The politics of Nigeria have often been considered a matter of managing social diversity in a political economy whose extremes have been exaggerated by oil money. But this story is incomplete without thinking instead more deeply about inequality, about political party origins and ideologies as well as identities, and about politics beyond parties and elections. Bureaucracy, mass mobilization, and everyday practice are equally important issues in Nigerian politics as the country moves through another economic transformation. Nigeria’s political structures have been built around questions of managing diversity and allocating resources, and the country’s federal system embeds a tension between how much power is managed from the center and how much is devolved to the constituent states and local governments. As well as parties, legislatures, and executives, security institutions have been prominent in the country’s political formation, and public institutions are both formed around, and are vectors of forming, elite social networks. Partly due to long-standing models of social legitimacy and partly as a result of the kind of identity politics Nigeria has chosen to manage diversity, models of citizenship based on localized belonging are pervasive drivers of political patterning. Political factions and parties, often characterized as election-winning aggregations of patron-client networks, also however embed distinct historical ideological traditions, which chart Nigeria’s movements between liberal capitalism and state-directed development and which have driven both domestic debates and a continental and regional leadership role. Tensions around inequalities and the realm of the political more generally cannot be understood as a matter of governmental institutions alone but bring in religion, gender construction, labor movements, the media, civil society, and new social movements, as well as the “ineffable politics” of tactic, techniques, norms, and practices that fix the realm of the political as a key part of everyday social and economic life.
During the anticolonial struggle and immediately after independence, African political leaders were preoccupied with the creation of a “nation-state.” As a result, many of postcolonial African leaders not only promoted national unity but also instituted centralized governance. Unity and centralization were considered important antidotes to the challenges of consolidating postcolonial states, which by and large were created by the partitioning of the continent by colonial powers. As a result, many of the postcolonial leaders were hostile to federalism in general and power-sharing in particular. This explains why many of the federal arrangements, which were created by departing colonial powers, were dismantled within the first few years after independence. In contrast to the earlier periods, the 1990s could be regarded as a turning point for federalism and devolution of power in the continent. Among African states, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and South Africa could be considered fully fledged federations, which have constitutionally devolved power to different tiers of governments. There is also an ongoing attempt to establish a federal system in war-torn Somalia. Some argue that, although federalism does not have a stellar record in postcolonial Africa, it is possible to contend that in the foreseeable future the importance of federalism will grow in the continent given the challenges that many African countries face in the management of their ethnolinguistic diversity. This is evidenced by the increasing application of the federalist principles of decentralization by several African countries.
Recent discoveries of oil in some African countries have rekindled a debate about its place in development and international politics. The debate has pitched those viewing oil as a catalyst for development and a more assertive Africa in global politics against others who point to the negative impact of oil on older established African oil-producing states. Oil as a highly priced geopolitical and strategic commodity will for the foreseeable future shape relations between African petro-states and other global actors, particularly international oil companies and energy-dependent established and emerging global powers. The structural position of specific African petro-states in the global political economy and history, and the nature of their leadership, are defining factors in the diverse aspects of local and international politics, including the prospects for development and a more assertive Africa in international politics.