- Nigeria was granted independence on October 1, 1960. A new constitution established a federal system with an elected prime minister and a ceremonial head of state.
- Ife, which flourished between the 11th and 15th centuries, emerged as a major power in the forested areas west of the Niger and south of Hausaland. Some of the characteristic features of Yoruba culture emerged during that time
Under the 1999 constitution, executive power is vested in a president who serves as both the head of state and the chief executive, is directly elected to a four-year term, and nominates the vice president and members of the cabinet. The constitution provides for a bicameral National Assembly, which consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each state elects 10 members to the House of Representatives for four-year terms; members of the Senate—three from each state and one from the Federal Capital Territory—also are elected to four-year terms.
There are two tiers of government—state and local—below the federal level. The functions of the government at the local level were usurped by the state government until 1988, when the federal government decided to fund local government organizations directly and allowed them for the first time to function effectively.
Nigeria is divided into 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, where the country’s capital, Abuja, is located; the constitution also includes a provision that more states can be created as needed. At independence the country was divided into three regions: Northern, Eastern, and Western. The Mid-West region was created out of the Western region in 1963. In 1967 Col. Yakubu Gowon, then the military leader, turned the regions into 12 states: 6 in the north, 3 in the east, and 3 in the west. Gen. Murtala Mohammed created an additional 7 states in 1976. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida created 11 more states—2 in 1987 and 9 in 1991—for a total of 30. In 1996 Gen. Sani Abacha added 6 more states.
The Nigerian legal and judicial system contains three codes of law: customary law, Nigerian statute law (following English law), and Sharīʿah (Islamic law). Customary laws, administered by native, or customary, courts, are usually presided over by traditional rulers, who generally hear cases about family problems such as divorce. Kadis (judges) apply Sharīʿah based on the Maliki Islamic code. Since 1999, several states have instituted Sharīʿah law. Although the states claim that the law applies only to Muslims, the minority non-Muslim population argues that it is affected by the law as well. Christian women, for example, must ride on female-only buses, and some states have banned females from participating in sports.
Nigerian statute law includes much of the British colonial legislation, most of which has been revised. State legislatures may pass laws on matters that are not part of the Exclusive Legislative List, which includes such areas as defense, foreign policy, and mining—all of which are the province of the federal government. Federal law prevails whenever federal legislation conflicts with state legislation. In addition to Nigerian statutes, English law is used in the magistrates’ and all higher courts. Each state has a High Court, which is presided over by a chief judge. The Supreme Court, headed by the chief justice of Nigeria, is the highest court.
The constitution grants all citizens at least 18 years of age the right to vote. The Action Group (AG) and the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) were the major Nigerian parties when the country became independent in 1960. However, their regional rather than national focus—the AG represented the west, the NPC the north, and the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons the east—ultimately contributed to the outbreak of civil war by the mid-1960s and more than 20 years of military rule. Political parties were allowed briefly in 1993 and again starting from 1998, but only parties with national rather than regional representation were legal, such as the newly created People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the Alliance for Democracy, and the All Nigeria People’s Party. Since then, many other parties have been created, most notably the All Progressives Congress (APC), the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), and the Labour Party.
Women have participated in the government since the colonial period, especially in the south. Their political strength is rooted in the precolonial traditions among particular ethnic groups, such as the Igbo, which gave women the power to correct excessive male behaviour (known as “sitting on a man”). Igbo women, showing their strength, rioted in 1929 when they believed colonial officials were going to levy taxes on women. Yoruba market women exercised significant economic power, controlling the markets in such Yoruba cities as Lagos and Ibadan. Some ethnic groups, such as the Edo who constituted the kingdom of Benin, also gave important political power to women; the mother of the oba (king) played an important part in the precolonial state. Women such as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (the mother of the musician Fela and human rights activist and physician Beko) actively participated in the colonial struggle, and several women have held ministerial positions in the government. Although Nigerian women may wield influence and political power, particularly at the familial and local level, this has not always been reflected at the federal level: in the early 21st century, women made up about 5 percent of the House of Representatives and the Senate. (For more information on the historical role of women in Nigerian politics and culture, see Sidebar: Nigerian Women.)
