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West Africa







The largest state by population in west Africa. It has the largest population in Africa, possibly more than 100 million (no honest census has been held for many years).

The modern state was created in 1914 by the British governor Lord Lugard and named by his wife from the River Niger when he joined the northern and southern protectorates together. He ruled them from Lagos, with another headquarters in Kaduna. The peoples in the central plateau: the Tiv, and Igboland in the south east were not conquered until 1918. There had been European contact with the coast since the 15th century.

The north and south have different histories.

The people of the northern part are mostly Muslim, formerly ruled by hereditary Hausa-Fulani Emirs. This was the area where the empires of the Sahara margin had risen and fallen. The horse-borne northerners had raided the south and taken slaves.

The Hausa peoples have an ancient history of living in towns. They were converted to Islam and maintained a political culture of city states, each headed by an Emir. They were conquered by Usuman Dan Fodio, the 18th century Fulani preacher and Muslim reformer, in the course of one of the periodical renewal missions which characterise the whole Islamic area. He created a religious empire based on Sokoto which controlled much of Northern Nigeria and Niger - a typical example of the Muslim state founded by a preacher (see Spain and the Almoravids and Almohades) and modern Saudi Arabia. The Fulani are a half nomadic and half settled people who spread across the whole of Savanna West Africa but are seldom a majority.

When the British arrived the ruler of much of the north was the Sultan of Sokoto, the heir of Usuman Dan Fodio.

The British ruled the north with indirect rule - similar to the Native States of India - preserving the Sultans and Emirs and their feudal states. Education there was not encouraged during the British period, except for the aristocracy.

The south, especially the coast, had been in contact with Europe through trade, both legitimate and slaving, since the Portuguese first appeared in the 15th century (Lagos is a Portuguese name). There were also missionaries in the south and education began early in the 19th century. The cultures of the South had a variety of political forms including traditional kings and villages ruled by more or less democratic councils of elders.

The Yorubas are the people of the south west. Their rich mythology and persistent religion has spread with the slaves throughout the Americas (Candomble, Voodoo, Santeria and so on), making them one of the world's major cultures. They are one of the many African peoples with a tradition of having come from the north, tracing an origin to Egypt. This may mean that important parts of their culture can be traced to the Mediterranean area, though the ancestors of the people themselves belong to west Africa. They are a people with many ceremonial kings (Obas) and have a complex history of rising and falling empires, including Oyo, Ife and Ilorin.

The Igbos of the south east tended to live in villages without kings and did not come in contact with Europeans until the 19th century (but some were captured as slaves). Their political culture tended to councils of elders rather than kings. (In "Arrow of God" Chinua Achebe has written of the difficulty the colonial authorities had in finding a traditional ruler to devolve power to).

Between the the Hausa dominated North and the South is the Middle Belt, a transition area where Christianity, Islam and traditional religions are all present. This area is less densely populated than either the north or south. The reason may partly be the climate and soil structure, but also because the people of the middle area were taken as slaves in both directions - by the Hausas from the north, and the southern slavers for sale to the Europeans.

The British began at the coast, first from the slaving ports of Benin and Lagos. On the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 they garrisoned the ports to prevent other nations continuing the trade. British influence spread northwards by conquest and negotiation until they reached the Muslim north. At first the territory was organised as two colonies, north and south. In the north the British ruled from Kaduna, a mainly new city, not one of the traditional emirates. The traditional emirs in Kano, Sokoto, Zaria and other Hausa-Fulani cities continued their rule under the supervision of British political officers - the British replacing the overall power of the Sultan of Sokoto, the successor of Usuman Dan Fodio.

By building railways from Lagos and Port Harcourt to the north at Kaduna the British were able to move troops about. As in India they employed "native" troops in the King's African Rifles.

Until near independence there were two administrations reflecting the feudal nature of the north, and the christian missionary influence in the south. (The colonial joke was that there would be a civil war between the British of the north and those of the south).

When the preparation for independence began in the 1950s a federal system was decided on, and the south was split into two Regions: Western (dominated by Yorubas) ruled from Lagos and the Eastern (dominated by Igbos - Ibos) ruled from Enugu.

The British in 1960 left a federation of three states (Regions) based on the Yorubas in the West, the Igbos in the East and the Hausa in the North. A fourth state, the Mid West, was formed almost at once from the area between the Yorubas and the Igbos. But each state contained many ethnic groups.

Following the first army coup in 1966 and massacres of Igbos in the north the country was divided into 12 states and in 1976 into 19. Even so, many of these states still comprised several ethnic groups. By 1990 there were 21 states.

