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Pre 20th Century History of Nigeria

The Yoruba mythology believes that Ile-Ife is the source of the human race and that it predates any other civilization. Ifẹ produced the terra cotta and bronze heads, the Ọyọ extended as far as modern Togo.


Another prominent kingdom in south western Nigeria was the Kingdom of Benin whose power lasted between the 15th and 19th century. Their dominance reached as far as the well known city of Eko which was named Lagos by the Portuguese traders and other early European settlers. In the 18th century, the Oyo and the Aro confederacy were responsible for most of the slaves exported from Nigeria.

In the southwest, the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo was founded about 1400, and at its height from the 17th to 19th centuries attained a high level of political organization and extended as far as modern Togo. In the south central part of present-day Nigeria, as early as the 15th and 16th centuries, the kingdom of Benin had developed an efficient army; an elaborate ceremonial court; and artisans whose works in ivory, wood, bronze, and brass are prized throughout the world today.

In the 17th through 19th centuries, European traders established coastal ports for the increasing traffic in slaves destined for the Americas.

Commodity trade, especially in palm oil and timber, replaced slave trade in the 19th century, particularly under anti-slavery actions by the British Navy. In the early 19th century the Fulani leader, Usman dan Fodio, promulgated Islam and that brought most areas in the north under the loose control of an empire centered in Sokoto.

The Kanuri, Hausa, and Fulani peoples subsequently migrated there. Islam was introduced in the 13th century, and the empire of Kanem controlled the area from the end of the 11th century to the 14th.

At the end of the 18th century Fulani religious zealots in the north, sick of being dominated by the Islamic Hausa states, took over and created the single Islamic state of the Sokoto Caliphate. The Fulani empire ruled the region from the beginning of the 19th century until the British annexed Lagos in 1851 and seized control of the rest of the region by 1886. It formally became the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914.

This original division between the Islamic government in the north and the Yoruba tribes in the south has never healed, and over the years intertribal fighting and civil wars have rubbed salt into the wounds. Even today Nigerian politics is riddled with tribal rivalries and ancient axes to grind.

After the bottom fell out of the spice trade, the Portuguese, and then the British, began a miserable trade in slaves, but by 1807 slavery had been banned and the British began to look for other ways to turn a buck - palm oil along the coast, and tin mining around Jos in the centre. The British also appointed chiefs in the southern Ibo communities to run the area but this was like hammering square pegs into round holes. These 'invented chiefs' had little in common with the people and simmering hostility and resentment was the usual result.

A British Sphere of Influence

Following the Napoleonic wars, the British expanded trade with the Nigerian interior. In 1885, British claims to a sphere of influence in that area received international recognition and, in the following year, the Royal Niger Company was chartered. In 1900, the company's territory came under the control of the British Government, which moved to consolidate its hold over the area of modern Nigeria. In 1914, the area was formally united as the "Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria."

Administratively, Nigeria remained divided into the northern and southern provinces and Lagos colony. Western education and the development of a modern economy proceeded more rapidly in the south than in the north, with consequences felt in Nigeria's political life ever since. Following World War II, in response to the growth of Nigerian nationalism and demands for independence, successive constitutions legislated by the British Government moved Nigeria toward self-government on a representative, increasingly federal, basis.

Between 1914 and 1922, Nigeria was presided over by a Governor-General. In 1922, as part of the constitution of the time, the British introduced the principle of direct election into the Legislative council. Then a new constitution elevated the provinces to regional status. In 1959, the Northern Region attained self-governing status. Following series of political change Nigeria gained independence on Oct. 1, 1960, becoming a member of the Commonwealth of Nations and joining the United Nations.

Last Updated on Sunday 3rd August 2008