Security of Nigeria
The Nigeria Police Force, established by the federal constitution, is headed by the inspector general of police, who is appointed by the president. The general inefficiency of the force is attributable in part to the low level of education and the low morale of police recruits, who are poorly housed and very poorly paid, and to the lack of modern equipment. Corruption is widespread.
The federal military includes army, navy, and air force contingents. Nigerian troops have participated in missions sponsored by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) and by the United Nations (UN).
Health and welfare
The concentration of people in the cities has created enormous sanitary problems, particularly improper sewage disposal, water shortages, and poor drainage. Large heaps of domestic refuse spill across narrow streets, causing traffic delays, while the dumping of garbage along streambeds constitutes a major health hazard and has contributed to the floods that have often plagued Ibadan, Lagos, and other cities during the rainy season. Lower respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, malaria, and HIV/AIDS are among the leading causes of death. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control was established in 2011 to support public health.
Health conditions are particularly poor in the shantytown suburbs of Greater Lagos and other large cities, where domestic water supplies are obtained from wells that are often polluted by seepage from pit latrines. Rural communities also suffer from inadequate or impure water supplies. Some villagers have to walk as far as 6 miles (10 km) to the nearest water point—usually a stream. Because people wash clothes, bathe, and fish (sometimes using fish poison) in the same streams, the water drawn by people in villages farther downstream is often polluted. During the rainy season, wayside pits containing rainwater, often dug close to residential areas, are the main source of domestic water supplies. Cattle are often watered in the shallower pools, and this contributes to the high incidence of intestinal diseases and guinea worm in many rural areas.
Medical and health services are the responsibility of all levels of government. There are hospitals in the large cities and towns. Most of the state capitals have specialized hospitals, and many are home to a university teaching hospital. There are numerous private hospitals, clinics, and maternity centres. Medical services are inadequate in many parts of the country, however, because of shortages of medical personnel, modern equipment, and supplies.
Overcrowding in the cities has caused slums to spread and shantytown suburbs to emerge in most of the larger urban centres. Most houses are built by individuals, and, because banks do not normally lend money for home construction, most of these individuals must rely on their savings. A federal housing program provides funds for the construction of low-cost housing for low- and middle-income workers in the state capitals, local government headquarters, and other large towns.
House types vary by geographic location. In the coastal areas the walls and roofs are made from the raffia palm, which abounds in the region. Rectangular mud houses with mat roofs are found in the forest belt, although the houses of the more prosperous have corrugated iron roofs. In the savanna areas of the central region and in parts of the north, houses are round mud buildings roofed with sloping grass thatch, but flat mud roofs appear in the drier areas of the extreme north. Some mud houses are also covered with a layer of cement. Larger houses are designed around an open courtyard and traditionally contained barrels or cisterns in which rainwater could be collected.
During the colonial period, British officials lived in segregated housing known as Government Reserve Areas (GRA). After independence GRA housing became very desirable among the African population.
Nok pottery head
Named for the village of Nok, site of some of the finds, the ancient culture produced fine terra-cotta figurines, which were accidentally discovered by tin miners on the Jos Plateau in the 1930s. Initially Neolithic (New Stone Age), the Nok culture made the transition to the Iron Age. Its people raised crops and cattle and seem to have paid particular attention to personal adornment, especially of the hair. Distinctive features of Nok art include naturalism, stylized treatment of the mouth and eyes, relative proportions of the human head, body, and feet, distortions of the human facial features, and treatment of animal forms. The spread of Nok-type figures in a wide area south of the Jos Plateau, covering southern Kaduna state southeastward to Katsina Ala, south of the Benue River, suggests a well-established culture that left traces still identifiable in the lives of the peoples of the area today. Many of the distinctive features of Nok art can also be traced in later developments of Nigerian art produced in such places as Igbo Ukwu, Ife, Esie, and Benin City.
