POPULATION: 177.5 million (2014)

AREA: 356,669 sq. mi. (923,774 sq. km)

LANGUAGES: English (official); Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo


PRINCIPAL RELIGIONS: Muslim 50%, Christian 40%, traditional 10%

CITIES: Abuja (Federal Capital Territory), 378,700 (1991 est.); LagosIbadan, Ogbomosho, Kano, Ilorin, Oshogbo

ANNUAL RAINFALL: Highly variable, 70–170 in. (1,700–4,310 mm) from west to east along the coast; 20 in. (500 mm) in the extreme north

ECONOMY: GDP $568.5 billion (2014)


  • Agricultural: cotton, cocoa, rubber, yams, cassava, sorghum, palm kernels, millet, corn, rice, groundnuts, plantains, maize, potatoes, fruit, livestock, fish, timber
  • Manufacturing: oil refining, iron and steel production, sugar refining, textiles, cement, building materials, chemicals, food processing, pharmaceuticals
  • Mining: petroleum, tin, columbite, iron ore, coal, limestone, lead, zinc, natural gas, gold

GOVERNMENT: Independence from Britain, 1960. Republic, transitioning from military to civilian rule. President elected by universal suffrage. Governing bodies: National Assembly and House of Representatives (legislative bodies); Federal Executive Council.


  • 1960–1966 Governor General Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe (president after 1963)
  • 1966 Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi
  • 1966–1975 Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Yakubu Gowon
  • 1975–1976 Brigadier (later General) Murtala Ramat Muhammed
  • 1976–1979 Lieutenant General (later General) Olusegun Obasanjo
  • 1979–1983 President Shehu Shagari
  • 1984–1985 Major General Muhammadu Buhari
  • 1985–1993 Major General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida
  • 1993 Interim President Ernest Shonekan
  • 1993–1999 General Sani Abacha
  • 1999– President Olusegun Obasanjo


EDUCATION: Compulsory for ages 6–15; literacy rate 57%


With a large and enterprising population and a wealth of natural resources, the West African nation of Nigeria has enormous potential. However, since shortly after independence the country has been troubled by ethnic rivalry, religious strife, and violence. Furthermore, government corruption has hindered progress in many areas. After more than 40 years of unfulfilled promise, the country is still struggling to make the most of its rich heritage.


Located on the Guinea Coast of West Africa, Nigeria is bordered by the nations of BENIN, NIGER, and CAMEROON. The landscape is largely flat and low with few areas above 3,000 feet. The marshy coast is dominated by a wide belt of swamps that give way to thick tropical rain forest inland. Beyond the forest, the land rises gradually until reaching the Jos Plateau, the highest part of the country. This region is covered with savanna; semiarid and desert areas are found farther north. A series of mountain ranges mark Nigeria's border with Cameroon.

Climate changes dramatically in Nigeria as one moves from south to north. The south is hot and wet, receiving up to 150 inches of rain per year. Precipitation decreases significantly in the upland savanna area and drops to 25 inches or less per year in the hot, dry north. Nigeria has a rainy season and a dry season. Dry weather lasts about a month in the south but up to seven months in the northeast. The NIGER RIVER and its main tributary, the Benue, are the two most important rivers in the country. Together this river system divides Nigeria into three main areas—the north, southeast, and southwest—the homelands of Nigeria's main ethnic groups.

With varying growing conditions, each of the country's regions produces different crops. People in the south grow mainly root crops such as yams and cassava, while those in the north cultivate grains including millet, sorghum, and rice. Cattle are raised widely in the north but not in the south because of the tsetse fly, which carries a disease that is deadly to large mammals. The middle region of Nigeria can support both root crops and grains and is rapidly becoming the nation's breadbasket.


The modern nation of Nigeria was created by joining two separate British colonies in 1914. These colonies contained three main ethnic and political divisions: Hausaland to the north, Yorubaland to the southwest, and Igboland and the kingdom of Benin (an ancient state unrelated to modern Benin) to the southeast.

