Last Updated: Friday, 09 October 2015, 14:14 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Nigeria : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Nigeria : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 10 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The Federal Republic of Nigeria, on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa, is bounded by Benin to the west, Niger to the north, Chad to the north-east and Cameroon to the east and south-east. The Niger River forms a large delta in the south, which is rich in oil deposits and characterized by mangrove forests and swamps. Forested plateau lies to the north of the Niger Delta, giving way to savanna grasslands, and finally the semi-arid Sahel region of the north.


Main languages: English (official), Hausa, Pidgin, Yoruba, Igbo, Fulani, Ijaw

Main religions: Islam (50%), Christianity (40%), traditional religions (10%)

Main minority groups: Igbo (Ibo) 25.2 million (18%), Ijaw 14 million (10%), Kanuri 5.6 million (4%), Ibibio-Efik 4.9 million (3.5%), Tiv 3.5 million (2.5%), Edo (Bini) 1 million (0.7%), Nupe 800,000 (0.6%)

[Note: Except where otherwise noted, all demographic figures are taken from the CIA World Factbook, 2007. The figure for Nupe comes from Ethnologue, 1990; for Edo from 2000. Numbers are calculated from percentages using the 2006 census figure for total population, 140 million.]

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, with an estimated 140 million people. It is also a country of stunning diversity, with some 250 different ethno-linguistic groups. Demographic data are politically sensitive in Nigeria, and the 2006 census did not ask respondents for information on ethnicity or religion. Four groups – Fulani (Fula), Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo – account for perhaps 68 per cent of the total population.

Hausa and the traditionally pastoralist Fulani (Fula) peoples are concentrated in the north and practice Islam. Together they constite around 29 per cent of the population and have dominated Nigerian politics. In Kaduna state, where Hausa and Fulani form a majority, predominantly Christian minority groups include the Katab, Kaje, Gbabyi, Numana, Kono, Kagoma and Chawai.

Most of the estimated 5.6 million Kanuri inhabit an area in north-eastern Nigeria near Lake Chad. Even though Kanuri language, culture and history are distinctive, other elements of their society are similar to Hausa. The Kanuri subsistence economy is based on agriculture, with peanuts grown as a cash crop. With much overlap, a belt of other peoples occupy the area between the predominately Kanuri north-east and predominantly Hausa and Fulani north.

The middle belt area of Nigeria, from the Cameroon highlands on the east to the Niger River valley on the west, includes some 50 to 100 linguistic and ethnic groups, ranging from larger Tiv and Nupe to much smaller language groups. (See separate entry on the Tiv) There are perhaps 800,000 Nupe inhabiting primarily west-central Nigeria. They speak a Niger-Congo language related to Yoruba and Igbo and practice Islam. They live in villages growing yams, cassava and maize and raising goats, sheep and chickens. They are noted for their weaving, metalwork, embroidery, bead making, and carpentry.

Plateau State, just east of the centre of the middle belt is especially diverse. Among the main minority groups there are Berom, Tarok, Jawara and Gemai. The state is also religiously diverse, with Christians in a majority, a sizeable Muslim minority, and many people who still practice traditional beliefs.

The south is divided into a western, Yoruba-speaking area and an eastern Igbo-speaking area, a middle section of related, but differing groups and areas of Niger Delta peoples on the eastern and central coasts. Nearly 30 million Yorubas make up approximately 21 per cent of Nigeria's population and are dominant in the south-west. There are over 25 million Igbos, or around 18 per cent of the Nigerian population. They form a regional majority in the south-east, but have faced marginalization within the broader context of Nigeria.

Edo, or Bini, are a people of southern Nigeria with a population of around one million, who primarily inhabit an area including the city of Benin in Edo state in southern Nigeria. They comprise a number of sub-groups who share the common Edo language. They grow yams and other vegetables for subsistence and cacao, oil palms and rubber for cash crops. Trade is large-scale and complex. Descent and inheritance are traced through the father's line and marriages are polygamous.

