From prison to power: Two Nigerian leaders who ruled after spending time in jail

Right from the beginning of time, leadership in Nigeria has always been a bush full of thorns. With the many challenges and turbulent times that the country has been through in its relatively short years of existence, all manner of people have been at the helm of affairs in the country.

Some of them have been military generals, ordinary citizens, and surprisingly ex-convicts. While the Nigeria Constitution Section 137 (sub-section 1d) and (1e) specifies that an ex-convict cannot be elected as a president within a period less than 10 years after serving jail term, one of the most popular Nigerian presidents went directly from the prison to power in 1999. But the crime for which these leaders were imprisoned or detained was merely politically motivated. 

Among leaders who have ruled Nigeria, here are two leaders who risked it all by serving time in jail or detention before being elected into power. 

Olusegun Obasanjo


Former President Olusegun Obasanjo is one of only two persons to have ruled Nigeria as both the Military Head of State and a duly elected democratic President. The former Army General first came into power in 1976 after his predecessor, General Murtala Mohammed was assassinated in a failed coup. He ruled the country until 1979 before making history as the first Military ruler in Africa to hand over to a civilian president — Shehu Shagari.

Several years later when one of Nigeria's most ruthless dictators, Sani Abacha took over the government in 1993, Obasanjo became a vocal critic of his repressive government.

He was eventually arrested for allegedly organizing a coup against Abacha in 1995. He was sentenced to death for treason but was later commuted to 30 years in prison. Providence was however on his side as he only spent 3 years in jail before being released in 1998 by the interim government of General Abdulsalami Abubakar following Abacha's death.

"I was not in doubt that Abacha would attempt to silence me. This was clear from his apparent ambition for life presidency of Nigeria and his insatiable appetite for corruption," Obasanjo revealed in his memoir, 'My Watch'. 

"The consequence was that I was arrested, tried and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment, but God in his mercy, I only spent 3 years, three months and three days.

After his release, Obasanjo decided to run for the presidency during Nigeria's transition to democracy in 1999. He contested on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and was declared the winner with almost 63% of the vote. He ruled the country for two terms (eight years) before handing over to Umaru Yar'Adua in 2007 after his third term bid was overwhelmingly rejected.

Muhammadu Buhari

Just like Obasanjo, Nigeria's incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari was once a Military ruler before becoming a democratically elected president in 2015. He also spent nearly three years in custody after being ousted out of office in a military coup led by General Ibrahim Babangida in 1985. Buhari served as Nigeria's head of state from December 1983 to August 1985 after toppling the democratic government of Shehu Shagari on allegations of corruption.

After he was overthrown in a bloodless coup, he was remanded in a small bungalow under guard in Benin City. His mother died while he was in detention and he was not allowed to attend her funeral. He was released some weeks later and he travelled back to Daura to mourn her. 

"I was angry because I can't recall what I had done for him to mobilize the military to overthrow me and detain me for more than three years," Buhari told Sun Newspaper, regarding how he felt about his ouster by Babangida.


"I have forgiven him. But I didn't say it will be forgotten. It cannot be forgotten. If I say I forget about it, I will be lying."

Buhari kept a low profile after his release and eventually took a role as head of the Petroleum Trust Fund under Sani Abacha's government. But as Nigeria transitioned to democracy after Abacha's death, he decided to get into politics. He stood against Obasanjo's reelection in 2003 but lost out at the polls. His subsequent attempts were also unsuccessful until 2015 when he defeated the former president Goodluck Jonathan who he initially lost to in 2011. 

He was re-elected for the second term in 2019 after edging out former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar in the general elections.

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