Precolonial Hausaland

Before the colonial era, northern Nigeria was divided into a number of independent states of varying size and wealth. This region, known as Hausaland, lay between two great trading centers—the ancient kingdom of BORNU to the east and the powerful empires of Mali and Songhai in the west. Since at least the 1300s, merchants from these two areas competed for control of the rich HAUSA region.

Bornu, a Muslim state, had considerable influence in Hausaland and received tribute from many Hausa states. When Mali began expanding, Bornu set up its own trading centers in the Hausa region. At this time the inhabitants of Hausaland were not Muslims, and few spoke the Hausa language. However, trade brought Islam to the region and led to the establishment of large urban centers in which people of different ethnic groups came together. It was from this mixing of traditions in a Muslim setting that the Hausa culture first emerged.

While some of the region's original inhabitants left the new Muslim states, others remained and converted to Islam. Still others continued to follow indigenous religions and became minorities within the Hausa states, providing food and protection for the trading caravans of Muslim merchants. Over time Hausa developed as the common language of the urban military and merchant population and their farming allies. It eventually replaced the various other languages spoken in the countryside.

Around 1500 a series of Muslim kingdoms emerged in Hausaland. They enjoyed power and prosperity until about 1650, when a severe economic turndown in North Africa spread to West Africa. After 1650 largescale invasions of people from the non-Muslim south, combined with a period of unrest and uprisings in several Hausa states, caused the region to splinter politically, and various new kingdoms emerged.

In the early 1800s, the FULANI launched a jihad against the Hausa kingdoms. Led by Shaikh UTHMAN DAN FODIO, they crushed Hausa political power, set up their own rulers, and replaced traditional religious practices with Islam. The resulting division between the Hausa and the Fulani had a lasting effect on northern Nigeria.

Precolonial Yorubaland

In precolonial times the YORUBA-speaking peoples of southwestern Nigeria (an area later known as Yorubaland) belonged to many separate states. Nevertheless, these peoples shared a common identity based on their origin in the town of Ife. The town, said to be the location of the creation of the world, was the site of an early kingdom that flourished between the 1100s and 1400s.

In the 1400s and 1500s, the kingdom of Benin conquered part of Yorubaland and maintained some degree of control there until the early 1800s. By the 1600s the most powerful Yoruba state was Oyo, which had an army based on cavalry forces. The plains and savannas of northern and western Yorubaland were ideal territory for mounted troops, and Oyo conquered several Yoruba states. It also took over the kingdom of Dahomey in what is now the modern nation of Benin. Eventually Oyo became a major supplier of slaves, and by the 1700s the port city of LAGOS had become an important center of the Atlantic SLAVE TRADE.

In the 1800s Oyo collapsed as a result of civil war, and much of Yorubaland was crippled by wars among various states of the region. During that time Muslims seized control of parts of northeastern Yorubaland, while major wars continued to rage in the south. These wars resulted in the capture of many Yoruba, who were sold to European slave traders. By 1862 the state of Ibadan had emerged as the dominant power in Yorubaland. But an alliance of Yoruba states against Ibadan resulted in continued warfare until Europeans took over the region.

Precolonial Igboland and Benin

Southeastern Nigeria has been inhabited by speakers of the Edo (or Benin) language for more than 3,000 years. These peoples lived in small settlements until about 400 B.C. At that time, a growing population and the introduction of iron tools led to larger and more complex villages with forms of centralized authority and social classes of different levels. Linked to Yorubaland through trade networks, these villages eventually grew into towns and larger urban centers with rulers and elaborate royal courts.

Sometime after A.D. 1000, urban centers at Udo and Benin became the leading powers in the region. Eventually, Benin emerged as the more powerful of the two. Despite a strong government, Benin failed to expand, and about 1480 it was conquered by another state. The ruler of this new Benin state consolidated his power and then began waging war on his neighbors. Benin defeated Yoruba peoples to the west, Edo peoples to the north, and IGBO (Ibo) towns to the east. Conquered territories close to Benin came under direct rule; those farther away became provinces that paid tribute to the king of Benin. Continuing to expand, Benin reached its greatest size by about 1650.

