Last February, with countries in many parts of Africa rigging constitutions to allow incumbent leaders to remain in office indefinitely or backsliding toward authoritarianism, Nigeria did something that seemed to set it apart: it held the latest in a series of regularly scheduled, democratically contested presidential elections dating back to 1999.
That, at least, was good news. Not long before the election, however, Nigerian society had been thrown into turmoil by the decision of the outgoing president, Muhammadu Buhari, to withdraw the country’s old banknotes from circulation and replace them with newly designed bills. When I visited in December, nearly everyone I spoke with interpreted this as an attempt to rein in the scourge of vote-buying by rival campaigns, on which it seems to have had little effect. But coming on top of demoralizing gasoline shortages (in a long-standing OPEC member state), which can cause drivers to wait in line for as long as a day to fill their tanks, and economic desperation among the poor, the sudden change of currency contributed to a low turnout in what was arguably one of the most important elections in the world this year. Although more than 93 million Nigerians registered to vote, only about 25 million cast ballots—the lowest participation rate in the country’s history.
When they were counted, Bola Tinubu, a rich but frail-looking seventy-year-old political veteran from Buhari’s All Progressives Congress party—which despite the name hardly differs ideologically from its rivals—was declared the winner. And even though there were legal challenges by the opposition, violence at many polling stations, claims of counting irregularities, and persistent reports of the large-scale buying of votes, international monitoring groups promptly declared the election legitimate. Tinubu then flew off for a lengthy stay in France, where he was said to be receiving treatment for undisclosed medical problems, a pattern of absenteeism followed by several recent Nigerian leaders, most of them aged.
Unless there is a sharp spike in violence in Nigeria, which for years has been beset by attacks on civilians and mass kidnappings carried out by Islamic militant groups in the north of the country, this is likely the last news that Western readers will hear from it for the foreseeable future. If so, it can continue to plausibly claim that it is the largest country in the world that they know the least about.
Nigeria’s 213 million inhabitants account for one of six people in Africa. It currently ranks sixth in population internationally, three below Indonesia, which also commands scant Western attention. But like most of the fast-growing continent, Nigeria is gaining demographic momentum at breakneck speed. In remarkably little time it will sprint past Indonesia’s 273 million on its way to 400 million people by midcentury, according to the projections of the United Nations Population Division, and by 2100 its population will reach 700 million, making it, with an area roughly one third larger than that of Texas, the third most populous in the world, trailing only India and China.
Chronic economic underperformance and political dysfunction have plagued Nigeria since it gained independence from Britain in 1960. They are the shared legacy of the fanciful design of a state that was hastily cobbled together late in the colonial era and, relatedly, of a political class that generates economic spoils for itself by manipulating Nigerians along ethnic lines. If the country continues on this course, though, it will weigh tremendously on the fortunes of an entire continent. With a vastly larger population that already skews heavily toward youth—the median age today is seventeen, half that of the US—it is also likely to be an outsized part of the global workforce and of both refugee flows and legal migration to countries with much older populations in Europe and North America.
As dramatic as Nigeria’s demographic future appears, it would be wrong to assume that this is the only way to appraise the country’s impact on the world, which has long been extraordinary, albeit overlooked. The territory that constitutes this former British colony was the source of nearly 3.6 million of the 12.5 million enslaved people brought by Europeans across the Atlantic from Africa, second only to a region known as west-central Africa (essentially Congo and Angola). As I have argued in my book Born in Blackness, African labor, which was violently expropriated from the enslaved over centuries, was decisive in the economic ascent of Europe in the modern era and in the development of the so-called New World.* That is because the labor of enslaved Africans was vital to making Europe’s colonization of the Americas economically viable. Prior to 1820, four times as many people were brought across the Atlantic from Africa as from Europe.
Meanwhile, as weak as Nigeria is as a nation, it nonetheless quietly ranks as a contemporary cultural superpower. It is on the way to becoming home to far more English speakers than Britain and its predominantly white former colonies the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand combined, and thus it may powerfully reshape the language. Its indigenous religions have long influenced the worship of many millions of people in Brazil and throughout the Caribbean. Beyond homegrown African faiths, by midcentury Nigeria will be home to the world’s third-largest Christian and fourth-largest Muslim populations. Its movie industry—known as Nollywood, after India’s Bollywood—dominates the film business in Africa, and its actors have come to occupy a large if still relatively unacknowledged place in Hollywood. Following the breakout success of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, other Nigerian novelists such as Nnedi Okorafor, Chigozie Obioma, Akwaeke Emezi, and Ben Okri have become favorites of the American publishing industry. Less visibly, recent immigrants from Nigeria are regularly among the top performers in American higher education, and graduates of Nigerian descent fill research labs, teaching hospitals, corporate suites, and sports teams of all kinds.
