views updated


POPULATION: 138.2 million
LANGUAGE: English; English Creole; Bantu; and Chadic languages
RELIGION: Traditional African religion; Islam; Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Fulani; Hausa; Igbo; Ijo; Yoruba


Beginning in ad 600, the territory that is now Nigeria witnessed the steady rise and decline of city-states, kingdoms, and empires. While states like Bornu became wealthy through interstate trade, others such as the Niger Delta states increased their power by slave trading. By 1862, the British had annexed Lagos, and they took control of the palm oil plantations of the Niger Delta in the 1880s. Following a series of struggles with individual states and with the French, the British united the colony of Nigeria and established a capital at Lagos in 1914. For the next half-century the British ruled the colony indirectly through local potentates and chiefs, strengthening regional differences and, after independence, encouraging regional rivalries. The most serious conflict occurred from 1967–70, when the Igbo fought unsuccessfully to secede as the Republic of Biafra. More than one million died in the war, with many dying from famine, illness, and starvation.

Since independence in 1960, Nigeria has weathered a series of military coups. A succession of military and civilian governments have tried, not very effectively, to control corruption, nepotism, and regional favoritism in public affairs. Moshood Abiola, a southerner, won the democratic presidential election in 1993, but General Sani Abacha seized power. Pro-democracy strikes and regional strife followed. However, despite its domestic instability, Nigeria has demonstrated that it is the political and economic giant of West Africa. Nigeria led the Liberian peacekeeping effort in the 1990s, and in May 1997 sent troops to Sierra Leone to restore order following a military coup. Nigeria is the dominating member of the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS).

A major challenge for Nigeria has been to unite a diverse group of peoples and to balance political rule with economic and social development among three major groups: the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the west, and the Igbo in the east. To hedge against ethnic rivalry and regional divisions, Nigeria experimented with federalism and expanded its number of states from 18 to 39. A change in electoral rules also required that national leaders win a minimum number of votes from each state. Since 1992, the capital has moved from Lagos to the more centrally located Abuja, which, like Washington, D.C., is a federal district.

A new constitution, adopted and made effective in May 1999, launched a new period of multi-party elections. Despite being marred by serious voting irregularities, violence and protests, the 1999 and 2003 presidential elections provided a measure of consensus among Nigerians for civilian rule—the longest period without military interference since independence. In the general elections of April 2007 Umaru Musa Yar'adua of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) succeeded President Obasanjo. Although these elections also were criticized as seriously flawed, they marked the first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power in the country's history. The PDP kept its majority in the legislature winning 70 seats, and 75% of state governor-ships. Yar'adua has surprised many observers by exerting his independence from Obasanjo, dispelling predictions that he would be Obasanjo's rubber stamp.


Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and is the sixth most populous in the world (138.2 million est. 2008). Indeed, one in five Africans is Nigerian. At current growth rates, the population should reach nearly 191 million in 2015. It is also one of the world's most ethnically diverse countries, with more than 250 distinct groups. The largest of these is the Hausa and Fulani (29%), followed by the Yoruba (21%), the Igbo/Ibo (18.0%) and the Ijaw (10%). The Kanuri, Ibibio and lesser groups account for the remainder. Nigeria is very densely populated in the Niger Delta, where there are more than 1,000 persons per square mile. Four-fifths of the country has fewer than 200 persons per square mile.

Nigeria shares borders with Benin, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. From the Gulf of Guinea in the south, a series of plateaus and plains cover much of the country. To the east, the Gotel and the Mandara Mountains form a common border with Cameroon. With the equator just to the south, the climate becomes tropical in the central regions and arid in the north.


English is the official language, but English Creole is the lingua franca (common language). Besides these, many Bantu and Chadic languages are spoken in the regions.


Proverbs, chants, folk stories, and riddles are popular folkloric forms. Because of Nigeria's long and diverse past and its oral traditions, folklore constitutes an area for much research. In one unusual example, the people of the Ijo village of Toro Arua perform the Ozidi saga. Performances occur only once in a generation. Therefore, all village members attend. The saga tells the story of the mythological history of the people of this community. Lasting more than eight days, each morning a sacrifice to the water spirits is made to ask for their blessing. A poetic narrator, an orchestra of drums, a choir of singers, male and female dancers, and actors portray the heroes and foes of the community. The event reminds adults and instructs youth about their glorious past and their distinguished ancestral heritage.


