History & Politics

Major kingdoms

Little is known about the earliest hunter-gatherer peoples of Nigeria. But by around AD200, early communities were forming settlements, such as one on the Jos Plateau. Here, terra-cotta sculptures (like the one shown) have been found from a Neolithic people called the Nok.Ancient Nok sculpture, by User:FA2010 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The first major kingdoms of the region included the Kanem-Bornu, which expanded into north-eastern Nigeria from north of Lake Chad  from around AD1000. To the northwest, powerful Hausa States traded with peoples from the tropical forests to the south, especially the gold-producing regions.

Along the key rivers of the Niger and Benue, smaller forest states formed, including the Yoruba Kingdoms, the Igala and Benin.

Benin City

The British occupied Benin City (southern Nigeria) in 1897 and took many of its famous brasses.

Benin city palace brass plaque,16th century

As elsewhere along the coast of Western Africa, Portuguese sailors were the first European visitors, setting up trading posts in the 1500s from where they purchased goods and slaves. These merchants were soon followed by British, French and Dutch traders.

Calabar was one of the major ports for slaves – see Map; an estimated third of Nigeria’s slaves were shipped from here.

The forming of Nigeria

From the early 19th century, Hausa states in the north were ruled by strong Islamic leaders such as Muhammad Bello (in the west) and Muhammad al-Kanemi (in the east). Further south, states began focusing on palm as the slave trade declined.

To put an end to the slave trade (which Britain outlawed from 1807) and gain control of the region, the British began annexing parts of Nigeria, such as Lagos in 1861 and regions along the Niger River. These southern areas were claimed by Britain at the Berlin Conference in 1884-5.

By 1906, Britain had virtually taken the whole region, dividing it into Southern and Northern Nigeria. These were brought together in 1914.

Independence and instability

Civil war

In 1967–70, a brutal civil war erupted when the Eastern Region attempted to become a separate country as the Republic of Biafra. Over a million people died in the conflict, known as the Biafran war.

After World War II, the nationalist movement grew. Nigeria was granted independence by Britain in 1960. The country became a republic with a central federal government (responsible for national issues, the police and army) and three semi-autonomous regions – Northern, Western and Eastern. A fourth region – the Mid-West – was created in 1964.

This regional structure caused conflicts, as leaders from different ethnic regions vied for power at the central government level. These conflicts led to a military takeover in 1966. For the next 30 years, Nigeria’s history involved a series of army interventions, coups and military-led governments.

Modern-day Nigeria

Promise of peace

The presidential election in 2015 was the first in Nigeria's history to be won by an opposition candidate. Muhammadu Buhari, of the All Progressives Congress (APC) opposition party, defeated the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan. Mr Buhari has vowed to tackle corruption and suppress radical Islamist groups in the north.

In 1999, civilian rule returned and a new constitution was adopted. This is based on a greater number of states (currently 36) and presidential rule, similar to the political set-up of the United States.

In 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military ruler and a Christian from the south was elected President. In the same year, the 12 northern and largely Muslim states introduced the Sharia penal code and outbreaks of violence between Muslims and Christians in northern cities such as Kano left thousands dead.

Tensions in the north remain, where there has been a rise in religious fundamentalism and terrorist attacks – see North.