Nigeria - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Nigeria: the Bradt Travel Guide

Before beginning any account of Nigeria’s history, it should be stressed that modern Nigeria, like much of Africa, is a product of European colonial rule. Nigeria is a creation of the British Empire builder who, in search of new markets, raw materials and the need to exert political influence overseas, laid down borders at the end of the 19th century. Before this time Nigeria wasn’t called Nigeria and, in the centuries leading up to colonialism, all of west Africa was divided into smaller areas with different names, occupied by varying ethnic groups. Empires, kingdoms and states flourished, died, moved or changed identity in the geographical space that we know today as modern Nigeria.

Even as recently as the 1850s, when Lagos became a British colony, few would have foreseen a political state with borders roughly matching modern Nigeria, and a whole lot of history had happened before then. It is usually presumed that Nigeria got its name from the Niger River, but it was actually Frederick Lugard’s wife, Flora Louise Shaw, who in 1898 joined together the word niger, meaning ‘black’, with the word ‘area’, creating Nigeria. The following account of the historical development of the northern and southern regions in pre-colonial Nigeria, which follow distinctively different paths, is roughly based on modern Nigeria’s Muslim–Christian divide.

There are several dominant themes in Nigerian history that are essential in understanding contemporary Nigerian politics and society. First, the spread of Islam in the north a millennium ago and later the creation of the Sokoto Caliphate in the jihad (holy war) of 1804–08, which brought most of the northern region and adjacent parts of Niger and Cameroon under a single Islamic government. This history helps account for the religious divide between north and south that has been so strong during the colonial and post-colonial eras.

Second, the slave trade across the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic Ocean had a profound influence on virtually all parts of west Africa. Slavery was widespread, and many ethnic distinctions were reinforced because of slave raiding and trading, and the conversion to Islam and the spread of Christianity were intricately associated with issues relating to slavery.

Third, the oil boom that, since independence in 1960, unleashed such rapid change and expansion in the economy and caused a severely distorted economic growth that subsequently collapsed in the 1980s. The social consequences of a declining economy and the internal movement of populations between regions and to the cities necessitated the reassessment of ethnic loyalties. This in turn was reflected in politics and religion, and led to a number of successful and failed military coups, a brutal civil war, and let corrupt governments siphon off billions of dollars of oil profits. As the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria has a history that bears scrutiny if for no other reason than to understand how and why this nation remains so divided today.

Natural history

Agama lizard Nigeria Anita Ritenour FlickrAgama lizards are common across Nigeria © Anita Ritenour, Flickr

National parks

Despite rapid deforestation in Nigeria, there are still a number of reserves dotted around the country and Nigeria currently has eight national parks. In 1979 the first Obasanjo administration established Lake Kainji as Nigeria’s first national park and since then seven others have been created, mostly carved out of former forest or game reserves. They cover about 3% or 24,000km2 of the country, though only two of these are well known, or even visited regularly – these are Lake Kainji National Park and Yankari National Park. The others are Cross River, Gashaka-Gumpti, Okomu, Kamuka, Old Oyo and Chad Basin national parks.


The first animal you will see in Nigeria is the comical and colourful agama lizard; they are everywhere, so you’ll have to get used to lizards scurrying around your feet and up walls. The much brighter males have bright orange heads and brilliant blue bodies and can reach lengths of 20cm, while the plainer and smaller females are brown. As a result of the problems experienced by national parks, you are very unlikely to spot much wildlife in Nigeria so there’s little point in producing an extensive list of what might or might not be there. Sadly, you are more likely to see wildlife dead than alive, for sale as bushmeat at the side of the road, fashioned into so-called curios in the markets, or as black magic ingredients on a juju doctor’s stall.

There used to be several species of big game in Nigeria, as attested to by the skins and pelts hanging up in museums and curio and juju markets, cheetah and leopard being prime examples, but it’s very unlikely that they still exist in the wild, though there are still lions in Yankari. Of all the parks Yankari holds the most hope of still having relatively large populations of animals. Researchers have also discovered a healthy-sized community of chimpanzees in Gashaka-Gumpti. It’s very remote and inaccessible, so the problem of poaching hasn’t been so intense here.

