Craig White's Literature Courses

Historical Backgrounds


History of Nigeria

Named for the Niger River, Nigeria since 1960 is an independent nation of West Africa opening to the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic Coast. As with many nations of postcolonial Africa, European (British) colonists created and defined Nigeria with geographical boundaries that drew together diverse peoples, many of them ancient rivals or having distinct cultural institutions and values. At Independence, Nigeria had 60 million people from more than 300 distinct ethnic or cultural groups who spoke more than 500 languages.

As of 2008 Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, has an estimated 151 million people.

Nigeria is the ninth most populous country in the world. One-sixth of African peoples are in Nigeria.

Population from 1990 to 2008 increased by 57 million, a 60 percent growth rate.

The United Nations estimates the population of Nigeria will reach 440 million by 2050. Nigeria will then be the third most populous country in the world. At current rates the population of Nigeria will reach 914 million by 2100.

Nigeria is among the largest, most dynamic, and most critical nations in Africa. Many African Americans are descended from peoples taken from West Africa including Nigeria. The nation's decolonization by England was peaceful and gradual compared to many other former colonies.

Nigeria has struggled because its artificial boundaries force together diverse cultures and languages that do not think of themselves as a single people with common national interests. In some respects Nigeria's internal conflicts resemble those of artificially constructed nations of the Middle East like Iraq, or of Eastern Europe like the former Yugoslavia. As in those countries, democracy has struggled to establish national legitimacy and escape tribalism, nepotism, corruption, secession movements, and religious fundamentalism. 

Also like post-colonial nations in the Middle East, Nigeria maintains high birth rates even as infant mortality rates improve. Half of the country's population is 14 years old or younger, the highest ratio of young people of any nation. Such rapid population growth creates increasing numbers of young people needing education and jobs, who often emigrate to First-World nations for employment, opportunity, and human rights.

Nigerians are the single largest contemporary African immigrant group in the United States. Nigerian immigrants have the highest education attainment level in the United States, surpassing every other ethnic group in the country, according to U.S Bureau Census data. Many Nigerians immigrate also to Australia and Canada.

Nigeria's three major ethnic groups:

  • Hausa-Fulani (northwestern Nigeria, Islamic, 28-30% of population),

  • Yoruba (Oye kingdom?)

  • Igbo (or Ibo).

Igbo people of note: Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) is Igbo; his novel Things Fall Apart represents traditional Igbo society. In 1967-70, the Igbo region in southeast Nigera sought to secede as the Republic of Biafra in the Nigerian Civil War. (see obituary for Odumegwu Ojukwu [1933-2011], Igbo-Biafran leader)

Yoruba people of note: Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), Nobel Prize for Literature 1986 (Death and the King's Horseman);; Hakeem Olajuwon (University of Houston & Houston Rockets basketball star); Afro-British pop singers Seal (b. 1963) and Sade (b. 1959) are of Yoruba descent.

Pre-Colonial Nigeria

9th century: Bronzes and other metallurgy

948-1911: Kingdom of Nri (Nri-Igbo people)

11th century: Borno established as Islamic state

15th century: Hausa kingdoms in North, nominally Muslim 

Colonial Nigeria

1500s Spanish and Portuguese explorers begin trade in Nigeria

1600s-1700s Slaves traded to European ships via coastal groups. Many slaves in British Empire (incl. Americas) descended from Nigerian peoples.

Early 1800s: British suppression of slave trade leads to collapse of Oye Kingdom (mostly Yoruba)

Later 1800s: European missionary activity in West Africa

1885 Berlin Conference of European imperial powers grants British "sphere of influence" in Western Africa.

1897 British conquest of Benin

1901 Nigeria becomes British Protectorate, part of British Empire

1901-02 Anglo-Aro War (Aro Confederacy of eastern Nigeria incl. Igboland, where resistance continued)

1914 Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria

Following World War 2 Increasing nationalism . New constitutions moved Nigeria toward self-governance.

Post-Colonial Nigeria

1 October 1960 Independence from United Kingdom; multiple parties represent different regions, religions, ethnicities.

1963 Federal Republic; official language English

1966 and following: several military coups; military largely controlled by North. Increasing oil revenues > central government corruption.

1967-70 Nigerian-Biafran Civil War (Igbo secession, repression); 1-3 million dead.

1979 transfer of power to civilian regime

1984, 1985 more military coups, endemic corruption under leadership of Ibrahim Babangida, president & commander in chief

1992 democratic elections declared null and void by Babangida, leading to massive social unrest and eventual inauguration of M. K. Olawale Abiola

1993 General Sani Abacha leads new military coup, high levels of corruption and violence to suppress social unrest

1998 Abacha found dead under mysterious circumstances

1999 election of Olusegun Obasanjo, former military head of state, as president of Nigeria

2007 Umaru Musa Yar'Adua elected president in controversial election; d. 2010; replaced by Goodluck Jonathan

2011 Goodluck Jonathan elected president in election approved by international observers

May 2015 Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim of Fulani ethnicity, defeats Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian of Ijaw ethnicity, in presidential election; peaceful transfer of power

Nigeria is a founding member of OPEC and one of the world's top ten oil producing countries. Oil extraction is concentrated in the Niger River Delta, whose indigenous peoples have protested violently--and been violently suppressedóregarding sharing of oil profits with local economy.

Boko Haram ("western education is a sin") is a Nigerian Islamist group seeking Shariah law on Muslim states of northern Nigeria. The group claimed responsibility for the 26 August 2011 car-bombing of the United Nations Building in the Nigerian capital Abuja, killing 21 and injuring dozens.

States in Nigeria under Shariah law (more or less)