From Balewa To Tinubu: Full List of Nigerian Past Presidents and Heads of States Since 1960 Emerges

Since gaining independence in 1960, Nigeria has had its own fair shares of turbulence and bliss. With democracy stabilising after 29 years of military rule, West Africa’s largest economy on 29 May inaugurated its 16th head of state since independence and fifth elected president since 1999.

The former British colony created in 1914 gained independence in 1960 after many decades of anti-colonial struggle. In 1959, with Sir James Robertson as the last colonial governor-general, and the representative of the crown, Nigeria held a parliamentary election that would formally launch it into independence under the leadership of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

Mr Robertson served from 1955 to 1960 before handing over to Nigeria’s first and last prime minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

Late Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa
Late Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

Mr Balewa was elected prime minister in 1960 after the coming together of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), and some smaller political parties. He was supported to become prime minister by his principal, Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto who chose to remain the Premier of the Northern Region.

With Mr Balewa as prime minister and head of government. Nnamdi Azikiwe of the NCNC was appointed governor-general at independence in 1960 to replace Mr Robertson.

In 1963, Nigeria became a republic and Mr Azikiwe became the president as the Queen of England ceased to be Nigeria’s head of state.

The First Republic: 1963 to 1966

Nigeria became a republic on 1 October 1963. Mr Balewa remained prime minister and head of government while Mr Azikiwe was appointed president and head of state.

On 30 December 1964, Nigeria held its first post-independence elections, but it was marred by violence. The NPC again won the highest number of seats in the federal parliament and Mr Balewa was reappointed prime minister.

The elections were boycotted in some parts of the country and were not held until 18 March 1965 in some constituencies in the Eastern Region, Lagos and Mid-Western Region.

About 10 months later, on 15 January 1966, a coup d’etat led by Kaduna Nzeogwu, a major in the army, brought the First Republic to an end. This coup led to the death of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa; Premier of the Northern Region Ahmadu Bello; Premier of the Western Region Samuel Akintola and some top military officers.

Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, who was the most senior military officer at the time, emerged as head of state after the coup failed but the rump of the civilian government was pressured to hand over power to the military.

Six months later on 29 July, Mr Aguiyi-Ironsi was assassinated and Yakubu Gowon, a lieutenant colonel at the time, became head of state. He held power for nine years until 29 July, 1975, when he was ousted in a bloodless coup.

Mr Gowon had the longest reign at a stretch for any head of state or president since independence.

As head of state in 1967, he started a process which forever changed Nigeria. He divided the four regions of the country into 12 states on 27 May. Three days after (30 May), Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the military governor of the Eastern Region, declared the region’s secession, naming it the Republic of Biafra.

A civil war broke out on 6 July 1967 and lasted for 30 months until 13 January 1970 when the key actors on the Biafran side surrendered to the Nigerian government. The war officially ended on 15 July 1970.

On July 29, 1975, Mr Gowon was ousted in a bloodless coup that ushered in Murtala Mohammed. Mr Mohammed created a new federal capital in 1976 to replace Lagos and created seven new states, bringing the number of states to 19.

After just seven months in office, on 13 February, Mr Mohammed was killed in an abortive coup led by Bukar Suka Dimka. Mr Mohammed’s deputy, Olusegun Obasanjo, a lieutenant-general at the time, was appointed the new head of state by his military colleagues.

Second Republic: 1979 to 1983

In 1978, the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) was constituted by the Obasanjo regime to conduct elections for the return of civil rule. In the general elections of 1979, Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) emerged as president.

Shehu Shagari
Shehu Shagari

On 1 October 1979, Mr Obasanjo handed over to the new president, marking the beginning of the Nigerian Second Republic after 13 years of the first military interregnum.

Mr Shagari won a second term in a disputed general election. The Second Republic ended three months later on 31 December when Sani Abacha, a brigadier general, announced the overthrow of Mr Shagari. The coupists named Muhammadu Buhari, an army major-general,as head of state with Tunde Idiagbon, a brigadier-general, as his deputy.

On 27 August 1985, army chief Ibrahim Babangida ousted Mr Buhari in a palace coup and named himself president. Mr Babangida created two new states in 1987, bringing the number of states in the country to 21. In April 1990, a coup attempt led by Gideon Orkar failed. Mr Orkar was later executed alongside 48 soldiers who were involved in the plot in 1990.

On 27 August 1991, Mr Babangida created additional nine states to bring the total to 30 states. In December, he formally relocated the federal capital and seat of government to Abuja.

