For more than a thousand years before European colonial conquest in the 1800s, the area in and around Nigeria was home to numerous cultures with highly developed art, trade and political institutions. Among the most prominent were Borno and the Hausa city-states in northern Nigeria, the Yoruba city-states and Benin in the southwest, and the Igbo communities of eastern Nigeria. These societies developed extensive trading networks within the region. By the 11th century, links to North Africa flourished as Muslim merchants of diverse ethnic origin crisscrossed the Sahara.
Portuguese explorers arrived off the coast by the 1470s. Soon, European powers were trading liquor, cloth and guns for slaves. Slavery existed in West Africa before the Europeans arrived, as it did in most of the world. With the Atlantic slave trade, however, commercialization and brutality reached unprecedented heights. Customary rights that slaves retained in many local societies were stripped away. In 1500, Africans and people of African descent were probably a minority of the world’s slave population. By 1700, they had become a majority. Almost two thirds of the estimated 18 million or more slaves taken from Africa came from West and Central Africa. Along with Angola, the Nigerian coast was at the heart of this traffic, as the continuing influence of West African culture in the Caribbean and North America bears witness.
The slave trade had devastating consequences. How much it reduced the total African population is disputed, but the most serious effects were social, political and economic. The slave trade helped foster wars, raiding and exploitation of the weak by the powerful. Rulers who refused to participate were pushed aside by Big Men – rulers or merchants who used the system to increase their power and profits. During the 19th century, following abolition by Britain, the slave trade was replaced by trade in agricultural exports, particularly palm oil. Lagos became a British colony in 1861, a hub for expansion of British trade, missions and political influence. It also became a center for an educated Nigerian elite who played prominent roles in the history of their nationalism as well as Pan- Africanism.In northern Nigeria, in the early 1800s, Muslim reformer and empire builder Uthman dan Fodio established the Sokoto Caliphate. Expansion of agriculture, trade, and crafts made this area probably the most prosperous in tropical Africa in that era.
Late in the century, Britain began aggressive military expansion in the region, in part to counter competition from other Western countries and from local African merchants. Britain took control of the Niger Delta in 1885 and northern Nigeria in 1900. Despite this loss of sovereignty, the strong political and cultural traditions of these societies initially enabled many to accommodate nominal British rule with little change in their way of life. As in the U.S., this period was marked by an intensification of racism in the British empire. Africans faced new levels of discrimination in trade and the colonial civil service. Top-down colonial authority worked through ” indirect rule,” using or inventing traditional authorities to control African communities.
The slogan “Divide and Rule” guided British policy. Although the north and south were formally consolidated in 1914, disparities in education and religion were reinforced. In the north, the British limited Christian missions, restricted education, and strengthened the feudal rulers. In 1939, the British separated eastern and western Nigeria, making three regions. Within each region, one ethnic group predominated – the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest, and the Igbo in the southeast. The system fostered rivalries not only between regions but also between the dominant group and other groups within each region.
Resistance to colonial rule took many forms. Women’s resistance to taxation led to a revolt in Aba in eastern Nigeria in 1929 and to massive protests in Abeokuta in the west in the late 1940s. The Islamic populist movement led by Aminu Kano in the north opposed not only British rule but also the feudal aristocracy. Nationalist movements gained momentum after their inception as political parties dating back to the 1920s. Younger activists in both the north and south took the reins in the 1940s and 1950s and promoted a political agenda calling for self-government without delay. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who became the republic’s first president, was one of that generation and among the continent’s leading nationalists.
Nigerians, along with other West Africans, were pioneers in agitating for independence in the 1950s, with leading roles played by soldiers returned from service in World War II, workers, and both urban and rural communities. Britain conceded the principle of independence, but stretched out the process with elaborate constitutional negotiations. Ghana won independence in 1957, but Nigeria‘s progress was delayed until 1960 by the complexity of regional divisions. After independence, Nigeria remained an uneasy federation of distinct regions. The ” political class ” of each region used its authority to harass opponents and pursue its own interests.
In 1966, an attempted coup failed to bring its authors to power, but led to the government handing over power to a military government headed by an officer from the east. This was followed by massacres of easterners living in the north, and yet another coup led by northern officers. The following year, eastern leaders declared independence under the name of Biafra, igniting a three- year civil war. Despite intense ethnic polarization and as many as one million war dead, the victorious federal government adopted a postwar policy of nonretribution. Later division of Nigeria into smaller states gave greater representation for ethnic groups other than the big three.
Successive military governments promised to return Nigeria to civilian rule, but it was not until 1979 that Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo fulfilled this commitment. The military also promised to end civilian corruption, but drives against it were short-lived. The civilian regime of Alhaji Shehu Shagari, who took office in 1979, was notoriously corrupt and incompetent. At the end of 1983, the armed forces took over again. In the 1970s, oil revenues boomed. Oil jumped from 58% of exports in 1970 to over 90% after 1973. Neither the government nor the economy could cope with such growth; corruption, mismanagement and rising indebtedness left the economy vulnerable when oil prices dropped in the 1980s. While a minority grew incredibly rich, living conditions for ordinary Nigerians became more and more precarious.
Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, taking power in 1985 within the military regime, again promised to restore civilian rule. But he repeatedly adjusted the timetable. He imposed two political parties created by the military, both of which chose wealthy Muslim businessmen as presidential candidates. One of the candidates, however, media magnate and philanthropist Chief Moshood Abiola, from southwestern Nigeria, was seen as potentially more independent.
In a June 1993 election, Abiola won 58% of the vote. Even in the north, he won 43% and carried 4 of 11 states. But General Babangida annulled the election. This precipitated a political crisis that was used by Gen. Sani Abacha to seize power in November 1993, while Babangida retired with enormous wealth to become the behind-the- scenes king-maker.
Under Abacha both corruption and repression reached new highs. His regime detained thousands of labor leaders, pro-democracy activists and others. Protesters in the oil-producing region were brutally suppressed. In November 1995, the regime executed writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People.
From 1993 to 1999, Nigerian pro-democracy activists at home and in exile led a sustained campaign for a return to democracy. Inspired by Saro-Wiwa and the plight of the Ogoni in the Niger Delta, environmental activists campaigned against the complicity of multinational oil companies. International human-rights and antiapartheid groups turned their focus to Nigeria. In the U.S., a solidarity movement formed that pressed Washington for the adoption of oil sanctions.
Western and African governments also joined in pressuring the Abacha regime, but they refused to impose the stronger sanctions the pro-democracy movement demanded. After the execution of Saro- Wiwa, Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth. But the regime brushed aside these minor pressures, secure in its knowledge that it retained the support and finance provided by Western oil companies with a wink and a nod from their governments. The regime then decided to ” civilianize ” itself through elections that it would control to ensure Abacha’s victory, and Washington announced its willingness to go along.
Suddenly, in June 1998 General Abacha died in the run-up to elections, and was succeeded by Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar. Next, Moshood Abiola, the winner of the 1993 election, died in prison under suspicious circumstances in July 1998. With the military still in control, new presidential and parliamentary elections were held in February 1999 to return Nigeria to elected civilian rule. The winning presidential candidate was former general and former head of state Olusegun Obasanjo. His election was widely seen as a ” selection ” by the outgoing military regime who deemed him an acceptable choice because he was a former soldier and he met the felt need for these elections to produce a seeming ” power shift ” to the south through the election of a southerner, while protecting the interests of former military government officials drawn mainly from the north.