(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)


The Federal Republic of Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is located on the Atlantic coast in West Africa. It is bordered by Benin on the west, Niger and Chad on the north, and Cameroon on the east. Abuja, which became Nigeria's official capital in December 1991, is small; Lagos, the former capital, remains the commercial nerve center of the country.

Nigeria is a country of immense physical and human diversity. Its climate ranges from rain forest to desert, the landforms are highly varied, and the people are divided into about 250 different ethnic groups. Formerly a British colony, Nigeria derives its name from the Niger River. The country attained its independence on Oct. 1, 1960.

Land and Resources

The major physiographic feature of the country is the Niger River. With its principal tributary, the Benue River, the Niger forms a giant Y that divides Nigeria into three regions. Elevations of the two rivers are low; they never exceed 300 m (1,000 ft) within the country. The highest point clearly within Nigeria is Mount Dimlang (2,042 m/6,700 ft), near the border with Cameroon. A higher peak, Chappal Wadi (2,419 m/7,936 ft), straddles the border with Cameroon. Elevations between 600 and 1,500 m (2,000 and 5,000 ft) are common throughout the Jos Plateau. The main physical regions are the coastal plains and the Niger delta in the south; the Oyo-Yoruba upland in the southwest; the Udi Hills in the southeast; the Adamawa highlands along the eastern border; the Niger-Benue lowland; the high plains of Hausaland, with the Jos Plateau superimposed; and the Chad Basin in the extreme northeast.

Much of the surface consists of Precambrian rocks, which are more than 600 million years old. Many areas, however, are overlain with younger sedimentary or volcanic rocks. Precambrian rock outcroppings, being more resistant to erosion, form the rounded domes of bare rock, called inselbergs, that are found throughout the country. Younger rocks are found in the valleys of the Niger and the Benue. Recently deposited materials make up the coastline and the Niger delta.

Soil types are largely a function of rainfall and geology. Along the coast, swamp soils predominate. Inland are well-drained, excessively leached soils that are low in organic matter. Farther inland, rainfall and leaching diminish, leaving soils higher in organic matter. In the north, sandy soils are formed from material blown in from the Sahara. Climate

Climate is determined primarily by distance from the ocean; elevation is secondary. Because all of Nigeria is within the tropics, generally only wet (May–September) and dry (October–April) seasons occur in most of the country. The temperature is always warm. Rainfall varies from more than 3,300 mm (130 in) along the coast to less than 650 mm (26 in) along the northern border. Precipitation diminishes rapidly from the coast inland. Maximum temperatures range from 35° C (95° F) on the coast, where cloud cover is nearly continuous, to above 41° C (105° F) in the north. Minimum temperatures range from 22° C (72° F) in the south to 19° C (66° F) in the north.

Drainage, Vegetation, and Animal Life

The Niger River originates in the highlands of Guinea and flows northeast toward the Sahara before turning southward toward Nigeria. It enters the Gulf of Guinea off Nigeria's southern coast approximately 4,200 km (2,600 mi) farther on. The Benue River is about 1,085 km (675 mi) in length. Other important rivers are the Cross, the Kaduna, and the Sokoto. Lake Chad, located in an interior drainage basin, occupies the extreme northeastern corner of the country.

Natural-vegetation distribution coincides with the climatic pattern. The three basic types are swamp forest in the delta and coastal zone, tropical rain forest in the humid south, and savanna in the subhumid middle belt and dry north. High population pressure precludes abundant animal life. In the forest are monkeys, snakes, and small antelope. Larger ungulates, such as kob, waterbuck, and reedbuck, are found in the savanna zone.


By far the most important resource is petroleum, of which Nigeria is one of the world's leading producers. Although petroleum revenues dropped from a peak of $24 billion in 1980 to about $12 billion annually in the 1990s and declined even further during the worldwide economic slump that began in 2001, they subsequently rose along with world prices. At present, production is confined to the offshore and delta areas. Energy exploration continues throughout the country. Other important minerals are coal, tin, columbite, and gold. Roughly 16% of the total land area is forested; 34% is under cultivation.


Some 250 ethnic groups live in Nigeria. Four groups together account for nearly 70% of the total population. These are the Fulani and Hausa, who live mainly in the north; the Ibo (Igbo), who predominate in the southeast; and the Yoruba, in the southwest. The Edo, Ibibio, Kanuri, Nupe, Tiv, Chamba, Ekoi, Urhobo, Itsekiri, Ijaw, and Ogoni are smaller, but still important, groups. Other groups are quite small.

Language and Religion

English, the official language, is little understood outside the south and the cities. Each ethnic group generally has its own language, but neighboring peoples often speak mutually intelligible languages. Languages spoken by larger groups may have as many as 200 dialects.