All this leads to a fascinating and vexed question: Where did Nigeria, meaning the modern nation-state, come from, and how was it created? Two recent books, What Britain Did to Nigeria: A Short History of Conquest and Rule by Max Siollun and Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation by Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi, reveal that the answer is a good deal more complicated than one might suspect. As a decades-long traveler there and writer about the country, the version I have long known, which resembles what most Nigerians are still taught, is a crude if vivid simplification. It holds that the colony of Nigeria was largely the product of the romance between a young Indian-born colonial official, Frederick Lugard, and a journalist for The Times of London, Flora Shaw, who eventually married him. Calling the colony Nigeria—inspired by the name of the Niger River, which may have Berber origins (“river of rivers”) but whose echo of Latin suggests “a land of the Blacks”—was apparently her idea, proposed in an article for The Times in 1897.
In fact, Britain’s involvement in the territories that were joined together haphazardly as Nigeria, like so many of Europe’s colonial concoctions in Africa, goes back much further and has far more complex roots. Some lie in Britain’s long-running lucrative trade to the New World in enslaved people. Others lie in commercial agreements reached with coastal kings and chiefs during British-led efforts to suppress the slave trade in the first half of the nineteenth century. There was also a largely separate series of events that blended conquest and diplomacy with long-established Islamic sultanates in the northern reaches of the territory. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Britain and France competed fiercely for influence and control in the broad band of Africa just south of the Sahara Desert known as the Sahel, believing that it was vital to control the Nile River and access to Egypt. Beyond its sizable markets, Egypt was also seen as a strategic way station for trade with South Asia and the Far East. These factors led to what Max Siollun describes as the “slow mission creep” that created the colony.
In the Sahel the British were obsessed with understanding the 2,600-mile course of the Niger, which empties into the sea in east-central Nigeria via an enormous, forested coastal delta that conceals the location of the river’s mouth. Explorers setting out from Britain, beginning with Mungo Park in 1795, were determined to chart it. Traveling eastward from Gambia, Park, who imagined that the Niger and the Congo River in distant Central Africa might be the same waterway, reached the Niger at Ségou, in modern Mali, the following year. He returned to the region in 1805 at the head of a much larger expedition determined to discover the Niger’s source, only to drown in its waters.
Fifteen years later another expedition, led by a Scot named Hugh Clapperton, reached the Niger by crossing the Sahara from Tripoli. Arriving in the Muslim north of what would become Nigeria, the British discovered a region not of “naked savages,” as Europeans imagined, but one led by learned Muslim scholars such as the portly, turbaned Mohammed Bello. Siollun writes that Bello
had heard about, and asked Clapperton for, newspapers, which he referred to as “news of the world.” He also asked Clapperton about the Greeks, and reminded him that Britain had fought with the Algerians and had also conquered India. Clapperton tried to reassure Bello by telling him that “we merely afforded [India] our protection, and gave it good laws,” and that “we were a people that never interfered with the rights of others.”
Little knowledge of Nigerian history is required to suspect that this was hardly the case, which is amply suggested by the title of Siollun’s book.
As described by Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi in Formation, northern Nigeria was already firmly enmeshed in a broad trans-Saharan world of learning. At the time of these early European contacts, the region was undergoing a momentous transformation, which should be seen as part of what the late British historian Eric Hobsbawm called the Age of Revolution.
In the case of northern Nigeria, this involved the rise of a reformist Islamic movement led by a steely ethnic Fulani and Sufi cleric, Usman dan Fodio. A man of legendary asceticism, dan Fodio is said to have owned only one pair of trousers and one turban. Beginning his career as a wandering preacher in 1774, he was influenced by the Islamic revivalism then sweeping the Ottoman world, as well as by the conservative Wahhabist movement underway in Saudi Arabia. He railed against both what he saw as the lax forms of halfhearted Islam that prevailed in the region and its main religious competition, indigenous polytheism.
Dan Fodio rose, in part, by denouncing the enslavement of fellow Muslims by the primarily ethnic-Hausa states that predominated in the region. The Islamic jihad that he declared after receiving what he claimed to be a divine vision in 1794 quickly gained followers, enabling him to sweep those states from power and found the Sokoto Caliphate in 1804.
