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Nigeria - History

Several dominant themes in Nigerian history are essential for understanding contemporary Nigerian politics and society. First, the spread of Islam, predominantly in the north but later in southwestern Nigeria as well, began a millennium ago. The creation of the Sokoto Caliphate in the jihad (holy war) of 1804-8 brought most of the northern region and adjacent parts of Niger and Cameroon under a single Islamic government. The great extension of Islam within the area of present-day Nigeria dates from the nineteenth century and the consolidation of the caliphate. This history helps account for the dichotomy between north and south and the divisions within the north that have been so pronounced during the colonial and postcolonial eras.

Second, the slave trade across both the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic Ocean had a profound influence on virtually all parts of Nigeria. The transatlantic trade in particular accounted for the forced migration of perhaps 3.5 million people between the 1650s and the 1860s, while a steady stream of slaves flowed north across the Sahara for a millennium, ending only at the beginning of the twentieth century. Within Nigeria, slavery was widespread and bore social implications that are still evident. Conversion to Islam and the spread of Christianity were intricately associated with issues relating to slavery and with efforts to promote political and cultural autonomy. Third, the colonial era was relatively brief, lasting only six decades or so depending on the part of Nigeria, but it unleashed such rapid change that the full impact is still felt in the contemporary period.

Third, Nigeria was constructed by foreign conquest. Colonial forms of authoritarianism underlying “indirect rule” did not create a legitimate social contract among constituent groups. Much of Nigeria’s independent political history has focused on the relationship between the federal center and the subordinate subnational units defined as regions or states. Political order, of course, was extremely difficult to institutionalize in the absence of truly national integrative institutions. Nigeria is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse societies, being made up of over 250 ethno-linguistic groups. Formally, these groups were agglomerated into a single political unit in 1914, but integration among them was minimal because Britain’s policy of “indirect rule” sustained and even magnified differences between them. By allying and strengthening the power of the northern Muslim aristocracy, colonial policy reduced traditional checks and balances, and severely limited access to Western education in northern Nigeria.

In the northern cities of Kano and Katsina, recorded history dates back to about 1000 AD. In the centuries that followed, these Hausa kingdoms and the Bornu empire near Lake Chad prospered as important terminals of north-south trade between North African Berbers and forest people who exchanged slaves, ivory, and kola nuts for salt, glass beads, coral, cloth, weapons, brass rods, and cowrie shells used as currency.

In the southwest, the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo was founded about 1400, and at its height from the 17th to 19th centuries attained a high level of political organization and extended as far as modern Togo. In the south central part of present-day Nigeria, as early as the 15th and 16th centuries, the kingdom of Benin had developed an efficient army; an elaborate ceremonial court; and artisans whose works in ivory, wood, bronze, and brass are prized throughout the world today. In the 17th through 19th centuries, European traders established coastal ports for the increasing traffic in slaves destined for the Americas. Commodity trade, especially in palm oil and timber, replaced slave trade in the 19th century, particularly under anti-slavery actions by the British Navy. In the early 19th century the Fulani leader, Usman dan Fodio, promulgated Islam and that brought most areas in the north under the loose control of an empire centered in Sokoto.

Nigeria was a British colonial creation. It came into being in January 1914 with the amalgamation of the Colony of Lagos (first annexed in 1861), the Southern Protectorates (established 1885 – 1894) and the Northern Protectorate (pacified by 1903). Hitherto, the British had administered them as separate but related territories. Local involvement in government was introduced as early as 1922 when southern politicians, from Lagos and Calabar, took seats in the central legislative assembly. Their northern counterparts did not have legislative experience until 1947 when a new constitution introduced the principle of regional representation. The 1954 constitution created fully-fledged regional governments, and federal elections were held in 1959 the year before independence.

Nigeria was granted its independence on 1 October 1960, originally with Dominion status. In 1963, Nigeria broke its direct links with the British Crown, and became a Republic within the Commonwealth. The independence constitution provided for a federation of three autonomous regions - Northern, Western and Eastern - each with wide-ranging powers, its own constitution, public service, and marketing boards. The overarching but weaker federal government had powers limited to national issues, including control of the police and army, and economic planning. The political system was derived from the Westminster model. A fourth region – the Mid-West – was created in 1964 to satisfy the demand of the minorities.

In the early 1960s, the inherited regional structure led to a series of crises and conflicts, both within and between the 3 ethno-centric regions, as competition grew for control over the federal centre. The 1964 federal elections were marred by violence and rigging. Inter-party and inter-ethnic tensions continued leading ultimately to a military takeover in January 1966, led by Igbo officers. Thereafter Nigeria's post-independence history was marked by a series of military interventions in politics: coups, counter-coups, and a civil war (1967-70) when the Eastern Region attempted to secede as the Republic of Biafra. Over 1 million died in the conflict. Nigeria has only enjoyed 3 short periods of civilian rule – 1960-65, 1979-83, and 1999 to the present. The intervening periods, totalling 29 years, saw military governments in place.

In an attempt to break up the power of the regions, and forestall future conflict, the regional structure was dismantled in 1967, and replaced by 12 states. At the same time, the federal centre took back most of the powers to itself, and a new radical revenue sharing formula was established which deprived the new states of most of their derivation funds. Additional states were later created in phases in response to demands from powerful local interest groups – in 1976 the number rose to 19, in 1989 to 21, in 1991 to 30, and in 1996 to 36. No new states have been created since then although pressures for new states are ever present. A new Federal Capital Territory, at Abuja in the centre of the country, was created in 1976 but it was not fully operational until the mid-1990s.

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Page last modified: 01-08-2013 18:17:16 ZULU