People & Culture

A land of many people

Within its vast area, Nigeria has over 250 different ethnic groups, all with their own languages and heritage.

English in Nigeria

Following the country’s colonial past – see History & Politics – the official language is English. But depending on their education – see Education & Jobs, many people are are not fluent in English and for informal occasions, most people prefer to speak in their mother tongue. ‘Pidgin’ English is also used in casual conversation; this is a mixture of English and Nigerian words.

The largest groups are the Hausa in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest and the Igbo (or Ibo) in the southeast, who account for around a fifth of the population each. The languages of these three groups can therefore be used in government. Other large groups include the Ijaw in the east and the Fulani in the north.

The religious divide

Nigeria is divided into 36 states. In the 13 northern states, the vast majority of people are Muslim. The Hausa have been Muslims for almost a thousand years, having been converted to Islam by Arab traders and merchants from the 10th century.

Sharia law

Sharia law was introduced into the northern Nigerian states from 2000. This is a code for how Muslims should lead their lives. It is thought to have been drawn up by Muslim scholars in the early centuries of Islam, with parts of it taken directly from the Koran. As in other countries, northern Nigeria uses the code as a basis for its criminal law. However, some of the harsher penalties, such as death-by-stoning for adultery, have never been carried out.

Extremist groups have grown more popular in the north, mainly because of widespread poverty and frustration over corruption and lack of development – see North.

In the southern states, the majority of Nigerians are Christian, while some groups continue to practice indigenous beliefs. Generally, religion is taken very seriously. Most people will attend church on a Sunday and make frequent references to God or Jesus in everyday conversation.

Southern indigenous faiths centre around a belief in spirits and also in a supreme being or creator, known as Olorun/Olodumare in Yoruba culture and Chineke/Chukwu by Igbo people.

Traditional culture and dress

  • A woman wearing patterned clothing, Nigeria
  • A youngster wearing traditional clothing

Dyeing and weaving

Local craftsmen are skilled in dyeing and weaving techniques. Hand-patterned cloth is known as adire, where patterns are created by making certain parts of the material resistant to dyes – see Textiles. Asa-oke is made up of hand-woven strips of colourful cloth.

In the north, women wear long flowing robes and headscarves, though they rarely cover their faces. In the south, women may choose to wear Western-style clothes for everyday wear, often buying cheap second-hand items in markets.

But on Sunday, most women in the south will put on their best traditional clothes and headdresses. These are frequently made from locally produced and dyed fabrics.