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A History of Nigeria

Uncover the history of Africa’s most populous country

By Toyin Falola
18-minute read
Audio available
A History of Nigeria by Toyin Falola

A History of Nigeria (2008) documents the millennia-long history of the areas that make up the modern nation of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. Going on an epic journey from the region’s precolonial past right up to the country’s recent transition toward democracy, the authors document the riveting history of a nation and, of course, its people – whose future looks bright.

  • Students of history, international relations or politics
  • Curious individuals wanting to discover the riveting story of Africa’s most populous nation
  • Nigerians – or people of Nigerian descent – who would like to learn more about the country’s history

Toyin Falola is a Nigerian historian and professor. He is currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin. Out of the dozens of books and articles he’s penned on Nigerian and African history, a few notable titles include The Power of African Cultures, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt: An African Memoir and the monumental Encyclopedia of the Yoruba.

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A History of Nigeria

By Toyin Falola
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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A History of Nigeria by Toyin Falola
Synopsis

A History of Nigeria (2008) documents the millennia-long history of the areas that make up the modern nation of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. Going on an epic journey from the region’s precolonial past right up to the country’s recent transition toward democracy, the authors document the riveting history of a nation and, of course, its people – whose future looks bright.

Key idea 1 of 11

The history of the region now constituting Nigeria goes back thousands of years.

When looking at the history of a modern country such as Nigeria, people often use the term “precolonial history” to encompass all that transpired before European colonialism arrived in the region. But “precolonial Nigeria” implies that there was some sort of “Nigeria” before European colonists drew up the borders of the modern nation.

This simply doesn’t reflect reality. Over the last 10,000 years, a myriad of different societies, states and empires have existed in the region encompassing modern-day Nigeria – and most of them have no direct connection to the Nigerian state of today.

The first evidence of a human presence in the region, consisting of two ancient rock shelters in southwest Nigeria, dates back to around 9000 BCE. These sorts of shelters would become typical of the Late Stone Age period in the area, which would persist until about 2000 BCE. By 3000 BCE, evidence of pottery could be found in all areas of modern Nigeria, as well as axes and arrowheads.

With hunting and gathering slowly giving way to agriculture between 4000 and 1000 BCE, a transformation began in the region. With food resources now centralized, permanent village settlements began springing up all over modern-day Nigeria.

The villages of the Igbo people had decentralized structures. An age-based hierarchy determined political decisions of individual villages, and groups of villages would come together to exchange goods at markets and take part in intra-village meetings. The Igbo maintained this structure right up until British colonialism in the early twentieth century.

However, around the turn of the tenth century CE, other societies started developing centralized political structures. In the early stages, this meant king-like rulers, with the formerly decentralized communities becoming kingdoms. Urban centers developed and politics, trade and culture flourished. In many ways, these kingdoms were similar to ancient Greek city-states such as Athens and Sparta – but while they traded and interacted with each other, they didn’t develop into any sort of “nation” akin to modern-day Nigeria. 

The advent of Islam in the region was a crucial factor in the growth of these centralized states. States run by Hausa and Kanuri leaders – ethnicities still present in Nigeria today – adopted Islam as their state religion in the late eleventh century CE, linking their kingdoms with the larger Islamic world both commercially and academically.

By 1500, both the decentralized village groupings and centralized states within the boundaries of modern Nigeria had developed political and trade relationships, marking the beginning of an integrated regional economy.

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