“Giant of Africa

(A Brief History)

1.    Introduction

2.    History and Evolution

3.    The Atlantic Slave Trade

4.    Pre-Independence Nationalist Movement

5.    Women in Nigeria

6.    Current Geopolitical Structure

7.    Conclusion




            Nigeria, with an estimated population of 126,635,626[1] is the largest black nation in the world.  The Federal Republic of Nigeria, as it is officially known, covers an area of 356,669 square miles on the coast of West Africa.  Its borders are contiguous with the Federal Republic of Cameroon to the east, Niger Republic to the north and Benin Republic to the east.  In the northeast, Nigeria has a 54-mile long border with the Republic of Chad, while its Gulf of Guinea coastline stretches for more than 500 miles from Badagry in the west to Calabar in the east, and includes the Bights of Benin and Biafra.  Today, Nigeria is divided administratively into thirty-six states and the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja (CIA World Factbook, 2001).

Like Africa as a whole, Nigeria is physically, ethnically, and culturally diverse.  This is partly due to the fact that Nigeria is today inhabited by a large number of tribal groups, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, an estimated 250 of them speaking over four hundred languages, many with dialects.  Muslims and Christians comprise more than 80 percent of the population while the rest are identified with indigenous religions.  However, Nigeria’s greatest diversity is in its people.  These peoples have so much culture and history that it is imperative to chronicle this history as it relates to their current economic and political struggles.  Dating back to the kingdoms and empires of the early seventeenth century, from their involvements in the Atlantic slave trade to its entire merger, this extensive history has blended down to what is currently Nigeria and is thus necessary in order to understand what has become of this once fruitful and promising state.

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History & Evolution

            Nigeria only came into being in its present form in the year 1914 when Sir Frederick Lugard, the Royal governor of the protectorates, amalgamated the two protectorates of Northern and Southern Nigeria.  Sixteen years earlier, Flora Shaw, who later married Lugard, first suggested in an article for The Times that the several British Protectorates on the Niger be known collectively as Nigeria (Crowder, 21).  Basically, the entire Niger-area under British control became Nigeria.

            It was in 1861 that the British first annexed any part of Nigeria as a colony, and attached it successively to West African Settlements, including Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast colony.  The annexing of Lagos, a coastal town and now the largest city in Africa, led to the establishment of a Southern protectorate in Nigeria, and by 1906 both regions were united and designated a British colony.  However, as Michael Crowder in his Story of Nigeria states, “it would be an error to assume that the people of Nigeria had little history before its final boundaries were negotiated by Britain, France and Germany at the turn of the twentieth century.”

            In fact, the story of Nigeria as it is known today goes back more than two thousand years.  Within Nigeria’s frontiers were a number of great kingdoms that had evolved complex systems of government independent of contact with Europe.  These included the kingdoms of Ife and Benin, whose art had become recognized as amongst the most accomplished in the world; the Yoruba Empire of Oyo, which had once been the most powerful of the states of the Guinea coast.  In the north, there were the great kingdoms of Kanem-Borno, with a known history of more than a thousand years; the Fulani empire which for the hundred years before its conquest by Britain had ruled most of the savannah of Northern Nigeria.[2]  And finally, there were the city states of the Niger Delta, which had grown in response to European demands for slaves and later palm-oil; as well as the politically decentralized but culturally homogenous Ibo peoples of the Eastern region and the small tribes of the Plateau.  All these state structures grew tremendously through some form of trade, either internally or externally with foreigners.  One of the most profitable of such trades being the trade with Europeans in humans, popularly known as the Atlantic slave trade. Back to Top

The Atlantic Slave Trade

The major impact of Europeans on West Africa was due to the Atlantic slave trade.  For the greater part of four centuries the trade dominated relations between both the African and European peoples, and it continued to affect them profoundly even when it was officially ended.  According to Crowder, Ewuare the Great may have been the first Oba (king) of Benin to meet a European (Crowder, 66).  An arrangement was made officially in 1472 when the Portuguese merchant Ruy do Siqueira gained his majesty’s permission to trade for slaves, as well as gold and ivory, within the borders of the Oba’s kingdom (Hines, 27).  Contrary to speculations, the slave trade was not a European innovation.  Domestic slavery was prevalent throughout the region, and many indigenous economies, including those of the forest regions relied on some aspect of the slave trade, whether it was collecting, marketing, or conveying the human cargo.  Nevertheless, African participation in the trade should not divert attention from the fact that the Atlantic slave trade began with the arrival of Europeans, continued so long as the Europeans required slave labor, and ended at European convenience.

