A Brief History of Nigeria: From Ancient Kingdoms to Modern Nationhood

Written by Robin Okwanma

The region known today as Nigeria (Niger-area) is a vast landscape occupied by human civilizations from at least 13,000 B.C. Archaeological findings have attested to this fact. The name Nigeria itself was coined by 19th Century British journalist, Flora Shaw. She later became the wife of Lord Frederick Lugard, one of the prominent British colonial administrators of Nigeria.  Here in this article, we will embark on a brief history of Nigeria from ancient kingdoms to modern times.

The diverse cultural values that have struggled to respect the existence of one another for centuries is key to solving Nigeria’s challenges. For the record, Nigeria is home to roughly 371 ethnic groups. Their ancestors have roamed and settled in the landscape for decades, all nourished by the River Niger and its tributaries.

The Civilizations of the Niger Valley from Ancient Times

Nigeria is one of the countries surrounding the Niger Valley. It is a vast region surrounding the 2,597 miles long River Niger, which empties itself into the Atlantic Ocean through the Niger Delta. For want of details, we can only limit ourselves to a few centuries thereabout of the brief history of Nigeria. 

But available archaeological findings have identified some of the oldest human settlements on Earth within the Niger valley. To the south of Jebel Irhoud in Morocco (the same area), human remains dated to about 300,000 B.C. were found. And moving further south to the north of Iwo Ẹlẹru in southwest Nigeria, 13,000-year old human remains were also unearthed. Additionally, more archaeological evidences from different sites show that humans have occupied the Nigerian landscape from the Stone Age (500,000 – 9,000 B.C.). 

The early settlers of the Niger valley were the first ever humans to do the following: 

  • Hand writing
  • Iron smelting
  • Sculptures made of clay, stone, iron, bronze, copper, lead, zinc and metal alloys
  • Creation of metallic hunting and farming tools, as well as weaponry
  • Plant millet
  • Perform ceremonial burials 
  • Rear cattle
  • Make pottery
  • Build boats for travel
  • Build walled cities out of earth and stone

Brief History of Nigeria: The trans-Saharan Trading Routes

Niger valley inhabitants around the 19th century also established the trans-Saharan trading routes and networks and became rich. As such, powerful and wealthy empires and city-states arose. Our focus here is on the empires that fell within the boundaries of ancient Nigeria. 

The spread of metalworks and iron smelting particularly contributed to the rise and prosperity of Ile-Ife (1200 – 1420 C.E.), and Benin kingdoms (1000 – 1897 C.E.). Also, more agricultural and industrial towns sprung up in-between the mineral mines towards the south, and the salt mines towards the north (in the Sahara). And they prospered due to the trade routes passing through them. Such notable trade towns included the Hausa states of Zaria, Katsina and Kano. The Benin kingdom (1000 – 1897), Mali empire (1235 – 1670) and Songhai empire (1464 – 1591) also profited from these trades. 

Kano was one of those Niger valley cities that became centers of learning and intellectual research (around 1200 – 1700). That was after the introduction of Islam as a state religion. Timkuktu, Djenne and Gao (not in Nigeria) were equally intellectual hubs. There were loads of books on Astronomy, Mathematics, Poetry, Religion, Law and Administration available for sale and study from the cities’ ancient libraries. 

The Hausa States

The Hausa people are a large ethnic group that occupy the northern part of Nigeria. Along with the Kanuri and immigrant Fulani tribes, these three groups established prominent states and empires before the 19th century. But the Hausa states were by far the largest. 

From the 15th to the 19th Century, two groups of Hausa states were founded. The first group comprises Biram, Daura, Katsina, Zaria, Kano, Rano, and Gobir. The second group comprises Kebbi, Zamfara, Nupe, Gwari, Yauri, Ilorin and Kwararafa. 

There were serious conflicts borne out of the desire to expand and gain more political and religious control, between these Hausa-states. Particularly between Katsina, Kano, and Zazzau (Zaria). 

Later on, attempts to fuse several Hausa states into single empires did not yield much fruit. Each kingdom came and subdued the previous one. The first true Hausa empire under the command of Queen Amina, was Zazzau (Zaria), in the 15th century. And the control of Zazzau extended over areas in the present-day Niger, Benue, Bauchi, Kano and Daura. But along came the Borno empire which imposed itself on the Hausa states. The Fulani would arrive later in the 19th century to establish the Sokoto Caliphate through a jihad (executed by Usman Dan Fodio). Subsequently, the Fulani people dominated over the Hausa states.

Yoruba Kingdoms

Around the 11th Century, the Yoruba Kingdoms of southwest Nigeria emerged; all of them attested to Ile-Ife as their origin. But within that major group arose several prominent tribes such as the Oyo, Ekiti, Egba, Egbado, Ijebu, Ijesha,.Ondo, Owo and Akoko. Each developed its own distinct dialect of the Yoruba language. 

The Oyo kingdom was the largest of these kingdoms. It established its dominion over neighboring towns of Nupe, Egba, Egbado, Dahomey with the aid of its elite cavalry army. But by 1837, Oyo kingdom crumbled due to internal squabbles between the council of chiefs and the paramount ruler, the Alaafin. 

Benin Kingdom

The latter reign of the Benin Kingdom (Edo people) was traced to a beginning sometime around the 13th century. But they emerged from the much older Akan people. From the time of these first settlers in the Benin area and now, at least 60 rulers were said to have ruled the kingdom. The kingship line of the Benin kingdom is still strong and highly revered today. That is in spite of the invasion and destruction of the city by British troops during Oba Ovonramwen’s reign in 1897. 

Kingdoms of the Niger Delta And Eastern Nigeria

The Igbo people of southeast Nigeria from ancient times were constituted into decentralized clans that shared socio-cultural values. They also submitted to the common authority of the Arochukwu oracle. However, there were clans with considerable military prowess that eventually dominated the entire Igbo cluster. This was primarily the Aro people. They were also the host clan and spokespersons of the revered Arochukwu oracle. With the cooperation with other military clans such as the Ohafia, they were able to form the Igbo society into a form of theocratic state in pre-colonial Nigeria. 

The Niger Delta people southwards of the Edo and Yoruba Kingdoms were of several tribes, and each of them had their own political institutions. They include Itsekiri, Aboh, Ijaw, Isoko, Ukwuani and Urhobo tribes. By the mid-16th century, the Itsekiri kingdom was already established with its own ruler, the Olu and the ruling council (Ojoye). The Ijaw also had many settlements as well, and had been in existence for centuries. 

Brief History of Nigeria: British Colonization

From 1884, the British arrived and  established themselves in Old Calabar town until 1904. Thus Calabar was the first known British capital of colonial Nigeria.  However, the British government arrived in Lagos and formed the Lagos Colony in 1851. Thus, Lagos became their new administrative capital. This lasted until the entire Nigeria was taken over region by region, and finally declared a British Protectorate in 1901. 

Nigeria was finally granted its independence in 1960, and then became a republic in 1963. Unfortunately, a bloody coup d’état took place in 1966 leading into military rule. This prompted the forming of the separatist Republic of Biafra in 1967 that led to a 3-year Civil War. At the end of the war, the country’s constitution was rewritten in 1979, and another Republic declared. But the military yet again took over power again in 1983.

Years of struggle with the military rulership eventually culminated in a fourth Republic around 1999. That was after the death of the then military head of state, General Sami Abacha. Nigeria has embarked on a journey of democratic self-rule and redefining itself ever since then.



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About the author

Robin Okwanma

Hi, I'm Robin Okwanma. Software Engineer || Django, Python || React, React Native || Blogger. Technical Writer.