The approximately 4.9 million Ibibio-Efik form a group of six related peoples inhabiting the lower Cross River in Cross River state in south-eastern Nigeria. During the 20th century a large part of the Efik population moved from the towns and settled in farming villages in the forest. Most are subsistence farmers and rainforest cultivators of yams, taro and cassava, but two subgroups are fishers. Ibibio-Efik had a long history of contact with Europeans, in particular slave traders. Market trading and handicrafts are well developed. Ibibio-Efik society has been deeply affected by the pull of migration to Lagos and Port Harcourt.

Islam is the religion of around half of all Nigerians and is the dominant religion in the north. Christianity, practiced by one-third of the population, is dominant in the south. The remaining population holds traditional religious beliefs.

These broad patterns in Nigeria's ethno-linguistic and religious patchwork are overlaid with the complication of substantial movements of people among the country's various regions – resulting, for example, in a sizeable Christian minority in the north and a large Muslim minority in the south. The central plateau region is particularly diverse.

Although English is the official language of Nigeria, Hausa and Pidgin are the most widely spoken languages in practice.


Nigeria has been settled for millennia. After around 1000 CE, various kingdoms arose on the territory of today's Nigeria. Hausa kingdoms in the north prospered on trade between the Berbers of North Africa and the forest peoples to their south. Around 1400 CE, a Yoruba kingdom in the south-west, called Oyo, lasted nearly 500 years and developed a sophisticated political system. Kanuri entered Nigeria from the central Sahara as Muslim conquerors in the fifteenth century, setting up a capital and subduing and assimilating the local Chadic speakers. Strategically located along the trans-Saharan gold and salt trade routes, the kingdom of Bornu reached its peak of influence during the sixteenth century, covering large areas of the central Sahara and many of the Hausa city states. In addition they imposed heavy taxes on their subjects. During the 19th century Bornu lost its western Hausa territories to the Sokoto Caliphate. The kingdom of Nupe reached its peak from the sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries. It was conquered and converted to Islam by Fulani early in the nineteenth century. Bida, the Nupe capital, was the centre of highly specialized production and large-scale market exchange. Artisans worked in craft guilds at metalwork, glassmaking, beadwork, weaving, carpentry and building.

The slave trade had a profound influence on virtually all of Nigeria. Slaves were numerous among the Igbo, Yoruba and many other ethnic groups. Many ethnic distinctions, especially in the middle belt between north and south, were reinforced because of slave raiding and defensive measures adopted against enslavement. In the 17th century, Europeans began establishing ports to participate in the trade of many commondities, and especially slaves. The trans-Atlantic trade accounted for the forced migration of perhaps 3.5 million people between 1650 and 1860, while a steady stream of slaves flowed north across the Sahara for a millennium. Within Nigeria slavery was widespread with social implications that are still evident. 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 Fulani-based Sokoto caliphate that rose across today's northern Nigeria and into Niger and Cameroon in the jihad of 1804-1808 had more slaves than any other modern country except the USA in 1860.

The spread of Islam, predominantly in the north but later also in the south-west, had begun around 900 CE. The great extension of Islam within present-day Nigeria dates from the nineteenth century. This helps to account for the dichotomy between north and south and for divisions within the north that have been so strong during colonial and post-colonial eras.

The colonial era was relatively brief in Nigeria, but it unleashed rapid and lasting change. Just the creation of arbitrary colonial boundaries themselves caused great disruption. For example, in the north-west, Britain, France and Germany divided the Bornu Empire between the four colonies of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. The British and the French disrupted the profitable trans-Saharan trade, subjecting the Kanuri to the colonial economy. Expansion of agricultural production as the principal export earner and development of infrastructure resulted in severely distorted economic growth. Meanwhile, social dislocation associated with the decline of slavery and the internal movement of populations caused the reassessment of ethnic loyalties. This has been reflected in politics and religion.