Islam, introduced from the north during the 14th century, is adhered to by 50% of all Nigerians. It is the dominant religion in the north. Christianity, the religion of about 40% of the population, is dominant in the south. A minority of Nigerians follow traditional religious beliefs.


The 2006 national census recorded Nigeria's population at roughly 140 million, just over half of which lived in the north. Questions about ethnicity and religion were omitted from the new census. In the past, it was charged, politicians had manipulated such data to gain financial advantage for particular groups.

Both Nigeria's overall population and its percentage of urban dwellers are increasing rapidly. Major cities include Lagos, Ibadan, Kano, Ogbomosho, Oshogbo, Ilorin, Abeokuta, Benin City, Enugu, Kaduna, Maiduguri, Katsina, Oyo, Warri, and Port Harcourt. In 2006 it was estimated that more than 42% of Nigerians were under the age of 15 and that the rapidly growing population would exceed 298 million by 2050.

Education and Health

Education is officially free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 15. Nevertheless, not all children attend primary school and fewer than half go on to attend secondary school. Schools are generally overcrowded; teacher shortages are common. Despite the fact that Nigeria has numerous universities and more than 100 colleges of education and polytechnics, fewer than half of those who apply to these institutions gain admission. Health-care facilities remain inadequate, especially in rural areas.


Nigeria has an artistic and cultural heritage unsurpassed in sub-Saharan Africa. Traditional dancing and singing are an important part of Nigerian culture, particularly in the south. Plastic arts include wood carving, the famous Benin bronzes, and weaving. The Federal Department of Antiquities directs a national system of museums containing art treasures that date back to the Nok culture (c.500 B.C.A.D. 200; see African art). Nigerian authors such as Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Wole Soyinka, Amos Tutuola, Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, Timothy Mofolorunso Aluko, and Kole Omotosho have made significant contributions to contemporary African literature. Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986, and Nigerian author Helon Habila won the Caine Prize for African writing in 2001 with a short story set during a period of military rule. Musicians such as the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, King Sunny Adé and Sunny Okosun have also achieved international recognition.

Economic Activity

The Nigerian economy is the largest in black Africa. Large-scale exports of petroleum, which began in the mid-1960s, fueled a period of rapid economic expansion. Initially, petroleum earnings were used to finance luxury goods, raw materials, foodstuffs, and a variety of large-scale prestige products. The agricultural sector, which had even earlier failed to keep pace with population growth, became even further depressed. When world demand and prices for petroleum dropped in 1981, Nigeria's foreign-exchange earnings declined precipitously.

Regardless, government spending on corruption-riddled building projects continued. Foreign debt increased. Factories slowed production or closed for want of imported raw materials and spare parts. Inflation became a serious problem, and foodstuffs and various consumer goods were increasingly scarce and expensive. The country was even forced to import refined petroleum as its refineries fell into disrepair; power shortages further reduced industrial output. These problems persisted into the 21st century, despite sporadic government efforts to encourage the growth of the agricultural sector and agro-based industries in order to lessen the dependence on oil. A poorly managed World Bank–supervised structural adjustment program introduced in 1986 failed to stem the deepening economic crisis. Living standards for the lower and middle classes continued to decline. By 1998 the average per-capita income was only one-fourth what it had been in the 1980s.

In 1999 the nation's new civilian government took steps to halt corruption and recover millions of dollars illegally siphoned from government coffers by officials of previous military governments. It announced that it planned to spend heavily on oil exploration and production in an effort to improve the economy. In 2003 it outlined plans to privatize the country's oil refineries and began to deregulate domestic fuel prices, although this effort was repeatedly impeded by strikes. In addition, violence fueled by demands from groups in the oil-rich Niger delta for a greater share of petroleum revenues periodically threatened oil facilities and interrupted production. In 2006 a Nigerian court ruled that Shell, Nigeria's largest oil producer, should pay $1.5 million in damages to the delta Ijaw community to compensate it for the environmental damage it had caused; it was unclear whether this would halt the violence that had cut the nation's oil production by 25%. In part to allay investor concerns, Nigeria had repaid the last of its multibillion-dollar debt to the Paris Club (an informal group of wealthy nations) on Apr. 21, 2006. Rather than squandering its windfall profits from the recent rise in world oil prices, it used them to pay off its arrears and future obligations in exchange for the forgiveness of the remainder of the debt.

