Monday, 25th September 2023

Nigeria’s Head Of State; A Journey Through Time

By Itunu Azeez Kareem
05 June 2023   |   9:35 am
Nigeria, often referred to as the "Giant of Africa," has experienced a diverse range of leaders since its independence in 1960.  Over the years, the country has witnessed the rise and fall of numerous heads of state, each leaving an indelible mark on Nigeria's political, social, and economic landscape.  This article is divided into two…

Nigeria, often referred to as the “Giant of Africa,” has experienced a diverse range of leaders since its independence in 1960. 

Over the years, the country has witnessed the rise and fall of numerous heads of state, each leaving an indelible mark on Nigeria’s political, social, and economic landscape. 

This article is divided into two parts; The Military Era and the Democratic period. We therefore embark on a journey through time to explore the leaders who have guided Nigeria’s destiny, from its past to the present. 

The scorecard is a personal perception of how they have performed in totality, this isn’t to discredit anyone past and present. 

  • Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (1960-1966):

Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa became Nigeria’s first Prime Minister after the country gained independence from British colonial rule in 1960. 

A prominent nationalist and leader of the Northern People’s Congress, Balewa played a crucial role in establishing Nigeria as a sovereign nation. 

However, his tenure was cut short by a military coup in 1966, leading to a turbulent period for the country.


  1. General Aguiyi Ironsi (1966):

Following the coup that ended Balewa’s rule, General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi assumed power as the military head of state. 

His time in office was marked by significant controversy, particularly due to his attempt to unify Nigeria under a unitary system of government. 

Sadly, his tenure was short-lived as he was overthrown in a counter-coup in July 1966.


  1. General Yakubu Gowon (1966-1975):

General Yakubu Gowon emerged as the next head of state after the counter-coup. 

His regime oversaw the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), which aimed to suppress the secessionist movement in Biafra. 

Gowon’s leadership focused on promoting national unity and implementing economic policies to diversify Nigeria’s revenue sources, such as the “Go-After-Oil” policy. 

However, his rule ended abruptly in 1975 following another military coup.


  1. General Murtala Ramat Mohammed (1975-1976):

General Murtala Ramat Mohammed came to power in 1975 after leading a bloodless coup that ousted Gowon. 

His short-lived administration focused on fighting corruption, pursuing social justice, and restoring public confidence. 

Mohammed’s regime also initiated the process of returning Nigeria to civilian rule, which was tragically cut short by his assassination in February 1976.


  1. General Olusegun Obasanjo (1976-1979, 1999-2007):

Following Mohammed’s assassination, General Olusegun Obasanjo assumed power as the head of state until 1979. 

Under his leadership, Nigeria transitioned back to civilian rule through the 1979 elections. Obasanjo later returned to the political scene and was democratically elected as Nigeria’s president in 1999, serving two terms until 2007. 

His presidency focused on economic reforms, combating corruption, and advocating for African unity and development.


  1. 6. Major General Muhammadu Buhari (1983-1985, 2015-present):

Major General Muhammadu Buhari came to power in 1983 following a military coup. 

His regime sought to restore discipline, tackle corruption, and revitalize the economy. However, his rule was cut short by another military coup in 1985

Thus came an end to Military Era, and arose a new order 


  1. Alhaji Shehu Shagari (1979-1983):

Alhaji Shehu Shagari became Nigeria’s first executive president after winning the 1979 elections. His administration aimed to address the challenges of economic development and social welfare. 

However, Shagari’s tenure was marred by allegations of corruption, economic mismanagement, and political instability, leading to a military coup in 1983.


– Led Nigeria during the difficult period of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) and successfully maintained the unity of the country.

   – Implemented various economic policies, including the establishment of the Nigerian National Oil Corporation (NNOC) and the creation of state-owned oil companies.

   – Launched the “Operation Feed the Nation” campaign, aimed at achieving self-sufficiency in food production.

Scorecard 50/100


  1. Nnamdi Azikiwe (1963-1966):

Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, played a pivotal role in the country’s journey towards independence. As a prominent nationalist, he advocated for self-governance and was instrumental in the development of the Nigerian independence movement. 

Azikiwe laid the foundation for a democratic society and championed education as a means of empowerment.


– Played a significant role in Nigeria’s struggle for independence.

   – Served as the country’s first indigenous Governor-General and later became the President of Nigeria.

   – Advocated for the unity of Nigeria and championed the concept of “Zikism,” which promoted African nationalism and self-governance.

Scorecard 60/100

  1. Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007):

Elected president from 1999 to 2007, Olusegun Obasanjo left an indelible mark on Nigeria. His economic reforms and anti-corruption campaigns laid the groundwork for modernization and strengthened institutions. Obasanjo prioritized infrastructural development, privatization, debt relief, and the establishment of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to combat corruption.