The British claim to lands in today's Nigeria were internationally recognized in 1885. Initially administered as a concession of the Royal Niger Company, from 1900 Nigeria was a formal British colony, ruled as three distinct political units: the Northern Protectorate, the Southern Protectorate and Lagos Colony. In 1906 the Lagos Colony and Southern Protectorate were merged. In 1914 the three units were amalgamated into one nation: the 'Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria'. Partly in recognition of the major ethno-linguistic differences between Igbo and Yoruba in the south, the Southern Protectorate was split in 1939 into Eastern and Western Provinces. This was given constitutional backing when in 1947 Nigeria was divided into Northern, Eastern and Western regions, a move which gave prominence to the three dominant groups: Hausa-Fulani in the north, Igbo in the east and Yoruba in the west. Each of the former three regions had minorities who formed themselves into movements agitating for constitutional safeguards against opposition from the larger ethnic group that dominated the affairs of the region. The minority 'problem' became a major political question when it became clear that Nigeria would adopt a federal system of government. Since each region was dominated politically by one ethnic group, minorities began to aspire to separate existences. This question was important in the 1954 federal and 1957 constitutional conferences. The north and east refused fragmentation, while the west supported the creation of a mid-western state if others did the same. Palliative measures included setting up the Niger Delta Development Board and the inclusion of fundamental human rights in the federal constitution to protect minorities.

Nigeria gained its independence in October 1960, and arguments over federalism continued. Ibibio-Efik and other smaller groups proposed creation of a new region between the Niger Delta and Calabar in order to end Igbo domination there, but proved unsuccessful for the time being. However, in 1963 Edo and Western Igbo were granted a separate midwestern region, reducing both Yoruba and Igbo dominance in that part of the country.

British protection of the Muslim north and their reliance on the authority of the traditional Muslim rulers, the emirs, created major problems after independence. Northern political power, a result of its large population, was combined with an underdeveloped economy and educational system. During the colonial era, Britain had given preferential educational opportunities to the largely Christian populations of the south, with northern Muslims relying to a great extent on Koranic education. Friction increased between Hausa and Igbo in the north, where many Igbo had moved as traders and business people and lived in residential areas set aside for strangers and 'aliens'. In January 1966 Igbo carried out a military coup that brought reprisals against them in the north. As a result many Igbo fled to their traditional homeland in the south-east, and northerners were attacked in Port Harcourt. Six months later another coup placed General Yakubu Gowon, a non-Muslim northerner in command. Gowon replaced the four regions with twelve new states, attempting to lessen the power of the larger ethnic groups. In response, the Igbo, under the leadership of Odumegwu Ojukwu, attempted to secede as the republic of Biafra in 1967, leading to a bloody civil war and the death of hundreds of thousands of Igbo.

In 1976 the government further divided Nigeria, increasing the number of states from 12 to 19. For some minorities this proved a boon, while other groups resented the loss of territory under their majority control. For example, the Ibibio-Efik were granted two majority states: Adwa-Ibom with a majority Ibibio population, and Cross River state, with an Efik majority. However, the creation of Plateau State in the middle belt of Nigeria led to resentment by the Hausa and Fulani, who had previously controlled the area. The new state had a Christian majority and Hausa and Fulani have faced exclusion ever since.

Since independence in 1960 Nigeria has experienced a number of successful and attempted coups and a brutal civil war, let corrupt civilian governments siphon off the profits from the oil booms of the 1970s and 2000s, and faced economic collapse in the 1980s. When his favoured candidate lost in the presidential elections of 1993, Army Chief of Staff General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the results and imprisoned the winner, Moshood Abiola. Defence Minister General Sani Abacha seized power on 17 November 1993, and the country returned once more to military rule. Abacha's junta, termed the 'Provisional Ruling Council' (PRC), marked its reign through severe repression of the opposition and media, corruption on a mammoth scale, and repeated broken promises to return the country to civilian rule. He locked up numerous opposition figures as well as military officials accused of plotting a coups in 1995 and 1997. Abacha died suddenly of a heart attack in June 1998.