By 1996 there were 37 States including the Federal Capital Territory.

In the 1960s the country nearly split into several parts. The republic of Biafra - the former Eastern Region - led by Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu was proclaimed in 1967. The federal leader General Yakubu Gowon then fought a war which ended in 1970 with the defeat of the secessionists and the victory of the Federal government forces.

Gowon was overthrown in 1975 by Murtala Mohammed, who was himself assassinated in 1976. He was succeeded by General Olusegun Obasanjo who handed over to a constitutional civilian regime in 1979.

Elections were held in 1979, inaugurating a second republic. There were more elections in 1982 followed by a new coup in 1983 when the elected government of President Shagari was ejected by Colonel Buhari after allegations of large scale vote rigging. There was another coup in 1985 when Buhari was overthrown by Babangida who promised new elections. No-one knows whether the cycle of corrupt civilian regimes alternating with the military can be broken.

As with many countries in Africa, the creation of the colonial powers, it is doubted whether there are the necessary conditions for national integrity. It is said (I have been told by someone who was there) that on the eve of the civil war in 1967 Yakubu Gowon was on the point of declaring the independence of the north - perhaps someone reminded him of the south's Oil.

This would have been a recreation of the pre-colonial Hausa-Fulani empire. Was it wise of the British to join the north to the southern peoples, who have been the traditional enemies and sources of slaves? The northerners have controlled the whole state since independence and have been resented by the southerners, in whose lands is the oil industry. Probably it is the oil money which keeps the northerners within the federation.

1993 elections
The annulment of the elections in June 1993 after Chief Moshood Abiola, a Muslim Yoruba, had apparently won caused a danger of civil war. What followed was a dictatorship and growing oppression, which only ended when General Abacha died suddenly in 1998. The cause of death is much speculated on. Elections followed in which a former Military ruler Olusegun Obasanjo won. He served two terms and then left, to be replaced by a northerner.

An insurgency in the north is growing, caused by the formation of a militant sect derived from Islam. Its slogan is "Boko Haram", meaning roughly "western education is against Islam". (From 1977-80 the author taught in Bida, in the center of the country where there were both Christians and Muslims and never found any hostility to western education and modern schools).


About 400

Niger-Congo family including

Kwa group








Afro-Asiatic family




Mande Busa



Lingua Franca is Pidgin in south, Hausa in north







In independent Nigeria there are considerable cultural differences between the feudal and predominantly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south. Many recent governments have been the result of military coups.

The last previous elected civilian government was overthrown in 1983 as a result of military disgust at the corruption and election rigging, which had also alienated the ordinary people.

A serious civil war lasted from 1966 until 1970. The possibility of another is always present, especially if the oil revenues should decrease further.

All governments since independence had been controlled by northerners - the 1999 elections were the first to elect a southerner. Some southern Christian people resented this domination. There have been religious riots in the north started by a dissident sect of Muslims, and numerous riots and disturbances between the majority Muslims in the north and the Christians - mostly immigrants from the south. These seem to be increasingly frequent and more violent.

The former military government of President Babangida (1985-1993) attempted, rather like Kemal Ataturk, to set up two political parties on American lines to contest elections. The previous civilian constitution had provisions to ensure that the elected president must have support in every state but there were allegations of extensive vote rigging. The proposed voting system was the open ballot, as in Kenya, in which the voters must line up behind the candidate or his agent. This would leave the voters open to intimidation. However, early local government elections showed a very low turn out.

The largest state in Africa has found democracy at state level difficult, though has never succumbed to one-party rule. Traditionally many of Nigeria's ethnic societies have had democracy at village level and where there were kings they could be deposed for misconduct. The difficulty is in finding the means to extend this culture to higher levels without representatives becoming corrupt and remote from their constituents. Perhaps the only solution might be a Swiss type political structure with all powers being basic to local government and only delegated and limited powers allowed to the center.

Elections were held in 1992 for state and local governments. Elections held in June 1993 for President, appeared to have resulted in victory for a Yoruba (southern) candidate, Moshood Abiola. Perhaps as a result the military president (northerner) refused to accept this result and annulled the election. He then appointed an "interim" government headed by a businessman, Ernest Shonekan, but many believed that Babangida intended to remain the real power and the military still dominated it.

Shonekan resigned or was removed in a coup 17 November 1993 shortly after the Supreme Court had ruled his regime illegal and called for the elections to be respected. General Sani Abacha, the former defense minister then declared himself president and abolished all the elected institutions. He claimed to be acting to prevent a planned coup by junior officers who threatened to execute all the senior officers and civilian politicians. Clearly, at that time Nigeria must have been considered to be very unstable.

