Module Twenty Five, Activity Three

Nigeria’s History of Politics and Global Relations: The Colonial and Postcolonial Period

This activity picks up where Activity Two left off— the time period when Europeans started coming to West Africa in great numbers and colonizing it. European colonization significantly changed the politics, economics, and cultures of the entire African continent, as you may remember from Module 7B Activities Two and Three. In the case of Nigeria, it was Britain who was the colonizer; however, many other European countries contended for control of this vast region before Britain gained control of Nigeria. People living in the country that would become Nigeria resisted and accommodated European powers to varying degrees. In the end, Britain managed to rule Nigeria for 46 years before Nigeria gained independence as a nation in 1960. Today Nigeria remains united and independent, although as you will see from its contemporary history, not without its fair share of turmoil. Nevertheless, Nigeria has emerged as a West African political and economic powerhouse and the most populous African nation.

The Colonial Period

The First Wave of Europeans in Nigeria
Europeans began exploration, trade, and missionary endeavors along the West Coast of Africa in the 15th century. The Portuguese were the first to do so, establishing trade with the Benin Kingdom, Lagos, and other regions along the coast. Portuguese dominance of these trade routes was overpowered in the 16th century by the British, French and Dutch, as the slave trade became very important. Slaves were taken from Nigeria to work on plantations in the Americas. We have covered the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade in detail in Module 7B. During this period, Nigeria lost great numbers of people to the slave trade, and also began to acquire fire arms, metal bars, cloth and other European products through trade. Communities in Nigeria were changed substantially as a result of this kind of trade with Europeans. Some communities grew in size and power as commercial centers, while others suffered great losses through slave raids. Violence escalated, and warfare tactics changed with the coming of guns. Some estimate that over the course of the Atlantic Slave trade, more than 3.5 million slaves were shipped from Nigeria to the Americas.

The British dominated the slave trade off the Nigerian coast in the 18th century. But with the rise of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain in the 19th century, the emphasis in trade shifted from slaves to raw materials for factories. The Atlantic slave trade was outlawed by the British in 1808, although it continued after that for more than 50 years. Also up until this time, Europeans traded through middlemen on the coasts. But in the 19th century, Great Britain began to push into the hinterlands of Nigeria, meeting plenty of resistance along the way.

The Second Wave of Europeans and Conquest in Nigeria
Lagos was the first part of Nigeria to become a British colony in 1861. From there, additional portions of what would be Nigeria were annexed either through treaties or conquest until nearly all of what is today Nigeria was under British control in 1905. The southern portion of Nigeria was conquered from approximately 1850 to 1897, and the northern part of the country from about 1900 to 1914. At the Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885, several European countries came to an agreement about which parts of Africa each of them would control. Among Great Britain’s claims to African land was Nigeria.

As the British moved into the hinterland of Nigeria, they met a lot of resistance from people living there. For example, Oyo (mentioned in Activity Two) and the Itsekiri kingdom in the south put up quite a fight before submitting to Britain’s military forces. In the north, the British High Commissioner for Northern Nigeria, Captain Lugard (who would later be titled “Lord” Lugard) was appointed and began conquering northern territories. His military forces met with great resistance in Sokoto, Kano, and many other cities. In these places, many people rallied around Islam as a way of resisting the British. Remember from Activity Two that most of Northern Nigeria at this time was part of the Sokoto Caliphate, which was formed through a series of jihads in the 19th century. The British were often seen as infidels, and their conquest as possible signs of the end times. Ironically, many British colonizers thought that Africans were the infidels, who needed to be converted to Christianity. In the end, the military resources and divide and conquer tactics of the British made them out to be the conquerors.

The Colony
In 1914, Lord Lugard joined the north and south of Nigeria into a single colony for the first time. This time period corresponded with the First World War, which strained the British's ability to channel resources into its new colony. But the war also helped Great Britain to solidify its control of Nigeria. By the end of the war, Lord Lugard had set in place a system of indirect rule in Nigeria, which allowed for the British to rule through customary authorities and structures. This system tended to work best in the north, but ran into some problems in the south. Part of the problem was that the British actually invented customary “chiefs” in the south, who the general population did not necessarily acknowledge or respect.