People and culture


Nigeria has a rich and diverse cultural history that extends back to at least 500BC, when the Nok people first inhabited the area. The ethnicity of Nigeria is so varied that there is no definition of a Nigerian beyond that of someone who lives within the borders of the country. The ethnic variety is both dazzling and confusing, and there are more than 250 ethnic groups with their own language and distinct cultural heritage, each with their own very strong sense of ethnic allegiance.

The following groups are the country’s largest and most politically influential: the Hausa in the north (21% of the population), the Yoruba in the southwest (21%), the Igbo, also referred to as the Ibo, in the southeast (20%), and the Fulani in the north (9%). The larger of the minor groups that make up the remaining population are the Tiv, Kanuri, Igala, Idoma, Igbirra and Nupe in the north; the Ijaw, Ibibio, Efik and Ekoi in the east; and the Edo, Urhobo and Itsekiri in the west.

In an area one-and-a-half times the size of France, with nigh on 155 million people all trying to retain their identity in 250 cultural groups, and speaking different languages, it’s not hard to imagine the difficulties and ensuing chaos of governing such a vast variety of people. The boundaries of the former British colony were drawn up to serve commercial interests, largely without regard for the territorial claims of the indigenous ethnic groups, and the country’s unity has been consistently under siege from alternating dominant groups that have wanted to take control of the whole country. Between 1914 and 1977 there were eight attempts at secession, the Biafran War being the last of the secessionist movements within this period. Even today, underlying tension continues between the Yoruba and Hausa, though it is predominantly religion, and not ethnicity, that divides the nation.


In the north, because Islam frowns on the representation of people and animals, art forms such as ceremonial carvings are virtually absent, while in the south indigenous people had produced their own art long before the Europeans arrived. Nigerian crafts are grouped into textiles, pottery and ceramics; bronze, brass and iron works; woodworks, calabash decorations and leather works; and jewellery. Nigeria has over 2,000 years of art history, going back to the Iron Age Nok culture that existed between 500BC and AD200. This era is represented by sophisticated terracotta sculptures found in present-day Kaduna State that depict the early life and spirituality of the Nok people. Here clay figures of 10–120cm in size, with detailed patterns of elaborate hairstyles, jewellery and clothing, were unearthed in the first few decades of the 20th century.

Some of the sculptures can be seen in Nigeria’s museums, but many were lost during the colonial period when they were taken overseas. Besides the Nok terracotta figures, Benin City is famous for its wax bronze casting, which decorated the palace of Benin for centuries before the British burnt and looted it at the end of the 19th century, though today there has been some revival of the art, and bronze casters again practise their unique tradition in Benin. The Yoruba are famous for their art and craftwork, and everything in this society was traditionally carved, from doors and drums to ritual masks. Doors were often covered with carved panels of scenes of everyday life, history or mythology. Even the hinge posts werecarved with figures. Their masks are simple facial carvings that represent different types of Yoruba religious people like the trader, the servant and the seducer, as well as the many Yoruba gods.


Nigeria’s cultural heritage is woven from threads of history, legend and conquest, and is rich in oral traditions, philosophy, rites and rituals, which are traditionally expressed through festivals. Nigeria has many local festivals, which cover an enormous range of events, from harvest festivals, betrothal festivals and festivals marking events in traditional religions, to the investing of a new chief and funerals. It seems odd to Western ways of thinking to see a funeral as something to be celebrated, but for many of Nigeria’s ethnic groups, death means joining the ancestors, and the deceased must get a good send-off. Many festivals feature dance, acrobatics, music and masquerades, though in modern Nigeria they have in recent years started to fall out of fashion and young Nigerians seem less intent to carry on these traditions (as is the case with traditional art).


Traditional Nigerian music is played on a number of instruments from an obo (a stringed zither), used during masquerade festivals in the villages of the Niger Delta, to trumpets heralding the arrival of an emir in the north, to the Yoruba ‘talking’ drum used to accompany a storyteller of oral traditions. But you won’t hear much traditional music in Nigeria these days, except at festivals or important ceremonies, and the average Nigerian listens to tapes or CDs of either church or pop music.

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