Nigeria - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Nigeria: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Nigeria, republic in western Africa, with a coast along the Atlantic Ocean on the Gulf of Guinea. Most of Nigeria consists of a low plateau cut by rivers, especially the Niger and its largest tributary, the Benue. The country takes its name from its chief river. Until 1991, the capital was the largest city, Lagos, on the southwestern coast; at that time, the city of Abuja, in the country’s interior, became capital.

Nigeria is by far the most populated of Africa’s countries, with more than one-seventh of the continent’s people. The people belong to many different ethnic groups. These groups give the country a rich culture, but they also pose major challenges to nation building. Ethnic strife has plagued Nigeria since it gained independence in 1960.

Nigeria has a federal form of government and is divided into 36 states and a federal capital territory. The country’s official name is the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Lagos, along the coast, is the largest city and the country’s economic and cultural center, but Abuja, a city in the interior planned and built during the 1970s and 1980s, is the capital. The government moved from Lagos to Abuja in 1991 in the hope of creating a national capital where none of the country’s ethnic groups would be dominant.

Nigeria long had an agricultural economy but now depends almost entirely on the production of petroleum, which lies in large reserves below the Niger Delta. While oil wealth has financed major investments in the country’s infrastructure, Nigeria remains among the world’s poorest countries in terms of per capita income. Oil revenues led the government to ignore agriculture, and Nigeria must now import farm products to feed its people.

The area that is now Nigeria was home to ethnically based kingdoms and tribal communities before it became a European colony. In spite of European contact that began in the 16th century, these kingdoms and communities maintained their autonomy until the 19th century. The colonial era began in earnest in the late 19th century, when Britain consolidated its rule over Nigeria. In 1914 the British merged their northern and southern protectorates into a single state called the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. Nigeria became independent of British rule in 1960. After independence Nigeria experienced frequent coups and long periods of autocratic military rule between 1966 and 1999, when a democratic civilian government was established.


Nigeria covers an area of 923,768 sq km (356,669 sq mi). At its greatest expanse, it measures about 1,200 km (about 750 mi) from east to west and about 1,050 km (about 650 mi) from north to south. Nigeria is bounded by Cameroon to the east, Chad to the northeast, Niger to the north, Benin to the west, and the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic Ocean to the south.

The country’s topography ranges from lowlands along the coast and in the lower Niger Valley to high plateaus in the north and mountains along the eastern border. Much of the country is laced with productive rivers. The Nigerian ecology varies from tropical forest in the south to dry savanna in the far north, yielding a diverse mix of plant and animal life. Human population and development pose serious threats to both the ecology and the human environment.

Topographic Regions in Nigeria

The broad, mostly level valleys of the Niger and Benue rivers form Nigeria’s largest physical region. The Niger enters the country from the northwest, the Benue from the northeast; they join at the city of Lokoja in the south central region and continue south, where they empty into the Atlantic at the Niger Delta. Together, they form the shape of a Y. Population densities and agricultural development are generally lower in the Niger and Benue valleys than in other areas.

North of the Niger Valley are the high plains of Hausaland, an area of relatively level topography averaging about 800 m (about 2,500 ft) above sea level, with isolated granite outcroppings. The Jos Plateau, located close to Nigeria’s geographic center, rises steeply above the surrounding plains to an average elevation of about 1,300 m (about 4,200 ft). To the northeast, the plains of Hausaland grade into the basin of Lake Chad; the area is characterized by somewhat lower elevations, level terrain, and sandy soils. To the northwest, the high plains descend into the Sokoto lowland.

Southwest of the Niger Valley (on the left side of the Y) lies the comparatively rugged terrain of the Yoruba highlands. Between the highlands and the ocean runs a coastal plain averaging 80 km (50 mi) in width from the border of Benin to the Niger Delta. The delta, which lies at the base of the Y and separates the southwestern coast from the southeastern coast, is 36,000 sq km (14,000 sq mi) of low-lying, swampy terrain and multiple channels through which the waters of the great river empty into the ocean. Several of the delta’s channels and some of the inshore lagoons can be navigated.

Southeastern coastal Nigeria (to the right of the Y) consists of low sedimentary plains that are essentially an extension of the southwestern coastal plains. In all, the Atlantic coastline extends for 853 km (530 mi). It is marked by a series of sandbars, backed by lagoons of brackish water that support the growth of mangroves. Large parts of Africa’s Bight of Benin and Bight of Biafra fall along the coast. Because of the Guinea Current, which transports and deposits large amounts of sand, the coastline is quite straight and has few good natural harbors. The harbors that do exist must be constantly dredged to remove deposited sand.

Inland from the southeastern coast are progressively higher regions. In some areas, such as the Udi Hills northwest of Enugu, escarpments have been formed by dipping rock strata. Farther east, along Nigeria’s border with Cameroon, lie the eastern highlands, made of several distinct ranges and plateaus, including the Mandara Mountains, the Shebeshi Mountains, the Alantika Mountains, and the Mambila Mountains. In the Shebeshi is Dimlang (Vogel Peak), which at 2,042 m (6,699 ft) is Nigeria’s highest point.

Climate and Vegetation in Nigeria

Nigeria has a tropical climate with sharp regional variances depending on rainfall. Nigerian seasons are governed by the movement of the intertropical discontinuity, a zone where warm, moist air from the Atlantic converges with hot, dry, and often dust-laden air from the Sahara known locally as the harmattan. During the summer, the zone of intertropical discontinuity follows the Sun northward. As a result, more and more of the country comes under the influence of moisture-laden tropical maritime air. Thus, much of the country experiences a rainy season during summer. As summer wanes, the zone shifts southward, bringing an end to the rainy season. Temperatures are high throughout the year, averaging from 25° to 28°C (77° to 82°F). In the higher elevations of the Jos Plateau, temperatures average 22°C (72°F). Northern Nigeria typically experiences greater temperature extremes than the south.

Rainfall varies widely over short distances and from year to year. Parts of the coast along the Niger Delta, where the rainy season is year-round, receive more than 4,000 mm (160 in) of rain each year. Most of the country’s middle belt, where the rainy season starts in April or May and runs through September or October, receives from 1,000 to 1,500 mm (40 to 60 in). Within this region, the Jos Plateau receives somewhat more rain, due to its higher elevation. In the dry savanna regions, rainfall is especially variable. The region along Nigeria’s northeastern border receives less than 500 mm (20 in) of rain per year, and the rainy season lasts barely three months.

Vegetation also varies dramatically at both the national and local level in relation to climate, soil, elevation, and human impact on the environment. In the low-lying coastal region, mangroves line the brackish lagoons and creeks, while swamp forest grows where the water is fresh. Farther inland, this vegetation gives way to tropical forest, with its many species of tropical hardwoods, including mahogany, iroko, and obeche. However, only in a few reserves—protected from the chainsaw and the farmer—is the forest’s full botanic diversity intact. Elsewhere, forest is largely secondary growth, primarily of species like the oil palm that are preserved for their economic value. Forests cover only about 12 percent (2005) of the country’s total land area.

Immediately north of the forest is the first wave of savanna: the Guinea, or moist, savanna, a region of tall grasses and trees. The southern margins of the Guinea savanna—which has been so altered by humans that it is also called the derived savanna—were created by repeated burning of forest until only open forest and grassland were left. The burnings destroyed important fire-sensitive plant species and contributed to erosion by removing ground cover. Tropical forest is giving way to the Guinea savanna at such a rate that the only forests expected to survive the next generation are in reserves. Beyond the Guinea savanna lies the drier Sudan savanna, a region of shorter grasses and more scattered, drought-resistant trees such as the baobab, tamarind, and acacia. In Nigeria’s very dry northeastern corner, the semidesert Sahel savanna persists. Throughout these drier savannas, drought and overgrazing have led to desertification—the degradation of vegetation and soil resources.

Rivers and Lakes in Nigeria

About two-thirds of Nigeria lies in the watershed of the Niger River, which empties in to the Atlantic at the Niger Delta, and its major tributaries: the Benue in the northeast, the Kaduna in the west, the Sokoto in the northwest, and the Anambra in the southeast. The Niger is Africa’s third longest river and fifth largest in terms of discharge. Several rivers of the watershed flow directly to the Atlantic, notably the Cross in southeastern Nigeria and the Ogun, Oshun, and Osse in the southwest.

Several rivers of northeastern Nigeria, including the Komadugu Gana and its tributaries, flow into Lake Chad. The lake rests in the center of a major drainage basin at the point where Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon meet. Kainji Lake, created in the late 1960s by the construction of the Kainji Dam on the Niger River, is Nigeria’s only other large lake. Nigeria’s rivers and lakes have not fared well under development. Sensitive wetland habitats, home to many species of birds and other animals, have been cleared for irrigation, and their flood-dependent ecosystems have been damaged by dam construction.

Animal Life in Nigeria

Before modern development, Nigeria’s diverse habitat of mangrove swamps, tropical forests, savanna, and mountain plateaus supported a diversity of plants and animals. However, over the last several decades, vast tracts of animal habitat have fallen victim to rapid population growth and the expansion of farmland. The widespread hunting of wildlife for food has also threatened the animal population. Consequently, Nigeria’s few remaining elephants, buffalo, lions, leopards, and other large game are generally found only in very remote areas or inside major reserves. Smaller animals such as antelope, monkeys, jackals, and hyenas are more widespread. Hippopotamuses and crocodiles, however, are still common in the largest rivers. Birds, including species that migrate seasonally between Africa and Europe, are also abundant.

Natural Resources of Nigeria

The rural economy that supports most Nigerians is based on the productivity of the land, 33 percent of which is cultivated. Soil fertility varies considerably but is generally poor. The most fertile of the soils are the result of alluvial deposition in river valleys. Many, however, are overused and eroded. Trees, which help prevent erosion, are often used for fuel, lumber, material for tools, fodder for animals, and herbal medicines. As a result, the landscape is becoming increasingly barren of trees, especially in densely populated areas and near larger cities.