Relying on innovative military tactics that evolved from guerrilla-style warfare to square cavalry formations as jihadist armies grew, dan Fodio and his son, Mohammed Bello, built what Fagbule and Fawehinmi call “the largest and most advanced, organised civil state in sub-Saharan Africa” of its era. Governing from well-defended walled towns, Sokoto endured for a century, swelling to a population of perhaps 10 million people and encompassing Sahelian territories that now form part of several modern African states, including Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso. Sokoto’s reach also extended far southward into the forest belt above the coast. There Sokoto took numerous slaves among nonbelievers, including ethnic Yoruba from well to the kingdom’s south. Many of these captives were subjected to forced agricultural labor, ironically making Sokoto, whose beginnings lay in an antislavery ideology, the second-largest slave society around 1800, surpassed only by Brazil.
Sokoto’s advance was only stopped by the prevalence in the south of the tsetse fly. This biting pest’s parasites infected and killed horses and made a cavalry-led military like Sokoto’s ineffective. In the end, though, it was London, eager to prevent France from securing broad and unbroken control over the Sahel, that used new weapons systems like the Maxim gun, capable of firing six hundred rounds a minute with a range of over eighty yards, as well as portable field artillery, to defeat the caliphate.
This raises one of most fascinating questions in modern African history. If expansive and sophisticated states like Sokoto, or others of the age, like Asante or Kongo, had not been laid low by empire-building Europeans, would present-day Africa be composed of bigger states that resulted from gradual absorption of neighboring societies by indigenous empires, much as happened in Europe in the early modern period? Siollun’s book addresses this only indirectly: “British colonialism did not introduce Nigeria’s ethnic groups to each other, but rather, without their consent, amalgamated them within a single political system for the first time.”
A related and equally intriguing question dispenses with the need to project very far into the past at all. During the time Britain was consolidating its control over Nigeria, the territory was surrounded on all sides by what were becoming French colonies. In the mid-nineteenth century French commercial penetration of Nigeria was more extensive than that of the British, and if Paris had secured control over these lands instead of its rival London, nearly all of West Africa, from Senegal to Cameroon, might have emerged into independence a century later with a shared imperial experience and a single common European language. Such an outcome could conceivably have primed this vast region for the creation of a confederation not so far from the dream of early pan-Africanists like Kwame Nkrumah, and of many Africans ever since, who see their continent’s division into fifty-four mostly small countries as a political and economic liability.
Whether Africans left to their own devices or preserved from extreme fragmentation by competing European empires would have achieved a more stable polity of their own will forever remain an open question. What both books make clear, though, is that Britain’s management of ethnicity in what became Nigeria has had a disastrous legacy.
Even before their big push to take over the northern territories of present-day Nigeria, the British had pursued commercial ties with coastal societies, especially trading for commodities like palm oil, which was a common ingredient in soap, industrial lubricants, and foodstuffs. By the early nineteenth century the Nigerian coast exported more palm oil than the rest of West Africa combined, and ships and crews that had only recently been involved in slave trading were repurposed to deal in it. Because of this lucrative new trade, the British named the delta region the “oil rivers,” and in 1956, in a remarkable historical coincidence, petroleum was discovered in abundance there, making Nigeria a leading exporter of hydrocarbons.
With the breakthrough discovery in 1830 of the mouth of the Niger River, British steamships began to navigate inland along that waterway and its major tributary, the Benue. There, in a race with the French, they collected the signatures of local chiefs on documents giving them monopoly trade rights in their lands. These contrived agreements were often struck after gifts of alcohol and cloth to rulers who had no understanding of their terms or even the language they were written in. In some cases, the British skipped the formality of obtaining a signature altogether and merely forged an X onto a trade pact, as can be seen in the clean and uniform marks on some of these documents that were supposedly made by illiterate chiefs.
Far more than government initiative or military aggression, though, it was British business interests that laid the groundwork for the colonization of what became Nigeria. As both books help make clear, the most important figure in the story about the influence of commerce in the formation of the British West African empire was not the enduringly famous Lugard but rather an extremely violent, deeply secretive, and generally neglected schemer named George Dashwood Taubman Goldie. Goldie organized an aborted steamboat expedition on the Niger in 1877 and later wrote, “On the journey back I conceived the ambition of adding the region of the Niger to the British Empire.”