Third Republic

Mr Babangida promised to end military rule in 1990 but moved the date forward to 1992 and then 1993 when he finally conducted a presidential election on 12 June after 10 years of military rule. Returns from the election showed that Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) defeated his only rival, Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC) in the poll. But rather than allow the electoral commission to declare the winner, Mr Babangida annulled the election, throwing the country into a political impasse.

On 26 August 1993, Mr Babangida stepped aside amidst an upheaval across the country and appointed Ernest Shonekan, a former Chairman/Managing Director of the United African Company of Nigeria (UAC) Plc, as the head of an Interim National Government (ING). On 11 November, a Lagos High Court presided over by Justice Dolapo Alinsanya, declared the ING illegal.

Six days later, on 17 November, Mr Babangida’s long-time ally whom he had appointed the military chief as he departed, forced Mr Shonekan to resign, returning Nigeria to full-blown military rule again.

On 15 May 1994, pro-democracy agitators mainly from the southern part of the country formed the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). The organisation led the campaign against the Abacha junta. It called on Mr Abacha to step down and install the winner of the June 12, 1993 election, Mr Abiola, as president.

Timeline of Nigeria’s Heads of State
Timeline of Nigeria’s Heads of State

The following month, Mr Abiola declared himself president. He was declared wanted for alleged treason and a N50,000 reward placed for information leading to his arrest. He was later arrested and placed under house arrest until he died on 8 July, 1998.

Mr Abacha had died suddenly a month ealier on 8 June 1998 and Abdulsalami Abubakar, another army general, took over as head of state. He was Mr Abacha’s chief of defence staff but chose to swiftly tranfer power to civilians. He organised a short transition programme that led to elections from the last quarter of 1998. The following year, on 29 May, 1999, Mr Abubakar ushered the country into civilian rule, ending the second military interregnum after 16 years. That also marked the beginning of the Fourth Republic.

The Fourth Republic

Mr Abubakar handed over to Olusegun Obasanjo on 29 May 1999. The former military head of state had won the presidential election that was held earlier in the year. Mr Obasanjo was elected president under the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and was in office for eight years after winning re-election in 2003.

Chief Olusegun Obasanjo
Chief Olusegun Obasanjo

On 29 May, 2007, a new elected president was inaugurated in the person of Umaru Yar’Adua also of the PDP, marking a historic first civilian-to-civilian transition in Nigeria.

On 23 November, 2009, Mr Yar’Adua left Nigeria for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia and was never seen in public again. On 9 February 2010, the National Assembly, invoking the “doctrine of necessity”, declared the vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, acting president following months of uncertainty about Mr Yar’Adua’s health.

Late President Yar'Adua
Late President Musa Yar’Adua 

On 24 February, 2010, Mr Yar’Adua was brought back to Nigeria under the cover of darkness. He died nine days later on 5 May 2010.Mr Jonathan served out the remainder of the Yar’Adua term and won the 2011 presidential election. His administration was marred by a spike in insecurity as well as the birth and growth of several violent non-state actors. He lost the presidency to Muhammadu Buhari in the 2015 presidential election.

Former Nigerian president, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan
Former Nigerian president, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan

Mr Buhari was sworn-in as president on 29 May 2015, marking the beginning of an eight-year presidency following his reelection in 2019. Mr Buhari’s tenure was characterised by a high debt burden, unemployment, an increase in kidnapping and banditry, and shrinking civic space.

Muhammadu Buhari
Former President Muhammadu Buhari

Mr Buhari passed on the mantle of leadership to Bola Tinubu who was sworn in as Nigeria’s 16th head of state since 1960 and the fifth president since the return to civil rule in 1999.

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu
President Bola Ahmed Tinubu

Timeline of Nigeria’s Heads of State

1. Abubakar Tafawa Balewa 1959 – 1966

2. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi January 1966 – July 1966

3. Yakubu Gowon 1966 -1975

4. Murtala Mohammed July 1975 – February 1976

5. Olusegun Obasanjo 1976 – 1979

6. Shehu Shagari 1979 – 1983

7. Muhammadu Buhari 1983 – 1985

8. Ibrahim Babangida 1985 – 1993

9. Ernest Shonekan August 1993 – November 1993

10. Sani Abacha 1993 – 1998

11. Abdulsalami Abubakar 1998 -1999

12. Olusegun Obasanjo 1999 – 2007

13. Umaru Yar’Adua 2007 – 2010

14. Goodluck Jonathan 2010- 2015

15. Muhammadu Buhari 2015-2023

16. Bola Tinubu 2023-