Bronzes, which have been dated to about the 9th century CE, were discovered in the 1930s and ’40s at Igbo Ukwu, near the southwestern city of Onitsha. (See also African art.) They reveal not only a high artistic tradition but also a well-structured society with wide-ranging economic relationships. Of particular interest is the source of the copper and lead used to make the bronzes, which may have been Tadmekka in the Sahara, and of the coloured glass beads, some of which may have come from Venice and India, the latter via trade routes through Egypt, the Nile valley, and the Chad basin. It is believed that the bronzes were part of the furniture in the burial chamber of a high personage, possibly a forerunner of the eze nri, a priest-king, who held religious but not political power over large parts of the Igbo-inhabited region well into the 20th century.
Kingdoms and empires of precolonial Nigeria
Many indigenous polities emerged in Nigeria before the British took control in the late 19th century. In the north there were several large and developed systems, including the Hausa states of Kano, Katsina, Zaria, and Gobir; Kanem-Borno; and the Jukun states of Kwararafa, Kona, Pinduga, and Wukari. Smaller kingdoms included those of the Igala, Nupe, and Ebira. Notable in the south were the Yoruba states of Ife and Oyo, the Edo state of Benin, the Itsekiri state of Warri, the Efik state of Calabar, and the Ijo (Ijaw) city-states of Nembe, Elem Kalabari, Bonny, and Okrika.
The history of Borno antedates the 9th century, when Arabic writers in North Africa first noted the kingdom of Kanem, east of Lake Chad. The lake was then much larger than the present-day body of water, and its basin attracted settlements and encouraged exchange. A pastoral group, ancestors of the Kanuri, established a centralized state over those referred to collectively as the Sao. Initially, trading links extended to the Nile valley of Egypt. There is some evidence that Kanem had made contact with the Christian kingdoms of Nubia before it was overrun by Muslims, who gained a foothold in the ruling family of Kanem in the 11th century. From Kanem the rulers tried to dominate the areas south and west of the lake as well. By the 12th century they had been compelled by attacks from the Sao to move their capital to the region west of Lake Chad, and they gradually lost control of most of the original Kanem.
For a long time, Borno was the dominant power in the central Sudan, including much of Hausaland. The Bayajidda legend, concerning a mythical Middle Eastern ancestor of the Hausa, seems to suggest that the rise of a centralized political system in Hausaland was influenced from Borno. Though the rulers of Borno embraced Islam, the structure of the monarchy remained traditional, with the queen mother and other female officials exercising considerable power. The selection of the monarch, the coronation rites, and other bases of royal authority were dictated by pre-Islamic beliefs. The princes and other members of the royal family were granted fiefs and posted away from the capital to govern frontier zones, while people of slave origin were preferred for the royal guard and palace officials.
For centuries the Hausa have occupied the northern plains beyond the Jos Plateau, which were a crossroads open not only to Borno but also to the states of Mali and Songhai in the western Sudan, the trans-Saharan routes to northern Africa, and various trade routes to the forest areas of Borgu, Oyo, and Benin. Perhaps because of this strategic location, the Hausa developed a number of centralized states—such as Daura, Katsina, Kano, Zaria, Gobir, and, later, Kebbi—each with a walled city, a market centre, and a monarchical system of government. Islam, which was introduced from the Mali empire in the 14th century, strengthened both the monarchical system and the commercial contacts, but it remained predominantly an urban religion until the beginning of the 19th century. Even within the walled cities, however, some pre-Islamic rites remained part of the ceremonies that sustained monarchical authority. A considerable rivalry existed between the different states over agricultural land and the control of trade and trade routes, and Hausaland was periodically conquered by powerful neighbours such as Borno and Songhai.
Yorubaland and Benin
Ife, which flourished between the 11th and 15th centuries, emerged as a major power in the forested areas west of the Niger and south of Hausaland. Some of the characteristic features of Yoruba culture emerged during that time: a monarchical system based on city-states and nucleated villages; a pantheon of gods, a few of which were recognized widely but with several local variations; and divination centred on the deity Ifa, with its corpus of sacred chants. Ife is best known for its potsherd pavements and for the great artistry of its terra-cottas and bronzes, especially the naturalism of many of its bronze figures. (See also African art.) Ife’s influence on surrounding states is evident in the fact that all the monarchies of Yoruba states claim descent from Ife as a way of establishing legitimacy, sometimes borrowing regalia from Ife to use in coronation rites and sometimes sending remains of deceased rulers to Ife for burial.