            In the sixteenth century, the demand for slaves for the New World plantations had redirected the slave trade from trans-Saharan trade routes to the coastal ports, and from thence turned into the largest forced migration in history.  Michael Crowder, who gave an extensive account of the statistics in his Story of Nigeria, illustrated just how cruel and depopulating this trade was:

Conservative estimates put the total number of slaves exported from West Africa and Angola as high as 24,000,000 of which probably only 15,000,000 survived the notorious Middle Passage across the Atlantic. In the sixteenth century about 1,000,000 slaves were transported to the Americas, in the seventeenth century, some 3,000,000, and in the eighteenth century some 7,000,000 or 70,000 a year. Of these about 22,000 were shipped annually from ports in Nigeria. Benin and its colony of Lagos sent about 4,000 and the ports of Bonny, New Calabar and Old Calabar, which grew up directly in response to European demands for slaves, together with the Cameroons sent some 18,000. Even in the nineteenth century, when many major European powers had abolished slavery, and when the British Navy patrolled the coast of Africa, another 4,000,000 slaves were taken across the Atlantic. Many of these came from Yorubaland, where civil war produced thousands of captives to be sold into slavery.

It was also well noted that the men taken as slaves from the Nigerian coasts were captives of war, or sometimes, like in the forest regions, were children sold by their parents in the hope that they might find a more profitable life elsewhere.  For the Ibo, slavery was said to have recommended itself as a relief from overpopulation and insufficient land (Country Study Handbook). 

            It will be very interesting to find out how the many Nigerians, who were forcibly settled in the New World, fared.  Well basically, according to a country studies report published by the Federal Research Division of the U.S Library of congress, most of them lost their tribal identities, especially in those territories where families were broken up indiscriminately and where no consideration was given to the welfare of the slaves.  It is noted also that this was particularly difficult in the West Indies where common participation was forbidden.  However, different tribes reacted differently to the new situation.  The Yoruba, who were usually captured and sold as a result of wars, were transported in large numbers, and many of them found their way to Brazil and Trinidad where their masters were less oppressive in attitudes thereby helping them maintain their culture.  In fact, some religious ceremonies practiced today in Brazil can still be recognized by Yoruba from Nigeria.  A further feature of this cultural exchange between Nigeria and Brazil was the repatriation of large groups of slaves who revolted between 1807 and 1813.  This also explains some of the European surnames borne by some Yoruba and other coastal ethnic groups in Nigeria today.  The Ibo, on the other hand, were not as organized as the Yoruba and were usually captured individually.  It must also be pointed out that a large number of slaves from Ibo territory were either already slaves or outcasts from their own societies (Crowder, 77). Back to Top

Pre-Independence Nationalist Movement

            It should be remembered that no such entity as “Nigeria” existed until 1914.  It was the creation of a British government, which had seized control of its areas shortly after the abolishment of the slave trade.  From then until October 1, 1960, when she gained her independence, Nigeria was under British colonial rule.

 It was in 1807 that the British Parliament enacted legislation prohibiting the slave trade.  To enforce a blockade on the Middle Passage, the Royal Navy detailed a squadron to patrolling the West African coast stationed off the Niger Delta.  Though a lively slave trade continued until the 1860’s, it was gradually replaced by other commodities, this shift in trade led to increasing British intervention in the affairs of Yorubaland and the Niger Delta.  Britain granted a Royal Charter to the Niger Company in 1886 and gave it political authority in the areas it controlled. By the end of the century their commercial activities had extended British influence up the Niger River to include the Muslim north (Arnold, p. ix).

Since independence in 1960, the nation has struggled and even fought to create a sense of nationalism.  As an artificial creation involving such widely differing groups of people, there have always been doubts as to whether Nigeria can survive as a sovereign federation, a status it obtained in 1963.  Prior to this started the Nigerian Nationalist Movement, one in which Nigerians started to think of themselves, much less as members of distinct ethnic groups but as citizens of one political entity.  It is said in many quarters that Nigerian nationalism must have manifested itself right from the first encounter between Europeans and the local inhabitants.  Its goal initially was not self determination, but rather increased participation in the governmental process on a regional level.  This movement produced such prominent personalities as Herbert Macaulay, revered today as ‘the father of Nigerian Nationalism,’ and descendant of Bishop Crowther, a freed slave.  Also, there was Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, President of the newly formed indigenous senate and eventually Governor-General of the independent federation; Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first indigenous prime minister; and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, radical activist and leader of the Action Group.[3]  The ideological inspiration for some of these nationalists came from a variety of sources, including prominent American-based activists such as Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. DuBois (Country Study Handbook).