Toward that end, Goldie set up the United African Company, which bought out four of the biggest British businesses then trading in the region. Then, while he busied himself signing monopoly “treaties” with hundreds of native chiefs, he also set about drumming up the interest of the initially reluctant British government in becoming deeply involved in the Niger Delta and its vast hinterland. He told London that what he called the Niger Sudan could easily become an “African India.” All it lacked, he said, was a “European protector.” Then, to make sure this message was received, he invoked the threat of French expansion, saying that that country’s traders, who had already established thirty commercial stations along the Niger from which they were exporting more than fifty tons of ivory a year, risked gobbling up the region and leaving London’s small Lagos Colony, which was annexed in 1861, isolated and vulnerable. Goldie’s brash gambit succeeded, and in 1885 the British Foreign Office proclaimed its control over the area as a protectorate.
Goldie and his successors, including Lugard, imposed collective punishment on villagers whenever they bridled at the terms of trade or otherwise failed to live up to the commercial expectations of the British. This brought on cycles of violent resistance and repression and paved the way for the projection of steadily more imperial force into the territory. Almost from the start the British fashioned very different vocations for what they perceived as the major ethnic blocs in the Nigerian population. Most importantly, Lugard created a giant, consolidated territory in the predominantly Muslim north and established a form of indirect rule there, as Britain did in many parts of the continent.
The British recruited one large ethnic group or another to impose itself by force on another group whenever the need arose, but as a permanent colonial army gradually took shape, they made a fateful decision that would powerfully affect Nigeria’s politics down to the present. Based on the crude, pseudoscientific ethnology then on the ascendance in Western thought, they decided that the majority-Muslim population of the north naturally made good soldiers. In 1939 the south was divided into two other blocs, east and west, where Christian missionaries, rather than any colonial authority, oversaw the introduction of Western-style education. This was done on a very limited scale, but nonetheless gave southerners in both blocs a major head start over northerners in entering the formal economy, whether as employees of the colonial administration or as wage earners. One result of this has been that Nigeria’s military, its oldest institution, continues to be dominated by northern Muslims, and the splitting of the south in half has meant that the north has retained something close to a lock on power for most of the country’s history since independence.
The provision of Western education in the south, though limited in the colonial era, has produced another long-lasting legacy, and a divisive, even explosive one. The bureaucracy, the professional classes, private business, and civil society broadly have been dominated by southerners, whether from the southeast or southwest, although they have lived under the shadow of northern political power, which has often taken the form of military government. As both books explain, cleavages along these lines were important factors in driving the country to civil war between 1967 and 1970, which caused as many as 100,000 military casualties and the death by starvation of as many as two million civilians in Biafra, as the would-be breakaway republic in the southeast called itself.
This is to get ahead of the story, though. Britain had to finish subduing each of these three regions in order to consolidate them as a single colony, however awkwardly. It accomplished this methodically through violent military campaigns both in the north and in coastal regions wherever local populations resisted.
Lugard himself oversaw the 1903 conquest of northern Nigeria, in a campaign that lasted less than forty days. His men, backed by African troops drawn from other parts of the territory as well as from Ghana, and supported by hundreds of porters, marched eight hundred miles to capture one emirate after another, including venerable city-states such as Katsina, Zaria, and Kano, with its “walls as high as 15 meters and as thick as 12 meters.”
The grand prize, though, was Sokoto. Two thousand of the caliphate’s horsemen repeatedly charged the invading force, which the British ironically had arranged in the same square battle formation that the rising Sokoto had used a century earlier. After hundreds of its cavalrymen were cut down by heavy machine-gun fire, the caliphate surrendered. Speaking to an assembly of the defeated vizier and allied chiefs from the surrounding area, Lugard declared, “There will be no interference with your religion nor with the position of Sarkin Musulmi as the head of your religion.” Henceforth, though, Britain alone would rule the region.
