The predominant country in West Africa, with boundaries arbitrarily set a century ago by British colonial rulers. Nigeria stretches from the western edge of the Sahara Desert to the Atlantic Ocean and is the site of many different tribal cultures. Benin is to the W, Niger to the N, Chad to the E, and Cameroon to the S.
A flourishing Iron Age village and farming culture at Nok existed by a.d. 100. By a.d. 800 the centralized state of Kanem-Bornu had established itself in the northeastern part of the country and prospered because of its key position on the trans-Sahara trading route. By the 13th century the lucrative Sahara traffic in goods and slaves led to the rise of seven states in Hausaland , which traded in competition with Kanem-Bornu. Islam became the dominant religion of the northern states by the 14th century. In the southern forests the Yoruba people had developed a complex culture by the 12th century, centered at Ife. Two major states sprang from Ife: Oyo and Benin. Europeans began exploration and trade with Nigeria in the late 15th century and immediately initiated an extensive, long-lasting, and profitable traffic in slaves. The economy of Benin rested almost entirely on its delivery of captives to English slavers, and Hausaland in the N participated in the funneling of slaves to the coast. Many small coastal city-states arose; notably Bonny, Owome, Okrika, and Old Calabar.
In 1804 a holy war led by a Fulani, the Muslim reformer Usman dan Fodio, erupted against the northern Hausa kings. By 1817 Hausaland had largely been conquered; and under the leadership of Dan Fodio’s son the sultanate of Sokoto flourished. In 1807 Great Britain abolished slavery and attempted to shut down the slave trade entirely, but traffic with slavers of other nations continued unabated. Only in the delta of the Niger River did the alternative export of palm oil replace human cargoes. In 1861 the British occupied Lagos, a major center for slave export, and with the concurrent loss of the American market, slavery’s importance declined.
The British exploited the palm oil trade and from 1884 to 1885 claimed Nigeria and slowly gained control of the region through negotiation and military force. In 1914 the entire country was first administered as a unified British protectorate. After World War II Great Britain began to grant Nigeria greater independence while trying to reconcile the different tribal peoples. In 1960 Nigeria became an independent state, and in 1966 a series of coups brought to power a military government controlled by Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon. In 1967 the independent republic of Biafra split off in the E, and three years of disastrous civil war killed many thousand s of people before the secession was put down and reconciliation effected. In 1975, Gowon was replaced in a coup by General Murtala Muhammad and a group of officers who pledged a return to civilian rule. Muhammad was assassinated in an attempted coup one year after taking office and succeeded by General Olusegun Obasanjo. In 1979, an election brought back civilian government under Alhaji Shehu Shagari. In 1983 Nigeria repatriated thousand s of foreign laborers. Shagari was reelected president in 1983, but was removed in another military coup. In 1985 another coup led by Major General Ibrahim Babangida promised a return to civilian rule. In 1991, Abuja, with had been planned as the new capital since the 1970s was made the official capital of Nigeria. In 1992, elections were held, but were voided by Babangida. New elections in 1993 declared Moshood Abiola as president. Babangida tried to void the election, but he was forced to resign. In another coup, General Sani Abacha became president and banned all political institutions and labor unions. Abacha crushed resistance, jailing Abiola and Obasanjo, and executing Ken Saro-Wiwa, a prominent writer, and eight other human-rights activists in 1995. Abacha died suddenly in 1998, and was succeeded by General Abdulsalam Abubakar, who immediately freed Obasanjo and other political prisoners. Riots followed the announcement that Abiola had also died unexpectedly soon after Abacha, while still in detention. In 1999, elections were held to return to civilian government and the presidency was won by General Obasanjo, running as a civilian. Following Obasanjo’s inauguration in 1999, Nigeria was readmitted to the Commonwealth of Nations; it had been expelled for human rights violations during the Abacha regime. Nigeria has had religious unrest in the northern states, which have locally instituted Islamic law, that has led to violence between Muslim, Christian, and Animist peoples. There has also been unrest in the Niger delta area where local peoples are demand ing more revenue from and local control of the country’s lucrative oil reserves.