Oyo, founded in the 14th century and located in the savanna to the north of the forest, gradually supplanted the older kingdom of Ife. After more than a century of struggle with nearby Borgu and Nupe, it established itself strategically as the emporium for exchanging goods from the north—rock salt, copper, textiles, leather goods, and horses—with products from the south—kola nuts, indigo, parrots, and cowries. By the 17th century it had built up a cavalry force with which it dominated people in western Yorubaland and in the dry gap to the coast; to the south, infestations of tsetse flies prevented kingdoms there from effectively utilizing horses.
Portuguese explorer or trader
When the Portuguese arrived in the kingdom of Benin in the 15th century, they found a monarchy, dating back many centuries, with a complex structure of chiefs and palace officials presiding over a kingdom that was expanding in all directions. In time, Benin dominated not only the Edo-speaking peoples to the north and south but also the area eastward to the Niger and, along the coast, to Lagos (which the Edo now claim to have founded) and even into present-day Ghana. It also exerted considerable influence on eastern Yorubaland and maintained trading connections with Oyo. Benin art, which began to flourish in the 15th century, was characterized by naturalistic bronze sculptures and bronze door panels that covered the outside of the royal palace.
Igboland and the delta city-states
Many Nigerian peoples did not develop centralized monarchical states. Of these, the Igbo were probably the most remarkable because of the size of their territory and the density of population. The Igbo characteristic decentralized society seems to have been a deliberate departure from the earlier traditions of Nri; monarchical institutions in such outlying cities as Asaba, Onitsha, and Aboh probably arose through the influence of the kingdoms of Igala and Benin. Igbo lineages were organized in self-contained villages or federations of village communities, with societies of elders and age grade associations sharing various governmental functions. The same was true of the Ijo of the Niger delta and peoples of the Cross River area, where secret societies also played a prominent role in administration. Monarchical structures began to emerge by the 18th century in response to the needs of the overseas trade.
Initially, Portuguese contacts focused on Benin and Warri. By the 17th and 18th centuries, at the height of the slave trade, the delta city-states had become the principal outlets of that activity. Various coastal communities organized themselves as entrepôts of the slave trade, so that they would not also become its victims. Similarly, the Igbo, like the Benin and Yoruba kingdoms, supplied slaves to the coast, although Benin had largely ended its involvement in the Atlantic slave trade by the 18th century. The deleterious effect of the slave trade on the society and the economy was felt everywhere, but, in terms of loss of population, those who suffered most appear to have been the noncentralized peoples of the middle belt. The trade also caused severe economic and political dislocations, intercommunal rivalries, and the forced migrations of millions of people out of Nigeria.
The Sokoto jihad
At the beginning of the 19th century, Islam was well established at all the major centres of the Hausa states and Borno. The etsu (ruler) of Nupe had accepted Islam, and a few teachers and itinerant preachers were also known in parts of the Oyo empire. A group of Muslim intellectuals, most of them Fulani led by Usman dan Fodio, were unhappy that in all these places the rulers allowed the practice of Islam to be mixed with aspects of traditional religion and that nowhere was Islamic law (the Sharīʿah) observed in full. After 20 years of writing, teaching, and preaching in Gobir and surrounding states, Shehu (meaning “chief” or “senior”) Usman (as he was now called) withdrew his followers to Gudu, where they formally proclaimed him amīr al-muʾminīn (“commander of the faithful”), pledged their loyalty, and prepared for war. In 1804 he called on his followers and all lovers of true Islam to rise up and overthrow the unjust rulers. He appealed to the masses of slaves and to the pastoral Fulani as oppressed people to join the revolt.
The high degree of communication that existed at this time among the different peoples in the area that would become Nigeria was evidenced when the call to jihad (“struggle” or “battle”)—made in Gudu, in the northwest—had repercussions throughout the entire area comprising the present-day country. As a result of the considerable interaction along trade routes and rivers draining the northern plains to the Niger-Benue valley, through the delta, and across the coastal lagoons, the call to jihad was answered not only in the Hausa states, such as Kano, Katsina, and Zaria, but also in Borno, Bauchi, Gombe, and Adamawa and eventually in Nupe, Ilorin, and other places where there were pockets of Fulani scholars.