Mining and Power

The petroleum sector contributes roughly 20% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and 95% of foreign exchange, although it employs only a tiny percentage of the labor force. Nigeria has nearly 2% of the world's proven petroleum reserves. It is also one of the world's largest producers of tin and columbite and a source of coal and limestone. Its iron-ore deposits supply the national steel industry. Electricity production (17.71 billion kW h in 2004) is inadequate to meet the demand.

Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing. 

The agricultural sector still employs about 70% of the labor force, mostly at a subsistence level. Nonetheless, increasing amounts of food are imported. The chief subsistence crops are yams, cassava, and cacao in the south and maize, guinea corn, rice, and millet in the north. The export agricultural sector has declined because the overvalued Nigerian currency has made its producers uncompetitive in the world market. The leading agricultural and forest exports are cacao beans, rubber, cashew nuts, and palm oil and kernels. Obeche, abura, and mahogany are the main commercial trees. Livestock raising is also important. Lake Chad, the Niger delta, and offshore waters are sources of fish.


Industry contributed more than 53% of the GDP in 2006, but non-petroleum-related manufacturing accounted for less than 5% of that amount. Oil refineries are located at Port Harcourt, Warri, and Kaduna. Other prominent industries include food processing (especially of palm-nut and peanut oil) and brewing, tin smelting, and the making of textiles, iron and steel, cement, automobiles, pulp and paper, pharmaceuticals, and consumer goods.

Transportation and Trade The general flow of transport is north-south. This reflects both the export-oriented economy and the east-west agricultural belts. The general flow of heavy haulage and rail transportation is likewise north-south, whereas mass transport is mostly south-north. However, the very poor state of Nigeria's road network and frequent fuel scarcities continue to make transportation problematic. Railroads link Lagos and Port Harcourt with Kano, Maiduguri, and other points in the north. A major rehabilitation of the nation's dilapidated rail network took place between 1995 and 1998, but its capacity and utility are still not what they once were. Most shipping is handled at the port of Lagos.

Petroleum and petroleum products provided 95% of the nation's export revenues in 2006, compared with less than 2% in 1959. By 2005, Nigeria was Africa's largest and the world's seventh-largest oil producer and a regional economic superpower. The largest U.S. trading partner on the continent of Africa, it was the world's fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States. Agricultural exports, formerly the country's mainstay, are now of little importance. The principal imports are machinery and transportation equipment, manufactured goods, chemicals, and foodstuffs.

History and Government

Northern and southern Nigeria (savanna and forest, respectively) each has its own history. Arab traders as early as the 8th century found African peoples who were highly organized, with cities and towns, a trading network, and a monarchical government. The earliest firsthand account is that of the Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, who visited (1352–53) the western savanna zone. A series of kingdoms flourished in the savanna zone, beginning with the kingdom of Ghana (700–1350) in the west. Moving eastward, the Hausa emirates such as Kano, Katsina, and Zaria< emerged (c.1000) in present-day northern Nigeria. The powerful 19th-century Fulani empire established its center at Sokoto.

In Yorubaland, in the southwest, archaeological evidence suggests a high degree of urbanization by the 11th century. Highly sophisticated bronze and brass sculptures by the Yoruba and Benin peoples indicate a significant level of metallurgical skill. In southeastern Nigeria the Ibo had by the 9th century developed a sophisticated society that was involved in trade and supported artistic endeavors, including bronze sculpture.

European Era

The first Europeans to visit the Nigerian coast were the Portuguese. As early as the 1440s the Portuguese began to transport African slaves to their own country. By the early 1500s the slave trade was well established. A total of 6.3 million slaves are estimated to have been transported from West Africa. Of these, an estimated 23% came from the Slave Coast (western Nigeria, Benin, and Togo); another 42% came from the Niger delta and the Cameroons.

Much of the British acquisition of Nigeria was accomplished by the Royal Niger Company under Sir George Goldie. British claims to the Niger Basin were recognized by the other European powers at the Conference of Berlin in 1885. In 1914 the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria was established, with Sir Frederick (later 1st Baron) Lugard as governor-general. There he established the policy of indirect rule—that is, governing through the preexisting chieftain structure; this arrangement became the keystone of administration throughout the British Empire. Colonial rule itself brought about changes that would ultimately lead to its demise. An educated African elite started to emerge within a few decades, one that recognized the inequalities and injustices of colonialism and would not long be content to remain British colonial subjects.

Independence and Civil War

In 1960, Nigeria gained its political independence, but strife was not long in coming. Initially, a parliamentary system of government was used; independent Nigeria was a federation composed of three regions—northern, western, and eastern—each represented in the federal government. The northern region, because of its large population, was able to dominate the entire country politically. Friction increased, especially between the Hausa/Fulani in the north and the Ibo in the southeast. This resulted in a military coup led by easterners in January 1966.

