Nigeria contains more historic cultures and empires than any other other nation in Africa. They date back as far as the 5th century BC, when communities living around the southern slopes of the Jos plateau make wonderfully expressive terracotta figures – in a tradition known now as the Nok culture, from the Nigerian village where these sculptures are first unearthed. The Nok people are neolithic tribes who have recently acquired the iron technology spreading southwards through Africa.
The Jos plateau is in the centre of Nigeria, but the first extensive kingdoms of the region – more than a millennium after the Nok people – are in the north and northeast, deriving their wealth from trade north through the Sahara and east into the Sudan.
During the 9th centurya trading empire grows up around Lake Chad. Its original centre is east of the lake, in the Kanem region, but it soon extends to Bornu on the western side. In the 11th century the ruler of Kanem-Bornu converts to Islam.
West of Bornu, along the northern frontier of Nigeria, is the land of the Hausa people. Well placed to control trade with the forest regions to the south, the Hausa develop a number of small but stable kingdoms, each ruled from a strong walled city. They are often threatened by larger neighbours (Mali and Gao to the west, Bornu to the east). But the Hausa traders benefit also from being on the route between these empires. By the 14th century they too are Muslim.
In the savanna grasslands and the forest regions west of the Niger, between the Hausa kingdoms and the coast, the Yoruba people are the dominant tribes. Here they establish two powerful states.
The first is Ife, on the border between forest and savanna. Famous now for its sculpture, Ife flourishes from the 11th to 15th century. In the 16th century a larger Yoruba empire develops, based slightly further from the forest at Oyo. Using the profits of trade to develop a forceful cavalry, Oyo grows in strength during the 16th century. By the end of the 18th century the rulers of Oyo are controlling a region from the Niger to the west of Dahomey.
Meanwhile, firmly within the forest, the best known of all the Nigerian kingdoms establishes itself in the 15th century (from small beginnings in the 13th). Benin becomes a name internationally known for its cast-metal sculpture, in a tradition inherited from the Ife (see Sculpture of Ife and Benin).
In terms of extent Benin is no match for Oyo, its contemporary to the north. In the 15th century the region brought under central control is a mere seventy-miles across (people and places being harder to subdue in the tropical forest than on the savanna), though a century later Benin stretches from the Niger delta in the east to Lagos in the west.
But Benin’s fame is based on factors other than power. This is the coastal kingdom which the Portuguese discover when they reach the mouth of the Niger in the 1470s, bringing back to Europe the first news of superb African artefacts and of the ceremonial splendour of Benin’s oba or king.
The kings of Benin are a story in themselves. In the 19th century they scandalize the west by their use of human sacrifice in court rituals. And they have stamina. At the end of the 20th century the original dynasty is still in place, though without political power. All in all, among Nigeria’s many historic kingdoms, Benin has earned its widespread renown.
Living among the Hausa in the northern regions of Nigeria are a tribe, the Fulani, whose leaders in the early 19th century become passionate advocates of strict Islam. From 1804 sheikh Usman dan Fodio and his two sons lead the Fulani in an immensely successful holy war against the lax Muslim rulers of the Hausa kingdoms.
The result is the establishment in 1809 of a Fulani capital at Sokoto, from which the centre and north of Nigeria is effectively ruled for the rest of the 19th century. But during this same period there has been steady encroachment on the region by British interests.
From the death of Mungo Park near Bussa in 1806 to the end of the century, there is continuing interest in Nigeria on the part of British explorers, anti-slavery activists, missionaries and traders.
In 1821 the British government sponsors an expedition south through the Sahara to reach the kingdom of Bornu. Its members become the first Europeans to reach Lake Chad, in 1823. One of the group, Hugh Clapperton, explores further west through Kano and the Hausa territory to reach Sokoto. Clapperton is only back in England for a few months, in 1825, before he sets off again for the Nigerian coast at Lagos.
On this expedition, with his servant Richard Lander, he travels on trade routes north from the coast to Kano and then west again to Sokoto. Here Clapperton dies. But Lander makes his way back to London, where he is commissioned by the government to explore the lower reaches of the Niger.
Accompanied in 1830 by his brother John, Lander makes his way north from the coast near Lagos to reach the great river at Bussa – the furthest point of Mungo Park’s journey downstream. With considerable difficulty the brothers make a canoe trip downstream, among hostile Ibo tribesmen, to reach the sea at the Niger delta. This region has long been familiar to European traders, but its link to the interior is now charted. All seems set for serious trade.
After Lander’s second return to England a company is formed by a group of Liverpool merchants, including Macgregor Laird, to trade on the lower Niger. Laird is also a pioneer in the shipping industry. For the present purpose, an expedition to the Niger, he designs an iron paddle-steamer, the 55-ton Alburkah.
Laird himself leads the expedition, with Richard Lander as his expert guide.
The Alburkah steams south from Milford Haven in July 1832 with forty-eight on board. She reaches the mouth of the Niger three months later, entering history as the first ocean-going iron ship.