Nigerians widely hold on to their traditional African religious beliefs in addition to subscribing to various branches of Islam and Christianity. The state maintains neutrality in religious issues, and the constitution guarantees freedom of worship. Islam is most firmly rooted in the north, where it was first a religion of rulers and courtiers in the 11th century ad. Muslims now constitute about 50% of the population with Christians comprising roughly the other half, thanks to strong missionary campaigns in the 19th century. Currently, Protestants outnumber Catholics by about two to one. Of note are the African church movements and breakaway groups rooted in the 1920s and 1930s that established African versions of Christianity. About 11% of the population belongs to these distinctly African Christian churches.

Very much alive is traditional religion, which operates on three levels. Most ethnic groups have names for a supreme being whom they believe created the universe. The Yorubas call him Olorun (Lord of Heaven), the Hausas, Ubangiji (God), and the Efiks of Calabar, Abasi Ibom (The Great God). Lesser gods and deities are more accessible and act as intermediaries between people and the Creator. They possess special powers. People build shrines, make sacrifices, and offer prayers and libations to them. At the lowest levels are spirits of the dead, both good and evil, that have not yet found their rest. They may do the wishes and desires of persons who properly handle them. Sacred objects represent the lesser gods and spirits, and care must be taken not to offend them or the deities with which they are associated. Traditional religion has influenced Nigerian crafts, art, music, dance, agriculture, and language.


Secular holidays include National Day (October 1). Muslim and Christian holidays include Tabaski (commemorating Abraham's sacrifice) and the end of Ramadan and Easter and Good Friday.

Beside these non-indigenous holidays, Nigerians celebrate many cultural festivals throughout the year, such as the Argungu Fish and Cultural Festival on the banks of the Sokoto River. During this celebration, hundreds of fishermen jump into the river at once, scaring the fish into the air and into their nets. Their yellow calabashes bob around on the water waiting to be filled with the catch.


Nigerians typically celebrate rites of passage with music, dance, and ceremony. These life-defining moments are critical for the individual within his or her community, and therefore are borne by all members of the community. At his or her naming ceremony a child becomes a member of the community; at initiation, an adolescent assumes the responsibilities of adulthood; a woman moves to her husband's family after marriage; an elder is bequeathed a title for lifelong service; and eventually, a community member joins the spirit world.

Nevertheless, modernity and urbanization are breaking down customary rituals. In a 1993 documentary film on initiation rites for girls (Monday's Girls), urban pressures and the weight of custom collide in the delta region. Here, Waikiriki girls participate in a five-week coming-of-age ceremony (Iria), which transforms them into marriageable women. A city girl who has returned to the village for the ceremony contrasts with the other girls. She and her cohorts are secluded in a house and “fattened up” for the ceremony. They are pampered and must do no work. Elderly women shear their hair, teach them how to be mothers and take care of their husbands. The old women paint the initiate's bodies before the young women appear in public with uncovered breasts to be scrutinized by the elders. This act serves to verify the initiate's purity. Th roughout, the city girl resists the process, allowing just a shock of her hair to be cut, and refusing to appear in public uncovered. She argues that she does not need anyone to teach her how to treat a husband. In the end, she greatly offends her father and disgraces her family. The other girls, though bored with their confinement toward the end, seem happy to have fulfilled this traditional rite.


Nigerians often use English in greeting strangers because of their linguistic diversity. In the Igbo language, Isalachi, and in Hausa Yayadei, mean “good morning.” As elsewhere in Africa, two men may hold hands and stand near each other when talking because their sense of personal space is closer than that of Americans.

In most parts of sub-Saharan Africa, passing an object with the left hand or with only one hand is impolite. Nigeria is the same. Children especially must learn to offer and accept objects with both hands. Some Nigerians consider waving an insult, particularly close to the face.


Despite being Africa's largest oil-producer (2.44 million barrels a day), half of all Nigerians live below the poverty line. The infant mortality rate is high even for Africa at 94 for every 1,000 live births, and life expectancy is under 50 years of age. The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is also high for West Africa at 5.4% and the number of people living with HIV/AIDS is 3.6 million (est. 2003). In terms of living standards and quality of life, Nigeria ranks near the bottom—158th out of 177 countries worldwide on the Human Development Index.

