After years of coups and military rule, in 2011 Nigeria elected a democratic leader: President Goodluck Jonathan. In another democracy first for Nigeria, Jonathan conceded defeat to reformed military leader Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 (Buhari was in power in the 1980s, having staged a coup). Buhari has pledged to suppress the jihadist-fuelled violence of northern separatist group Boko Haram, and to combat corruption.
Nigeria’s economic growth – due almost entirely to the influx of oil money – has ushered in a time of modernisation and development. But these advances run alongside government mismanagement and corruption. Images of barefoot children hawking fruit alongside slick SUVs are a reminder that new wealth doesn’t often trickle down. While sections of Lagos are awash in glitz, outside the major cities people often live as they did a hundred years ago.
With 186 million people, Nigeria has a huge and expanding population. The main ethnic groups are the Yoruba (in the southwest), the Hausa (north) and the Igbo (southeast), each making up around a fifth of the population, followed by the northern Fulani (around 10%). It's thought that up to 500 languages are spoken in Nigeria.
In many towns and villages traditional belief systems remain strongly intact, despite the very visible presence of American-style evangelical mega-churches. The north is predominantly Muslim, but elsewhere in the country you'll find the boundaries between Islam, Christianity and animist beliefs are refreshingly fluid.
Chinua Achebe documented the early collision of African religion and Christianity in his ground-breaking novel Things Fall Apart, published in 1958. Achebe was Nigeria's most famous author and is still revered for his genius and wisdom; he died in March 2013. Other acclaimed writers from Nigeria include the Nobel Laureate playwright, poet and activist Wole Soyinka, Booker Prize winner Ben Okri (The Famished Road) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who documented the tragedy of the Biafran War in Half a Yellow Sun.
Some of Africa's best-known musicians are Nigerian. Two styles have traditionally been dominant – Afrobeat and juju – with their respective masters being the late great Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade.
The north touches on the Sahel and is mostly savannah with low hills. Mountains are found only along the Cameroon border in the east, although there is a 1500m-high plateau around Jos in the centre of the country. The coast is an almost unbroken line of sandy beaches and lagoons running back to creeks and mangrove swamps and is very humid most of the year.
An underfunded national parks service does exist, but in practice very little land in Nigeria is effectively protected. The expanding population has contributed to widespread deforestation – 95% of the original forests have been logged. However, the oil industry has caused the greatest number of environmental problems: oil spills and gas flaring have damaged the fishing industry, with little of the industry's wealth trickling down to the local level.