Igboland, unlike Benin, did not develop a strong central government. Instead, the Igbo lived in independent villages that sometimes joined together to share a meeting place or market. Spread out on both sides of the Niger River, they were mostly farmers. By the 1600s the Igbo had become involved in supplying slaves to the slave traders along the coast.

Early European Influences

The Portuguese were the earliest European visitors to the region, making contact with the kingdom of Benin in 1485. Interested in gold and ivory at first, Portuguese and other European merchants eventually became involved in Africa's growing slave trade. Lagos became a principal export point for slaves bound for the Americas.

It was a desire to end the slave trade that brought Britain to Nigeria in the early 1800s. British naval vessels patrolled the coastal waters looking for slave ships, and when the king of Lagos refused to sign a treaty against the trade in 1851, the British deposed him. Ten years later they took over the slave port of Lagos.

At about the same time, Christian missionaries became active along the Nigerian coast and later penetrated inland. British merchants began to take a greater interest in regional products such as palm oil, a lubricant for early industrial machinery. These various activities led the British government to move toward setting up colonies and protectorates in Nigeria. Fearing French competition, Britain intensified its colonization efforts in the region in the mid-1800s.

Early British Rule

Britain expanded its role in Nigeria in the late 1800s, establishing the Niger Coast Protectorate in what is now southern Nigeria and forcing the states of Yorubaland to accept peace on British terms. In 1897 the British conquered the kingdom of Benin, ending organized resistance in the south. But they continued to send military expeditions on a regular basis to deal with uprisings.

While taking control in the south, Britain began to extend its authority over northern Nigeria. In 1886 it granted a monopoly over trade along the lower Niger River area to the Royal Niger Company. Authorized to act as a political administration, this private company established local laws and administered justice. Its frequent abuse of this power led to several rebellions by local peoples. In 1900 the British government took over the lands originally granted to the Royal Niger Company and formed the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria. Three years later British forces defeated the Sokoto Caliphate, a Muslim state that controlled much of northern Nigeria.

The first high commissioner of the northern protectorate, Sir Frederick LUGARD, developed a system of administration known as indirect rule. Under this policy, traditional African rulers who cooperated with the British were allowed to run local governments and courts. British officials acted as advisers rather than making policy themselves. This system of indirect rule saved the British the expense of setting up a full-scale colonial administration in the north, and they used the system later in most of their African colonies.

Indirect rule in the north did meet some opposition. Many Muslim leaders resisted the British, and armed uprisings were not uncommon. Furthermore, while indirect rule worked well in northern Nigeria, it failed in the south. Northern Nigeria had been the site of large empires for centuries and had a centralized power structure, which the British could use. By contrast, the history of southern Nigeria had been dominated by competing states, and no single political structure had developed in the region.

From Union to Independence

Northern and southern Nigeria remained separate British protectorates until 1914. At that time Britain decided to make the two into one colony ruled from the southern capital at Lagos. This merger simplified the task of ruling Nigeria, but it also planted the seeds of political division. The creation of a single colony forced long-time foes—the Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo—to become part of the same nation. Britain managed to keep these ethnic rivalries in check during the colonial period, but they broke out anew after Nigeria achieved independence in 1960.

During the early years of British rule, northern Nigeria was weaker economically than the south. It also lagged behind the south in educational and political development. Christian missionaries had established many schools in the south, but Muslim rulers in the north resisted missionary activities. At first British colonial authorities excluded the north from the Legislative Council that oversaw the colony. As a result, northern Nigeria had no direct voice in colonial government.

Britain gradually introduced political changes in Nigeria. In 1939 it divided the south into eastern and western provinces. Seven years later it created a regional House of Assembly that included representatives from all parts of the country, along with a House of Chiefs for the north. Further changes over the next several years resulted in the north becoming a separate region with its own government and system of courts.