Depending on region and disposable income, Nigerians build simple rectangular or cylindrical houses of reed, mud brick, or cinder block. In urban areas, the federal and state governments have sometimes helped low-income people get affordable homes. Migrants often live in crowded conditions with several families sharing a few rooms, common cooking areas, and latrines. Lower- to middle-level income workers can afford small- to medium-sized houses with at least a standpipe in the courtyard, if not indoor plumbing. Middle- to upper-level groups have Western-style furniture, refrigerators, television sets, and motorcycles or cars. A small, very rich elite live in mansions and drive Mercedes.

Except urban squatter areas, conditions are generally more rudimentary in rural areas than in urban. About 70% of Nigerians live in villages and without indoor plumbing and electricity. Only half of all families have access to a potable water source, which means that many people—mostly women and children—have to walk great distances to draw water suitable for drinking. They may go further to scavenge wood for cooking in northern arid regions. Men and women often alternate bathing periods at a local stream or river. Laundering of clothes takes place near bathing sites so that long trips are reduced. Like many sub-Saharan people, Nigerians must cope with tropical and infectious diseases. Lack of window screens, refrigeration, mosquito nets, and hygienic water storage contribute to health problems.

One benefit of Nigeria's oil revenues is the extensive network of roads and rail lines. The major railways run from coastal port cities such as Lagos and Port Harcourt to terminals up-country as far as Nguru and Maiduguri. Many trunk roads are paved, and several interstate highways connect commercial centers and medium-sized towns. Nigeria even has toll plazas, and a four-lane expressway links Lagos with Ibadan. Secondary and tertiary roads may be bumpy, rocky, and unimproved. Vehicle life on these roads is usually shortened considerably, but Nigerians are good mechanics. Though car bodies may rattle and shake, every mile is squeezed out of them.


Typically Nigerian families live together in compounds where nuclear families share the same hut. The father and husband are generally the dominant heads of the household. Family members deeply respect their elders, and the mark of a well-reared child is quiet and respectful behavior in the presence of adults.

Nigerians practice polygyny, and under Islamic law, a Muslim man can have up to four wives if he can support them. Typically the groom will pay a bride-price to the family of his bride. In the cities one sees Western-style dating, but this is rare in the villages. Because weddings are expensive, many couples may live together without social stigma until they can afford to give a proper wedding feast.

Nigerian women hold distinction in international circles as leaders in academia and business. They spearheaded a national feminist movement that gained momentum in 1982. Traditionally, non-Muslim women have had independent economic status and have made their mark in interregional trade. Despite these advances, Nigerians still regard single women as an oddity, and men consider them sexually available. Abortion is legal only when the mother's life is threatened or in cases of rape or incest.


Western-style garments, makeup, hats, bags, shoes, and other accessories—symbols of the Western-educated elite—are increasingly replacing traditional apparel, especially in the cities. In the past, men dressed to show their acquired prestige. Women wore necklaces, earrings, bracelets, toe rings, finger rings and hair ornaments made from stone beads, ivory, leather, seeds, mother-of pearl, iron, the teeth and claws of animals, and the vertebrae of snakes. Vestiges of the past are seen in rural areas, where many women and men wear long loose robes of either white or bright colors. Women often wear scarves or turbans. The Igbo traditional dress is a danshiki, a long loose-fitting top. Formerly Igbo women added pieces of cloth to show their status in marriage and number of children. Colors were also used to symbolize cultural status, royalty, or bloodline.

Nowadays special dress is losing its traditional functions. Men dress for status rather than prestige. Cheaper European cotton thread and commercial dyes have replaced the aesthetically superior hand-woven cloths. European makeup and cheap costume jewelry, too, are supplanting traditional cosmetics and ornaments. The former elaborate traditional hair-dressing is losing its symbolic meanings.


Nigerians rise early, and therefore may eat several times a day. Early breakfast begins at 5:00 am and late dinner comes at 9:00 pm. Breakfast may consist of rice and mango or fried plantains. At around 11:00 people might eat efo (stew) or moyinmoyin, bean pudding made with steamed black-eyed peas.