After making her way up one of the many streams of the Niger delta, the Alburkah progresses upstream on the main river as far as Lokoja, the junction with the Benue. The expedition demonstrates that the Niger offers a highway into the continent for ocean vessels. And the performance of the iron steamer is a triumph. But medicine is not yet as far advanced as technology. When the Alburkah returns to Liverpool, in 1834, only nine of the original crew of forty-eight are alive. They include a much weakened Macgregor Laird.
The next British expedition to the Niger is almost equally disastrous in terms of loss of life. Four ships under naval command are sent out in 1841, with instructions to steam up the Niger and make treaties with local kings to prevent the slave trade. The enterprise is abandoned when 48 of the 145 Europeans in the crews die of fever.
Malaria is the cause of the trouble, but major progress is made when a doctor, William Baikie, leads an expedition up the Niger in 1854. He administers quinine to his men and suffers no loss of life. Extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, quinine has long been used in medicine. But its proven efficacy against malaria is a turning point in the European penetration of Africa.
The British anti-slavery policy in the region involves boosting the trade in palm oil (a valuable product which gives the name Oil Rivers to the Niger delta) to replace the dependence on income from the slave trade. It transpires later that this is somewhat counter-productive, causing the upriver chieftains to acquire more slaves to meet the increased demand for palm oil. But it is nevertheless the philanthropic principle behind much of the effort to set up trading stations.
At the same time the British navy patrols the coast to liberate captives from slave ships of other nations and to settle them at Freetown in Sierra Leone.
From 1849 the British government accepts a more direct involvement. A consul, based in Fernando Po, is appointed to take responsibility for the Bights of Biafra and Benin. He undertakes direct negotiations with the king of Lagos, the principal port from which slaves are shipped. When these break down, in 1851, Lagos is attacked and captured by a British force.
Another member of the Lagos royal family is placed on the throne, after guaranteeing to put an end to the slave trade and to human sacrifice (a feature of this region). When he and his successor fail to fulfil these terms, Lagos is annexed in 1861 as a British colony.
During the remainder of the century the consolidation of British trade and British political control goes hand in hand. In 1879 George Goldie persuades the British trading enterprises on the Niger to merge their interests in a single United African Company, later granted a charter as the Royal Niger Company.
In 1893 the delta region is organized as the Niger Coast Protectorate. In 1897 the campaign against unacceptable local practices reaches a climax in Benin – notorious by this time both for slave trading and for human sacrifice. The members of a British delegation to the oba of Benin are massacred in this year. In the reprisals Benin City is partly burnt by British troops.
The difficulty of administering the vast and complex region of Nigeria persuades the government that the upriver territories, thus far entrusted to the Royal Niger Company, also need to be brought under central control.
In 1900 the company’s charter is revoked. Britain assumes direct responsibility for the region from the coast to Sokoto and Bornu in the north. Given the existing degree of British involvement, this entire area has been readily accepted at the Berlin conference in 1884 as falling to Britain in the scramble for Africa – though in the late 1890s there remains dangerous tension between Britain and France, the colonial power in neighbouring Dahomey, over drawing Nigeria’s western boundary.
The sixty years of Britain’s colonial rule in Nigeria are characterized by frequent reclassifying of different regions for administrative purposes. They are symptomatic of the problem of uniting the country as a single state.
In the early years the Niger Coast Protectorate is expanded to become Southern Nigeria, with its seat of government at Lagos. At this time the rulers in the north (the emir of Kano and the sultan of Sokoto) are very far from accepting British rule. To deal with the situation Frederick Lugard is appointed high commissioner and commander-in-chief of the protectorate of northern Nigeria.
Lugard has already been much involved in the colony, commanding troops from 1894 on behalf of the Royal Niger Company to oppose French claims on Borgu (a border region, divided in 1898 between Nigeria and Dahomey). Between 1903 and 1906 he subdues Kano and Sokoto and finally puts an end to their rulers’ slave-raiding expeditions.
Lugard pacifies northern Nigeria by ensuring that in each territory, however small, the throne is won and retained by a chief willing to cooperate. Lugard then allows these client rulers considerable power – in the technique, soon to be known as ‘indirect rule’, which in Africa is particularly associated with his name (though it has been a familiar aspect of British colonial policy in India).
In 1912 Lugard is appointed governor of both northern and southern Nigeria and is given the task of merging them. He does so by 1914, when the entire region becomes the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria.
The First World War brings a combined British and French invasion of German Cameroon (a campaign not completed until early in 1916). In 1922 the League of Nations grants mandates to the two nations to administer the former German colony. The British mandate consists of two thin strips on the eastern border of Nigeria.
The rival claims of Nigeria’s various regions become most evident after World War II when Britain is attempting to find a structure to meet African demands for political power. By 1951 the country has been divided into Northern, Eastern and Western regions, each with its own house of assembly. In addition there is a separate house of chiefs for the Northern province, to reflect the strong tradition there of tribal authority. And there is an overall legislative council for the whole of Nigeria.
