Since its days as a British colony, Nigeria has been divided along ethnic and geographic lines. Among hundreds of ethnic groupings, three are especially prominent, as reflected in the regional division of the country at the time of independence. Muslims of the linked Hausa and Fulani groups dominate the northern half, or Northern Region, of Nigeria. The Western Region, which takes up the quadrant of the country to the south and west of the Niger River, is populated heavily by the Yoruba people. The southeastern quadrant of Nigeria, known as the Eastern Region, is home to a large population of Igbo (or Ibo) people.
Britain made the kingdom of Lagos into a Crown colony in 1861 and then expanded its imperial influence along the Niger Delta in the 1870s and 1880s. By the turn of the twentieth century, virtually all of modern Nigeria was under British control. In 1914, British officials united the Muslim Northern Region and the mostly Christian Southern Region under a single administration. Following World War II, Britain slowly granted more autonomy to Nigeria's native population. British policy favored continued federation for the rival ethnic regions and also institutionalized the preeminence of the Muslim Northern Region.
Nigeria gained its independence on 1 October 1960 under civilian leadership and formalized a federation style of government in 1963. While this structure was meant to provide the various regions with a high degree of autonomy, in practice the central federal government has typically dominated affairs. At independence, Nigeria was divided into just three regions, but over time it continued to subdivide and reapportion provinces in response to the political demands of smaller ethnic groups. There are now dozens of states.
The country elected rulers democratically until January 1966, when a coup overthrew the First Republic and Major General Aguiyi Ironsi came to power. Ironsi himself fell to another coup just six months later, when senior military officer Yakubu Gowon seized power. Gowon ruled during 1966–1975. Subsequent military rulers of the country included Ramat Mohammed (1975–1976), Olusegun Obasanjo (1976–1979), Muhammad Buhari (1983–1985), Ibrahim Babangida (1985–1993), and Sani Abacha (1993–1998). A civilian, Shehu Shagari, served as president during the years of the Second Republic (1979–1983).
Regional tensions in Nigeria came to a head in 1967, when the Eastern Region attempted to secede from the Nigerian federation as an independent nation called Biafra. Despite some international support for the Biafran cause, Nigeria's federal government had defeated the separatist movement by 1970. More than a million people died during the conflict. Most of the deaths occurred among the Eastern Region separatists, and many of those deaths were caused by starvation, as federal military forces used blockades of food and food shipments as a key strategic weapon to crush the rebellion.
The 1970s witnessed an economic resurgence as the country recovered from the civil war and reaped great profits from its considerable oil reserves. Since independence, the nation's economy has been increasingly dominated by oil, which accounts for more than half of Nigeria's gross domestic product (GDP) and the vast majority of its exports. Much of the wealth derived from oil has ended up in the hands of Nigeria's military rulers and civilian bureaucracy, and there has been little technological transfer from foreign-owned oil concerns to native-owned industries.
During the Cold War, Nigeria remained formally nonaligned but generally maintained warm relations with the United States and Great Britain. English remained Nigeria's official language, as it had since colonial days. Nigeria also carried on steady trade with France, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany), and other Western commercial nations. At various times, Nigeria attempted to assert itself as a regional diplomatic and economic leader, such as in its opposition to South Africa's apartheid during the Second Republic in the early 1980s. While economic mismanagement and corruption hampered Nigeria's development, the country produced many famous intellectuals during the Cold War era, including international literary figures and Nobel Prize winners such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.
T. E. Walker Jr.
Osaghae, Eghosa E. Crippled Giant: Nigeria since Independence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.