Petroleum and natural gas, the source of most of Nigeria’s export earnings, are concentrated in large amounts in the Niger Delta and just offshore. Smaller deposits are scattered elsewhere in the coastal region. Iron ore, generally of low grade, is widespread. Lignite (brown coal) and subbituminous coal (coal of a lower grade than bituminous but of a higher grade than lignite) can be found in southeastern Nigeria. Other mineral resources include tin and columbite in the Jos Plateau, and limestone in several areas, particularly in the valleys of the Niger, Benue, and Sokoto rivers. The petroleum and natural gas industries—with their oil spills, burnoff of natural gas, and clearance of vegetation—have seriously damaged the land, vegetation, and waterways in the Niger Delta.

Environmental Issues in Nigeria

Desertification is a major problem in Nigeria, made worse by massive water impoundment and irrigation schemes. Uncontrolled grazing and livestock migration put tremendous pressure on the environment in some areas. Other environmental threats include poaching and settlement within protected areas, brushfires, increasing demand for fuelwood and timber, road expansion, and oil extraction activities.

Nigeria has an organized system of nature preserves, game reserves, and national parks in addition to a forest management system, but most management is carried on at the state level. Law enforcement and protected system infrastructure are lacking, and abuses of protected land are common. Nigeria cooperates with Cameroon, Chad, and Niger in the joint management of wildlife in the Lake Chad Basin. The country also participates in the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Several Nigerian groups have campaigned actively, but with little success, to compel the government and major oil companies to introduce environmental safeguards. In 1988 the government created the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (FEPA) to address problems of desertification, oil pollution, and land degradation, but the FEPA has had only a minor impact. In 1995 the weak and fragmented environmental movement was dealt a sharp blow when the government executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, a well-known writer who struggled to stop environmental degradation in the Niger River Delta.

In many parts of the country, farmers have practiced environmental protection for centuries. Their techniques include planting several different crops in a single field at once to cover the ground more evenly and thereby reduce erosion and increase fertility; planting and maintaining farmland trees and hedgerows to reduce erosion; applying manure to farmland to maintain soil fertility; and, in certain areas such as the Jos Plateau, terracing steep slopes.


Nigeria has not held a census since 1991. In 2009 Nigeria’s estimated population was 149,229,090, yielding an average density of 164 persons per sq km (424 per sq mi). With a birth rate of 36.6 per 1,000 and a death rate of 16.6 per 1,000, Nigeria’s population is growing at an average of 2 percent annually—a rapid pace, and little changed from the 1970s. The average Nigerian woman gives birth 5 times in her lifetime, although among more educated women the rate is somewhat lower. Nearly half of Nigerians are younger than 15 years. By 2025 the population is projected to grow to 197 million.

The highest population densities are in the Igbo heartland in southeastern Nigeria, despite poor soils and heavy emigration. The intensively farmed zones around and including several major cities of the Hausa ethnic group—especially Kano, Sokoto, and Zaria in the north—are also packed with people. Other areas of high density include Yorubaland in the southwest, the central Jos Plateau, and the Tiv homeland in Benue State in the south central region. Densities are relatively low in the dry northeast and in most parts of the middle belt. Ecological factors, including the prevalence of diseases such as sleeping sickness, carried by the tsetse fly, and historical factors, especially the legacy of precolonial slave raiding, help explain these low densities.

Urbanization in Nigeria

Nigeria is still a primarily rural country, with only 48 percent of its population living in cities. Urban areas, however, doubled their share of the population between 1970 and 1996. The country has a long history of urban development, particularly in northern and southwestern Nigeria where substantial cities existed centuries before colonial rule. The largest Nigerian cities are Lagos and Ibadan. Lagos, one of the world’s largest cities, grew as colonial Nigeria’s capital and leading port. Despite its loss of the federal capital in 1991 to Abuja, Lagos remains the country’s economic and cultural center. Ibadan, founded as a 19th-century war camp, was the largest precolonial city in sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to massive rural-to-urban migration. Its economy is based largely on agriculture and trade. Another major city is Kano, the largest of the Hausa cities. Kano grew to prominence as the center of a prosperous agricultural district and as a major terminus of trans-Saharan trade. It remains a major commercial, transportation, industrial, and administrative center. Other important cities include the Yoruba centers of Ogbomosho, Oyo, and Ife; the Hausa cities of Zaria, Katsina, and Sokoto; and the newer, colonial-era cities of Kaduna, Jos, and Enugu.

Ethnicity in Nigeria

Nigeria’s three largest ethnic groups—the Hausa-Fulani (see Hausa; Fulani), Yoruba, and Igbo—represent about 70 percent of the population. About 10 percent of the total population consists of several other groups numbering more than 1 million members each, including the Kanuri, Tiv, and Ibibio. More than 300 smaller ethnic groups account for the remaining 20 percent of the population. (However, as in most of Africa, ethnic labels in Nigeria are often imprecise, obscuring differences within groups and similarities among groups.)

The Hausa, concentrated in the far north and in the neighboring Republic of Niger, are the largest of Nigeria’s ethnic nations. Most Hausa are Muslims engaged in agriculture, commerce, and small-scale industry. While most live in smaller towns and villages, others occupy several larger indigenous cities. Many people of non-Hausa origin have become assimilated into the Hausa nation through intermarriage and acculturation. One such group is the Fulani, traditionally a seminomadic livestock-herding people. Many Fulani have settled in Hausa cities and towns and have become part of the Hausa community. Other Fulani continue to depend on their livestock and have retained their own language, Fulfulde, and cultural autonomy.

The Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria incorporate seven subgroups—the Egba, Ekiti, Ife, Ijebu, Kabba, Ondo, and Oyo—each identified with a particular paramount chief and city. The oni of Ife is the spiritual head of the Yoruba. There is a strong sense of Yoruba identity but also a history of distrust and rivalry dividing the various groups. The majority of Yoruba are farmers or traders who live in large cities of precolonial origin.

The Igbo of southeastern Nigeria traditionally live in small, independent villages, each with an elected council rather than a chief. Such democratic institutions notwithstanding, Igbo society is highly stratified along lines of wealth, achievement, and social rank. Overcrowding and degraded soil have forced many Igbo to migrate to nearby cities and other parts of Nigeria.

Other large ethnic groups include the Kanuri, centered in Borno State; the Tiv, from the Benue Valley near Makurdi; the Ibibio and Efik in the Calabar area; the Edo from the Benin region; and the Nupe, centered in the Bida area. Although small by Nigerian standards, these lesser groups have more members than most other African ethnicities.

Languages spoken in Nigeria

Most Nigerians speak more than one language. English, the country’s official language, is widely spoken, especially among educated people. About 400 native Nigerian languages have been identified, and some are threatened with extinction. The most common of the native languages are Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo. Other major languages include Fulfulde, Kanuri, Ibibio, Tiv, Efik, Edo, Ijo, and Nupe. The most widely used languages have several distinct regional dialects, and in some regions, such as the Jos Plateau and surrounding middle belt, hundreds of small groups make for wide linguistic variations across short distances. The two main trade languages are pidgin, a distinct language in which English is combined with native languages, used commonly in the south; and Hausa, used mostly in the north.

Religion in Nigeria

Adherence to Islam, Christianity, or indigenous African religions is central to how Nigerians identify themselves. Religious affiliation estimates vary, however, due to the lack of census data and the fact that many of Nigeria’s Muslims and Christians adhere to beliefs and practices associated with indigenous religions. Recent estimates suggest that 50 percent are Muslims, 40 percent are Christians, and 10 percent adhere to traditional religions. See also African Religions.

In the late 19th century, Christianity became established in southern Nigeria. In the Yoruba southwest, it was propagated by the Church of England, while in the Igbo southeast the Roman Catholic Church dominated. Today, close to half of the southwestern peoples and far more than half of the southeastern peoples are Christians, divided into Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, and Baptist sects. Christianity is also widespread in the middle belt, but it is virtually absent in the far north except among migrant populations. In recent years, Protestant fundamentalism has grown, particularly in the middle belt. Nigeria also has many independent African churches, such as Cherubim and Seraphim, which incorporate African cultural practices such as drumming, dancing, and polygyny (multiple wives) into Christianity.

Dominant in the north, Islam continues to spread, especially in the middle belt and in southwestern Nigeria. However, Islamic practices such as the seclusion of women and strict fasting tend to be rigorously observed only in northern cities. Islamic fundamentalism has gained followers since the 1990s and become a potent political force in northern Nigeria.

While specific beliefs vary, Nigerian indigenous religions are usually pantheistic, incorporating a supreme god, deities associated with particular elements of the environment, and spiritual entities associated with local physical landmarks, such as rock formations or rivers. Rituals and ceremonies in honor of deities are undertaken with great care, as they are seen to represent the key to security and prosperity. An example of such ceremonies would be ritual sacrifices, conducted at specific places and times to ensure a bountiful harvest. The Yoruba indigenous religion is of special interest because traditional rituals continue to be an important part of that society’s cultural practices.

Education in Nigeria

For generations before the arrival of Europeans, Nigerians taught their children informally about their culture, work, survival skills, and social activities. Some societies gave more formal instruction about society and culture as part of young peoples’ rites of passage into adulthood. In Islamic communities, students studied the Qur’an (Koran) and read other religious texts written in Arabic. Many of the more able students pursued higher Islamic studies and became teachers, clerics, or legal scholars. By 1919 northern Nigeria had about 25,000 Qur’anic schools. A large number of Islamic schools are still in operation.

In Lagos, Calabar, and other coastal cities, Christian missionaries introduced European education in the 1840s. Within a few decades, schooling in English was well established, and some elite families sent their children abroad to study. Enrollments expanded rapidly in the south; were uneven in the middle belt, depending on where missionaries were active; and were virtually nonexistent in the north. Consequently, as late as 1973, fewer than 10 percent of children in the far north were enrolled in primary schools, compared with nearly 90 percent of children in Lagos State. The gap was even greater in secondary and postsecondary schools.

Government reforms in the 1970s led to a primary-school enrollment rate of about 90 percent of all Nigerian children in 1980. The rapid expansion contributed to falling standards of instruction and other problems. By 1990 only 72 percent of children attended the compulsory first six years of education, due to government cutbacks, rising school fees, the deterioration of buildings, inferior instruction, and poor prospects for graduates. Enrollment rates remain lower for girls than boys, primarily because many rural northerners remain skeptical about schooling for girls. In 2002–2003 119 percent of primary school-age children were enrolled in primary school, while the enrollment rate for secondary schools was 36 percent.