The north and south of Nigeria were regions with very different histories, cultures, and religions, as you learned in Activity Two. What joined them together was a common colonizer. Most of the north had been under Islamic rule through the Sokoto Caliphate, while converts to Islam in the south remained minimal. Christian missionaries decided to target their efforts on the non-Islamic south rather than the Islamic north. One of the consequences of this strategy was that the people in the north did not have as many opportunities for Western-style education as people in the south, since missionaries did not establish many schools in the north. This would eventually lead to substantial differences between northern and southern populations in terms of their access to certain kinds of jobs and information, which required a Western-style education.

As a colony, Nigeria experienced a good deal of growth in infrastructure and trade. Roads and railroads were built throughout the country. Communication became more rapid due to the telegraph and postal system. Cash crops such as rubber, peanuts, and palm oil were promoted in rural areas, and were sold and exported. Also involved in export was the expanding mining industry. In general, a cash economy was becoming increasingly important to Nigeria. And this economic system that was set into place mainly benefited Europe, while exploiting the labor and resources of Nigeria. It is understandable, therefore, that there were significant resistance movements during the colonial period.

The Nigerian people could see that the colonial system was not working for their benefit. They were taxed heavily and unable to move up the ladder to positions of privilege and power that the colonial administrators enjoyed. They also resented the disrespect for local customs shown by British colonizers. On many occasions, Nigerians resisted the colonial administration. For example, Igbo market women protested the British and their Nigerian collaborators’ attempts to impose taxes on their commerce in the Aba Women’s Tax Riots of 1929. A variety of unions and political associations also formed during the colonial period, as well as a growing group of intellectuals and professionals. These groups became major points of resistance to the colonial administration and formed a strong base in the nationalist movement for independence. Some Nigerians also began to identify with other colonized and/or marginalized Black people around the world through the Pan-African movement. See Module 15: Activity Seven: Summary—Africa in a Global World.

Women Selling Palm Oil in Ilorin City Market. Women in Southern Nigeria have a long tradition as market traders. Photo from Africa Focus Database, University of Wisconsin

Towards the end of the colonial period, oil was discovered in Nigeria. In 1958, it began to be exported on the world market. The oil industry would have tremendous effects on Nigeria as an independent nation, and continues to be a central part of Nigeria’s economy today. Nigeria is the fifth biggest source of United States oil imports.

Below is a map that shows colonial borders of West Africa in 1945. Nigeria is one of four British colonies in West Africa, along with Ghana, Gambia, and Sierra Leon.

Colonialism 1945

Along with 16 other African nations, Nigeria became an independent country in 1960. The process of transferring power from the British to the Nigerians, however, had been gradually occurring for about 15 years through constitutional reforms, and growing political parties and national leadership. Although Nigeria did achieve its independence, the negative side of the political organizing at this time was that it was accentuating ethnic and regional differences, which would cause conflict in Nigeria for the years to come. The most tragic of these conflicts was the Biafran civil war from 1967-1970 in which 1 million people died. Having suffered a massacre of Ibo people in the North, people in the Eastern Region of Nigeria (largely Ibo) tried to secede and become the Republic of Biafra. However, this region is rich in petroleum, making it valuable to the rest of Nigeria. Thus, the secession erupted into a 30-month war to see who would control this region. In the end, Nigeria maintained Biafra as a part of its territory.

Nigerian Flag

Independent Nigeria has fluctuated between a series of self-appointed and elected leaders. The first governor-general (1960-1963) and president (1963-1966) of Nigeria was an important leader in the Nigerian nationalist movement named President Azikiwe (shown in the photo below). He ruled with Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa during the first six years of independence, but they were removed from power by a military coup in 1966. Between 1966 and 1979, several military rulers led Nigeria. Not until 1979 did the country move to civilian rule again under the elected President Alhaji Shegu Shagari. But in 1983, another series of military coups began. Four more military leaders ruled Nigeria during this time period, the longest ones being General Ibrahim Babangida (1985-1993) and Sani Abacha (1993-1998). A man named M.K.O. Abiola was actually elected in 1993, but put in prison in a coup soon afterwards by Sani Abacha. Finally in 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo was elected and still currently serves as president.