Thus was created a caliphate, with its seat at the newly established town of Sokoto. Each emirate enjoyed autonomy but pledged loyalty to the amīr al-muʾminīn and made contributions for the upkeep of Sokoto. Disputes within or between emirates were referred to Sokoto for settlement by officials who traveled as often as possible to oversee developments. Usman himself retired in 1811 to concentrate on the intellectual direction of the movement, which followed the teachings of the Qadiri brotherhood and strict adherence to the Maliki code of laws. His brother Abdullahi and his son Muhammad Bello carried on the jihad and laid the basis of administration. When Usman died in 1817, Muhammad Bello succeeded him as amīr al-muʾminīn, while Abdullahi, as emir of Gwandu, was given charge of the western emirates, notably Nupe and Ilorin. In this way, all the Hausa states, parts of Borno, Nupe, Ilorin, and Fulani outposts in Bauchi and Adamawa were drawn into a single politico-religious system. The rulers of Borno invited Shehu (Sheikh) Muḥammad al-Amīn al-Kānemī, a distinguished scholar and statesman who disagreed with the Fulani view that jihad was an acceptable tool against backsliding Muslims, to lead their defense of Borno against the Fulani jihad. In the process Islam was revived in Borno, and the old Seyfawa dynasty was eventually replaced by that of Shehu Muḥammad al-Kānemī.
The collapse of Oyo
Although the Fulani intrusion into Ilorin largely contributed to the collapse of the Oyo empire, it was not the only cause. Deep-seated conflicts arose between the alafin, or ruler, and his chiefs, including both provincial rulers and lineage chiefs and councillors at the capital. In spite of the external threat from the Fulani and others, the conflicts could not be resolved. Fulani ascendancy at Ilorin cut off the supply of horses to Oyo and made the defense of the capital untenable. Large groups of people from Oyo had to migrate southward, where they established a new capital (at present-day Oyo) and other centres such as Ibadan and Ijaye. This pressure, in turn, pushed the Egba farther south, where they founded the town of Abeokuta about 1830. The collapse of the Oyo empire unleashed a major redistribution of the Yoruba people and precipitated a series of Yoruba wars that lasted until 1886.
The arrival of the British
The Sokoto jihad and the Yoruba wars stimulated the slave trade at a time when the British were actively trying to stop it. Slaves formerly had been traded for European goods, especially guns and gunpowder, but now the British encouraged trade in palm oil in the Niger delta states, ostensibly to replace the trade in slaves. They later discovered that the demand for palm oil was in fact stimulating an internal slave trade, because slaves were largely responsible for collecting palm fruits, manufacturing palm oil, and transporting it to the coast, whether by canoe or by human porterage. The palm oil trade was also linked to the Sokoto jihad and the Yoruba wars, because many warriors recognized the importance of slaves not only as soldiers and producers of food to feed soldiers but additionally as producers of palm oil to trade for European dane guns and other goods.
Many of the slaves exported in the 1820s and ’30s were intercepted by the ships of the Royal Navy, emancipated, and deposited in Sierra Leone under missionary tutelage. Some of them began to migrate back from Sierra Leone in search of home and trade. They invited missionaries to follow them and, in the 1840s, made themselves available as agents who allowed missionaries and British traders to gain access to such places as Lagos, Abeokuta, Calabar, Lokoja, Onitsha, Brass, and Bonny. In 1841 the British tried to settle some Egba on a model farm in Lokoja, but the plan was aborted because the mortality rate among European officials was so high. It was also partly to protect the Egba that the British shelled Lagos in 1851, expelled Kosoko, the reigning oba, and restored his uncle, Akitoye, who appeared more willing to join in a campaign to abolish the slave trade. The British annexed Lagos in 1861 in order to protect Akitoye’s son and successor, foil Kosoko’s bid to return, and secure a base for further activities.
