History and Pre-Independence

Although the areas of savanna and coastal forest which make up contemporary Nigeria have been inhabited for thousands of years, archeology and linguistics give us only fragmentary glimpses into most of that history. By approximately 2500 to 2000 years ago, iron-working cultures, such as the Nok, were thriving in central and southern Nigeria. The Nok produced sub-Saharan Africa’s earliest terracotta sculptures of human figures, establishing what was to become an important tradition of highly-skilled artistry, preserved in many later West African societies. Linguistic evidence also shows that the Nigeria-Cameroon border area was likely the source of the Bantu group of languages, which covers most of sub-Saharan Africa and which is linked to the spread of iron-working.

Over two millennia, and particularly between the 11th century and European colonial conquest in the late 19th century, the area in and around Nigeria was home to a number of sophisticated and influential societies. Among the most important were the northeastern kingdom of Borno, the Hausa city-state/kingdoms of Katsina, Kano, Zaria, and Gobir in northern-central Nigeria, the Yoruba city-states/kingdoms of Ife, Oyo, and Ijebu in southwestern Nigeria, the southern kingdom of Benin, and the Igbo communities of eastern Nigeria.

Extensive trading networks developed among these societies, and northwards across the Sahara. By the 11th century, new links to the equally prosperous societies of North Africa flourished as Muslim merchants of diverse ethnic origin crossed the Sahara with camel caravans. This contact also facilitated the spread of Islam in Borno and the Hausa states of the north.

Portuguese explorers arrived off the coast of modern-day Nigeria by the 1470s. Soon, European powers were regularly exchanging spirits, cloth, hardware, guns, and gunpowder for slaves along the West African coast. Slavery in various forms existed in West Africa before the Europeans arrived, as it did in most other parts of the ancient and medieval world. With the slave trade across the Atlantic, however, the volume, the commercialization, and the brutality all expanded on an unprecedented scale. Customary rights and privileges that slaves retained in many local societies were stripped away.

In 1500, Africans and persons of African descent were probably a minority of the world’s slave population. By 1700, they had become a majority of the world’s slave population. As many as eleven or twelve million of the estimated eighteen million or more slaves exported from Africa since 1500 came from West and Central Africa. Along with Angola, the Bight of Benin (western Nigeria) and the Bight of Biafra (eastern Nigeria) were key points of embarkation for slave ships over a long period of time. The centrality of the Nigerian coast in the North Atlantic slave trade is evident in the continuing influence of West African culture in the Caribbean and North America.

The consequences of the slave trade were devastating. How much the trade diminished total African population is disputed, but the most serious effects were social and political. The trade helped foster wars, raiding, and exploitation of the weak by the powerful. Rulers and cultures who were reluctant to participate were edged aside by Big Men–rulers or merchants who used the system to increase their power and profits.

During the 19th century, the abolition of the slave trade cleared the way for expansion of trade in agricultural produce from Africa to Europe, particularly palm oil from the West African coastal areas. The coastal enclave of Lagos became a British colony in 1861, a center for expansion of British trade, missions, and political influence. Late 19th century and early 20th century Lagos was also a center for educated West African elites who were to play prominent roles in the development of Pan-Africanism as well as Nigerian nationalism.

In northern Nigeria, Muslim reformer and empire builder Uthman dan Fodio established the Sokoto Caliphate in the early 19th century over the Hausa trading states. A predominantly Fulani aristocracy ruled over the majority of Hausa-speaking commoners, including both merchants and peasants. Expansion of agriculture, trade, and crafts made this area probably the most prosperous in tropical Africa in the 19th century, engaged in trade both to the coast and through the traditional routes over the desert to North Africa.

At the end of the 19th century, Britain began aggressive military expansion in the region, in part to counter competition from other Western countries and to break down monopolies which local traders had established in commodities such as palm-oil, cocoa, and peanuts. Britain declared a protectorate in the Niger delta in 1885 and sponsored creation of the Royal Niger Company in 1886. A protectorate was declared over northern Nigeria in 1900. Despite the loss of sovereignty, however, the strong political and cultural traditions of these societies initially enabled many to accommodate nominal British rule with little change in their way of life.

Just as in the United States, the late 19th and early 20th centuries marked a resurgence of racism in the British colonial empire. Educated Africans were excluded from the civil service, and African entrepreneurs were discriminated against. Top-down colonial authority was put in place through what was called “indirect rule,” which used existent or invented traditional authorities to govern African communities. “Chiefs” became the agents of colonial rule, while checks and balances that often had previously constrained their authority were diminished.

The slogan “Divide and Rule” helped guide administration as well as conquest. Although the North and South were formally consolidated in 1914, disparities of education and religion were reinforced. In the North, the British limited Christian missions, restricted education, and reinforced the feudal rulers. In 1939, Eastern and Western Nigeria were separated, leading to the structure of three separate regions which was in place at independence. Within each region, one ethnic group predominated—the Hausa-Fulani in the North, the Yoruba in the southwest and the Igbo in the southeast. The system fostered rivalries not only between the regions, but also between the dominant group and “minorities” within each region.

Resistance to colonial rule took many forms until independence in 1960. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who died in 1996 at the age of 91, was one of the continent’s leading nationalists. Women’s resistance to taxation led to a revolt in Aba in eastern Nigeria in 1929 and to massive protests in Abeokuta in the west in the late 1940s. The Islamic populist movement led by Aminu Kano in the north opposed not only British rule but also the feudal aristocracy.

The political scene leading up to independence, however, was dominated by three regionally based parties: the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) in the east, the Action Group (AG) in the west, and the conservative Northern People’s Congress (NPC) in the north.

Next Page: Post-Independence