Frontline World

NIGERIA - The Road North, January 2003

Synopsis of "The Road North"

A Chronicle of the Pageant's Troubles

Interview With Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka

Five Diverse Voices

Learn More about Nigeria

Sharia Law, Human Rights, the Role of Women




Images of Nigerian people and architecture
Facts & Stats

• General Background
• Government
• Economy
• Religion
• Sharia
• Culture

General Background
General Background
Twice the land size of California, Nigeria is a large West African nation bordered by the Gulf of Guinea and wedged between Benin and Cameroon.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation, accounting for one-quarter of West Africa's people.

The country has a population of more than 120 million people from hundreds of ethnic groups.

The most populous and politically influential ethnic groups include the Hausa-Fulani, 29 percent; Yoruba, 21 percent; Igbo (also "Ibo"), 18 percent; Ijaw, 10 percent; Kanuri, 4 percent; Ibibio, 3.5 percent; and Tiv, 2.5 percent.

More than 250 languages are spoken. English is the official language.

Average Nigerian life expectancy is 50.59 years.

Each Nigerian woman bears an average of 5.49 children.

Of the population aged 15 and over, 57.1 percent can read and write.

Nigeria is one of the wealthiest -- and one of the poorest -- of African nations. Though the country brings in billions in oil revenues, the U.N.'s Human Development Index ranks it 136th out of 162 countries.

Less than 25 percent of Nigerians live in cities, but the cities are large; at least 24 cities have populations of more than 100,000.

"419 men" is the name for people who accumulate "fast wealth." It refers to the number of laws relating to fraud in the Nigerian penal code. So-called 419 men are believed to have "earned" their wealth through scams and the international drug trade.

An estimated 3.5 million Nigerians have HIV/AIDS, accounting for one in every 11 HIV/AIDS sufferers worldwide.

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General Background
Nigeria was formally united under British colonial rule in 1914, but the result was a loose affiliation of the mainly Muslim Hausa-Fulani North, the mainly Christian Yoruba South and West, and the mainly Christian Igbo East.

The country achieved its independence from England in 1960.

Tired of the way his people were being mistreated in the North, Igbo leader Lieutenant Colonel Odemugwu Ojukwu declared the eastern region of Nigeria the Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967. The civil war that resulted cost more than a million lives.

By January 15, 1970, the Biafran state was finished, its capital city lost in battle and its population starved into submission.

From the first military coup, in 1966, the army has consistently ruled the country (except for a break during the Second Republic [1979-1983] and for a few weeks in 1993) until elections were held in 1999.

Following nearly 16 years of military rule, a new constitution was adopted in 1999, and a peaceful transition to civilian government followed.

Under the constitution adopted in May 1999, a strong executive presidency appoints a Federal Executive Council composed of government ministers and ministers from each of Nigeria's 36 states.

The executive is accountable to the bicameral National Assembly.

There are three political parties, but, in practice, personal and ethnic ties dominate the political process.

Olusegun Obasanjo has been Nigeria's president since May 1999.

The north is Nigeria's poorest region, but it has traditionally held great political power, supplying most of the country's presidents since independence in 1960. The implementation of sharia is seen by some as a direct challenge to President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian.

Since the restoration of civilian rule in May 1999, more than 10,000 Nigerians have died in civil strife.

The next election is scheduled for April 2003.

Nigeria is ranked as the second-most-corrupt country of 91 surveyed by the Transparency International Global Corruption Report last year.

Former president General Sani Abacha, who seized power in 1993 after canceling presidential elections and jailing the presumed winner, reportedly made off with $4.3 billion from Nigeria's treasury.

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General Background
Currency: naira (NGN)

Population below poverty line: 45 percent

Former military rulers allowed Nigeria to develop a chronic dependence on its "black gold," which provides 20 percent of Nigeria's GDP, 95 percent of foreign exchange earnings and nearly 80 percent of government income.

Once a large exporter of food, Nigeria must now import food.

Imported goods are hit with heavy tariffs: for example, 100 percent on imported toilet paper and 150 percent on water and beer. Traders evade these duties by paying for smuggled goods with black-market dollars.

Nigeria is the world's sixth-largest exporter of petroleum, producing 4.5 percent of the world's total production.