During the upheaval of 1966 many Ibo living in the north were killed. Consequently, many others fled to their traditional homeland in the southeast. The coup was viewed by many as an Ibo attempt to take over the country; six months later another coup placed Gen. Yakubu >Gowon (a Christian from the Middle Belt) in command. In 1967 the Ibo, under the leadership of Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, attempted to secede as the Republic of Biafra. This ignited a bloody civil war that lasted until 1970, when the Ibo surrendered. In 1975 another military coup, headed by Gen. Murtala Mohammed, led to the elevation of Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo as head of state in 1976.

A new constitution came into force in 1979, when elections were held and the ruling military council transferred power to a civilian government headed by Alhaji Shehu Shagari. In December 1983, however, Shagari was overthrown in a coup led by Maj. Gen. Mohammed Buhari. The ruling military council named civilians to many key posts and worked to end corruption. Nevertheless, the economic crisis created by the dramatic drop in oil revenue continued. Buhari was overthrown in August 1985 in a bloodless coup staged by army chief of staff Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.

Military Rule in the 1990s

Babangida promised a return to civilian rule under a new constitution approved in 1989. Nine new states were created in 1991 and six more in 1996 in an effort to ease continuing religious and ethnic tensions. Legislative elections were held in 1992. When the promilitary candidate lost the June 1993 presidential election, Babangida annulled it, although public anger forced him to step down as scheduled in August. An appointed interim civilian president, Chief Ernest Shonekan, was ousted on Nov. 17, 1993, by Gen. Sani Abacha. Abacha then reimposed military rule. Moshood Abiola, the apparent winner of the 1993 election, declared himself president in June 1994 and was arrested for treason. Despite the fact that Abacha promised elections in 1998, the executions of several government critics in November 1995 led to the suspension of Nigeria's membership in the Commonwealth of Nations and the imposition of limited sanctions by Western governments. Early in 1997 the government brought treason charges against a number of dissidents; these included the noted writer Wole Soyinka, who was living in exile.

When Abacha unexpectedly died in office on June 8, 1998, the ruling military junta swiftly chose former defense chief of staff Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar as his successor. (It was later revealed that Abacha had been planning to dismiss Abubakar and reorganize the army command on the day of his death.) On July 7, in the midst of discussions about his widely anticipated release, Abiola also died suddenly. News of his death, later determined by an international team of pathologists to have been due to natural causes, provoked rioting.

On July 20, 1998, Abubakar promised full demilitarization and a return to democratic rule by May 29, 1999. The political parties created by Abacha were dissolved, and the results of all elections held under the Abacha regime were voided. In August the government announced that legislative and presidential elections, in which Abubakar would not be a candidate, would be held in February 1999. In February 1999 the ruling military council approved a new constitution based on the constitution of 1979, which had been suspended in 1983, and on the advice of an independent constitutional review panel. The new charter came into force when the new elected civilian government assumed office on May 29. It granted additional powers to state and local governments and provided the states with a greater share of the income they generated. It also permitted the predominantly Muslim states of the north to establish Islamic courts.

Return to Civilian Rule

In the December 1998 local elections, the first step in the transition to democracy, the largest share of the vote went to the People's Democratic party (PDP), formed by politicians opposed to Abacha and headed by presidential candidate Obasanjo. It was followed by the All Peoples party, composed of former Abacha supporters, and the Alliance for Democracy, which was strongest in the southwest and in Lagos. These three parties gathered a sufficient level of support across the country to be allowed to participate in the state elections in January 1999 (in which the PDP gained a majority of state governorships) and February's national contests. In the latter, Obasanjo's party captured a legislative majority and he himself won the presidency. The newly elected president assumed office on May 29; the elected national legislature held its opening session on June 3.

One of the most critical issues facing the new government was the rising tide of protests by groups in the south. They charged that they were being excluded from national political life, that southern Nigeria (especially its oil-producing communities) was not receiving its fair share of the nation's oil revenues, and that the activities of the international oil companies were polluting the environment. Domestic oil shortages contributed to the tragic October 1999 deaths of more than 1,000 people near the southern city of Warri who were attempting to scavenge gasoline from a broken pipeline when it exploded; such incidents, on a smaller scale, became common. The 1999 constitutional provisions granting Nigeria's states a greater share of the wealth they generated was in large part a response to the social unrest in the Niger delta, but it failed to solve the problem.