– As a military head of state, Obasanjo oversaw the peaceful handover of power to civilian rule in 1979.

   – As a civilian president, he focused on economic reforms, anti-corruption measures, and poverty reduction programs.

   – Initiated the National Identity Card scheme to address identity management issues and streamline government services.

Scorecard 53/100

  1. Umaru Musa Yar’Adua,

President of Nigeria from 2007 until his unfortunate demise in 2010, left a lasting impact on the nation’s governance and development. His presidency was marked by a focus on economic reforms, social justice, and strengthening democratic institutions.

Yar’Adua’s presidency was characterized by his commitment to economic stability and poverty reduction. He recognized the need for inclusive growth and initiated several programs aimed at improving the lives of ordinary Nigerians. 

One of his notable achievements was the establishment of the Niger Delta Ministry, which sought to address the long-standing issues of oil-related environmental degradation and socio-economic disparities in the oil-rich region. This move demonstrated his commitment to social justice and addressing the concerns of marginalized communities.

Under Yar’Adua’s leadership, Nigeria witnessed a renewed emphasis on agriculture as a means of diversifying the economy and reducing the country’s dependency on oil. 

He launched the Agricultural Transformation Agenda, which aimed to modernize the agricultural sector, increase food production, and create job opportunities in rural areas. Yar’Adua’s focus on agriculture as a key driver of economic growth laid the foundation for future agricultural reforms in Nigeria.

Furthermore, Yar’Adua made significant strides in consolidating democratic governance in Nigeria. He championed electoral reforms and established the Electoral Reform Committee to address the challenges and shortcomings of the electoral process. 

His administration’s commitment to transparency and credibility in elections laid the groundwork for subsequent improvements in Nigeria’s democratic processes.

Yar’Adua’s leadership style was characterized by his humility, empathy, and commitment to the rule of law. He advocated for dialogue, reconciliation, and peaceful resolution of conflicts, demonstrating his dedication to national unity and cohesion.

Although his presidency was cut short due to his untimely death, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s legacy as the President of Nigeria remains significant. His focus on economic reforms, social justice, and democratic consolidation set the stage for subsequent administrations to build upon his initiatives. 

Yar’Adua’s leadership will be remembered for his commitment to improving the lives of Nigerians and his contributions to the nation’s progress.

Scorecard 76/100


  1. Goodluck Jonathan (2010-2015):

Goodluck Jonathan assumed office during a challenging period, marked by political instability and security threats. 

Nevertheless, his administration achieved significant milestones. Under Jonathan’s leadership, Nigeria became the largest economy in Africa, surpassing South Africa. 

He implemented various reforms, including the privatization of power and agricultural sectors, as well as measures to improve electoral transparency.

– Assumed the presidency following the death of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and ensured a peaceful transition of power after the 2011 general elections.

   – Implemented several economic reforms, including the establishment of the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) and the Nigeria Mortgage Refinance Company (NMRC).

   – Played a key role in the resolution of the political crisis in neighboring countries, such as mediating the conflict in Ivory Coast and the successful transition in Liberia.

Scorecard 47/100

  1. Muhammadu Buhari (2015-2023):

Democratically elected in 2015, his  focus was on combating corruption, improving security, and diversifying the economy. 

Buhari initiated several social intervention programs such as the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) and the National Social Investment Programme (NSIP), aimed at reducing poverty and empowering the most vulnerable citizens.


 During his first term as a military head of state, Buhari implemented various anti-corruption measures and economic reforms.

   – In his current tenure as a civilian president, he has prioritized the fight against corruption, terrorism, and improving the economy.

   – Launched the Social Investment Program (SIP), which includes initiatives such as the National Home-Grown School Feeding Program and the Conditional Cash Transfer program to alleviate poverty.

Scorecard 43/100

  1. Bola Ahmed Tinubu (2023- Present)

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a name we have to get used to from now on, barring court orders and any strange occurrences,  has hit the ground running, and like others he has come with his bags of promises. Posterity will judge and his scorecard we shall all see.

Nigeria’s presidents have played integral roles in shaping the nation’s trajectory since independence. 

From Nnamdi Azikiwe’s fight for independence to embattled new President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s commitment to tackling corruption, each president has left their mark on Nigeria’s history. 

Through economic reforms, infrastructural development, education initiatives, and efforts to foster national unity, these leaders have contributed to Nigeria’s progress. 

While challenges remain, the achievements of Nigeria’s presidents highlight the resilience and determination of the nation, fostering hope for a brighter future.