Three major areas of conquest in the south receive special attention in these books. The first is the Yoruba-speaking Oyo Kingdom in the southwest, which succumbed to Britain’s treaty demands in 1893 after many neighboring peoples had been defeated. To the east of the Oyo lay the Kingdom of Benin, a civilization that dated to the eleventh century and that first had trade and diplomatic relations with European powers when the Portuguese arrived there in the late fifteenth century. As smaller nearby kingdoms began to fall to the British in the closing years of the nineteenth century, Benin sought to close itself off from the outsiders. Britain sent several missions to Benin in the late 1890s to demand that it open itself to the palm oil trade and other commerce, but each of them was refused entry. In January 1897, after another mission was told to turn back on the pretense that the Oba, or ruler of Benin, was engaged in a monthlong religious rite, a large and heavily armed British party proceeded toward Benin City. It was ambushed, and several of its members were killed. After retreating, the British party sent word to London of the violent rebuff, and this led to a much larger armed deployment the following month that, using Maxim guns and explosives, sacked and burned the Benin capital and massacred many of its people.
Today the Kingdom of Benin is famous for its sculptural traditions in ivory and brass, and for intricately pictorial brass plaques made using the lost wax technique. The kingdom’s art was so refined that Europeans once theorized that it could only be explained as the work of Egyptians or of mysterious, non-African outsiders. This art came to be familiar to the Western world as a result of what Siollun calls, without exaggeration, “one of the most brazen cases of colonial looting that Britain committed in Africa.” The consul general of what was then called the Niger Coast Protectorate, Ralph Moor, oversaw this organized pillage, selecting gifts for Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. In total, six crates containing hundreds of priceless artifacts were shipped off, including roughly two hundred that were sent to the British Museum, where many of them remain, despite Nigerian calls for their return.
The final large zone of conquest described in these books was the southeast of the country, whose societies had long puzzled the British because they were not centralized or ruled by kings or powerful chiefs. Despite this, the largest of the ethnic groups in the area, the Igbo, as well as others, offered persistent resistance to British conquest and rule. In 1896 British officials approached members of an Igbo confederation known as the Aros to request that they open the region up to trade. The meeting got off to an inauspicious start, though, when the foreigners demanded that the Africans remove their hats during the discussions as a sign of respect. The Aros not only declined, but those who were not already wearing hats then covered their heads. At the conclusion of the talks, an Aros spokesman told the British:
The white men may have come by the sun, they may have come by the moon, or they may have come through the clouds, but the sooner they went back from where they had come, and remained there, the better.
The British, of course, had no intention of complying with this wish, and resolved that “the natives must be made to fully understand that the [colonial] government is their master.”
Another violent campaign ensued in the southeast, with the British marching into heavily forested areas and employing a tactic of “clearing volleys” with their Maxim guns, which they fired indiscriminately wherever their route took them to clear the land of snipers and other resistance. Subjugating such a decentralized foe did not end with military victory, however, and was not completed until the 1920s. The peoples of the southeast, especially those led by women, proved masters at noncooperation and passive resistance, organizing antitax protests and other forms of civil disobedience against foreign authority.
Britain’s belated amalgamation of its Nigerian territories finally came about in 1914, following a prior consolidation of the region into Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria in 1900. Siollun treats this process as haphazard and narrowly self-serving on the part of London. This was because Britain insisted that its colonies be self-financing, and Northern Nigeria lacked both a seacoast and plentiful profitable commodities. Even then it was not hard to see how the colonizer was planting the seeds of conflict that would detonate in the future. George Goldie, for example, described the two regions as being “as widely separated in laws, government, customs, and general ideas about life, both in this world and the next, as England is from China.”
Northern Nigeria, aware of its economic disadvantages, was reluctant to join a consolidated colony for fear of commercial domination, but it was given no choice in the matter. Since independence the north’s power, based in its domination of the military and its faster population growth, has allowed it to demand a large share of the profits from petroleum production in the coastal south, which is overwhelmingly the country’s largest source of export revenue. And almost every major political crisis in the history of independent Nigeria, including the Biafran War, has involved some kind of north–south conflict.
What is most remarkable about the creation of Nigeria, then, is not the logic of its design, which like that of many African countries is hard to see, but that despite the shabbiness and corruption of the postcolonial state, Nigerians, who speak five hundred or so languages, have emerged from this history with as strong a collective identity as one can find almost anywhere. Among themselves, Nigerians freely and often bitterly lament the shoddiness of their national government, the persistent lack of basic services such as reliable electricity or clean water, the extravagant displays of corruption by their elites, and the large numbers of people mired in poverty. But encountered overseas or in conversation with other Africans, they exhibit a fierce pride in their shared nationality and a belief in their collective native genius as a people. Given the country’s size, the world must hope that these pull them through.
An earlier version of this article misstated where the British met Mohammed Bello and misidentified the largest slave society in 1800.
Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War (Liveright, 2021). ↩