Nigeria looks ahead to its next chapter

With a population of over 200m and abundant natural resources, Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy. The country has developed an investment-friendly business climate over two decades of civilian rule and in the nearly 60 years since independence, boosted by oil and gas wealth, and the entrepreneurial spirit of its young population. However, around 40% of Nigerians live below the poverty line, and facilitating sustainable, inclusive growth is at the top of the government’s agenda. In addition to its economic presence, the country has historically played a role in promoting peace and security in the region. While the Covid-19 pandemic caused an economic contraction as social-distancing measures and border closures were imposed, it also caused life to digitalise rapidly across commerce, education and personal communication. This shift is expected to put Nigeria in favourable position for recovery in the medium term.


Nigeria – expanding over an area the size of France and Italy combined – features a diverse geography that includes the highlands in the southwest and the Benue Hills in the south-east. The Niger River runs from the north-west and is joined by the Benue River from the east in Lokoja, in central Nigeria. The joined rivers then flow south through one of the world’s largest deltas – the Niger Delta – to the Bight of Benin and the Gulf of Guinea.

The north of the country features arid steppe and desert, while the Niger Delta in the south is characterised by wetlands and rainforest. Much of the country is covered by savannah. Abuja, the capital, was built in the 1980s. Lagos, the commercial capital and the country’s largest city, is 536 km south-west of Abuja. Rivers State’s capital, Port Harcourt, is 479 km south of Abuja and the driver of the country’s energy sector. The commercial centre of northern Nigeria, Kano, is 346 km to the north of Abuja.


Four climate zones are found in Nigeria, with rainy and dry seasons. In the south, however, these two seasons are not so distinct, as the region has a tropical monsoon climate. The South Atlantic brings warm and humid weather to coastal areas, with temperatures in the 30-35°C range for most of the year. Inland, the wet season runs from April to October and the dry season from November to March. The high rains of the coast bring 180-430 cm of rainfall per year, moving from east to west.


Archaeological research has shown that Nigeria has been inhabited for over 100,000 years, and a 13,000-year-old fossil – the oldest fossil of a human skeleton in West Africa – was found at Ihò Eleru in western Nigeria. The Nok culture flourished for about 1700 years on the Jos plateau in central Nigeria from 1500 BCE to 200 AD and there is evidence of iron smelting as early as 2000 BCE. Written records largely begin in the 9th century, with the Hausa Kingdoms in the north mentioned by Ya’qubi of the Abbasid Caliphate in his writings. The Nri Kingdom, an Igbo kingdom in the south-east that also dates to the 9th century, was a semi-theocratic state that was a leader in the region until the 17th century.

In the 15th century the Portuguese arrived, setting off a struggle for control among European nations and starting the slave trade to the Americas. The UK abolished the slave trade in 1807 and began expanding its influence over the coast once it discovered the mouth of the Niger River. After the UK annexed Lagos Island in 1861, a push inland resulted in the formation of the Niger Coast Protectorate in 1894, and later the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria in 1900. In 1914 the diverse territory was united as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. After the Second World War – in which many Nigerians fought for the British military – demands for independence grew, culminating in a federal constitution and full independence on October 1, 1960.


On October 1, 1963 Nigeria declared itself a federal republic and Nnamdi Azikiwe, a key player in the struggle for independence, became the first president. The country went through a period of instability until 1966. A coup and countercoup in 1966 led to the dissolution of the legislature and the assumption of a military government with General Yakubu Gowon at the helm.

The country also went through a secessionist war between July 1967 and January 1970 when the Eastern Region declared itself the Independent Republic of Biafra. At least in part as a result of these events, several constitutional amendments implemented between 1966 and 1999 expanded the number of federal states from three to the current 36. Gowon was eventually overthrown in a military coup in July 1975 by Brigadier Murtala Ramat Muhammed, who himself was assassinated the following year. Olusegun Obasanjo replaced him, ushering in a period of reform. Alhaji Shehu Shagari was elected president in 1979 and 1983, only to be ousted in the latter year.

Major General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida then came to power in a coup in 1985. Elections held between parties sanctioned by him led to further repression, resulting in his resignation in 1993. General Sani Abacha became the new ruler, with opposition coalescing around Chief Abiola. Both Abacha and Abiola died in 1998. Abacha’s successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, led a return to civilian rule, with elections held in 1999 and Obasanjo returning to win the presidency. Since then, under the Fourth Republic, Nigeria has continued with civilian rule.

Language & Culture

Nigeria is home to more than 250 ethnic groups speaking over 500 languages. While English is the official language, Hausa is widely spoken in the north, Yoruba in the south and Igbo in the east. Other important languages include Fulfulde, Kanuri, Ijaw and Ibibio. These languages reflect the country’s main ethnic groups. The Hausa and Fulani, largely in the north, account for approximately 28% of the population, while the Yoruba, in the south-west, make up roughly 21%. The fourth-largest group is the Igbo, representing around 18% of the population, and mainly reside in the south-east. Other groups include the Kanuri, Ibibio and Tiv.


These ethnicities and linguistic groups are also reflected in religious affiliations. The Hausa and Fulani are predominantly Muslim, while the Yoruba and Igbo are largely Christian. There are, however, significant numbers of Muslim Yoruba. It is also common for traditional belief systems to be practised along with Christian and Muslim worship. Most of Nigeria’s Muslims are Sunni, and the largest Christian denomination is Catholicism.

Population & Demographics

Following independence, when the country was home to 45.2m individuals, there was population boom. By the 2012 census the population had reached 166.2m, and later rose to 212.1m in mid-2021. The overall profile of the country is a youthful one: 63% of citizens were under 25 years of age as of 2018. Around half – or 52% – of Nigerians live in urban centres. In 2016 the National Bureau of Statistics found that the most heavily populated states were Kano, with 13.1m residents, Lagos (12.5m), Oyo (7.84m), Katsina (7.83m) and Rivers (7.3m). The population is forecast to expand rapidly in the coming years, and is set to reach 300m by 2030 and 400m by 2050.

However, life expectancy at birth remains relatively low, at 54.7 years in 2019 – albeit up considerably from 37 years in 1960, according to figures from the World Bank. In 2019 life expectancy at birth for males was 53.9 years of age, while that for females was 55.6 years. Women have accounted for approximately half of the population since 1960, making up 49.3% of residents in 2020. The fertility rate has fallen in recent decades, from 6.8 births per woman in 1979 to 5.3 births per woman in 2019.

Natural Resources

Nigeria has some of the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, totalling 38.9bn barrels at the end of 2019. With an oil reserves-to-production ratio of 49 years as of 2020, Nigeria is not expected to run out of oil until 2069. Since 2010 production has fallen by 21.5%, despite the fact that the country’s output makes up around one-quarter of Africa’s total production.

Proven natural gas reserves at the end of 2020 totalled 200.4trn standard cu feet, the most in Africa. Though petroleum dominates the natural resources sector, there are also significant deposits of uranium, iron ore, gemstones and shale, as well as small deposits of gold. The country is home to a rich agricultural sector as well, with major exports including rubber, cocoa, peanuts and palm oil.


Nigeria’s GDP grew rapidly during the first decade of the 21st century, peaking at 14.6% expansion in 2002 and closing out the decade with 11.3% growth in 2010. The economy contracted twice in the interim, by 1.6% in 2016 and 1.8% in 2020, the latter driven largely by the negative economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and low oil prices. In 2020 GDP stood at $432.3bn, down from $448.1bn in 2019.

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