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Updated on January 16, 2012

Nigeria, the 14th-largest country in Africa, with an area of 356,669 square miles. From its 475 mile coastline on the Gulf of Guinea, Nigeria stretches northward for more than 660 miles to its border with Niger, embracing in the extreme northeast a section of Lake Chad. On the west, Nigeria is bordered by Benin (Dahomey); on the east by Cameroon.

The Federation of Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and its 61 million people belong to nearly 250 different ethnic groups. Since independence in 1960 national unity has been shattered by the Biafran war and the tribal conflict of which it was the product.

During the Iron Age a relatively advanced culture thrived in what is now Nigeria. Later many small city-states emerged. In the southwest, Ife, the sacred city of the Yoruba people, became culturally important during the 12th century, while Bornu in the northwest rose to power in the 13th century as a center of the Kanem Empire. From the mid-15th century the south was increasingly dominated by Benin, a kingdom that grew rich on ivory and slaves. Benin sculptures in bronze, ivory and wood are now so prized as to attract the attention of international art thieves.

The first Europeans to visit Nigeria were the Portuguese. But it was the British who in their efforts to suppress slavery and promote trade came to control the whole area. Lagos was annexed by Great Britain in 1861. French designs on the north were thwarted by making the Royal Niger Company, a group of British traders, responsible for the area, and in 1900 the protectorate of Northern Nigeria was established.

The south was consolidated as the colony and protectorate of Southern Nigeria in 1906. The political unification of north and south followed in 1914, primarily in the cause of economic progress and administrative convenience.

The British followed a policy of indirect rule, giving greatest possible responsibility to local chiefs (such as the northern Emirs) and traditional institutions. After World War II, with Nigerians participating in the government, the country advanced to independence as a federal parliamentary democracy and in 1963, three years after independence had been granted, became a federal republic within the Commonwealth.

At that time Nigeria consisted of three regions Northern, Western, and Eastern and the federal capital territory of Lagos. The Northern Region occupied nearly two-thirds of the country and had just over half of the total population. This imbalance, and persisting tribal animosities, provoked assassinations, military coups, and massacres. The Ibos of the oil-rich Eastern Region became increasingly resentful of Northern dominance, and in 1966 the government was overthrown by a military coup led by Major General Aguiyi Ironsi (an Ibo), who abolished the federation and set up a centralized military government.

Northerners, however, resented Ibo domination and fighting broke out. After the murder of Ironsi Guly 1966), the army chief of staff, General Yakubu Gowon, a relative moderate, took control. But while he was attempting to restore order, thousands of Ibos were massacred, and thousands more fled from the north to their homeland Eastern Region.

Because he was a member of a minor northern tribe, Gowon stood apart from the main tribal conflict and was thus an acceptable neutral leader. He restored the federation and divided Nigeria into 12 states more in line with the complex ethnic pattern of the country (1967).

But the East-Central State, the land of the Ibos, remained dissatisfied and under the leadership of Lieutenant -Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu proclaimed itself the independent republic of Biafra. In the civil war that followed the Biafrans were at first successful; then the tide turned and federal troops began squeezing the rebel republic out of existence.

Thousands of Ibos died in the bitter fighting; thousands more died of starvation. Biafran resistance finally collapsed in January 1970, and Ojukwu fled to Ivory Coast. In many young African countries, savage reprisals would have followed.

But Gowon, a devout Christian, pursued a policy of clemency and reconciliation as the path to rehabilitation and a new unity.

Within two years thousands of Ibos had returned to the towns and villages in the north and west from which they had fled in 1966, and Ibos and non-Ibos began to work together for the national good. In July 1975 Gowan was deposed in a bloodless (and indeed almost entirely peaceful) coup, and was replaced by General Murtala Mohammed, a Muslim Hausa from the north. He in turn was assassinated in a coup attempt (for which attempts were made to hold Gowon responsible) and General Olusegun Obasanjo became president. A number of executions followed, and strong measures against the corruption which has bedeviled all levels of Nigeria's administration since independence.

Nigeria Today

Nigeria today is a potentially rich country. Since the civil war the economy has rapidly returned to boom conditions, created mainly by Nigeria's new oil wealth, the financial springboard of the $1.5 billion Second National Development Plan (1970-74).

Problems, especially social problems, are not lacking. With the civil war over, the large standing army is a costly burden, though it does provide employment for about 200 000 in a country where there is serious unemployment.

Agriculture needs revitalizing; the rising cost of food is a major factor in current inflation. As yet the education system has not reached the mass of the people and has not produced anything like the numbers of technically skilled workers and potential executives that Nigeria urgently needs. There are equally pressing problems in transportation, communications, and even urban water supply, and it is not surprising that Nigeria has paid more attention to internal affairs than to her possible role in Africa and the world. Nigeria has tended to be pragmatic in foreign relations, but Gowon, who was elected Chairman of the Organization of African Unity in 1973, was for a time a major diplomatic influence among member states.

The Land

Nigeria is a relatively low-lying country with an average elevation of about 1,000 feet though the coastal areas and the broad valleys of the Niger River and its chief tributary, the Benue, are lower. The highest areas are along the eastern border with Cameroon where the Adamawa Highlands rise to more than 5,000 feet. Vogel Peak 6,700 feet, southeast of the Benue River, is the country's highest point.

Geologically Nigeria consists mainly of a core of ancient crystalline Precambrian rocks about 4 550 million years old, located chiefly in the western and northern parts of the country. Around this core younger sedimentary rocks have been deposited. While the Precambrian rocks have yielded no minerals, except perhaps tin from the ]os Plateau, the sedimentaries are important for coal, limestone, and particularly oil. The crystalline rocks have weathered down to produce the moderately fertile soils on which the cocoa industry of western Nigeria is based. The sedimentary soils tend to contain less soil nutrients, and are usually sandier and less retentive of moisture.

Beliefs and Culture

Islam was brought to the extreme northeast in the 1200s, and later also penetrated the country from the west. Today there are more than 26 million Muslims, mainly in the north and west, and their spiritual leader is the Sardauna of Sokoto. Christianity predominates in southern Nigeria, where the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches each claim about 2.5 million followers. Tribal religions are still practiced by about 10 million Nigerians.

English is the official language, but many African languages and dialects are spoken. Education has progressed, but not fast enough to conquer illiteracy, which remains widespread, or to cope with the rapid increase in population. Free primary education, usually until the age of 12, has been introduced in a few states. Education has led many children to reject a rural way of life, and young school-leavers have consequently flooded into the cities.

Because their education is mainly non-technical, it is hard for them to find jobs; even those with some technical education find that difficult because of the capital intensive nature of most existing import-substitute industries. Many of the young unemployed, however, are now being trained in various kinds of urban-based craft and small-scale industries.

Nigeria has six universities and numerous colleges and institutes of higher education. An interesting cultural development is revived, often romantic, interest in African cultures and empires of long ago, part of the quest for a national identity, and the emergence of young Nigerian writers and poets, some of whom have attracted international attention.


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