Political parties began to appear in Nigeria in the 1950s, and they played significant roles in the years leading up to independence. In the north the Northern People's Congress (NPC) and Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) both drew support from the Hausa population. The NPC emerged as the stronger of the two parties, and from 1954 to 1959 it led efforts to increase the education and training of northerners in preparation for independence. The two main political parties of the south were the National Council of Nigerian Citizens and the Action Group. However, their support was not as widespread as that of the northern parties.

Independent Nigeria

Nigeria gained independence from Britain on October 1, 1960, and the NPC soon took its place as the new nation's leading political party. Nigeria's First Republic enjoyed a few years of relative quiet, but ethnic tensions were building. Once the poor neighbors of the Christians in the south, the Muslim Hausa in the north now made up a majority of the population and dominated Nigerian politics and government. Yoruba and Igbo leaders complained about Hausa control but were unable to cooperate with one another to change the situation.

A military coup by Igbo army officers overthrew the First Republic in January 1966. Igbo control was short lived, however, as another coup in July of that year brought Hausa colonel Yakubu Gowon to power. Hausa and other northerners then launched a campaign of violence against the Igbo, killing thousands across the country. The situation turned into civil war when an Igbo colonel, Odemegwu Ojukwu, proclaimed independence for the eastern (Igbo) half of southern Nigeria—called Biafra. The Igbo fought desperately, but by 1970 their rebellion was crushed. Some two million people lost their lives in the war.

During the relatively calm period that followed the war, Gowon's government tried to smooth over ethnic differences. The challenge of rebuilding Nigeria was aided by the discovery of oil in the early 1970s. The prospect of national wealth and stability faded, though, as government officials and their friends stole much of the money produced by oil and political turmoil continued. Gowon was overthrown in 1975, and his successor was killed several months later. General Olesegun Obasanjo took control, but voluntarily stepped aside in 1979 to allow the election of a civilian government.

The new government, led by President Shehu Shagari, was marked by increasing corruption and rapidly declining oil revenues. This so-called Second Republic was even briefer than the first, lasting only four years before the military stepped in once again in 1983. The principal figure in Nigeria in the later 1980s was General Ibrahim Babangida, whose military regime was marked by massive corruption and a complete lack of concern for public opinion. When Nigeria's economy failed to improve, and the nation's political situation remained unstable, Babangida came under increasing pressure to return Nigeria to civilian rule.

Elections in mid-1993 seemed to result in victory for Moshood Abiola, a Yoruba Muslim and friend of Babangida. However, the military overturned the election results, and General Sani Abacha took the presidency. Abacha outlawed political parties and labor strikes, seized government offices, and returned Nigeria to military rule.

When Abacha died suddenly in June 1998, he was replaced by General Abdusalam Abubakar, who promised a swift return to civilian rule. Under an arrangement with northern politicians, two southern Yoruba were named as candidates for the presidency: Olusegun Obasanjo and Olu Fulae. Obasanjo, who had given up power voluntarily in 1979, won the 1999 election. The first southerner elected to the presidency, Obasanjo quickly took steps to combat corruption in government and spent money on long neglected repairs to the country's oil refineries. He also announced a plan to privatize some of Nigeria's state-owned corporations.

Political and human rights have improved somewhat under Obasanjo, but his government has faced unrest and turmoil. It sent military forces to put down an uprising in the oil-rich Niger Delta and to prevent a northern governor from establishing Muslim law in his state, resulting in many deaths. Economic problems as well as ethnic and regional differences continue to trouble the country.


Nigeria's economy is dominated by its petroleum industry, centered in the Niger River delta. The country's enormous petroleum reserves should be the basis for a strong economy. However, corruption in the petroleum industry has shifted much of the oil revenue into the hands of government officials and their friends. Nigeria is attempting to end its dependence on oil by developing a natural gas industry.