Adult literacy is estimated to be 80 percent for men and 64 percent for women—an improvement over years past resulting from universal primary education and programs for adult literacy. Official data, however, estimate literacy only in English, thus discounting the significant level of literacy in Arabic among northern Muslims.

Nigeria has numerous federal- or state-funded universities. The oldest, University of Ibadan, was founded in 1948 as a college of the University of London and became autonomous in 1962. Many of the other prominent universities—University of Nigeria in Nsukka, Obafemi Awolowo University (formerly University of Ife), Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, and University of Lagos—were founded in the years immediately following independence in 1960. In 1970 the University of Benin was opened, followed in 1975 by new universities in Calabar, Ilorin, Jos, Kano, Maiduguri, Port Harcourt, and Sokoto. Since 1980 several more universities have opened, including institutes specializing in agriculture and technology. A variety of polytechnic schools, including Yaba College of Technology in Lagos and Kaduna Polytechnic, offer nondegree postsecondary programs.

Way of Life in Nigeria

Nigerian society varies greatly between urban and rural areas, across ethnic and religious borders, and with levels of education. Still, most Nigerians share a strong attachment to family and especially to children, to clearly differentiated roles for men and women, to a hierarchical social structure, and to the dominance of religion in shaping community values.

Nigerian society functions in a highly patriarchal fashion, with men exerting broad control over the lives of women, who are typically less educated and have limited access to health and social services. Women work far longer hours than men. They perform virtually all housework and child care, as well as (for most women) many hours of income-earning work, especially farming. The exceptions are in some southern states, where women are more active in trade and exert considerable political influence. In northern Muslim communities, especially cities, women are confined to home according to purdah (the seclusion of women from public view). Many women in purdah participate in a hidden trade in craft articles, prepared foodstuffs, and other goods, using children as couriers.

Polygyny is widely practiced among Muslims, among adherents of traditional religions, and among Christians who belong to independent African churches. Among northern Muslims and in many more traditional societies, most girls enter family-arranged marriages near the age of puberty. The daughters of more educated populations, particularly in the south, tend to marry when they are in their late teens or early twenties. Men usually marry at a later age, especially if they come from poorer families that are unable to afford the high cost of weddings and bride-price (payment given to the bride’s family by or on behalf of the future husband).

Social life has traditionally revolved around ceremonies: weddings, infants’ naming ceremonies, and public performances associated with cultural and religious holidays. Young adult males living in cities enjoy going to cinemas, dance clubs, and bars for recreation. Some Muslim women, for example among the Hausa, have their own social institutions revolving around the bori, a cult of spirit possession. Bori ceremonies provide women with a forum for interaction that is relatively free of male control, and offer explanations and remedies that help women cope with problems such as the death of their children.

Clothing in Nigeria symbolizes religious affiliation, wealth, and social standing. Northern Muslim men wear long, loose-fitting garments such as the caftan, together with colorful embroidered hats or (among traditional officials) turbans. Most Yoruba men also wear elaborate gowns and hats, somewhat different in style. Many Nigerians in the south wear casual Western-style dress. Women wear wraparound garments or dresses, typically made from very colorful materials, and beautiful head-ties that may be fashioned into elaborate patterns.

Diets vary regionally and between city and country. Grain-based dishes such as tuwo da miya, a thick sorghum porridge eaten with a spicy, vegetable-based sauce, dominate the northern diet. Dishes made from root crops, such as pounded yam and gari (a granular product made from cassava), are more prevalent in the south. Northerners eat more meat, either in sauces or as kebabs known as tsire. Yogurt and soured milk produced by Fulani pastoralists form an important part of rural northern diets. Modernization and poverty have made cheaper food staples such as cassava, maize (corn), rice, white bread, and pasta increasingly important in both rural and urban areas. Muslims generally do not approve of drinking alcohol, especially northern Muslims, who tend to prefer tea and soft drinks. In the rest of the country, it is common to drink commercially brewed beer or traditional drinks such as beer made from sorghum or millet, and palm wine. Kola nuts are used widely as a stimulant, especially in the north.

Nigerians, particularly youth, are avid sports fans and participants, and by far the most loved game is soccer, known as football. Nigeria’s national football team, the Super Eagles, won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games. Several Nigerian footballers have achieved prominence playing professionally in Europe, and all major cities are represented in Nigeria’s highly competitive national football league. Nigerians have also excelled internationally at track and field, particularly in shorter-distance races, and in boxing. Other popular sports are field hockey, basketball, and table tennis.

Social Issues in Nigeria

Wealth and power are distributed very unevenly in Nigerian society. The great majority of Nigerians, preoccupied with daily struggles to earn a living, have few material possessions and little chance of improving their lot. Meanwhile, chiefs, rich merchants, politicians, and high-ranking civil servants often accumulate and flaunt massive wealth, which to a degree is expected and accepted in Nigerian society. Most of these elite maintain power through networks of patronage: They secure and distribute labor, and receive political support in return. The system allows for some redistribution of income because patrons often pay for things such as school fees and marriage costs for relatives, community development, and charity work.

Economic inequality has a severe effect on health, especially for children. One-fifth of Nigerian children die before the age of five, primarily from treatable diseases such as malaria, measles, whooping cough, diarrhea, and pneumonia. Less than one-half of infants are immunized against measles, and malnutrition affects more than 40 percent of children under the age of five. Adults are equally affected, although with less deadly consequences. Only 20 percent of rural Nigerians and 52 percent of urban Nigerians have access to safe water. One-third have no access to health care simply because they live too far from clinics or other treatment centers. Many others cannot afford the fees charged by clinics.

While average incomes are higher and death rates lower in cities, urban poverty is as pervasive as rural poverty. Secure, well-paying jobs are scarce, even for those with considerable education. Food is typically expensive. Housing, too, is costly despite its rudimentary quality, prompting the poor to build basic houses in shantytowns. Sewage disposal systems in most cities are also basic or primitive, and polluted streams, wells, roadside drains, and other bodies of water increase the risk of infectious disease. Industry, automobiles, and the burning of fuelwood further pollute air and water.

Crime in Nigeria rose in the mid-1990s as a result of unemployment, economic decline, and social inequality, which are abetted by inefficient and corrupt police and customs forces. More than half of all offenses are thefts, burglaries, and break-ins, although armed robberies are also prominent. Nigeria is a major conduit for drugs moving from Asia and Latin America to markets in Europe and North America. Large-scale Nigerian fraud rings have targeted business people in other parts of the world. The business people are invited to help transfer large sums of money out of Nigeria, with the promise of a share of the transferred money. Advance fees are requested to expedite this transfer, but the advanced money routinely disappears. Although there have been periodic campaigns to root out corrupt politicians and attack crime, they have had little lasting effect.

Nigeria has been wracked by periodic violent clashes between ethnic and religious groups since the 1990s. The reasons behind these clashes have varied from local political disputes to conflicts between fundamentalist Muslims and Christians or moderate Muslims. In many cases, local civic or religious leaders have manipulated these conflicts for political gain.


Nigerian culture reflects African, Islamic, and European influences. In northern Nigeria, Islam has shaped architecture and calligraphy. As Islam traditionally forbids the representation of people and animals, art forms such as ceremonial carvings are virtually absent in the north. In the south, indigenous peoples produced their own art long before Europeans arrived. Portuguese figures first appeared in Benin bronzes dating to the 16th century. Since the dawn of the colonial era, Western influences have challenged, threatened, and in certain ways enriched Nigerian culture.

Literature in Nigeria

Nigeria’s modern literature grows out of a tradition of storytelling and historical remembrance that has existed in Nigeria for millennia. Oral literature ranges from the proverbs and dilemma tales of the common people to elaborate stories memorized and performed by professional praise-singers attached to royal courts. In states where Islam prevailed, significant written literatures evolved. The founder of the Sokoto caliphate, Usuman dan Fodio, wrote nearly 100 texts in Arabic in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His prose and poetry examined issues such as good government and social relations from an Islamic moralist perspective. The legacy of this Islamic tradition is a widely read modern literature comprised of religious and secular works, including the Hausa-language poetry and stories of Alhaji Abubakar Imam.

In 1986 Nigerian Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Soyinka is a prolific author of poetry, novels, essays, and plays that blend African themes with Western forms. His uncompromising critiques of tyranny, corruption, and the abuse of human rights have often angered Nigeria’s military rulers. One of his most powerful books, The Man Died (1972), was written while Soyinka was imprisoned during the civil war of 1967 to 1970. Chinua Achebe, whose novels include A Man of the People (1966) and No Longer at Ease (1960), is another Nigerian writer whose work commands a wide international audience. Other important novelists include Cyprian Ekwensi, Nkem Nwanko, Elechi Amadi, Flora Nwapa, and Clement Ogunwa, who write mostly in English. John Pepper Clark, Gabriel Okara, Christopher Okigbo, and Ken Saro-Wiwa are well-known poets.

Art and Architecture of Nigeria

Nigeria’s rich and diverse artistic heritage goes back more than 2,000 years. The earliest noteworthy pieces are finely produced terra-cotta sculptures produced by the Nok culture in the vicinity of the Jos Plateau between 500 BC and AD 200. These, together with bronze heads from Ife dating from the 13th century and bronze plaques, bronze statues, and ivory carvings from Benin from the 11th century and later, are generally considered Nigeria’s most important artistic legacy. Many such pieces, however, reside in Western museums, where they were taken during the time of colonial conquest. The Nigerian government has demanded the return of looted art, particularly from Benin, with little success.

Also important to Nigeria’s artistic heritage are wooden masks and fetishes (objects of worship or ceremony). Some of the finest examples are from cultures such as the Ijo, Ibibio, and Igala from southeastern Nigeria. Authentic examples of this art command high prices from collectors in the West, accounting for the frequent theft of ceremonial objects from shrines and museums in Nigeria. Modern artists typically draw on both African and Western influences. Members of the Oshogbo School, founded by Ulli Beier in the early 1960s, have explored Yoruba spirituality in several media. Leading Oshogbo artists include painter and musician Taiwo Olaniyi, also known as Twins Seven Seven; painter and writer Amos Tutuola; and sculptors Asiru Olatunde, Adebisi Akanji, and Susanne Wenger Alarpe. The development of modern Nigerian art has also been strongly influenced by students of the Zaria and Nsukka schools, dating respectively from the late 1950s and early 1970s. The Zaria school first explored the possibilities of synthesizing themes and techniques derived from both traditional and modern sources. The Nsukka school produces work that is known for its strong social and political content.