In September 2001, Shell Oil Company announced that a flow station in southern Nigeria had been damaged in an attack and put out of commission for 18 months. The company is suing two communities for $25 million.

More than 4,000 oil spills have been recorded in Nigeria's Niger Delta over the past four decades, a failure the president blames on the oil companies.

The largest item in Nigeria's 2002 budget: military spending

The country's relationship to the International Monetary Fund was severed in February 2002.

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General Background
Half of all Nigerians are Muslim, 40 percent are Christian and 10 percent hold indigenous beliefs.

Nigeria's religions tend to parallel ethnic identification. Hausa-Fulani people in the north are predominantly Muslim, the Igbo in the east are often Catholic, and the Yoruba in the west are animist, Christian or Muslim. Individuals sometimes mix the religions, for example, combining tenets of Christianity with local customs.

Kano, a 1,000-year-old northern trade center, is West Africa's oldest city. Its Central Mosque attracts as many as 50,000 worshippers at a time.

Masks play an important role in certain animist rites, representing forces of nature and gods in ceremonies. Wooden Yoruba masks, for example, help maintain connection to ancestors.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the ability to combat witchcraft and black magic is part of the appeal of "born again" Christian churches.

There are 250 registered Pentecostal ministries in Nigeria today, up from 50 in 1990, and these churches seem especially to appeal to the young.

Canaan Land, a 565-acre campus with hotel, gas station, bank, restaurants, shops and the continent's largest church auditorium, is just one example of Nigeria's growing Christian fervor.

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General Background
Twelve out of 36 Nigerian states are currently under sharia, Islamic law.

Sharia is not new to Nigeria. Islamic penal codes were enforced until 1960, when punishments such as amputations and floggings were outlawed.

Many Muslim Nigerians believe that this penal system is a reasonable alternative to Nigeria's secular courts, which are notoriously dysfunctional. In the country's secular courts, bribery is the norm, and there is no such thing as a speedy trial.

In sharia courts, most people represent themselves, saving legal fees.

Last year, a teenage mother was flogged 100 times with a cane in Zamfara State, after being convicted of premarital sexual intercourse. She had no legal representation at her trial. None of the three married men she accused of coercing her into having sex with them was charged, tried or punished.

Muslim vigilante groups have been responsible for unlawful detention, acts of violence, torture and killings.

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General Background
The Nok people were the first to populate the land now called Nigeria, around 500 B.C. The highly adept Nok knew how to smelt metal. They adorned themselves with nose rings, earrings and bracelets -- an early cultural expression unmatched in Africa for the next 1,000 years.

One of the first and most powerful tribes was the Yoruba, a group of traders and artisans who worshipped a pantheon of deities headed by Oduduwa, creator of the earth and ancestor of future Yoruba kings.

Igbo women traditionally have their own women's council. This council exercises real power, organizing communitywide walkouts that can last several days. When the council of women decides that they need to make a point, the women leave their men and all but the youngest of their children. They move to a nearby village where they are treated as guests. There, the women tell of their troubles with the men at home. The men from the neighboring village act as police, pressuring the other men to shape up. They also bill the men for the expense of housing and feeding the displaced women.

Nigerian music is well-known around the world. Until his death in 1997, Fela Kuti's eclectic fusion of traditional Yoruba call-and-response chanting with freestyle jazz (Afrobeat) was quite popular.

Other popular Nigerian musicians include Sonny Ade, the king of juju music, Sonny Okosun, granddaddy of Afro-reggae, and the soul singer, Sade.

Nigeria has as many writers as the rest of West Africa combined.

Among Nigeria's best-known authors are Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri.

Distinguished novelist and playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged for political activism in 1995.

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Sources: BBC Nigeria Timeline; CIA World Factbook, 2002; New York Times; ThisDay (Lagos); The Economist; BBC; Reuters; Voice of America; Harvard, Fall 2002;; Amnesty International, December 2001;;; Christian Science Monitor;; U.S. Energy Information Administration; Smith, Daniel Jordan, "The Arrow of God: Pentecostalism, Inequality and the Supernatural in South-Eastern Nigeria" (Edinburgh University Press, Sept. 22, 2002);, "Contemporary Post-Colonial and Post-Imperial Literature in English"