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Women in Nigeria

On the contrary, the success of the nationalist movement was not achieved by men alone, but by Nigerian women as well.  The early stages of nationalist revolt against entrenched British rule also took the form of local skirmishes like the “Aba Women’s Riots.”  In 1928 to 1930, Aba women rose in protest against the oppressive rule of the colonial government.  These Ibo women of eastern Nigeria feared that the head-count being carried out by the British was a prelude to women being taxed.  The women were particularly unhappy about the over-taxation of their husbands and sons which they felt was impoverishing them and leading to economic hardship.  They also resented the British imposition on the community of warrant chiefs, many of whom carried out what the women considered to be abusive and extortionist actions.  Their actions eventually forced the local chiefs to relinquish their power, but not until after more than 50 women and an unknown number of British troops and civilians were killed before authorities suppressed what is today known as the Women’s War of Nigeria.  While they had less influence than men, women did control local trade and specific crops, and they also protected their interests through assemblies.[4]

Today, Nigeria has many women’s organizations, most of them professional and social clubs.  However, the main organization recognized as the voice of women on national issues is the National Council of Women’s Societies (NCWS).  Many of the women’s groups were affiliated with NCWS, which tended to be elitist in organization, membership and orientation.  In the 1980s, women from lower social strata in the towns, represented mainly by the market women's associations, became militant and organized mass protests and demonstrations in several states. Their major grievances ranged from narrow concerns such as allocation of market stalls to broader issues such as the standard of education of their children.  As in other West African countries, women play a very important role in family life in Nigeria and this has given them the opportunity to branch out into various professions and businesses.  Back to Top

Current Geopolitical Structure

            Since independence, Nigeria has experienced three republics, five coups and a civil war, not to mention a severely battered economy.  This, amongst others, helped to shape the various geopolitical changes that Nigeria has undergone since then. 

            Under the first republic, between 1963 and 1966, Nigeria was run with three administrative units that reflected the three main geographical regions, the Northern Region of predominantly Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups; the Western Region mainly Yoruba and the Eastern Region of the Ibo.  These ethnic divisions partly led to the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, which lasted from 1967 to 1970 and during which twelve states were established.  Three military regimes and two coups later, the Second Republic was underway but for a short period between 1979 and 1983.  By this time, the number of states had increased to nineteen.  An additional two states were created in 1987 and the Federal Territory moved from Lagos to Abuja officially in 1991.  After two separate state creation exercises, Nigeria now has 36 states and is currently in its Fourth republic.

            The oil-rich Nigerian economy has been long hobbled by political instability, corruption, and poor macroeconomic management. Nigeria's former military rulers failed to diversify the economy away from overdependence on the capital-intensive oil sector.  In all, the military has held power for 29 years of the 42 years since independence.  Corruption is a very serious problem in Nigeria today and there is still much debate as to who has been more corrupt in the past, the military or democratic politicians.  Civilians have also been blamed for mismanaging the economy and the value of the Naira, Nigeria’s local currency, has been steadily on a decline.

            As one of the leading oil producers in the world, Nigeria has been a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) since 1971.  The largely subsistence agricultural sector has failed to keep up with rapid population growth, and Nigeria, once a large net exporter of food, must now import food.  However, more attention will have to be paid to non-oil exports if any growth in the economy is to be sustainable.  Nigeria is also an active member of the U.N, the Commonwealth of Nations and the Organization of African Unity, O.A.U.  It also stands as the headquarters for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional body of West African nations. Back to Top


            President Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military ruler before the Second Republic but now a civilian, is presently the chief executive running the affairs of this ever growing nation.  He has been faced with various challenges ever since assuming office in 1999 including that of rebuilding an already tarnished economy, attracting foreign investment and debt relief, and institutionalizing democracy by keeping the military in the barracks. 

Through a brief history of Nigeria, it is very evident that Nigeria’s strength in diversity might also be its undoing. Consequently, it is most important that the Obasanjo administration defuses longstanding ethnic and religious tensions, if it is to build a sound foundation for economic growth and political stability.


For Further Study


  • Federal Research Division.  Area Handbook Studies. 1991.

Nigeria: A Country Study. U.S. Library of Congress. 



  • Crowder, Michael.  The Story of Nigeria, 4th Edition.

London: Faber and Faber, 1978



  • Arnold, Guy.  Modern Nigeria, London: Longman, 1977.



  • Hatch, John Charles.  Nigeria: A History, London: Secker & Warburg, 1971.



  • Encyclopædia Britannica.  "Nigeria"




  • CIA – The World Fact book 2002.  Nigeria



  • The Women’s War in Nigeria (1929 – 1930).  December 16, 2000




[1] Population figures are strongly disputed. In the last officially accepted census (1991), a figure of 88.5 million was given but taking into account both growth and mortality rates, we have this estimate.

[2] John Hatch, “Nigeria: A History,” Secker & Warburg, 1971, Ch. 3-5.

[3] The Action Group was a regional political party based in the western part of Nigeria.

[4] “Women’s Wars in Nigeria” [www document]