The geographical location known today as Nigeria has existed ever since time began but as is the case with so many other modern African countries, the Nigeria of today is the creation of European imperialism.
This great country, fondly known as The Giant of Africa derives its name from the great River Niger, which is her dominating physical feature; and the name Nigeria was coined in 1897 by the British journalist, Flora Shaw, who later became the wife of colonial governor, Lord Frederick Lugard.
The modern history of political Nigeria, encompassing over 400 ethnic groups of widely varied cultures and modes of political organization goes back in time from the completion of the British conquest in 1903 and the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914.
The history of the Nigerian people extends backward in time for some three millennia. Archaeological evidence, oral traditions, and written documentation establish the existence of dynamic societies and well-developed political systems whose history had an important influence on colonial rule and has continued to shape independent Nigeria.
Nigerian history will not be complete if there is no mention of the three major ethnic groups in the country which has helped shape much of its politics, the Hausa in the north, the Yoruba in the west, and the Igbo in the east.
There are several great events in Nigerian history that are very crucial in understanding how contemporary Nigerian politics works and how the society plays its role in the politics of Nigeria.
First, the spread of Islam, widely in the northern part of the country but later in the southwestern part as well, began a millennium ago.
The creation of the Sokoto Caliphate in the jihad (holy war) of 1804-1808 brought most of the northern region and neighbouring parts of Niger and Cameroon under a single Islamic government.
Islam’s great extension within the area of present-day Nigeria dates from the nineteenth century and the consolidation of the caliphate. This history helps account for the dichotomy between north and south and for the divisions within the north that have been so strong during the colonial and postcolonial eras.
Second, the slave trade, which took place mainly across the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic Ocean, had a great influence on basically all parts of Nigeria.
The transatlantic trade in particular accounted for the forced migration of perhaps 3.5 million people between the 1650s and the 1860s, while a steady stream of slaves flowed north across the Sahara for a millennium, ending at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Within Nigeria as at that time when slavery was at its peak, slavery was widespread, with social implications that are still evident today. The Sokoto Caliphate, for instance, had more slaves than any other modern country, except the United States in 1860.
Slaves were also numerous among the Igbo, the Yoruba, and many other ethnic groups. Indeed, many ethnic distinctions, especially in the middle belt–the area between the north and south–were reinforced because of slave raiding and defensive measures that were adopted for protection against enslavement.
Conversion to Islam and the spread of Christianity were intricately associated with issues relating to slavery and with efforts to promote political and cultural autonomy.
The Third factor which influenced much of Nigeria’s political history is the colonial era itself. This was relatively brief, lasting only sixty years or so, and the length of colonisation depended largely upon the part of Nigeria being governed.
The colonial era brought about such rapid change that the full impact was still felt in the contemporary period. On the one hand, the expansion of agricultural products as the principal export earner and the corresponding development of infrastructure resulted in severely distorted economic growth that has subsequently collapsed.
On the other hand, social dislocation associated with the decline of slavery and the internal movement of population between regions and to the cities necessitated the reassessment of ethnic loyalties, which in turn have been reflected in politics and religion.
Thirty years after independence of Nigeria from Britain in 1960, a period half as long as the colonial era, Nigeria has experienced a number of successful and attempted military coups d’état and a brutal civil war, let corrupt civilian governments siphon off the profits from the oil boom of the 1970s, and faced economic collapse in the 1980s.
As the most populous country in Africa, and one of the ten most populous countries in the world, Nigeria has a history that is important in its own right but that also bears scrutiny if for no other reason than to understand how and why this nation became as it is today.
It is now left for the generation to come to decide the fate of the country and whether it will be better or it will be worse than how they met it, largely depends on their actions or inactions.