Nigeria sees significant political progress in 2017

With Africa’s largest economy and its biggest population, Nigeria is the continent’s heavyweight. The country has been blessed with resource-rich lands, areas of great agricultural fertility and favourable demographics, but it has also had its fair share of challenges, ranging from poor infrastructure, secessionist movements, military coups and religious violence.

However, a successful presidential election in 1999 ushered in a period of relative stability, with nearly 18 years of democratic polls – the most recent of which resulted in a peaceful handover of power. This greatly improved political situation has brought economic dividends, particularly between 2003 and 2014, when GDP growth averaged more than 8%.

Still, the steady growth and increasingly robust democracy have not resolved all of the country’s problems: the recent fall in oil prices has led to a recession, while a terrorist insurgency by Boko Haram has destabilised some of the northern states. However, Nigeria is known for its resiliency and shows little sign of letting these troubles slow its ascendancy.


Nigeria is the 14th-largest country in Africa, occupying 923,768 sq km, an area that is roughly twice the size of Sweden and less than half the size of Mexico. It is bordered by Chad to the north-east, Cameroon to the east, Benin to the west and by Niger on the north-west and north. The country has 853 km of coastline adjoining the Gulf of Guinea.

Lagos is generally considered to be the country’s largest city, with official population estimates ranging from anywhere between 17m and 21m people. Other major cities include Kano, Kaduna, Port Harcourt and Ibadan. In 1991 the country’s political capital was moved to Abuja, which is a purpose-built and master-planned city in the centre of the country.

Climate & Topography

Nigeria’s topography is characterised by plains to the north and south, with plateaus and hills in the centre of the country. The Niger River – after which the country is named – and its tributary, the Benue, divide the country into three parts: the north, the south-west and the south-east. The region where the Niger River drains into the Gulf of Guinea is called the Niger Delta, a vast wetland area covering 112,100 sq km of rainforest, coastal vegetation, freshwater swamps and savannah.

The country’s climate is broadly defined as tropical, although there is significant variation. In the south, temperatures and humidity remain relatively constant throughout the year, while the north experiences more clearly defined seasons and a larger range of temperatures. The south-eastern region is warm and wet all year round, while the very north of the country has a semi-arid climate. In the south, the rainy season extends from March to November, while in the north, it is shorter, lasting only from mid-May to September. Another defining climatic feature is the Harmattan winds, which come from the Sahara to the north and are most prevalent during the dry season, which lasts from December to February.


Much of the land now designated as Nigeria has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. The earliest evidence of human life in the area dates from 9000 BCE, when archaeological finds indicate there were early human settlements at Iwo Eleru in the country’s south-west. Inhabitation took the form of small villages or village units up until around 1000 CE, when the first centralised state structures – in the form of regional kingdoms and empires – began to emerge. In the forested south, the largest of these were the kingdoms of Benin and Ife-Ife. In the semi-arid regions of the north, the empire of Kanem and Bornu became dominant from the 11th century thanks to their positions as focal points for trans-Saharan trade.

European activity in the area began around 1480, when early Portuguese sailors set up a trading post with the kingdom of Benin on the country’s Atlantic coast. The Portuguese were soon followed by British, French and Dutch traders. By the 17th century, slavery had become the country’s dominant and most lucrative form of commerce between local and European powers, surpassing other trade in gold, food and textiles.

Britain’s colonisation of Nigeria officially began with the annexation of Lagos as a Crown Colony in 1861, and grew through amalgamation with the trade territories of the Royal Niger Company in 1894, as well as the establishment of the Northern Protectorate in 1900. The Northern and Southern protectorates were joined in 1914, thus bringing into being the single territory known as Nigeria today. The Nigerian independence movement began to achieve momentum from the 1930s onwards, winning a series of concessions to regional self-governance, before the UK eventually granted Nigeria full independence in 1960.


Following independence, Nigeria struggled to maintain political stability, as a series of civilian governments were overthrown by military coups, which in turn lead to extended periods of military government. The country also endured a secessionist war between 1967 and 1970, when the Eastern Region declared itself the Independent Republic of Biafra. In part as a result of this, a series of constitutional amendments between 1966 and 1999 expanded the number of federal states from three to the current 36. Following a range of coups and autocratic rulers during that period, the political system enjoyed enhanced stability with President Olusegun Obasanjo’s declaration of the Fourth Republic in 1999, which has ushered in the country’s longest sustained period of civilian rule (see analysis).

Language & Culture

Home to more than 250 ethnic groups, Nigeria is rightly famed for its cultural diversity. While English is the official language, more than 500 languages are spoken across the country. The majority of these are indigenous languages and have been spoken in the same areas for around 4000 years. The most widely used languages after English are Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo and Fulani.


Islam and Christianity are the country’s two largest faiths, with Muslims accounting for around half of the population and Christians some 40%. While around 1% of the populace adhere solely to indigenous belief systems, many combine traditional religious beliefs with the tenets of Islam or Christianity.

Islam first reached Nigeria via trans-Saharan trade routes, with the king of Kanem converting to Islam in the late 11th century, partly as a means to strengthen political and trade ties to Muslim rulers in North Africa and Sudan. The first concerted attempt to bring Christianity into the interior of Nigeria was made in 1841, as European and African Christians launched the Niger Expedition. Christianity spread rapidly in the following years, becoming the dominant religion in the country’s south. While the religious affiliations of the different parties in government often been the source of tension in Nigerian history, the governing constitution prevents the adoption of a state religion and protects individuals’ rights to freedom of religion.

Population & Demographics

At the end of 2016 the National Bureau of Statistics estimated that the country’s population had surpassed 193m. With a fertility rate of 5.6 births per woman, Nigeria’s population is the fastest growing among the world’s 10 most-populous countries, and is expected to surpass the US – which currently has a population of 323.1m – as the world’s third-most-populous country before 2050 (see Health chapter). The population is also notable for its large proportion of young people, with more than half of the populace under the age of 30 in 2016.

Natural Resources

Perhaps the single-biggest historical driver of Nigeria’s economy has been its resource wealth. This is most visible in terms of the country’s oil production. According to a 2017 statistical bulletin by the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Nigeria’s proven crude oil reserves total 37.5bn barrels (see Energy chapter).

The country also contains significant quantities of natural gas, with the latest figures putting the quantity of proven reserves at 5.5trn cu metres. The country’s other resources include tin, iron ore, coal, limestone, niobium, lead and vast tracts of uncultivated arable land (see Mining and Agriculture chapters).


Nigeria is the biggest economy in Africa with a GDP of $487bn in 2015, according to the World Bank. The country assumed the mantle of the continent’s largest economy in 2013, following a rebasing exercise. However, its large population means that Nigeria remains a comparatively poor country in per-capita terms, with a lower GDP per capita than several of its sub-Saharan neighbours, including South Africa, Namibia, Gabon and Angola.

Following a real GDP contraction of 1.5% in 2016, the IMF forecasts that growth will reach 0.8% in 2017 and 1.9% in 2018 (see Economy chapter). This period of modest economic performance, which began in 2015, is expected to continue until 2019, was preceded by more than a decade of high economic growth, with the country recording double-figure annual GDP growth rates three times in the period between 2001 and 2014.

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Nigeria 2017. Explore other chapters from this report.

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