The British were not yet willing to assume the expense of maintaining an administration in Nigeria. To reduce costs, Lagos was administered first from Freetown in Sierra Leone, along with Gold Coast forts such as Elmina, and later from Accra (in present-day Ghana); only in 1886 did Lagos become a separate colony. A consul was maintained at Fernando Po to oversee the lucrative palm oil trade in the region called the Oil Rivers. Missionaries were active: Presbyterians in Calabar and the Church Missionary Society (CMS), Methodists, and Baptists in Lagos, Abeokuta, Ibadan, Oyo, and Ogbomoso. The CMS pioneered trade on the Niger by encouraging Scottish explorer and merchant Macgregor Laird to run a monthly steamboat, which provided transportation for missionary agents and Sierra Leonean traders going up the Niger. In this way Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther—born in the Yoruba-inhabited area of Oshogbo and the first African ordained by the CMS—was able to establish mission stations at Onitsha, Lokoja, and Eggan and later at Brass and Bonny.
By the 1870s the Niger trade was becoming profitable, and a few French companies took notice. French Roman Catholic missionaries, established in Ouidah (Whydah), arrived in Lagos and considered missionary work on the Niger. The British responded to such evidence of rivalry by defending their right to free navigation on the river at the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884–85. At the same time, George Dashwood Goldie, a British businessman, bought out all French rivals and created the Royal Niger Company (chartered 1886) in order to control trade on the Niger and administer the immense territories of the Sokoto caliphate and Borno. In addition, two other protectorates were declared, one over the Oil Rivers and the other over the hinterland of Lagos, to establish a claim that these areas were also British “spheres of interest.”
The boundaries of the two protectorates and the territories of the Royal Niger Company were difficult to define, but the tension was eased in 1894 when both entities were merged into the Niger Coast Protectorate. Rivalry between the Royal Niger Company and the Lagos Protectorate over the boundary between the emirate of Ilorin and the empire of Ibadan was resolved with the abrogation of the charter of the Royal Niger Company on January 1, 1900, in return for wide mineral concessions.
In the north Frederick Lugard, the first high commissioner of Northern Nigeria, was instrumental in subjugating the Fulani emirs. Some were deposed, some were defeated in battle, and others collaborated. By 1903 the conquest of the emirates was complete. The mud-walled city of Kano was captured in February, and, after a vigorous skirmish at Kotorkwashi, the sultan’s capital, Sokoto, fell the next month. All the territories were now under British control, and the search for an identity began, first as Northern and Southern Nigeria and then with eventual amalgamation.
The British penetration of Nigeria met with various forms of resistance throughout the country. In the south the British had to fight many wars, in particular the wars against the Ijebu (a Yoruba group) in 1892, the Aro of eastern Igboland, and, until 1914, the Aniocha of western Igboland. In the north many emirates did not take military action, but the deposed caliph, Atahiru I, rebelled in 1903. Many Muslims resorted to migration as a form of resistance, a tactic known as the hejira, in which those perceived as infidels are avoided.
Resistance was strong in western Igboland, where a series of wars were waged against the British. The Ekumeku, who were well organized and whose leaders were joined in secrecy oaths, effectively utilized guerrilla tactics to attack the British. Their forces, which were drawn from hundreds of Igbo youth from all parts of the region, created many problems for the British, but the British used forceful tactics and heavy armaments (destroying homes, farms, and roads) to prevail. The Ekumeku, however, became a great source of Igbo nationalism.
Nigeria as a colony
After the British government assumed direct control of the Royal Niger Company’s territories, the northern areas were renamed the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria, and the land in the Niger delta and along the lower reaches of the river was added to the Niger Coast Protectorate, which was renamed the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. Lagos remained the capital of the south, with Zungeru the new capital of the north. On January 1, 1914, following the recommendations of Sir Frederick Lugard, the two protectorates were amalgamated to form the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria under a single governor-general resident in Lagos. Between 1919 and 1954 the title reverted to governor.
Following Lugard’s success in the north, he set out the principles of the administrative system subsequently institutionalized as “indirect rule.” Essentially, local government was to be left in the hands of the traditional chiefs, subject to the guidance of European officers. Native institutions were utilized and interference with local customs kept to a minimum, although the British did not always understand the local customs. While this system had built-in contradictions, over the years the Nigerian system developed into a sophisticated form of local government, especially in the emirates and under the banner of “native administration,” which became the hallmark of British colonial rule in Africa.