Traditional architecture ranges from the North African-inspired mud houses of the Hausa to the sprawling Yoruba compounds that accommodate several branches of an extended family. Such dwellings are often decorated: Hausa houses commonly have bas-relief geometric designs, while Yoruba palaces feature elaborately carved doors and veranda posts. Older homes in Lagos have a distinctive two-story design, known as the Brazilian style because it was introduced by slaves repatriated from Latin America in the 19th century. The new capital city of Abuja, designed by members of the architecture school at Ahmadu Bello University, is the most outstanding example of contemporary Nigerian urban planning and architecture. The city’s governmental complex, cultural facilities, and main business district are grouped in a city center characterized by modern, futuristic buildings and wide boulevards, and residential districts extend outward from the core.

Music and Dance in Nigeria

Virtually all Nigerian cultures have their own traditions of music and dance, which are central to the way Nigerians remember their past and celebrate their present. Songs and dances are played on drums, flutes, trumpets, stringed instruments, xylophones, and thumb pianos, and are often linked to specific places and events, such as the harvest. Although traditional song and dance continue in modern Nigeria—especially in rural areas and on ceremonial occasions—their central place in Nigerian life is threatened by the spread of radios, tape recorders, video cassette recorders (VCRs), and other mass-culture media, especially among youth. Sometimes, however, modern media allow musicians using traditional instruments and forms to reach a mass audience.

Popular music in Nigeria began in the late 1940s with the arrival of highlife music from Ghana. Highlife blended Western sounds ranging from big bands and guitars with African beats and instruments. Among the leading early bands were those of Rex Jim Lawson and Victor Olaiya. During the 1960s and 1970s, King Sunny Ade and I. K. Dairo, among others, established a new style of music known as juju. A rhythmic dance music style, juju blends Western instruments with elements of traditional African music. In the 1980s and 1990s Fela Anikulapo Kuti commanded a large following, both in Nigeria and internationally, with a form of Afro-Beat inspired by funk, jazz, and highlife and accompanied by provocative lyrics in Yoruba and pidgin.

Theater and Film in Nigeria

Contemporary theater in Nigeria grows out of a long tradition of masquerades, festivals, and storytelling. Masquerades, which emphasized costume and dance rather than dialogue, were a key instrument of social control and political commentary, especially in traditional southeastern Nigerian cultures. In the southwest, Alarinjo, a court masquerade and professional popular theater, was common, especially in the 14th-century Oyo kingdom. The traditional Ozidi dramas of the southern Ijo took three days and nights to perform, after several years of rehearsal. The theatrical traditions of the northern Hausa, still practiced today, include the performances of traveling minstrels known as ‘yan kama and public ceremonies of the bori spirit possession cult. Kwagh-hir, an amalgamation of traditional masquerades, puppet theater, acrobatics, dancing, and music, is a modern adaptation of traditional Tiv theater arts.

Modern theater is especially well developed among the Yoruba. Hubert Ogunde, considered the father of modern Yoruba folk opera, created the genre by combining music, dance, and mime. In 1945 he founded a professional theatrical group to perform his own plays, including Tiger’s Empire (1946), an attack on colonialism. Other notable Yoruba theater troupes were founded by Duro Ladipo, whose work explored aspects of Yoruba myth and history, and Moses Olaiya Ademujo, known for comedies that parody social pretensions. Today several professional theater companies thrive in Lagos, Ibadan, and other major cities. Additionally, many performances reach audiences via television, in English as well as in the leading Nigerian languages.

Filmmaking is less developed in Nigeria than in other African countries such as Senegal, and motion pictures are generally less vibrant than Nigeria’s other arts. This is due to poor funding and distribution, the popularity and availability of television, and state censorship. Nigeria’s leading filmmakers include Francis Oladele, Eddie Ugbomah, Sanya Dosunmu, Ola Balogun, Sadiq Balewa, and Bankole Bello. One of the best-known Nigerian films is Oladele’s Kongi’s Harvest (1971), a political drama about an African dictator’s abuse of power, based on a Wole Soyinka play by the same name. The Rise and Fall of Dr. Oyemusi (1977), which tells the story of an armed robber in Lagos, and The Mask (1979), which is about a plot to rescue African artifacts from the British Museum, are the best-known films by Ugbomah, Nigeria’s most prolific filmmaker. Since the mid-1990s Lagos has become the center of a thriving industry producing low-budget dramas for video, aimed at the home VCR market.

Museums and Libraries in Nigeria

The government maintains several major museums, most notably the National Museum, which operates in Lagos, Kaduna, Jos, and Benin. Although museum collections are drawn from a range of cultures, most have a regional emphasis. The National Museum in Jos, for example, is known for its Nok terra-cottas. The government also maintains the National Library of Nigeria, one of the country’s largest, in Lagos. Large holdings are also found at the older universities such as University of Ibadan and University of Nigeria at Nsukka. The National Archives of Nigeria, located in Lagos, Ibadan, Kaduna, and Enugu, hold important historical documents.


Nigeria’s economy, traditionally based on agriculture and trade, changed profoundly under colonial rule, beginning in the late 19th century. The need to pay taxes to the colonial government forced Nigerian farmers to replace food-producing crops with cash-producing crops, which the government bought at low prices and resold at a profit. In the 1960s and 1970s the petroleum industry developed, prompting greatly increased export earnings and allowing massive investments in industry, agriculture, infrastructure, and social services. Many of these large investments, often joint ventures with private corporations, failed.

In 2007 Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $165 billion. The GDP has varied widely, depending on the oil market: $81 billion in 1985, $33.2 billion in 1994, $40.5 billion in 1995. In 2007 Nigeria’s GDP per capita was only $1,118.20, among the lowest in the world and well below the average for sub-Saharan Africa. The poor have been especially hard hit by Nigeria’s economic problems, notably by devaluations of the currency, which make basic imported goods, such as food, more expensive; cutbacks in services and increases in fees for services; and a 5 percent average annual rate of inflation from 2007 to 2007.

Labor in Nigeria

In 2007 the labor force totaled 45.3 million, up from 30 million in 1980. Women made up 36 percent of the force, men 64 percent. An estimated 3 percent of all workers worked in agriculture, down from 54 percent in 1980; 75 percent worked in the service sector; and 22 percent worked in industry, including mining, manufacturing, and construction. Data on Nigeria’s labor force, however, have limited value because most Nigerians earn their living in more than one field. Urban workers “moonlight” to make ends meet and rural dwellers have second jobs to supplement farming. Accurate unemployment rates are difficult to obtain and generally mean little in a society where many who work are marginally employed and where begging is a socially accepted occupation.

Nigeria’s central labor union is the Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC), which comprises numerous specialized industrial and professional unions. Union activities have increased with the economic downturn of the 1980s and 1990s and the government’s efforts to strictly limit wage increases. Among the most active unions are those representing petroleum workers and university teachers, which have challenged the government not just on salary and economic issues but also on abuses of human rights and autocratic rule. Strikes called for by the NLC have periodically disrupted the Nigerian economy since the early 1990s.

Agriculture of Nigeria

Agriculture, including farming and herding, accounts for 33 percent of Nigeria’s GDP and engages 3 percent of the economically active population. Agriculture contributed more than 75 percent of export earnings before 1970. Since then, however, agriculture has stagnated, partly due to government neglect and poor investment, and partly due to ecological factors such as drought, disease, and reduction in soil fertility. By the mid-1990s, agriculture’s share of exports had declined to less than 5 percent. Once an exporter of food to nearby countries, Nigeria now must import food to meet domestic demand. Nigeria’s major crops include palms (used to produce palm oil), cacao, rubber, and cotton, all of which were once exported but are now sold mostly locally. Also grown are sorghum, millet, maize (corn), yams, and cassava, all formerly used as food for growers but now widely sold for cash.

The great majority of Nigeria’s farm production comes from smallholders who use hoes and similar basic tools. In less crowded areas, crops are typically planted in rotations that let soil lie fallow and recharge. In more crowded areas, for example near large Hausa cities and in the Igbo heartland, cropland is typically under constant cultivation. With the notable exception of Hausaland, women play a prominent role in farming in Nigeria.

In the last two decades the government has increased farm output—at great cost—through major irrigation projects, massive investments in rural infrastructure, and introduction of modern seed varieties and chemicals. In the mid-1980s, in an attempt to stop the import of food and raw materials that could be grown locally, the government encouraged large-scale, mechanized farming by local entrepreneurs and international corporations. Although large-scale, machine-based farming has increased substantially, it accounts for only a fraction of total production.

The livestock sector is dominated by Fulani pastoralists, who use mostly traditional forms of production. State and federal governments have tried periodically to encourage the Fulani to form large-scale cattle ranches, but with little success. In 1983 cattle rearing was devastated by a highly contagious virus known as rinderpest, but by the mid-1990s had mostly recovered. Modern poultry farming, geared to meeting urban demand for eggs and chicken, has increased substantially since 1980.

Services in Nigeria

Services are a vast, poorly defined part of the Nigerian economy that include most informal and many formal enterprises. In all, services account for 28 percent of GDP. The informal service sector is made up of small-scale enterprises that rely on family labor, including traders, hairdressers, entertainers, porters, tailors, auto mechanics, and traditional healers. In larger cities, many of the same services are provided by formal-sector entrepreneurs, who often rely on nonfamily labor. Other businesses, including law offices, banks, and travel agencies, fall exclusively within the formal sector. Tourism of Nigeria is a small part of the service economy; in 2004 962,000 tourists arrived in the country. Most tourists come from neighboring African countries.

Mining in Nigeria

Petroleum dominates the Nigerian economy: Virtually 100 percent of export earnings and about four-fifths of government revenues are derived from petroleum. Fluctuations in world oil prices therefore have a dramatic effect on the Nigerian economy. Discovered in 1956, petroleum was produced at a rate of 818 million barrels in 2004 from more than 150 oil fields, mostly in the Niger Delta. About one-fifth of the oil fields are offshore. Although Nigeria’s petroleum is expensive to produce, it commands a high price because of its low sulfur content. Half of all exports go to the United States, and most of the other half to Europe.

