Northern and southern Nigeria are essentially two different countries, and their histories reflect this disparity. The first recorded empire to flourish in this part of West Africa was Kanem-Borno around Lake Chad, which grew rich from the trans-Saharan trade routes. Its adoption of Islam in the 12th century helped. Islamic states based in the Hausa cities of Kano, Zaria and Nupe also flourished at this time.
Meanwhile, the southwest developed into a patchwork of small states, often dominated by the Yoruba. The Ijebu kingdom rose in the 10th century and constructed the mysterious earthworks at Sungbo’s Eredo. Most famously, the Benin Kingdom, became an important centre of trade and produced some of the finest metal artwork in Africa. The political systems of these states rested largely on a sacred monarchy with a strong court bureaucracy. In the southeast, the Igbo and other agrarian peoples never developed any centralised empires, instead forming loose confederations.
The first contact between the Yoruba empires and the Europeans was made in the 15th century, when the Portuguese began trading in pepper, which was later supplanted by the more lucrative slave trade. In contrast, the northern Islamic states remained untouched by European influence until well into the 19th century.
As the slavery abolition movement grew in the early 19th century, the British took a lead in suppressing it along the Niger Delta, where conflicts with Yoruba slavers led to the annexation of Lagos port – a first colonial toehold. This led to further annexation to thwart the French, who were advancing their territory along the Niger River. By the turn of the 20th century, British soldiers had advanced as far north as Kano and Sokoto, where Islamic revivalism had created a rapidly expanding caliphate. From the clash, colonial Nigeria was born.
Nigeria was divided in two – the southern, mainly Christian, colony and the northern Islamic protectorate. The British chose to rule indirectly through local kings and chiefs, exacerbating ethnic divisions for political expediency.
These divisions came back to haunt Nigeria as soon as independence came in October 1960. Politics immediately split along ethnic lines, destabilising the country. In early 1966 a group of Igbo army officers staged a coup. General Johnson Ironsi took over as head of state. Another coup, led by Yakubu Gowon, quickly followed on its heels, along with large-scale massacres of Igbos. In 1967 this provoked Igbo secession from Nigeria, the declaration of independent Biafra and civil war.
Biafra was recognised by only a handful of African countries, and the civil war dragged on for three years. By early 1970, as a result of the blockade imposed by the federal government, Biafra faced famine and its forces were compelled to capitulate. Up to a million Igbos died, mainly from starvation.
The 1970s oil boom smoothed Nigeria’s path to national reconciliation, however the rush of money proved too tempting for the self-serving elite. Gowon was overthrown by General Murtala Mohammed in a bloodless coup in 1975, while Mohammed himself was assassinated in an attempted coup in early 1976 and succeeded by Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian Yoruba, who did the unthinkable for an African military leader and actually stood down, retiring to his farm after paving the way for a civilian regime.
Democracy proved the briefest of interludes. Shegu Shagari’s civilian government lasted just four inept years before falling to the General Mohammed Buhari in 1983. Two years later he was for the chop too, with General Ibrahim Babangida taking the reins and promising another return to democracy. A presidential election finally went ahead in June 1993 with Moshood Abiola, a Yoruba from the south, claiming victory. Yet Babangida was unhappy with the results and annulled them within a fortnight, announcing another poll.
He never got to oversee it. Vice-president General Sani Abacha seized control instead, and he had no pretensions of giving up the military’s privileges. A grotesque caricature of an African dictator, he purged the army of potential coup plotters, abolished many institutions and locked up intellectuals, unionists and pro-democracy activists. His rule reached a nadir in 1995 with the judicial murder of the Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa – an act that led to Nigeria’s expulsion from the Commonwealth. Abacha didn’t care – he was getting rich stealing oil money from the government’s coffers.
Salvation finally came in June 1998, in what Nigerians called the ‘coup from heaven’. Aged 54, and worth about US$10 billion in stolen money, Abacha died of a heart attack in the arms of two prostitutes. His successor immediately announced elections and in February 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military leader and southern Yoruba Christian, was returned as president.
Obasanjo inherited a country in tatters. Free from the military yoke, the deep political and cultural differences between the north and south of the country began to play themselves out in an unruly manner. A major test came in 2000 when several northern states introduced sharia (Islamic law). Tensions between communities became inflamed, resulting in mass riots and bloodshed. The flames were fanned again in 2002 when Nigeria was due to hold the Miss World contest, an event that caused fresh outbreaks of fighting. During Obasanjo’s first term as president, over 10, 000 people were killed in communal violence.
One area where Obasanjo has had success was in returning Nigeria as a player on the international stage. Nigeria now plays a lead role in the Commonwealth and as a regional peacemaker. Obasanjo’s re-election in 2003 was generally regarded as consolidating civilian rule. Despite this, domestic critics have claimed his high international profile is a distraction from tackling Nigeria’s myriad problems.
Nigeria’s economy has not prospered. A much-publicised anti-corruption drive has had mixed results, claiming back some of Abacha’s stolen millions but netting few high-profile officials on the make. A major achievement was the cancelling of Nigeria’s debts in 2005, but attempts to revamp the neglected oil industry have been less successful. Repeated governments neglected the oil infrastructure to the point where Nigeria was left needing to import refined fuel at a higher price than it sold its crude for, resulting in frequent petrol shortages. Government plans to remove fuel subsidies in 2004 were met with a crippling general strike by Nigerians seeing cheap fuel as a birthright, having seen many of the other benefits of statehood pass them by. This sense of alienation is particularly acute in the oil-producing delta. In 2005, local militias put their case against marginalisation by launching guerrilla attacks on oil installations.
Elections are next due in 2007. With Obasanjo constitutionally barred from standing for a third term, Babangida fancies another attempt at running the country, this time as a civilian. As Nigeria continues to lurch from crisis to crisis, whoever takes on the challenge will have a lot on their plate.