Nigerians generally like their food hot and spicy. There-fore, cooks do not spare hot red peppers either in the dishes themselves or alongside as a relish. Typically, stews or sauces are made from greens or fish, and if one's means allow, from meat or chicken. These are eaten with rice or yams. Cassava and corn are popular too, and various flours, such as yam and cassava, may be mixed and cooked into a steaming ball of fufu. Nigerians in the coastal regions drink palm wine and locally brewed beer. Muslims are great tea drinkers. In the cities, coffee houses and pubs are very popular.


The Nigerian formal educational system is patterned after the British public school system. At the age of six or seven, children begin primary school. Muslim children learn Arabic and religious teachings in informal Quranic schools, or private Quranic schools licensed by the government. Others in rural areas receive basic farming instruction and other skills through an apprenticeship system. Some preschool, special education, adult education, and classes for the gifted and talented exist, too.

Nigeria has one of Africa's most developed systems of higher education. At least 25 institutes of higher learning, including several universities, exist. The largest of these is Ahmada Bello University in Zaria. Despite high school enrollments, many Nigerian children leave early because of economic hardship. A significant portion of the population still views advanced education as unnecessary for girls. This attitude is reflected in literacy rates—in 2005 the overall literacy rate was 69%, but only 44% of girls and women could read and write. The literacy trend for girls however, is positive; more than 60% of girls aged 15–19 are now literate.


Nigerians have a long history of music, traditional dancing, visual art, and oral literature. Modern drama, opera, cinema, films, and written literature build on Nigeria's cultural heritage. Historically, culture has flourished in these various forms; it dates back 2,000 years in Nok figurines, Ife terra cottas and bronzes, Benin ivories, and Igbo Ukwu objects. The Yoruba are famous artists, making magnificent masks such as the ones used at the Ogen Festival. Sculptures served to comfort the bereaved. Benin bronzes depicted individuals and events at court and glorified the king, immortalized the dead, and served to worship the royal ancestors. The Yoruba traditionally sculpted wooden verandah posts, ceremonial masks, twin figures for the cult of the twins, and bowls and trays for Ifa divination. The Igbo make exquisite carvings of masks and the elephant spirit headdresses.

To many Nigerians, culture is synonymous with dance because traditional dancing at festivals combines music, artistic masks, costuming, body painting, drama, poetry, and storytelling. Much can be said of Nigerian dance and music because they are essential to the celebration of events connected with every aspect of life. People often celebrate child-naming, marriage, burial, house warming, chieftaincy installations, and harvesting with music and dance. At initiations, priests and initiates perform dramatic dances, and deities are represented by elaborate costumes and masquerades that conceal the identity of the wearer.

Nigerian authors are gaining international recognition for modern written works. Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and A Man of the People, harsh critiques of colonial days and contemporary Nigerian politics and society, now make regular appearances in American college classrooms.


Because the petroleum industry has provided easy money, Nigeria has a relatively undiversified economy and undeveloped labor force of over 50 million workers. Most people remain in subsistence agriculture (nearly 70%). In the cities, people do whatever it takes to survive. They carry water, sell food on the street, wash clothes, peddle household items, haul lumber, and engage in prostitution. Many sleep where they work until they can afford to rent a room or share an apartment. Lagos has the world's sixth largest population (over 20 million) and draws thousands of migrants daily to its slums in search of work.

One of the more enterprising developments in recent times is Nigeria's burgeoning film industry, dubbed “Nollywood.” Nollywood employs more than 20,000 workers and continues to grow. Its digital home video films are distributed around the world and are readily available in the United States.


Nigerians enjoy several sports. Traditionally Nigerians have wrestled, performed archery, organized foot and horse races, and developed acrobatic displays. Soccer now tops the list of modern competitive sports. Schools at all levels, business, and industry organize matches throughout the country, which has been described as “football mad.” Some 62 league clubs exist. Nigerians competed internationally in World Cup competition most recently in 2002. During the playoffs, people crowded in front of TV sets stacked on top of each other on sidewalks to view their Super Eagles. In professional boxing, Nigeria has produced at least three world champions. Other sports include table tennis, tennis, basketball, polo (especially in the north), cricket, and swimming.