Nigeria has Africa’s largest reserves of natural gas, most of which are associated with the oil fields. Despite efforts to develop markets for natural gas—including investment in gas-fired electrical installations, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant, and fertilizer and chemical ventures—about three-quarters of gas production is burned off rather than diverted for use.

Production of coal has declined to about 64,000 metric tons, far less than the late 1950s production, largely because the Enugu coalfields are almost exhausted. The government is attempting to boost production by developing new fields at Lafia and Obi in Benue State. Also in sharp decline are production of tin (1,500 metric tons per year) and columbite, which have been mined from alluvial gravels on the Jos Plateau since 1905 but which now yield about 1 percent of their late-1960s levels. Other major mining operations include iron ore, which is exploited for the steel industry, and limestone, used to manufacture cement. Gypsum, barite, and kaolin are also mined.

Manufacturing in Nigeria

In 2003, manufacturing accounted for 4 percent of the GDP, down from 13 percent in 1982. Preindependence Nigeria, its large population notwithstanding, had very little industrial development—a few tanneries and oil-crushing mills that processed raw materials for export. During the 1950s and 1960s a few factories, including the first textile mills and food-processing plants, opened to serve Nigerians. During the 1970s and early 1980s industrial production increased rapidly, principally in Lagos, Kaduna, Kano, and Port Harcourt. Factories also appeared in smaller, peripheral cities such as Calabar, Bauchi, Katsina, Akure, and Jebba, due largely to government policies encouraging decentralization (although these policies sometimes ran counter to solid economic criteria).

Nigeria’s major manufactures are food and beverages, cigarettes, textiles and clothing, soaps and detergents, footwear, wood products, motor vehicles, chemical products, and metals. Smaller-scale manufacturing businesses engage in weaving, leather making, pottery making, and woodcarving. The smaller industries are often organized in craft guilds involving particular families, who pass skills from generation to generation.

In an attempt to broaden Nigeria’s industrial base, the government has invested heavily in joint ventures with private companies since the early 1980s. The largest such project is the integrated steel complex at Ajaokuta, built in 1983 at a cost of $4 billion. The government has also invested heavily in petroleum refining, petrochemicals, fertilizers, and implements for assembling automobiles and farm equipment. Government policies have hampered industrial development by making it difficult to obtain sufficient raw materials and spare parts. Partly as a result, only a fraction of the country’s manufacturing capacity is currently utilized. In the mid-1990s the government introduced a series of reforms, including an allowance for greater foreign ownership in Nigerian industries, a loosening of controls on foreign exchange, and the establishment of an export-processing zone at Calabar.

Forestry and Fishing in Nigeria

The bulk of Nigeria’s forest production is fuelwood, consumed either as wood or as charcoal. In 2006 fuelwood production was 62 million cubic meters (2.2 billion cubic feet), harvested mostly near dense urban areas. By contrast, annual lumber production—mostly hardwoods such as mahogany, iroko, and obeche—averaged 2 million cubic meters (71 million cubic feet), almost all from the tropical forest zone. Consequently, Nigeria, once a significant exporter of timber, is a net importer. Ongoing, rapid deforestation makes it unlikely the situation will improve appreciably.

Nigeria’s 2007 fish catch was 636,900 metric tons live. Slightly less than half the catch was from inland waters, mainly Lake Chad, the Niger Delta, and Kainji Lake. Various species of catfishes, tilapias, and Nile perch, among others, are harvested using small-scale and traditional methods. Sardinellas, bonga shad, and shrimp are harvested from the Atlantic Ocean. In 1975 the government established the Nigerian National Fish Company to enter into joint fishing ventures with foreign companies. Most of Nigeria’s 470 vessels larger than 100 gross registered tons are concentrated inshore; deep-sea fishing is still dominated by foreign boats.

Energy in Nigeria

Petroleum, natural gas, and hydroelectricity are Nigeria’s major sources of commercial energy; they are slightly outpaced by the largely noncommercial consumption of fuelwood and charcoal. Despite major programs to extend electricity to homes, only a small portion of rural households are electrified. Demand for electricity outstrips supply, in part because of mismanagement in the government agency overseeing energy production. In the late 1990s periodic power outages cost Nigerian factories countless hours of operation. The major thermal electrical installations are at Igbin, Afam, and Sapele. Hydroelectricity is generated at Kainji Dam and in lesser quantities at Shiroro Gorge on the Kaduna River, at Jebba, and at several smaller sites. Only a small percentage of the country’s potential hydroelectric capacity has been developed.

Transportation in Nigeria

Nigeria has 193,200 km (120,049 mi) of roads. Most Nigerians travel by bus or taxi both between and within cities. During the 1970s and 1980s federal and state governments built and upgraded numerous expressways and transregional trunk roads. State governments also upgraded smaller roads, which helped open rural areas to development. However, by the mid-1990s lack of investment had left most of the roads to deteriorate.

Nigeria has 3,528 km (2,192 mi) of operated railway track. The main line, completed in 1911, links Lagos to Kano, with extensions from Kano to Nguru, from Zaria to Kaura Namoda, and from Minna to Baro. The use of railways, both for passenger and freight traffic, has declined due to competition from the road network.

Nigeria’s largest ocean ports are at Lagos (Apapa and Tin Can Island), Port Harcourt, Calabar, Sapele, and Warri. The main petroleum-exporting facilities are at Bonny and Burutu. Transportation along inland waterways, especially the Niger and Benue rivers, was very important during the colonial era. In the late 1980s the government upgraded river ports at Onitsha, Ajaokuta, Lokoja, Baro, Jebba, and Yelwa. Locks have been constructed at Kainji Dam to facilitate navigation. River transport is used mainly for shipping goods.

Nigeria has three international airports: in the Lagos suburb of Ikeja, in Abuja, and in Kano. Internal flights serve the majority of state capitals, of which Kaduna, Port Harcourt, and Enugu are the busiest. Nigeria Airways, the national carrier, offers both domestic and international flights. Several small regional carriers also compete for domestic traffic.

Communications in Nigeria

The first newspaper was founded in Lagos in the 1830s. Today, Nigerians choose from dozens of daily and weekly newspapers published across the country, most in English, but several in Nigerian languages, especially Hausa and Yoruba. The Daily Times, published in Lagos, is the newspaper with the largest circulation. Despite sporadic government censorship and partial government ownership of some newspapers, the press has remained relatively free and has often been outspoken in its criticism of the government.

The national government began broadcasting in 1957, when it established a chain of radio stations. Most of the country’s numerous radio and television stations continue to be operated by the government. Programs are available in English, Hausa, Yoruba, and several other Nigerian languages. The country’s international radio service, Voice of Nigeria, also broadcasts in several languages.

In 2005 there were only 9.3 telephone mainlines for every 1,000 people in Nigeria. About one-third of the telephones were in Lagos. Major cities in all parts of the country are linked by a system of domestic satellites, microwave towers, and coaxial cables; however, the telephone system is unreliable because of poor service and maintenance at the local level.

Trade in Nigeria

Nigeria depends on foreign trade to meet many of its needs, although in recent years it has achieved a healthy trade surplus. In 2007 exports amounted to $46 billion, while imports were $28 billion. The volatility of the global oil market and changes in fiscal and import policies cause large year-to-year fluctuations in the balance of trade. Officially recognized trade is supplemented by considerable smuggling of agricultural produce and manufactured goods to and from neighboring countries.

Petroleum accounts for virtually 100 percent of exports, in terms of value. Cacao, rubber, and shrimp are also exported. Nigeria’s major trade partners for exports are the United States, India, Spain, France, and Brazil. Major imports are base metal manufactures, including motor vehicles and industrial machinery; basic manufactures, including iron, steel, paper, and cement; chemicals and related products; and food and live animals. Major trade partners for imports are the United Kingdom, United States, France, China, and Germany. Only a small percentage of Nigerian exports and imports are traded with other African countries.

Despite its positive trade balance, the Nigerian economy is burdened with massive external debt amounting in 2002 to $31.6 billion, most of it owed to other governments and multilateral agencies. The government has had difficulty meeting its yearly debt payments. Nigeria’s yearly debt-servicing bill, including arrears and interest, can rival the country’s total export earnings. Most of the debt stems from extravagant government megaprojects prior to the mid-1980s and from imports of consumer goods. The sudden collapse of oil prices in the early 1980s made Nigerian financial matters worse. In recent years international lenders have forced Nigeria to introduce reforms to restructure its economy.

Currency and Banking of Nigeria

The national currency of Nigeria is the naira, which is divided into 100 kobo (125.80 naira equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). Exchange rates have been allowed to fluctuate since 1995, when the government abandoned a disastrous, short-lived attempt to fix the rate at 22 naira per dollar. Currency and banking are supervised by the Central Bank of Nigeria, founded in 1958 and located in Lagos. Several foreign banks have branches in Nigeria; since 1976, all have been required to have at least 60 percent Nigerian ownership. The Nigerian Stock Exchange, founded in 1960, is located in Lagos and is supervised by the Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission.


Nigeria emerged from 16 years of military rule in 1999, when a new constitution was adopted. Under this document, Nigeria is a federal republic with a democratically elected government made of separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The constitution guarantees Nigerians freedom of expression and religion, and prohibits discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, sex, or place of origin.

Executive of Nigeria

The president is elected to a four-year term by receiving a plurality of the total vote and at least one-fourth of the vote in at least two-thirds of the states. The president’s running mate becomes vice president for the same term. Cabinet appointments, made by the president and approved by the Senate, are constitutionally required to reflect Nigeria’s “federal character,” that is, the country’s cultural diversity.

Legislature of Nigeria

The constitution calls for a two-chamber National Assembly with members elected to four-year terms. The upper chamber, or Senate, contains 109 seats: three for each of Nigeria’s 36 states and one seat for the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The lower chamber, or House of Representatives, contains 360 seats.

Judiciary in Nigeria

Nigeria’s highest court of appeal is the Supreme Court, which comprises a chief justice and up to 15 associate justices. Below the Supreme Court sits a Federal Court of Appeal. Each state has a High Court, with judges appointed by the federal government. The Federal Capital Territory and states with large Islamic populations have the right to establish Sharia Courts of Appeal to administer Islamic civil law.

