Nigerian Ethnicity

From Mangrove Swamps to Sahel Grasslands

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Nigerian History

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with more than 168 million people living in an area about twice the size of California. In fact, Nigeria has six cities with populations over 1 million (the United States has nine). From its tropical south to the arid north, Nigeria as a country is a concept and product of colonialism, bringing together more than 250 ethnic groups within fairly arbitrary borders.


Nigeria’s seacoast in the south, with its mangrove swamps in the Niger Delta, gives way to a band of tropical rainforest and then savanna and drier Sahel grasslands in the north. Along with the landscape, the climate varies: from wet and tropical along the coast to more arid conditions in the Sahel, where a three- to four-month rainy season is followed by hot, dry temperatures. Modern-day Nigeria’s northern area once encompassed the southern end of trans-Saharan trade routes, where salt, cloth and other goods were brought across the desert to trade for gold, ivory, slaves, kola nuts and other items from the south.


Throughout West Africa, Muslim traders brought Islam as well as goods with them across the Sahara, and the religion was adopted by some in Nigeria’s northern Sahel and savanna regions by at least the 9th century. Islam made its way to the south during the reign of Mali emperor Mansa Musa, if not before. Christianity came later, with European traders who interacted with groups in the south. Religious preferences still maintain this north-south divide, with Islam predominating in the north among the Fulani and Hausa, and Christianity in the south. Today, Nigeria is about 50% Muslim and 40% Christian, with about 10% embracing traditional or indigenous beliefs.

Kingdoms of the past

The oldest human remains found in Nigeria have been dated to 9000 B.C., though the region was likely inhabited before then. There is evidence of ironworking from around 600 B.C. The earliest known Iron Age civilization in Nigeria is the Nok, who lived in northern and central Nigeria between about 1000 B.C. and 300 A.D. They are known for their life-sized terracotta statues. Following the Nok, large kingdoms and smaller, village-based groups established themselves in the area over the next millennia.

One of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria today, the Yoruba trace their roots back to the city of Ile-Ife in southwestern Nigeria. The city came to prominence as a center of trade in the 12th century. Like the Nok before them, the Yoruba of this period were sculptors, creating works in terracotta, iron and bronze. The city was also known for its courtyards paved in shards of pottery. Unlike Ile-Ife, the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo maintained an army and established a kingdom that dominated western Nigeria during the 17th and early 18th centuries.

To the south, the Edo people established the Kingdom of Benin, which expanded from a magnificent city into a powerful empire during the 15th century. When Portuguese traders first visited the city, they were impressed by its size and splendor, and Benin sent an ambassador to Lisbon in the early 16th century. Benin is known for its carvings and its “bronzes” (which are actually brass).

In the north, on the edge of the Sahel, the Hausa established states that thrived on trans-Saharan trade, especially after the collapse of the Mali and Songhai Empires, when trade moved farther east. The Hausa states adopted Islam, establishing madrassas and building beautiful mosques—while also warring against one another. The Hausa states were incorporated into the Sokoto Caliphate during a jihad led by the Fulani people in the early 19th century.

The slave trade

Slaves had always been part of West African trade across the Sahara, but gold was the chief commodity that built the great empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai. This changed once Portuguese traders began plying West Africa’s coasts in the late 15th century. Early Portuguese traders actually bought slaves from the Nigerian coast to sell to the Akan people along the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana). After the Europeans began using Africa as a source of slaves for the sugar plantations in the New World, the transatlantic market grew exponentially. On Nigeria’s southern coast, slave traders often contracted with local kings or chiefs to provide slaves, with the kingdom of Oyo and the Aro Confederacy, an Igbo group, becoming two major suppliers. Great Britain abolished slavery in 1807, but a profitable trade continued well into the 19th century, with traders running British blockades off Nigeria. Some estimates put the number of slaves sent to the Americas from Nigeria at 3.5 million.

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After the Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885, which parceled Africa out among European powers, Nigeria fell within the British sphere. The Royal Niger Company represented and pursued British interests in the area until 1890, when the British government took control. The area was divided into northern and southern protectorates until 1914, when they were merged into the colony of Nigeria. Nigeria became independent in 1960. Four years earlier, in 1956, oil had been discovered in the Niger Delta, and Nigeria is now among the top 10 oil exporters in the world.

Ethnic groups

While modern-day Nigeria is home to more than 250 ethnic groups, the four largest account for almost 70% of the population.

The Hausa and Fulani

The Hausa people form one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa. They are located primarily in northern Nigeria and southern Niger. The Hausa language is spoken as a first language by around 40 million people, more than any other language in sub-Saharan Africa. In Nigeria, the Hausa have integrated with the Fulani to the extent that the group is often referred to as Hausa-Fulani.

The Fulani are spread over many West African countries, including Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso. Historically, the Fulani were nomads who kept cattle. They are also strongly linked to Islam; the Fulani led the jihads that helped establish the Sokoto Caliphate in Hausa lands during the 19th century. They are a minority population in each country they inhabit, with the exception of Guinea, where they represent 40% of the population. In Nigeria, the Hausa-Fulani account for about 30% of Nigeria’s population.

The Yoruba

The Yoruba live in southwestern Nigeria and the southern portion of neighboring Benin. They make up about 20% of Nigeria’s population. The Yoruba were greatly affected by the transatlantic slave trade; their territory was one of the most significant slave-exporting regions in Africa during the 1800s. The largest concentrations of Yoruba ended up in Cuba, Brazil and Trinidad. The Igbo and Yoruba peoples from the Bights of Benin and Biafra constituted roughly one-third of all enslaved Africans transported to the Americas.

The Igbo

The Igbo people are another large and influential ethnic group in Nigeria. With a population of about 30 million, they are found primarily in southeastern Nigeria, as well as Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea.

The transatlantic slave trade also had a massive impact on the Igbo. Many of those sold into slavery were kidnapped or captured as prisoners of war. Others were debtors or had been convicted of crimes. Several scholars assert that Igbo slaves were reputed to be especially rebellious; some would even commit suicide rather than endure enslavement. Elements of Igbo culture can still be seen in former New World colonies. For instance, Jamaican Creole uses the Igbo word for “you,” and a section of Belize City is named Eboe Town after its Igbo inhabitants. In the United States, a high concentration of slaves in Maryland and Virginia were Igbo, and they still constitute a large proportion of the African American population in the area.

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