Home visiting is popular, and now many middle-class people have home entertainment centers with sound systems and television. As a measure of television's popularity, the government estimates that some 40 million Nigerians watch it on about 40 stations. Over the past decade, the Nigerian home videos have become very popular. Western dating customs in the towns make these forms of recreation even more popular. For music and dancing, the older generation may still appreciate high life bands, but younger people prefer Afro-Beat and Juju music—styles that originated in the Lagos area.


Nigerian folk arts and crafts range from ivory carvings to body painting to painting of the interior and exterior walls in decorative motifs. Many arts and crafts traditionally owe their inspiration to religion and royalty. Colonial repression of indigenous religion and its artful expression led to its degeneration. Nowadays commercial motives have taken over as artists supply the tourist market.

Given the plentiful grasses on the northern plains, craftspeople there make colorful and durable baskets, fans, tables, and floor mats. Wood carving has flourished in Benin and Awka. Carvers make figures for shrines, portraits, masks, and spirit representations of natural features such as fields, forests, streams, water, fire, and thunder. The thorn of the wild cotton tree serves to make delicate, but decorative sculptures giving the effect of dresses, caps or head ties, and shoes. Some of these works have become collectors' items. Artists also cast sculptures in bronze and brass, produce glass and metal work, and make quality leatherwork and calabash carvings in Kano and Oyo. Nigerian pottery has a long tradition and ranks among the most artistic in the world. Cloth weaving in the town of Akwete also has caught the fancy of many women. The designs are both colorful and imaginative, and the pieces are unusually wide, about 1,200 mm.


Nigeria suffers a plethora of social ills. Corruption has left the country more than $37 billion in debt (2006). Dubbed as the “resource curse,” oil has fueled greed and nepotism and turned the country into a showcase of embezzlement, fraud, and bribery. In the oil-rich delta region, gangs kidnap oil workers, abduct officials, and takeover oil installations. Bunkering—illegal tapping into oil pipelines—drains 10% or more of oil production and has killed thousands of people in explosions and fires. Gang clashes in Port Harcourt resulted in at least 10 deaths in 2007.

Nigeria also has been a staging point for drug trafficking to Europe and the United States. Political instability, crime and lack of rule of law continue to plague the country. Government occasionally shuts down independent newspapers, and it harasses opposition journalists. In an internationally acclaimed case in 1995 the government hung human rights leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists in a trial that observers widely denounced as based on trumped-up charges. Many high-level officials and wealthy individuals are known to be involved in racketeering and scams of various types.


As elsewhere on the continent, women do not enjoy the same rights and privileges as men and are subject to lower pay, unequal inheritance rights, and other societal discrimination. Polygamy is legal and one out of five girls and women undergoes female genital mutilation. The law permits husbands to chastise their wives, but owing to weak enforcement, domestic violence, rape, trafficking and other crimes against women and girls often go unpunished. In addition to raising children and keeping house, women in rural areas walk several miles a day to hoe fields, gather firewood, fetch water, and do the marketing. In some areas women are considered part of their husbands “property” to be inherited along with his other possessions. In 12 of the northern states, women's rights are subject to Shariah Law, which affects both Muslim and non-Muslim women. For example, in Zamfara women are obliged to take separate transportation and use separate health care facilities. Of the more than 500 high-level political posts in the country, women hold 6 cabinet, 9 senatorial, and 27 representative positions.


Achebe, Chinua Albert. A Man of the People. London: Heine-mann, 1966.

———. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1958.

Africa South of the Sahara 2007. “Nigeria.” London: Europa Publishers, 2008.

Biobaku, Saburi O., ed. The Living Culture of Nigeria. Lagos: Thomas Nelson, 1976.

Eades, Jeremy Seymour. The Yoruba Today. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Federal Republic of Nigeria, Federal Ministry of Information. Nigeria 1991: Official Handbook. Lagos: Emaconprint Ltd., 1991.

Metz, Helen Chapin, ed. Nigeria: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992.

Onwurah, Ngozi. Monday's Girls. Produced by Lloyd Gardiner. BBC, 1993.

Packer, George. “The MegaCity.” The New Yorker, 13 November 2006.

—by R. Groelsema

About this article


Updated About content Print Article Share Article