Political Parties of Nigeria

Since independence, political parties have been variously banned and allowed, according to the whim of the leaders in power. Since the death of Sani Abacha, the last military ruler, several new political parties have emerged. The largest party in the legislature is the People’s Democratic Party. The largest opposition parties are the All Nigeria People’s Party and the Alliance for Democracy.

State and Local Governments in Nigeria

Nigeria is divided into 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory. State governments consist of an elected governor, a deputy governor chosen by the governor, and a directly elected state assembly. The governor also nominates commissioners, who are confirmed by the assembly. The Federal Capital Territory is headed by a minister, who is appointed by the president.

The creation of new states has been a periodic feature of Nigerian life since 1967, when 12 states replaced the previous 4 regions. The creation of new states was immensely popular in previously neglected areas, which were given a greater share of oil wealth and other development. As a result, Nigerians routinely call for more states, using arguments about the ethnic and population balance to bolster their economic motivations. The federal government has responded by creating seven new states plus the Federal Capital Territory in 1976, two more in 1987, nine in 1991, and six in 1996. As the states have become smaller, they have become less viable and more dependent on federal government transfers.

As in the case of the states, there has been continuous lobbying for new local government areas, which in 1997 numbered more than 700. Until 1976, traditional authorities controlled local governments, but reforms have since relegated traditional rulers to a mostly ceremonial role. In their place are democratically elected government councils with responsibility for things such as primary health care and primary education.

Defense of Nigeria

Nigeria’s defense forces, which peaked at 300,000 at the end of the civil war in 1970, had 85,000 personnel in 2006, which was still large and expensive compared to the region’s other countries. The army numbered 67,000 with major divisions based in Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, Kaduna, and Jos. The air force consisted of 10,000 personnel in four air commands, in Ikeja (near Lagos), Kaduna, Ibadan, and Makurdi. The 8,000-person navy is centered in Lagos and Calabar and has been strengthened in recent years to provide security for oil installations. The Nigerian Defence Academy is located at Kaduna. Nigeria has participated in peacekeeping operations of the United Nations (UN). It has also provided the majority of soldiers for the joint West African peacekeeping force in Liberia (since 1990) and Sierra Leone (from 1997 until 2000, when a UN peacekeeping force that included many Nigerian troops took over). Military service is voluntary.

Social Services in Nigeria

Nigeria has no state-supported social welfare system. Instead, most people rely on their extended families in difficult times and in old age. Medical care is provided to government employees and to most workers in large industrial and commercial enterprises, but it is wanting among the rest of the population. Despite several attempts at reform, many Nigerians lack access to primary health care, in large part because the great majority of treatment centers are located in large cities. Facilities are often understaffed, underequipped, and low on medications and other medical supplies. Patients must generally pay user fees and buy their own supplies and medications, which they often cannot afford.

The result has been an infant mortality rate of 94 per 1,000 live births and a life expectancy of 47 years. Malaria is the leading cause of death and is likely to remain so, due to the growing resistance both of the malarial parasite to drugs as well as of the mosquito, which transmits malaria, to insecticides. Other preventable ills that the government has been unable to halt include measles, whooping cough, polio, cerebrospinal meningitis, gastroenteritis, diarrhea, tuberculosis, bronchitis, waterborne infectious diseases such as schistosomiasis, and sexually transmitted infections. Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is becoming more and more prevalent. In 2007 2.4 million Nigerians were estimated to be infected with HIV and 170,000 Nigerians died of AIDS.

International Organizations in Nigeria

At independence in 1960 Nigeria joined the United Nations (UN) and its affiliated agencies. It also joined the British Commonwealth of Nations. Its membership in the Commonwealth was suspended from 1995 to 1999 to protest human rights abuses and the slow rate of democratization by the Abacha government. Nigeria is also a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Nonaligned Movement (NAM). A founding member of the African Union (AU), Nigeria took the lead in opposing the apartheid regime in South Africa. It is also the dominant partner in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and a member of the African Development Bank and the Lake Chad Basin Commission.


People have lived in what is now known as Nigeria since at least 9000 BC, and evidence indicates that since at least 5000 BC some of them have practiced settled agriculture. In the early centuries AD, kingdoms emerged in the drier, northern savanna, prospering from trade ties with North Africa. At roughly the same time, the wetter, southern forested areas yielded city-states and looser federations sustained by agriculture and coastal trade. These systems changed radically with the arrival of Europeans in the late 15th century, the rise of the slave trade from the 16th through the 19th century, and formal colonization by Britain at the end of 19th century. Nigeria achieved independence in 1960 but has since been plagued by unequal distribution of wealth and ineffective, often corrupt governments.

Precolonial History of the Savanna

The Nok culture, which flourished between 500 BC and AD 200, is the earliest identifiable civilization in Nigeria’s north; the Nok are also the earliest of West Africa’s known ironworkers. (Their real identity unknown, the Nok are named for a village where miners first unearthed their artifacts.) Their famous figurines—finely crafted people and animals in terra-cotta—have influenced centuries of central Nigerian sculpture. Today the art of several central Nigerian peoples continues to reflect Nok style.

The Kanem-Bornu Empire

The northern region’s first well-documented state was the kingdom of Kanem, which emerged east of Lake Chad in what is now southwestern Chad by the 9th century AD. Kanem profited from trade ties with North Africa and the Nile Valley, from which it also received Islam. The Saifawas, Kanem’s ruling dynasty, periodically enlarged their holdings by conquest and marriage into the ruling families of vassal states. The empire, however, failed to sustain a lasting peace. During one conflict-ridden period sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries, the Saifawas were forced to move across Lake Chad into Bornu, in what is now far northeastern Nigeria. There, the Kanem intermarried with the native peoples, and the new group became known as the Kanuri. The Kanuri state, centered first in Kanem and then in Bornu, is known as the Kanem-Bornu Empire, hereafter referred to as Bornu.

The Kanuri eventually returned to Chad and conquered the empire lost by the Saifawas. Its dominance thus assured, Bornu became a flourishing center of Islamic culture that rivaled Mali to the far west. The kingdom also grew rich in trade, which focused on salt from the Sahara and locally produced textiles. In the late 16th century, the Bornu king Idris Alooma expanded the kingdom again, and although the full extent of the expansion is not clear, Bornu exerted considerable political influence over Hausaland to the west. In the mid- and late 18th century, severe droughts and famines weakened the kingdom, but in the early 19th century Bornu enjoyed a brief revival under al-Kanemi, a shrewd military leader who resisted a Fulani revolution that swept over much of Nigeria. Al-Kanemi’s descendants continue as traditional rulers within Borno State. The Kanem-Bornu Empire ceased to exist in 1846 when it was absorbed into the Wadai sultanate to the east.

The Hausa-Fulani

The Hausa cultures, which as early as the 7th century AD were smelting iron ore, arose in what is today northwestern and north central Nigeria, to Bornu’s west. The origin of these cultures, however, is a mystery. Legend holds that Bayajidda, a traveler from the Middle East, married the queen of Daura, from whom came seven sons. Each son is reputed to have founded one of the seven Hausa kingdoms: Kano, Rano, Katsina, Zazzau (Zaria), Gobir, Kebbi, and Auyo. Various Nigerian groups explain their origins in similar legends involving migrations southward across the Sahara or from the east or west through the savannas, followed by intermarriage and acculturation. These legends serve to highlight the importance of such interchanges in the cultural, economic, and political development of many Nigerian societies.

However founded, the seven city-states developed as strong trading centers, typically surrounded by a wall and with an economy based on intensive farming, cattle raising, craft making, and later slave trading. In each Hausa state, a monarch, probably elected, ruled over a network of feudal lords, most of whom had embraced Islam by the 14th century. The states maintained persistent rivalries, which at times made them easy prey to the expansion of Bornu and other kingdoms.

A perhaps greater, if more subtle, threat to the Hausa kingdoms was the immigration of Fulani pastoralists, who came from the west to make a home in the Nigerian savanna and who permeated large areas of Hausaland over several centuries. In 1804 a Fulani scholar, Usuman dan Fodio, declared a jihad (holy war) against the Hausa states, whose rulers he condemned for allowing Islamic practices to deteriorate. Local Fulani leaders, motivated by both spiritual and local political concerns, received Usuman’s blessing to overthrow the Hausa rulers. With their superior cavalry and cohesion, the Fulani overthrew the Hausa rulers and also conquered areas beyond Hausaland, including Adamawa to the east and Nupe and Ilorin to the south.

After the war, a loose federation of 30 emirates emerged, each recognizing the supremacy of the sultan of Sokoto, located in what is now far northwestern Nigeria. The first sultan of Sokoto was Usuman. After Usuman died in 1817, he was succeeded by his son, Muhammad Bello. Militarily and commercially powerful, the Sokoto caliphate dominated the region throughout the 19th century.

Precolonial History of the Forest and Coast

Nigeria’s oldest archaeological site lies in its forested region, at Iwo Eleru near Akure in southwestern Nigeria. Stone tools and human remains at the site date from 9000 BC.

The Yoruba

The first well-documented kingdom in what is now southwestern Nigeria was centered at Ife, which was established as the first of the Yoruba kingdoms in the 11th or 12th century. Over the next few centuries, the Ife spread their political and spiritual influence beyond the borders of its small city-state. Ife artisans were highly skilled, producing, among other things, bronze castings of heads in a highly naturalistic style. Terra-cotta, wood, and ivory were also common media.

Shortly after the rise of Ife, the kingdom of Benin emerged to the east. Although it was separate from the Yoruba kingdoms, Benin legends claim that the kingdom’s first rulers were descended from an Ife prince. By the 15th century, Benin was a large, well-designed city sustained by trade (both within the region and, later, with Europe). Its cultural legacy includes a wealth of elaborate bronze plaques and statues recording the nation’s history and glorifying its rulers.

At about the same time as Benin’s ascendance, the major Yoruba city-state of Oyo arose. Situated northwest of Ife, Oyo used its powerful cavalry to replace Ife as Yorubaland’s political center. (Ife, however, continued to serve as the spiritual center of Yorubaland.) When the Portuguese first arrived in the late 15th century, it was the Oyo who controlled trade with them, first in goods such as peppers, which they secured from the northern interior lands and transferred to the southern coast, and later in slaves. In Oyo, as elsewhere throughout coastal West Africa, the traffic in slaves had disastrous results—not just on those traded, who were largely from the interior, but also on the traders. As African nations vied for the lucrative commerce, conflicts increased, and other forms of advancement, both agricultural and economic, fell by the wayside. As a result, when Britain banned the slave trade in the early 19th century, Oyo was hard-pressed to maintain its prosperity. The Oyo state of Ilorin broke away from the empire in 1796, then joined the northern Sokoto caliphate in 1831 after Fulani residing in Ilorin seized power. The Oyo empire collapsed, plunging all of Yorubaland—Oyo, Ife, and other areas—into a bloody civil war that lasted for decades.