Statue of Former President Azikiwe at Denis Memorial Grammar School in Onitsha Photo from Africa Focus Database, University of Wisconsin

Nigerian Heads of State (1960 to the Present)

Nigerian Heads of State table

What Steps Has Nigeria Taken Towards Democracy?
As you have seen, Nigeria has had a hard time maintaining a democratically elected president since independence. The current president, Goodluck Jonathan, is the third democratically elected president since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999. has managed to hold the longest democratically elected regime in Nigeria’s four and a half decades as a country. How has democracy faired since 1999? And what challenges still lie ahead for Nigeria?

Since Nigeria’s return to democracy, it is generally agreed upon that Nigerians experience more freedom, liberty, and respect for human rights than was the case under past regimes. For example, people are not as afraid as they once were to speak out their opinions in public. Also, Nigeria held presidential elections in 1999 and 2003, both of which were won by Obasanjo, again in 2007 won by Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (who died in office in 2010), and in 2011 won by Goodluck Jonathan. In addition there have been numerous other elections for additional government posts during this period including two parliamentary elections.

Despite these positive developments, Nigeria has recently suffered from upsurges of conflict and violence from time to time. Some of these conflicts are related to natural resources, such as in the oil-rich Niger Delta. And other conflicts are over differences in religion or ethnic identity. For example, certain states in Northern Nigeria have implemented Muslim law (Shari’a) for Muslims, which has at times resulted in conflicts with non-Muslim residents of those states. Some of these new laws have also been sharply criticized as denying basic human rights to Nigerians. For example, the international community rose up in protest to the sentencing of a Nigerian Muslim woman named Amina Lawal to be stoned to death in 2002 because she bore a child out of wedlock. Fortunately, she was not stoned because her sentence was later quashed.

Economics and Oil in Nigeria in Recent History
At the same time Nigeria was struggling to return to democracy, it was in the midst of a period of economic hardship, which continues today. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Nigeria experienced an oil boom. As the price and output of oil fell in the 1980s, Nigeria suffered economically. As a result of the growing poverty in Nigeria, the country qualified for loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund by the late 1980s. This began a series of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) that were conditions of the loans. SAPs required the Nigerian government to reduce spending on social programs, privatize many state companies, ease trade restrictions, and control the local currency. Although they were intended to improve the economic situation in Nigeria, conditions have actually deteriorated under SAPs in Nigeria. You may remember discussing SAPs in other African countries, such as Sudan in Module 19, Activity Three, where there were similar results.

Today oil is a contentious resource in Nigeria. Nigeria remains wealthy in oil; however, much of the wealth gained from this valuable resource does not benefit the average citizen. Rather foreign companies and elites mainly benefit from this valuable natural resource. In recent years, there has been considerable unrest in oil rich regions of Nigeria, such as the Niger Delta.

On average, each Nigerian makes US $1,050 a year, according to a 2003 statistics from the United Nations Development Program. This is actually below the average per capita annual income for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, which is US $1,856. And it is even further below the U.S. average, which is US $37,562. However, it is important to bear in mind a couple of things when making these comparisons. First, Nigeria is a country of great wealth and great poverty at the same time. In other words, it is an economically stratified society. So this means that there are many people well above and below the average. It is also important to keep in mind that while people make less money on average than they do in the U.S., the cost of living is cheaper in Nigeria. Nevertheless, many Nigeriens struggle day-to-day to provide themselves and their families with basic necessities.

Nigeria as a West African Leader Today
Despite times of economic hardship and struggles to maintain a democracy, Nigeria has played a prominent leadership role in the economics and politics of the West African region. Nigeria was an integral part of the formation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975, and has provided troops to conflicts in West Africa, such as the peacekeeping force in Liberia, and in other regions of Africa, such as Sudan. Nigerian presidents have also served as chairmen of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and its successor organization formed in 2002, the African Union (AU). The chairman of the African Union for 2004-2005 was Nigeria’s president Olusegun Obasanjo. Further explanations of the OAU and AU are found here.


Nigerian Chairman Table

Nigeria in the News Today
AllAfrica is a website that has many current news stories on Africa. Using the link below, search this resource to find an article written on Nigeria within the last seven days.

Read the article and answer the following questions:

  1. In a one sentence summary, what is the article about?
  2. Does it deal with any of the topics from this Activity? If so, what are they?
  3. Was the article difficult for you to understand? If yes, what would be helpful for the reader to know as background information? If no, did this module on Nigeria give you some of the background you needed to understand it?

Go on to Activity Four or select from one of the other activities in this module