Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, and its history is as complex as its present. The country has had a turbulent past, with a variety of cultures and people dominating different regions at different times.
From the ancient Kanem-Bornu Empire in the north to the Yoruba kingdoms of the west and Igbo culture of the east, Nigerian history is full of fascinating details. Let’s take a look at the history of Nigeria from its early beginnings through to today.
The Early History of Nigeria
Nigeria has a long early history as a crossroad for trade and migration. The Sahara Desert on the north and tropical rainforests in the south made for natural boundaries against the spread of peoples and cultures.
The earliest known cultures in Nigeria are the Nok and the Nubia. The Nok were a farming and fishing people who built mud and earthenware towns from 500 BC to AD 200 in what is now southern Nigeria.
The Nok culture was discovered in 1952. The Nubians, coming from Egypt, are responsible for the Great Pyramid being built in 2600 BC. The next wave of migration came from the north.
The Kanem-Bornu Empire ruled parts of northern Nigeria as well as Chad, northern Cameroon and southern Niger from the 10th to the 19th centuries. Nigeria experienced another wave of migration in the 14th and 15th centuries when the Hausa people arrived from the north.
They rose to prominence as the Kanem-Bornu Empire declined and today make up the largest ethnic group in Nigeria.
Nigeria During the British Colonial Era
The British controlled a number of ports along the Gulf of Guinea since the end of the 19th century. By the early 20th century, the British had become interested in the Niger River and its potential for transportation. The British were also eager to prevent other European powers from gaining a foothold in Africa.
In 1900, the British formed the Royal Niger Company (RNC) to negotiate with local rulers for access to the Niger River, expand British trading posts and make treaties with the local rulers. In 1902, the British government annexed the area controlled by the RNC and named it Southern Nigeria.
In 1914, the British merged the territories of Southern and Northern Nigeria and named the new colony Nigeria. By the 1930s, Nigerian nationalists were demanding independence. The British responded with harsh repression, including the execution of many leaders. All Nigerian political parties were banned and several anti-colonial groups formed to resist British rule.
Nigerian Independence and Aftermath
World War II, which had drawn Nigeria into the war on the side of the Allies, helped bring about the country’s independence in 1960. Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi and Major Bonny, who led the military takeover, established a republican government.
On October 1, the country became the Federation of Nigeria with the Igbo leader, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, as its first president. On October 29, Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi was elected as the first federal military governor of Nigeria.
Dr. Azikiwe wanted to pursue a peaceful path to Nigerian independence, but Major General Ironsi and other military officers were impatient for immediate self-rule. The military was also suspicious of British intentions and wanted to prevent the British from having any influence over the new Nigerian government.
On February 13, 1966, a group of young army officers took control and executed Major General Ironsi. They proclaimed the National Liberation Council (NLC), led by Colonel Emeka Odum and Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Yakubu Gowon as the new government.
Decolonization and Failed Responses
Nigeria’s path to independence was a bloody one. Estimates vary, but as many as one million people died in intertribal and civil strife during the 1950s. In the mid-1960s, the Nigerian federal government asked the United Nations to intervene.
The UN sent a representative to try to end the bloodshed, but he failed and was killed. In 1967, the federal government invited a team of Harvard scholars to visit Nigeria and make recommendations for resolving the violence.
The team issued its report in 1969 and recommended that Nigeria be divided into 12 states, two for each of the main ethnic groups (Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba). The report also suggested that each new state be given broad authority over its own affairs. The federal government adopted the report and implemented it in 1972.
The Biafra War and its Aftermath
In May 1967, the Igbo in the Eastern Region (ER) declared their independence from Nigeria and established the Republic of Biafra. This followed a long period of political and economic marginalization of the region. The federal government declared the Biafran secessionist movement illegal and sent federal troops to put down the secessionist movement.
The ensuing war lasted 30 months – July 1967 to January 1970 – and ended with the defeat of the Biafrans. Biafran President Ojukwu fled the country. At a cost of an estimated one million lives, the Biafran secessionist movement was the most costly of all the post-colonial wars in Africa.
A Brief Aside: Idi Amin, Garba Orji, and Aba Women
Idi Amin, an army officer, seized power in a military coup in 1971. In the mid-1970s, he sought to increase the amount of land under cultivation in Uganda by evicting peasants living in rural areas so they could be transformed into plantations.
When some of the evicted peasants (mainly women) sought refuge in the nearby town of Aba – Amin’s response was to send a brigade of soldiers to Aba to rape between 2,000 and 5,000 of the women there.
The town of Garba Orji (later renamed Umuahia) was established by the first Igbo emigrants to Northern Nigeria in the late 19th century. It was the home of several notable Igbo people, including the poet and activist, Garba Orji (1911-1962).
Current Issues in Contemporary Nigeria
Nigeria has a poor record on human rights, especially in its treatment of minority groups, women, and the poor. In recent years, the government has been accused of violating the rights of minority groups, stifling dissent, and rigging elections.
Nigeria also has a high rate of corruption, poor health and education systems, and a poor record in environmental protection. There is also a growing environmental crisis in Nigeria caused by extensive deforestation, soil erosion and desertification due to overgrazing.
Where is Nigeria in Africa
Nigeria is located in West Africa. It is bordered by Cameroon, Niger, Chad, and Benin to the west; by Sudan to the north; and by the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The Nigerian coastline on the Gulf of Guinea is a rich tropical environment with many species of mangrove and tropical fish.
A large part of Nigerian territory is covered with rainforest, including tropical forests in the south and deciduous forests in the north. Nigerian forests are home to many species, including chimpanzees, elephants, leopards, and lions. Some of these species are endangered.
Countries in West Africa
Northern Nigeria is bordered by the neighboring countries of Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. To the south are the countries of Benin and Ghana. Northern Nigeria is best known for its large Hausa population and for being the home of the Islamic terrorist organization, Boko Haram.
Southern Nigeria is home to many Igbos, as well as the Obas of Lagos. Nigeria and its neighbors in West Africa share a rich and varied culture. In recent years, there has been an increase in cultural exchange and collaboration between these countries.
Discovering Oil: Good And Bad News
In the 1950s, several oil companies made exploratory drilling in Nigeria. However, they stopped their operations after they discovered the high pressure of the oil and gas buried beneath the surface. It wasn’t until in the early 20th century when oil was first discovered in the country. This discovery led to an influx of foreign money and workers.
It also led to the creation of a wealthy and politically powerful class of businessmen and landowners. This group of people has played an important role in Nigerian politics since the discovery of oil.
However, the discovery of oil also led to a great deal of instability. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were several violent uprisings and mutinies.
These uprisings were caused by the unhappiness of some Nigerians with the way the oil industry was run. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was another violent uprising in the country.
This uprising was caused by the unhappiness of some Nigerians with the policies of the federal government.