The Igbo

In southeastern Nigeria, archaeological sites confirm sophisticated civilizations dating from at least AD 900, when fine bronze statues were crafted by predecessors of the modern-day Igbo people. These early peoples, who almost certainly had well-developed trade links, were followed by the Nri of northern Igboland. With these exceptions, Igboland did not have the large, centralized kingdoms that characterized other parts of Nigeria. A few clans maintained power, perhaps the strongest of which was the Aro; the Aro lived west of the Cross River, near present-day Nigeria’s southeastern border, and rose to prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Aro were oracular priests for the region and used this role to secure large numbers of slaves. The slaves were sold in coastal ports controlled by other groups such as the Ijo.

Colonial Expansion

Compared with other parts of West Africa, Nigeria was slow to feel the penetration of Europe. Unlike in Ghana and Senegal, no European fortifications were built along the coast, and Europeans—mostly British—came ashore only briefly to trade weapons, alcohol, and other goods in return for slaves. It is not clear what portion of the vast number of slaves taken from West Africa (estimates range from about 10 to 30 million) came from Nigeria.

In 1807 Britain abolished the slave trade and enlisted other European nations to enforce the ban. Britain’s motivations were partly humanitarian—there was a reform movement at home—and partly economic: The British Empire no longer had American colonies whose economic growth depended on slaves, and moreover the rise of industrialization meant Britain needed Africa’s raw materials more than its people. Consequently, trade in products such as palm oil, which Europeans valued highly as an industrial lubricant, replaced the trade in humans. Most of Nigeria’s former slave-trading states were weakened by the loss of income. A few managed to continue a much-reduced contraband slave trade until the 1860s. Others used slave labor to farm plantations of oil palm.

British trading companies such as the United Africa Company took advantage of the weakened empires and established depots at Lagos and in the Niger Delta. Meanwhile, explorers such as Mungo Park and Hugh Clapperton of Scotland, John and Richard Lander of England, and Heinrich Barth of Germany charted the Niger River and its surroundings. The explorers, some of them funded by trading companies, laid the groundwork for the eventual expansion inland of the trading companies. Missionaries also facilitated the process of replacing the noxious slave trade with “Christian commerce.” Some inland peoples took advantage of new opportunities to produce goods for the Europeans, but most resisted and were forcibly subjugated.

The Scramble for Africa

In 1884 and 1885 European powers carved Africa into spheres of influence at the Berlin West Africa Conference. Britain, its claim to Nigeria affirmed, moved quickly to consolidate its territory. The colony of Lagos, first declared in 1861, was expanded, and in 1887 a new protectorate, Oil Rivers (later the Niger Coast Protectorate), was created in the Niger Delta. The British also waged bloody and ruthless war on resisting coastal and forest peoples, particularly in Benin, Nupe, and Ilorin. Its hold in the south was secure by 1897.

While Britain was consolidating these areas, it granted the Royal Niger Company a trading monopoly in the north. In return the company agreed to advance British interests, economic and political. The company set up headquarters at Lokoja, located at the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers in central Nigeria, and extended its trade northwest up the Niger and northeast up the Benue. Treaties were signed with several African states, including Nupe, Sokoto, and Gwandu, thus depriving French and German rivals access to the northern region.

In 1900, with the south secure, Britain revoked the Royal Niger Company’s charter and declared that a colonial government would administer Nigeria as two protectorates: one in the south and one in the north. (Lagos was incorporated into the southern protectorate in 1906.) Simultaneously, Britain went to war against the Sokoto caliphate in the northwest, conquering it by 1903. Remaining pockets of resistance within the caliphate and elsewhere in northern Nigeria were quelled over the next few years. In 1914 Britain joined the two protectorates into a single colony, and in 1922 part of the former German colony of Kamerun was attached to Nigeria as a League of Nations-mandated territory.

Indirect Rule

Britain governed Nigeria via indirect rule, a system in which native leaders continued to rule their traditional lands so long as they collected taxes and performed other duties ensuring British prosperity. Uncooperative or ineffective leaders were easily replaced by others who were more compliant or competent, and usually more than willing to enjoy the perks of government. Britain was thus saved the huge economic and political cost of running and militarily securing a day-to-day government.

Indirect rule operated relatively smoothly in the north, where the British worked with the Fulani aristocracy, who had long governed the Sokoto caliphate and who were able to administer traditional Islamic law alongside British civil law. In the south, however, traditions were less accommodating. In Yorubaland indirect rule disrupted historical checks and balances, increasing the power of some chiefs at the expense of others. Moreover, although the Yoruba kings had long been powerful, few had collected taxes, and citizens resisted their right to do so under British mandate. In the southeast, particularly in Igboland, many of the societies had never had chiefs or for that matter organized states. Consequently, the chiefs appointed by Britain received little or no respect. In Nigeria’s culturally fragmented middle belt, small groups were forcefully incorporated into larger political units and often ruled by “foreign” Fulani, who brought with them alien institutions such as Islamic law.

The British carried out a few reforms, including the gradual elimination of domestic slavery, which had been a central feature of the Sokoto caliphate. They also provided Western education for some of Nigeria’s elite; however, in the main Britain limited schooling as much as feasible.

Britain redirected almost all of Nigeria’s trade away from Africa and toward itself, a move that undermined the northern region’s large, centuries-old trade across the Sahara. Britain further changed the economy by introducing new crops and expanding old ones, such as oil palm, cotton, groundnuts, and cacao, almost all of which were sold for export. Iron and tin were also mined, and railroads were built to transport products. Because Britain required Nigerians to pay taxes in cash rather than goods, most Nigerians had little choice but to grow cash-yielding export crops or to migrate seasonally to areas where paying jobs could be found.

Opposition to the British

Throughout the early 20th century, Nigerians found many ways to oppose foreign rule. Local armed revolts, concentrated in the middle belt, broke out sporadically and intensified during World War I (1914-1918). Workers in mines, railways, and public service often went on strike over poor wages and working conditions, including a large general action in 1945, when 30,000 workers stopped commerce for 37 days. Ire over taxation prompted other conflicts, including a battle in 1929 fought mainly by Igbo women in the Aba area. More common was passive resistance: avoiding being counted in the census, working at a slow pace, telling stories ridiculing colonists and colonialism. A few political groups also formed to campaign for independence, including the National Congress and the National Democratic Party, but their success was slight. In 1937 the growing movement was given a voice by Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo nationalist, who founded the newspaper West African Pilot.

World War II (1939-1945), in which many Nigerians fought for or otherwise aided Britain, increased the pace of nationalism. The growing anticolonial feeling was most strongly articulated by two groups, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by Azikiwe and supported mostly by Igbo and other easterners, and the Action Group, led by activist Obafemi Awolowo and supported mostly by Yoruba and other westerners. By the early 1950s, other parties had emerged, notably the Northern People’s Congress, a conservative northern group led by the Hausa-Fulani elite. The regional power bases of these parties foreshadowed the divisive regional politics that would follow colonialism.

Pressure for independence from within Nigeria was complemented by pressure from other nations, and from reformers in Britain and in other colonies. In 1947 the British responded by introducing a new constitution that divided Nigeria into three regions: the Northern Region, the Eastern Region, and the Western Region. The Northern Region was mainly Hausa-Fulani and Muslim; the Eastern Region, Igbo and Catholic; and the Western Region, Yoruba and mixed Muslim and Anglican. The regions each had their own legislative assemblies, with mainly appointed rather than elected members, and were overseen by a weak federal government. Although short-lived, the constitution had serious long-term impact through its encouragement of regional, ethnic-based politics.

The constitution failed on several counts, was abrogated in 1949, and was followed by other constitutions in 1951 and 1954, each of which had to contend with powerful ethnic forces. The Northern People’s Congress (NPC) argued that northerners, who made up half of Nigeria’s population, should have a large degree of autonomy from other regions and a large representation in any federal legislature. The NPC was especially concerned about respect for Islam and the economic dominance of the south. The western-based Action Group also wanted autonomy; they feared that their profitable western cocoa industries would be tapped to subsidize less wealthy areas. In the poorer east, the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons wanted a powerful central government and a redistribution of wealth—the very things feared by the Action Group.

The eventual compromise was the 1954 constitution, which made Nigeria a federation of three regions corresponding to the major ethnic nations. It differed from the 1947 constitution in that powers were more evenly split between the regional governments and the central government. The constitution also gave the regions the right to seek self-government, which the Western and Eastern regions achieved in 1956. The Northern Region, however, fearing that self-government (and thus British withdrawal) would leave it at the mercy of southerners, delayed the imposition until 1959.

In December 1959, elections were held for a federal parliament. None of the three main parties won a majority, but the NPC, thanks to the size of the Northern Region, won the largest plurality. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, head of the NPC, entered a coalition government with the eastern NCNC as prime minister. The new parliament was seated in January 1960.


Nigeria became independent on October 1, 1960. In 1961 the Cameroons trust territories were split in two. The mostly Muslim northern Cameroons voted to become part of the Northern Region of Nigeria, while the southern Cameroons joined the Federal Republic of Cameroon.

Regional and ethnic tensions escalated quickly. The censuses of 1962 and 1963 fueled bitter disputes, as did the trial and imprisonment of leading opposition politicians, whom Prime Minister Balewa accused dubiously of treason. In 1963 an eastern section of the Western Region that was ethnically non-Yoruba was split off into a new region, the Midwestern Region. Matters deteriorated during the violence-marred elections of 1964, from which the NPC emerged victorious. On January 15, 1966, junior army officers revolted and killed Balewa and several other politicians, including the prime ministers of the Northern and Western regions. Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the commander of the army and an Igbo, emerged as the country’s new leader.