State elections were held in November 1997, but few people voted. Following the sudden death of General Abacha the military moved fast to restore elected government. Presidential elections in 1999 resulted in the choice of Olusegun Obasanjo who had been military ruler in the 1970s. Like the winner of the 1992 election he is a Yoruba from the south. Since he was elected riots between Christians and Muslims in the North suggest increasing strain between the two parts of the country which may well lead to a final break up of the state.

There are also reports of the weakness of the central institutions in every part of the country, leading to the setting up of informal militias. This tends to suggest the state itself is fading away.

The run up to the elections of 2003 showed (February 2003) a large number of candidates and no clear indications of the likely winner. Olusegun Obasanjo was re-elected.

New elections were held in April 2007. The results were much disputed. The winner for President was a former General from the North, generally thought honest, but the election itself showed a suspiciously large majority. State elections the week before were also disputed.

In January 2010 President Umaru Yar Adua had been in hospital in Saudi Arabia with an unknown disease, suspected to have been a stroke. Questions were asked whether he ought to hand over to his vice president, a southerner, because of his incapacity. In practice Goodluck Jonathan, the vice president has taken over as acting president. He has replaced many of Yar Adua's cabinet and installed his own supporters.

Yar Aduwa died 4 May 2010.

The next election was in 2011. See Sahara Reporters

President Goodluck Jonathan from Bayelsa, one of the oil states, was declared the winner of an election that observers said was fair and well conducted (unusual for Nigeria). However riots broke out in the north where supporters of the Muslim candidate ex-General Buhari (a former military ruler) refused to accept the result. Lets hope it doesnŐt turn out like Ivory Coast.

Interesting reading

Nigeria has a rich literature in English, and its novelists and scholars should be read.
African writers' journal

Chinua Achebe - Things Fall Apart

Wole Soyinka - Kongi's Harvest

Amos Tutuola - The Palm Wine Drinkard

The Palm-Wine Drinkard / My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

Interview with Chinua Achebe
Noo Saro Wiwa - Looking for Transwonderland

The daughter of Ken Saro Wiwo visits her father's homeland
Not yet available in the US







The Nigerian economy is complex. There are several climatic zones. In the north there is a large production of groundnuts.

In the south there are tropical products including oil palms, cocoa and rice. All of these are outweighed by the sale of oil which is the main source of foreign currency.

Nigeria has a large oil province and can produce comparable amounts to the North Sea. When the oil price rose in 1973 and 1979 the country received large sums of money which led to large development projects including a new capital to be built in the center of the country away from the congestion of Lagos. The oil money also caused agriculture to be neglected as many farmers went to the cities to look for better paid work. The fall in the oil price in the mid 1980s caused an economic shock in which the government and private debts could not be repaid. It is widely believed in Nigeria that large sums of the oil money have been embezzled by officials in government and business. This may account for the lack of development in the country despite potentially having the most favorable financial situation in Africa. However, with a population estimated at 100 million the per capita income from oil is not high, even if it were not being embezzled.

There may also be some oil in the Chad basin area of the north. If there are enough reserves this could be the basis for a northern secession.

The fact that the people living in the oilfields area see very little of the wealth produced there is causing them to become more militant. They threaten to shut down the oil fields with a gradually growing guerrilla war.

Nepotism is another cause of lack of progress as officials appoint their unqualified relatives to salaried positions - one of the main themes of the African literature for which Nigeria is famous.

Frank Salomone - The Hausa of Nigeria

Samuel Johnson - History of the Yorubas

The History of the Yorubas: From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate







Industrial waste from the west has been found dumped near villages. Oil spills have ruined the fishing and traditional life of many of the river deltas of the south east.

Oil spills

The desert may be moving south with erosion but the medium term may see the Monsoon area move northward with Climate Change.

Lake Chad is shrinking because its supllying rivers are being drained by irrigation.






Human Rights

During the last military regime there were political prisoners and some press censorship, though Nigeria had the freest press in Africa (a pity it concentrated mostly on scandal). All political activity was forbidden by the military regime.

The insurgency by Boko Haram is likely to make the situation worse.

Climate effects

The North may become wetter as the Monsoon moves north, away from the Equator. However, there is considerable variation and the north also experiences droughts, along with the Sahel.

Last revised 5/07/12

West Africa


World Info


Written by a former Education Officer in Niger State, at Government College, Bida. See  Literature for African Students - complete text available on Kindle

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