’s takeover in 1993 was the last successful coup d’état in Nigeria, ending the recurring trend of military governance since independence.
  4. Presidential Hat-trick by Buhari & Obasanjo: Olusegun Obasanjo and Muhammadu Buhari not only served as military head of state but also returned as the democratically elected president for two terms, an exceptional feat in the annals of Nigerian politics.
  5. Nigeria’s 16th Head of State: This is no other person than Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

First Republic (1963–1966)

Under the 1963 Constitution, Nigeria adopted a parliamentary system of government with a prime minister and a ceremonial president. The prime minister was the leader of the winning party in the federal election. Abubakar Tafawa Balewa led the Northern People's Congress, the party that won the first federal election.

[1] Alh. Tafawa Balewa (1960 – 1966)

Alhaji Tafawa Balewa

Tafawa Balewa was a Nigerian politician who served as the first and only prime minister of Nigeria upon independence. He was both a defender of Northern special interests and an advocate of Nigerian reform and unity. He was born in the year 1912 and died in the year 1966.

[1] Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (1960 – 1966)

Nnamdi Azikiwe

Nnamdi Azikiwe, “Zik”, was a Nigerian statesman, a revolutionary and political leader who served as the 3rd governor-general of Nigeria between 1960 and 1963 and the 1st president of Nigeria during the First Nigerian Republic which existed from 1963 to 1966.

  • Phones and Tablets

Military Government (1966–1979)

It was Major General Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu who orchestrated the bloody military coup d'état of 1966 which overthrew the First Republic.

[2] Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi (1966)

Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi

Aguiyi-Ironsi was a Nigerian military officer who was the first military head of state of Nigeria. He seized power during the ensuing chaos after the 15 January 1966 military coup. He served until July 1966.

[3] Gen. Yakubu Gowon (1966 – 1975)


Yakubu Gowon is a retired Nigerian Army general and military leader. He presided over a controversial Nigerian Civil War and delivered the famous “no victor, no vanquished” speech at the war’s end to promote healing and reconciliation. He was later overthrown on July 29th, 1975 while in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) for the O.A.U Heads of State meeting.

[4] Gen. Murtala Muhammed (1975 – 1976)

Murtala Muhammed

Murtala Muhammed was a Nigerian general who led the 1966 Nigerian counter-coup in overthrowing the Aguiyi-Ironsi military regime and featured during the Nigerian Civil War and thereafter ruled over Nigeria from 29 July 1975 until his assassination in a bloody coup by Col. Buka Suka Dimka on 13 February 1976; on his way to the mosque.

[5] Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo (1976 – 1979)

Olusegun Obasanjo

Olusegun Obasanjo is a Nigerian retired military officer and statesman who served as Nigeria’s head of state from 1976 to 1979 and later as its president from 1999 to 2007. Obasanjo oversaw budgetary cutbacks and an expansion of access to free school education. He was later imprisoned by the Abacha Junta over a Phantom Coup.

  • Phones and Tablets

Second Republic (1979–1983)

According to the 1979 Constitution, the 2nd constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the President was both head of state and government. The president was elected for a four-year term. In the event of a vacancy the vice president would have served as acting president.

[6] Alh. Shehu Shagari (1979 – 1983)

Shehu Shagari

Alhaji Shehu Shagari was the first democratically elected president of Nigeria after the transfer of power by military head of state General Olusegun Obasanjo in 1979 giving rise to the Second Nigerian Republic.

Military Government (1983–1993)

[7] Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (1983 -1985)

Muhammadu Buhari

He served as Nigeria’s military head of state, after taking power from the Shehu Shagari civilian government in a military coup d’état. The term “Buharism” is used to describe the authoritarian and disciplinarian policies of his military regime. He later became the chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) under General Sani Abacha.

[8] Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (1985 – 1993)

Ibrahim Babangida

Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida served as military president of Nigeria from 1985 until his resignation in 1993. He rose through the ranks to serve from 1984 to 1985 as Chief of Army Staff; going on to orchestrate his seizure of power in a coup d’état against Muhammadu Buhari. He annulled the June 12, 1993 Presidential election which was allegedly won by MKO Abiola.

Interim National Government (1993)

Following the crisis of the Third Republic, Chief Ernest Shonekan was made interim head of state of Nigeria.

[9] Chief Earnest Shonekan (1993)

Chief Earnest Shonekan

Earnest Shonekan was a Nigerian lawyer and statesman who served as the interim head of state of Nigeria from 26 August 1993 to 17 November 1993, when he was overthrown by Sani Abacha. He is the shortest-serving President of Nigeria. In addition to many others, he was titled Abese of Egbaland from 1981.

Military Government (1993–1999)

[10] Gen. Sani Abacha (1993 – 1998)

Gen. Sani Abacha

Abacha was a Nigerian military officer and politician who ruled as the military head of state after seizing power in 1993 until he died in 1998. Abacha’s seizure of power was the last successful coup d’état in Nigerian military history.

[11] Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar (1998 – 1999)

General Abdulsalami Abubakar

Gen. Abubakar is a Nigerian statesman and retired Nigerian army general who served as the military head of state of Nigeria from 1998 to 1999. He was also Chief of Defence Staff from 1997 to 1998. He succeeded General Sani Abacha upon his death.

Fourth Republic (1999–present)

In Nigeria's fourth Constitution, the president holds both the roles of head of state and government, elected for a four-year term. If there's a vacancy, the vice president becomes acting president.

[12] Chief Olusegun Obasanjo (1999 – 2007)

Chief Olusegun Obasanjo

Obasanjo served as Nigeria’s head of state from 1976 to 1979 and later as its president from 1999 to 2007. Ideologically a Nigerian nationalist, he was a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) from 1998 to 2015, and since 2018.

[13] Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (2007 – 2010)

Umaru Musa Yar'Adua

Musa Yar’Adua served as the president of Nigeria from 2007 to 2010. He previously served as the governor of Katsina State from 1999 to 2007. Yar’Adua died in office on 5 May 2007. He became the 5th Nigerian leader to die in office and the first civilian president to die in office at the age of 59.

[14] Goodluck Jonathan (2010 -2015)

Goodluck Ebele Jonathan

Jonathan served as Nigeria’s president from 2010 to 2015. Previously, Jonathan served as the vice president of Nigeria from 2007 to 2010 under the administration of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. He had also served as the Governor and Deputy Governor of Bayelsa State.

[15] Muhammadu Buhari (2015 – 2019)

Muhammadu Buhari

Buhari won the 2015 presidential election, defeating incumbent President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. This was the first time in the history of Nigeria that an incumbent president lost a general election. He was sworn in on 29 May 2015. He had previously contested in the 2003, 2007 and 2011 elections.

[16] Bola Ahmed Tinubu (2023 – present)

Bola Ahmed Tinubu

Tinubu is the 16th and current president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He was the governor of Lagos State from 1999 to 2007; and senator for Lagos West in the Third Republic. President Bola Tinubu won the election against the likes of Peter Obi, Atiku and Kwankwaso.


From the bullet to ballot, these Nigerian leaders have laid down legacies remind us that leadership is not just about holding power but also about the pursuit of unity, progress, and the common good. Being Nigeria’s first citizen, they embody – in one way or the other – the resilience and diversity of Nigeria.

As we reflect on the past and look towards the future, let us acknowledge these leaders’ contributions towards shaping a Nigeria that’s striving for democracy and inclusive growth.

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