Many changes accompanied British rule: Western education, the English language, and Christianity spread during the period; new forms of money, transportation, and communication were developed; and the Nigerian economy became based on the export of cash crops. Areas with lucrative crops such as cacao and peanuts (groundnuts) profited, while many people in different parts of the country had to migrate to work elsewhere as tenant farmers or use their newly acquired education and skills to work in cities as wage earners, traders, and artisans. Two tiers of government emerged, central and local. The central government, presided over by the governor-general and accountable to the secretary for the colonies in London, was more powerful but distant from the people. Local administration, where the colonial citizens typically experienced colonial authority, was based on the policy of indirect rule first developed in the north.
To prevent any united opposition to its authority, the British adopted a divide-and-rule policy, keeping Nigerian groups separate from one another as much as possible. Traditional authorities were co-opted in the north, where the spread of Western education by Christian missionaries was strongly resisted by Muslim leaders. In the south the British occasionally created a political hierarchy where there had been none before; in most cases they ruled through those who were most malleable, whether these people had held traditional positions of authority or not. Because Western education and Christianity spread rapidly in the south and not in the north, development was much slower in the north, and the growing disparity between north and south later caused political tensions.
Further dislocation accompanied the outbreak of World War I. Locally this involved the immediate invasion of the German-held Kamerun (Cameroon) by Nigerian forces, followed by a costly campaign that lasted until 1916. Later Nigerian troops were sent to East Africa. (During World War II they again served in East Africa, as well as in Burma [now Myanmar].) In 1922 Kamerun was divided under a League of Nations mandate between France and Britain, Britain administering its area within the government of Nigeria; after 1946 the mandated areas were redesignated as a United Nations (UN) trust territory.
Although colonial rule appeared secure in the first two decades of the 20th century, the British struggled to keep control of their Nigerian colony and continued to do so until Nigeria became independent in 1960. The British, when faced with dissent, tended to grant political reforms in an effort to dispel the attractiveness of more-radical suggestions. Early on in colonial rule, for example, Nigerians protested the manner in which water rates and head taxes were collected. Nigerians also requested more political representation. The Nigerian Legislative Council was established in 1914 and was given limited jurisdiction; it was replaced in 1922 by a larger one that included elected members from Lagos and Calabar, although its powers also were limited and the northern provinces remained outside its control. A more representative system did not appear until 1946, when each geographic group of provinces had its own House of Assembly, with a majority of nonofficial (though not yet all elected) members; there were also a House of Chiefs and, in Lagos, a central Legislative Council. By 1919 the National Council of British West Africa, an organization consisting of elites across West Africa, was demanding that half the members of the Legislative Council be Africans; they also wanted a university in West Africa and more senior positions for Africans in the colonial civil service.
Beginning in the 1920s, a number of Nigerians joined other Blacks in various parts of the world to embark on the wider project of Pan-Africanism, which sought to liberate Black people from racism and European domination. In 1923 Herbert Macaulay, the grandson of Samuel Ajayi Crowther, established the first Nigerian political party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party, which successfully contested three Lagos seats in the Legislative Council. Macaulay was despised by the British, but he came to be regarded as the “father of modern Nigerian nationalism.”
After the 1930s, political activities focused primarily on ways to end British rule. A national party, the Nigerian Youth Movement, emerged in 1934, and its members won elections to the Legislative Council. After 1940, political activities were broadened to include more people. In 1944 Macaulay and Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo who had been educated in the United States, united more than 40 different groups to establish the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC). The forces unleashed against the British were now diverse, including soldiers who had served in World War II, the media, restless youth, market women, educated people, and farmers, all of whom became committed to the anticolonial movement. Political leaders resorted to the use of political parties and the media to mobilize millions of Nigerians against the continuation of British rule.