But even this is not enough to reflect the complexity of the situation. In 1954 a new constitution (the third in eight years) establishes the Federation of Nigeria and adds the Federal Territory of Lagos.
During the later 1950s an African political structure is gradually achieved. From 1957 there is a federal prime minister. In the same year the Western and Eastern regions are granted internal self-government, to be followed by the Northern region in 1959.
Full independence follows rapidly, in October 1960. The tensions between the country’s communities now become Nigeria’s own concern.
Regional hostilities are a feature of independent Nigeria from the start, partly due to an imbalance of population. More than half the nation’s people are in the Fulani and Hausa territories of the Northern region. Northerners therefore control not only their own regional assembly but also the federal government in Lagos.
From 1962 to 1964 there is almost continuous anti-northern unrest elsewhere in the nation, coming to a climax in a rebellion in 1966 by officers from the Eastern region, the homeland of the Ibo. They assassinate both the federal prime minister and the premiers of the Northern and Western regions.
In the ensuing chaos many Ibos living in the north are massacred. In July a northern officer, Yakubu Gowon, emerges as the country’s leader. His response to Nigeria’s warring tribal factions is to subdivide the four regions (the Mid-West has been added in 1963), rearranging them into twelve states.
This device further inflames Ibo hostility, for one of the new states cuts their territory off from the sea. The senior Ibo officer, Odumegwu Ojukwu, takes the drastic step in May 1967 of declaring the Eastern region an independent nation, calling it the republic of Biafra.
The result is bitter and intense civil war, with the federal army (increasing during the conflict from 10,000 to 200,000 men) meeting powerful resistance from the secessionist region. The issue splits the west, where it is the first post-independence African war to receive widespread coverage. The US and Britain supply arms to the federal government. France extends the same facilities to Biafra.
In any civil war ordinary people suffer most, and in small land-locked Biafra this is even more true than usual. By January 1970 they are starving. Biafra surrenders and ceases to exist. Ojukwu escapes across the border and is granted asylum in the Ivory Coast.
General Gowon achieves an impressive degree of reconciliation in the country after the traumas of 1967-70. Nigeria now becomes one of the wealthiest countries in Africa thanks to its large reserves of oil (petroleum now, rather than the palm oil of the previous century). In the mid-1970s the output is more than two million barrels a day, the value of which is boosted by the high prices achieved during the oil crisis of 1973-4.
But with this wealth goes corruption, which Gowon fails to control. When he is abroad, in 1975, his government is toppled in a military coup. Gowon retires to Britain.
In the second half of the 1970s oil prices plummet. Nigeria rapidly suffers economic crisis and political disorder. Within a period of five years the average income per head slumps by 75%, from over $1000 a year to a mere $250.
Neither brief cilivian governments nor frequent military intervention prove able to rescue the situation. A regular response is to subdivide regional Nigeria into ever smaller parcels. The number of states is increased to nineteen in 1979 and to twenty-nine in 1991. By the end of the century it stands at thirty-six. Meanwhile the nation’s foreign debt has been increasing in parallel, to reach $36 billion by 1994.
In 1993 the military ruler (Ibrahim Babangida, in power from 1985) yields to international pressure and holds a presidential election. When it appears to have been conclusively won by Moshood Abiola, a chief of the western Yoruba tribe, Babangida cancels the election by decree.
This blatant act prompts Nigeria’s first energetic movement for democracy, which comes to international attention when one of its leaders – the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa – is among a group hanged in 1995 for the alleged murder of four rivals at a political rally in 1994. Saro-Wiwa has also been a campaigner for the rights of his Ogoni people, whose territory is ravaged – to no benefit to themselves – by the international companies extracting Nigeria’s oil.
The world-wide outcry at Saro-Wiwa’s death, without any pretence of a fair trial, prompts Nigeria’s generals to offer new elections in 1999. The presidential election is won by Olusegun Obasanjo, by now a civilian but for three years from 1976 the military ruler of the country – and therefore widely assumed to be the army’s preferred candidate. His People’s Democratic Party wins a majority of seats in both the house of representatives and the senate.
Early reports suggest that under Obasanjo’s government a ruthless disregard of civil liberties continues in Nigeria, with outbreaks of minority ethnic protest being brutally suppressed.
The election of Obasanjo, a Christian from the south, brings new tensions. As if in response, in November 1999, the predominantly Muslim northern state of Zamfara introduces strict Islamic law, the sharia. Other northern states discuss similar action. Local Christians take alarm. Violent street battles between the two communities are a feature of the early months of 2000.
The future of Nigeria is problematic but of considerable importance to Africa. The nation’s potential remains vast. With at least 115 million people (comprising some 200 tribes) it is the continent’s most populous country. And as the world’s fifth largest oil producer, it has the wherewithal to be one of the richest.