There were also outbreaks of ethnic violence elsewhere. The introduction of Islamic law (Sharia) in Kano and several other predominantly Muslim northern states raised fears of further polarization among Nigeria's various ethnic and religious groups. In fact, the army had to be called in in February 2000 and again in May of that year to put down violence between Christians and Muslims in the northern city of Kaduna after the introduction of the Sharia there. By early 2002, however, as the political power of militant Islamists increased, ten northern states had introduced full Sharia. This alienated many Christians and moderate Muslims. In March of that year the central government declared that the strict application of the Sharia was illegal under the Nigerian constitution because it permitted Muslims to be punished more severely than other Nigerians for similar offenses.

The new government vowed to tackle the nation's serious economic problems, as well as the endemic problem of corruption. One of its first moves was to suspend all contracts entered into by the military government in 1999 pending a government review. Subsequently, Obasanjo forced several high-ranking military officers to retire, made substantial cuts in the size of the armed forces, and seized hundreds of millions of dollars in assets from former Abacha associates. A truth commission to investigate human rights abuses by past Nigerian military governments was sworn in in September 1999 and launched nationally televised hearings late the following year. By late 2001, however, continued ethnic and religious violence led the government to deploy the army in at least six states—the largest such internal military deployment since the civil war.

In January 2002 the legislature annulled changes made by Obasanjo to the election law that effectively banned new parties from the 2003 state and federal elections. By this time the economy was in such dire straits that the government suspended payments on its $33 billion in foreign debts, due partly to low world prices for the oil that accounted for about 80% of government revenue.

Nevertheless, the Apr. 12, 2003, legislative elections generally exceeded expectations. Although Obasanjo's party suffered some losses in the important northern state of Kano, it made significant gains in its southwestern stronghold. The following week, Obasanjo easily won reelection, capturing nearly 62% of the vote to just over 32% for his chief opponent, former military ruler Mohammed Buhari. His party also secured the governorships in 28 of Nigeria's 36 states. Despite widespread irregularities and episodes of chaos and violence, the elections marked the first time since Nigeria gained independence that power passed relatively peacefully from one elected government to another.

In 2005 the government convened a national conference to discuss the relations between Nigeria's ethnic and religious groups and how the constitution might be amended or replaced to reduce communal clashes. The national conference, which had been demanded by many groups, could only make suggestions to the national and state legislatures. It did not have the power to draft a new constitution to replace the one that had been written while Nigeria was still under military rule. Boycotted by the representatives of the Niger delta, the forum failed to address many of Nigeria's most pressing problems, particularly the issue of revenue sharing, although it did make recommendations designed to improve agriculture and prevent electoral fraud.

In foreign affairs, a long-standing dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon over which country controls the fishing and mineral rights off the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula continued until 2006. In September 2002 the two nations had agreed to respect the decision of the International Court of Justice on the matter. When the court awarded the area to Cameroon the following month, though, Nigeria initially refused to accept the decision, which was domestically unpopular because about 90% of the peninsula's inhabitants were Nigerians. It did cede 33 disputed border villages near Lake Chad to Cameroon by the end of 2003, but its scheduled Sept. 15, 2004, handover of the remainder of the peninsula to Cameroon did not take place. On June 12, 2006, Nigeria finally agreed to turn the Bakassi Peninsula over to Cameroon in an accord brokered by the United Nations.

Elsewhere on the continent, the Nigerian government has increasingly involved itself in the affairs of neighboring countries, most notably to help end civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In July 2003, for example, Nigeria agreed to grant asylum to Liberian president Charles Taylor and to contribute troops to a multinational West African peacekeeping force to restore order in Sierra Leone. Despite its numerous economic and political problems, Nigeria has remained the core state in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and an influential member of the African Union.

By October 2005, when the nation celebrated the 45th anniversary of its independence, most Nigerians were poorer than they had been at independence. Ethnic, religious, and political clashes in which tens of thousands of people have died, along with controversies over the imposition of Islamic law, have highlighted the fragility of Nigeria's new democratic government and its inability to reconcile the differences that continue to plague the country's disparate ethnic and religious groups.

Efforts to allow Obasanjo to run for a third term were rejected in May 2006. Twenty-five candidates contested the Apr. 21, 2007, presidential election. It was won by Obasanjo's little-known chosen successor, PDP candidate Umara Musa Yar'Adua. Critics at home and abroad said that the poll failed to meet acceptable standards. The leading opposition candidates, Vice-President Atiku Abubakar and former military ruler Mohammed Buhari, rejected the results. Nevertheless, Nigeria remained united. For the first time, sub-Saharan Africa's most populous nation had replaced one elected civilian head of state with another. In addition, high world oil prices have improved the economic picture. Nigeria has thus been given yet another opportunity to fulfill its enormous potential.

Ronald D. Garst

Reviewed by Julius O. Ihonvbere

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