Ironsi immediately suspended the constitution, which did little to ease northern fears of southern domination. In late May 1966 Ironsi further angered the north with the announcement that many public services then controlled by the regions would henceforth be controlled by the federal government. On July 29 northern-backed army officers staged a countercoup, assassinating Ironsi and replacing him with Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon. The coup was followed by the massacre of thousands of Igbo in northern cities. Most of the surviving Igbo sought refuge in their crowded eastern homelands.

Civil War

In May 1967 Gowon announced the creation of a new 12-state structure. The Eastern Region, populated mostly by Igbo, would be divided into three states, two of them dominated by non-Igbo groups. The division would also sever the vast majority of Igbo from profitable coastal ports and rich oil fields that had recently been discovered in the Niger Delta (which until then was a part of the Eastern Region). The leaders of the Eastern Region, pushed to the brink of secession by the recent anti-Igbo attacks and the influx of Igbo refugees, saw this action as an official attempt to push the Igbo to the margins of Nigerian society and politics. On May 27, 1967, the region’s Igbo-dominated assembly authorized Lieutenant Colonel Odemegwu Ojukwu to declare independence as the Republic of Biafra. Ojukwu obliged three days later.

War broke out in July 1967 when Nigerian forces moved south and captured the university town of Nsukka. Biafran troops crossed the Niger River, pushing deep into the west in an attempt to attack Lagos, then the capital. Gowon’s forces repelled the invasion, imposed a naval blockade of the southeastern coast, and mounted a counterattack into northern Biafra. A bitter war of attrition followed, prolonged by France’s military support for the Biafrans. In January 1970 the better-equipped federal forces finally overcame the rebels, whereupon Gowon announced he would remain in power for six more years to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy.

Oil and Coups

Given the bitterness of the civil war, the restoration of peace and the reintegration of the Igbo into Nigerian life were remarkably rapid. Aiding the resumption of normalcy was a booming oil trade (by the mid-1970s, Nigeria was the fifth largest producer of petroleum in the world). However, along with rapid growth came shortages of key commodities, crippling congestion in the ports, and demands for redistribution of wealth. Although a national development plan resulted in some redistribution, the bulk of Nigeria’s income remained in the hands of an urban few.

In 1974 Gowon announced that the return to civilian rule would be postponed indefinitely. His timing was poor: High prices, chronic shortages, growing corruption, and the failure of the government to address several regional issues had already created a restless mood. On July 29, 1975, Brigadier Murtala Ramat Muhammed overthrew Gowon in a bloodless coup. Muhammed moved quickly to address issues that Gowon had avoided. He replaced corrupt state governors. He purged incompetent and corrupt members of the public services. He instigated a plan to move the national capital from industrial, coastal Lagos to neglected, interior Abuja. Civilian rule, he declared, would be restored by 1979, and he began a five-stage process of transition.

The reforms made Muhammed extremely popular with many Nigerians. On February 13, 1976, he was assassinated in a coup attempt, but his administration remained in power. His successor, Lieutenant General Olusegun Obasanjo, continued Muhammed’s reforms, including the move toward civilian rule. Obasanjo also created seven new states to help redistribute wealth and began a massive reform of local government. In 1977 he convened a constitutional assembly, which recommended replacing the British-style parliamentary system with an American-style presidential system of separate executive and legislative branches. To ensure that candidates would appeal to ethnic groups beyond their own, the president and vice president were required to win at least 25 percent of the vote in at least two-thirds of the 19 states. The new constitution took effect in 1979. The restructured administration was called Nigeria’s Second Republic.

The Short-Lived Second Republic

Elections for the Second Republic were held in July 1979. Most parties received votes along ethnic lines, the exception being the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which commanded support from several corners of the country and won the most legislative seats. The NPN fell short of a majority, however, and often joined forces with the Nigerian People’s Party (NPP), a mainly Igbo group led by Azikiwe. In the presidential elections, NPN candidate Alhaji Shehu Shagari won the largest number of overall votes, plus 25 percent of the votes in 12 of the 19 states and 20 percent of the vote in a 13th state. The results provoked a brief but important constitutional crisis: Did the constitution, with its mandate for the president to win 25 percent of the vote in two-thirds of the states, require Shagari to win 25 percent in 13 whole states (which he had not done)? Or did it require him to win 25 percent in 12 and two-thirds states (which he had done)? The federal election commission ruled in favor of the latter, giving the election to Shagari and no doubt undermining the new constitution’s authority.

Once in office, the new federal, state, and local governments embarked on ambitious programs of development to cure the weak economy. Although several of the initiatives were productive, many more were expensive and economically unsound. Others were riddled with corruption. In 1982 the world oil market collapsed, leaving Nigeria unable to pay its short-term debts, much less finance the projects to which it was committed. Eventually, the country was also unable to import essential goods.

In January 1983 the government ordered the expulsion of all unskilled foreigners, claiming that immigrants who had overstayed their visas were heavily involved in crime and were taking jobs from Nigerians. (There was more evidence for the latter than the former.) Between 1.5 and 2 million people, the majority of them Ghanaian, were forced to leave in less than two weeks. The move was widely condemned, especially by West African states, although it proved very popular in Nigeria. In the elections of 1983, the NPN claimed a decisive victory over several opposition parties, while observers cited widespread instances of fraud and intimidation.

Return of the Military

On New Year’s Eve 1983, army officers led by Major General Muhammadu Buhari overthrew the Shagari government in a bloodless coup. Buhari’s government enjoyed widespread public support for its condemnation of economic mismanagement, of government corruption, and of the rigged 1983 elections. This support waned, however, as the government adopted a rigid program of economic austerity and instituted repressive policies that included a sweeping campaign against “indiscipline,” a prohibition against discussing the country’s political future, and the detention of journalists and others critical of the government.

Buhari’s support withered and in August 1985, Major General Ibrahim Babangida overthrew him to wide acclaim. Babangida rescinded several of Buhari’s most unpopular decrees, initiated a public debate on the state of the economy, and eased controls over business. These actions set the stage for negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for aid, a new round of austerity measures, and better relations with the country’s creditors. For a time, Nigeria achieved a measure of economic recovery.

Babangida maintained a firm grip on power, shuffling key officers from position to position to ensure they would not become too strong and forbidding political parties. Many Nigerians were disturbed by the general’s favoring of northern elite interests. In 1986 and 1990 Babangida faced and suppressed coup attempts. Other tensions escalated, particularly religious strife between Christians and Muslims; several states, including Kaduna, Katsina, and Kano, had severe religious riots in the early 1990s.

In early 1989, in preparation for a transfer to democracy, Babangida approved a new constitution that introduced only minor changes to the 1979 constitution. In May he lifted the ban on political organizations but refused to recognize any of the new parties, instead channeling politics into the government-created Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republic Convention (NRC). Federal legislative elections were finally held in July 1992, with the SDP winning a majority in both houses of the legislature. The presidential elections were delayed, finally held in June 1993, then annulled by the military when initial election results indicated that SDP candidate and wealthy publisher Moshood Abiola had won by a large majority. Babangida, however, claimed he still supported a transition to democracy and in August transferred power to an interim government. The new government lasted all of three months before General Sani Abacha, the powerful secretary of defense, overthrew it and assumed control. Among Abacha’s first acts was the termination of all political activity.

Nigeria Under Abacha

The Nigerian Labour Congress, which had already held a general strike to protest the annulled election of Abiola, organized another general strike to protest Abacha’s coup. Political pressure groups such as the Campaign for Democracy also stepped up protests against Abacha. In May 1994 the government announced plans for political reform and held elections for local governments and delegates to yet another constitutional conference. In October 1995 Abacha lifted the ban on political activity, promised a transfer to civilian power in 1998, and later allowed five parties to operate. However, he continued his repression of dissidents, the most notorious instance of which was the hanging of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists in November 1995. Saro-Wiwa and his fellow dissidents were critics of the oil industry, which had brought a range of environmental ills to their Ogoni homeland in the Niger Delta. The government dubiously accused the activists of murdering government supporters, gave them a hasty, unfair trial, and executed them. The Abacha government imprisoned many people, among the most prominent being former president Olusegun Obasanjo, former vice president Shehu Musa Yar’Adua (who died in prison in December 1997), and the 1993 president-elect, Moshood Abiola. Other prominent Nigerians, including Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, fled into exile. The execution and imprisonment of opponents and other violations of human rights intensified international pressure on Abacha and resulted in Nigeria’s suspension from the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Internally, Abacha managed to maintain support from some segments of the population, especially among his Hausa-Fulani compatriots. In 1995 a constitutional commission presented a draft constitution. Abacha promised to implement the constitution and return the country to civilian rule following presidential elections in October 1998. He was widely expected to be declared the winner of the elections, as all five officially sanctioned political parties had nominated him in April 1998. However, in June 1998 Abacha died suddenly of a heart attack.

Transition to Democracy

Major General Abdulsalam Abubakar succeeded Abacha as president and pledged to return Nigeria to civilian rule after holding free, democratic elections. Moshood Abiola, imprisoned since apparently winning the 1993 presidential election, was widely believed to be the frontrunner for the presidency. However, just before he was to be released from prison, Abiola also died suddenly. Abubakar promoted the establishment of political parties and freed political prisoners arrested by Abacha, including former president Olusegun Obasanjo. Nigeria held legislative and presidential elections in February and March 1999, and Obasanjo was elected president. The military administration handed over power to Nigeria’s new civilian government in May, and the country adopted a new constitution. The Commonwealth of Nations lifted its suspension of Nigeria’s membership to coincide with the resumption of civilian rule.

Obasanjo’s first years in office were plagued by sporadic outbursts of communal violence across the country. Clashes between religious and ethnic groups, often spawned by local political disputes, have killed thousands of Nigerians since 1999. In April 2003 Obasanjo was reelected to another term, winning the election by a wide margin. International observers criticized the election for widespread incidents of electoral fraud in some states.

In 2006 Obasanjo and his supporters attempted to amend Nigeria’s constitution so that Obasanjo could prolong his term in office. However, the effort failed. In the presidential elections in April 2007 Obasanjo’s hand-picked successor, Umaru Yar’Adua, won in a landslide with about 70 percent of the vote. Opposition parties charged fraud, and international election observers described the vote process as “flawed.” Yar’Adua took office in May. As head of the People’s Democratic Party, Obasanjo’s influence over Nigeria’s government and its policies was expected to continue.

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