The British answered this activity by attempting to create a more representational colonial system. The Macpherson constitution, promulgated in 1951, provided for a central House of Representatives, but friction between the central and regional legislatures, related to the question of where supreme party authority lay, soon caused a breakdown. In response to Azikiwe and other nationalists, the Lyttelton constitution of 1954 created a fully federal system, comprising the three geographic regions of Nigeria, the Southern Cameroons, and the Federal Territory of Lagos. Each region had a governor, premier, cabinet, legislature, and civil service, with the significantly weaker federal government represented in Lagos by a governor-general, bureaucracy, House of Representatives, and Senate.
The southern protectorate was divided into two provinces in 1939—Western and Eastern—and in 1954 they, along with the northern protectorate, were renamed the Western, Eastern, and Northern regions as part of Nigeria’s reconstruction into a federal state. Internal self-government was granted to the Western and Eastern regions in 1957. The Eastern region was dominated by Azikiwe and the Western one by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a Yoruba lawyer who in 1950 founded the Action Group. Demanding immediate self-government, the Action Group was opposed by the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), which was composed largely of northerners and headed by several leaders, including Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. At its own request the Northern region was not given internal self-government until 1959, because northerners feared that their region might lose its claim to an equal share in the operation and opportunities of the federal government if it was not given time to catch up with the educationally advanced south. Among the problems needing attention before the British would grant full independence was the minorities’ fear of discrimination by a future government based on majority ethnic groups. After the Willink Commission examined and reported on this issue in 1958, independence was granted.
Nigeria was granted independence on October 1, 1960. A new constitution established a federal system with an elected prime minister and a ceremonial head of state. The NCNC, now headed by Azikiwe (who had taken control after Macaulay’s death in 1946), formed a coalition with Balewa’s NPC after neither party won a majority in the 1959 elections. Balewa continued to serve as the prime minister, a position he had held since 1957, while Azikiwe took the largely ceremonial position of president of the Senate. Following a UN-supervised referendum, the northern part of the Trust Territory of the Cameroons joined the Northern region in June 1961, while in October the Southern Cameroons united with Cameroun to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon. On October 1, 1963, Nigeria became a republic. Azikiwe became president of the country, although as prime minister Balewa was still more powerful.
After a brief honeymoon period, Nigeria’s long-standing regional stresses, caused by ethnic competitiveness, educational inequality, and economic imbalance, again came to the fore in the controversial census of 1962–63. In an attempt to stave off ethnic conflict, the Mid-West region was created in August 1963 by dividing the Western region. Despite this division, the country still was segmented into three large geographic regions, each of which was essentially controlled by an ethnic group: the west by the Yoruba, the east by the Igbo, and the north by the Hausa-Fulani. Conflicts were endemic, as regional leaders protected their privileges; the south complained of northern domination, and the north feared that the southern elite was bent on capturing power. In the west the government had fallen apart in 1962, and a boycott of the federal election of December 1964 brought the country to the brink of breakdown. The point of no return was reached in January 1966, when, after the collapse of order in the west following the fraudulent election of October 1965, a group of army officers attempted to overthrow the federal government, and Prime Minister Balewa and two of the regional premiers were murdered. A military administration was set up under Maj. Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, but his plan to abolish the regions and impose a unitary government met with anti-Igbo riots in the north. The military intervention worsened the political situation, as the army itself split along ethnic lines, its officers clashed over power, and the instigators and leaders of the January coup were accused of favouring Igbo domination. In July 1966 northern officers staged a countercoup, Aguiyi-Ironsi was assassinated, and Lieut. Col. (later Gen.) Yakubu Gowon came to power. The crisis was compounded by intercommunal clashes in the north and threats of secession in the south.
Gowon’s attempt to hold a conference to settle the constitutional future of Nigeria was abandoned after a series of ethnic massacres in October. A last-ditch effort to save the country was made in January 1967, when the Eastern delegation, led by Lieut. Col. (later Gen.) Odumegwu Ojukwu, agreed to meet the others on neutral ground at Aburi, Ghana, but the situation deteriorated after differences developed over the interpretation of the accord. In May the Eastern region’s consultative assembly authorized Ojukwu to establish a sovereign republic, while, at the same time, the federal military government promulgated a decree dividing the four regions into 12 states, including 6 in the north and 3 in the east, in an attempt to break the power of the regions.