Until the discovery of oil in the late 1960s, agriculture was the mainstay of Nigeria's economy. It still contributes nearly 40 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP). Nigeria's major agricultural exports include cocoa, palm oil, peanuts, cotton, rubber, and timber. Although its mining industry is not well developed, Nigeria contains an abundance of mineral resources such as gold, lead, zinc, and other industrial minerals. Nigeria also contains large deposits of coal.

In the late 1940s, British colonial officials began a program of industrialization in Nigeria. However, instead of using local raw materials, the program involved importing partially processed raw materials to produce finished goods in Nigerian factories. This costly and inefficient manufacturing process continues, consuming a large portion of Nigeria's export revenues and adding to its huge foreign debt.

By the late 1980s, Nigeria's debt had forced the nation to adopt various economic reforms. These included cutting levels of government spending and employment and privatizing state-owned industries. Changes in the exchange rate led to a steep drop in the value of the nation's currency, creating severe hardship for most Nigerians. Despite these measures, the Nigerian economy remains unstable, and economic growth is still uncertain.


Nigeria is a highly diverse country consisting of many different ethnic groups. The most prominent are the Muslim Hausa, Kanuri, and Fulani of northern Nigeria and the largely Christian Yoruba and Igbo of the south. There are more than 450 languages spoken in the country, but the widespread use of a few major ones, such as English, Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo, enables Nigerians from different linguistic groups to communicate.

Northern Nigeria

Northwestern Nigeria is dominated by the Hausa, who are primarily farmers and pastoralists. During the Sokoto Caliphate in the 1800s, the Hausa absorbed many local peoples who eventually adopted Hausa culture. However, many other groups resisted the Muslim caliphate and maintained their own identities. Some of these groups, such as the Dendi, Busa, and Tienga, do not speak Hausa or Fulani languages.

Among the major groups in northeastern Nigeria are the Kanuri and Fulani. Both groups are primarily Muslim. Most of the Kanuri live by farming, although some engage in trade. Kanuri society is very hierarchical, with a sharp division between royalty and commoners. The Fulani are both farmers and herders. Town society among the Fulani is also hierarchical, headed by a strong Islamic political leader called an emir.

Northern Nigeria is also home to a wide variety of smaller ethnic groups, many of which are organized into chiefdoms. Quite a few of these groups continue to practice traditional religions, but that number is shrinking as Christianity and Islam make further inroads in the area. Conflict between Christian and Muslim groups is common.

Southern and Central Nigeria

The Niger River divides southern Nigeria into eastern and western halves. Yoruba-speaking peoples dominate the western portion, but they have had much interaction with other ethnic groups in the region. The Yoruba had developed centralized power structures and a hierarchical social system based on descent before the arrival of Europeans. These political structures survive in local governing institutions, while ancestry is still important in determining social position and inheritance. The Yoruba are primarily farmers.

The largest group east of the Niger River is the Igbo (Ibo). Neither the Igbo nor other ethnic groups in this area ever developed centralized power structures. Christianity is the most widely practiced religion in southeastern Nigeria, but many people also follow traditional religions. Among the main sources of livelihood in the area are agriculture, fishing, and crafts such as weaving and woodcarving. Many people are also employed in the Niger Delta oil industry. As the center of crude oil production in Nigeria, southeastern Nigeria is home to some of the largest commercial centers in the country, including Onitsha, Aba, and Port Harcourt. The well-developed region is also home to numerous universities and several airports and seaports.

Central Nigeria is one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the country. It is the home of many different language and ethnic groups that have interacted extensively over time, resulting in much cultural exchange. The site of important trade routes in the precolonial era, central Nigeria was also exposed to a variety of outside influences. Most groups in the region are agricultural, while mining has attracted large numbers of people from other regions of Nigeria to the area. (See also Boundaries in Africa; Colonialism in Africa; Development, Economic and Social; Energy and Energy Resources; Ethnic Groups and Identity; History of Africa; Missions and Missionaries; Sudanic Empires of Western Africa.)