Following Abacha's death, General Abdulsalami Abubakar rose to the head of the PRC and promised to return the country to civilian rule. He released political prisoners, appointed a new election commission, and paved the way for elections. In February 1999, former General Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba and Christian from the south who had led a military regime from 1976-1979, was elected president. Obasanjo's party won majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives that same year.

Obasanjo established a Nigerian Human Rights Commission, modeled on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to investigate abuses committed by military regimes from 1966-1998. Its hearings, with testimony from over 2,000 witnesses, were broadcast on national television and sparked broad debate in Nigerian society about democracy, human rights and accountability. However, apart from Obasanjo himself, many former military rulers summoned to testify refused to appear. The panel presented its final report to Obasanjo in May 2002, but the Obasanjo's government never publicly released its recommendations and there was no effort to bring former leaders to justice for crimes committed during their regimes.

Obasanjo was re-elected to a second four-year term in 2003 elections that were marred by voting irregularities. His opponent was Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Fula and Muslim who was also a former military ruler of Nigeria. Disputes over allegations of ballot-box stuffing, intimidation and other problems sharpened northern grievances against the Obasanjo government, despite its ethnic diversity.

Obasanjo's tenure was scarred by inter-communal fighting with cost thousands of lives, including at least 10,000 during his first term. Beginning in 1999, 12 majority Muslim states in the north adopted Sharia law. Northerners, including minority Christians, have been subjected to restrictive interpretations of Islam, facing harsh penalties and even violence for social behaviour deemed inappropriate by males in the majority group. The Sharia codes are particularly restrictive for women. Harsh penalties include stoning to death for adultery, the amputation of hands for those convicted of stealing, and public beatings for consumption of alcohol. The adoption of Sharia, including in Kaduna State in 2000, sparked rioting and clashes between Muslims and Christians, leading to thousands of deaths and reprisal killings of Hausa in the south-east.

In 2001, inter-communal violence, especially between the Tiv and Kuteb communities, flared in the central Nigerian states of Benue, Taraba and Nasarawa. The unrest led to hundreds of deaths and the displacement of thousands. In the south-east and south, the Igbo and minority groups of the Niger Delta expressed deep frustration at continued marginalization under Obasanjo, with Delta groups in particular chafing at the pollution caused by the oil drilling in their midsts. The failure of the government to invest in local development has caused increasing radicalization in the Delta.

Under Obasanjo, corruption continued to cripple Nigeria, preventing soaring revenues from oil production from being put to use for the benefit of average Nigerians. Most Nigerians continued to struggle in abject poverty while only a small elite prospered.


The tenure of Olusegun Obasanjo, at times hailed internationally as a reformer, ended on a less hopeful note. Civil society organizations and many of Nigeria's peoples had long agitated for a national conference at which the country's many problems could be hashed out – foremost among them, questions of federalism and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. Obasanjo eventually dropped his opposition to the idea of a national dialogue and convened a conference in 2005, but civil society organizations and opposition politicians roundly criticized the format, seen to be overly controlled by Obasanjo. Five months of meetings by around 400 delegates proved inconclusive.

In 2006, Obasanjo maneoevered to amend the constitution in order to allow himself a third term in office. The idea was finally rejected in parliament in May 2006. However, international observers, the opposition and civil society organizations regarded April 2007 elections that brought his party's candidate, Umaru Yar'adua, to power, as deeply flawed. Obasanjo remains president of his party and Nigerians widely view him as a continuing power behind the presidency.

Beyond the federal presidency, under the 1999 constitution, Nigeria's National Assembly is divided into a Senate with 109 seats and a House of Representatives with 360 seats. The judiciary suffers from political influence, corruption and a lack of resources.

The constitution requires that government appointments reflect the country's diversity, but the latter remains a matter of essential debate across the country. Out of sensitivity over issues of demographics, the 2006 census did not ask respondents about their religion or ethnicity.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Beginning in colonial times, there have been varying attempts to manage or exploit Nigeria's ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity through various forms of federalism. Since 1996, the country has been divided into 36 states and 774 Local Government Areas. The concept of 'indigeneity' took root in Nigeria's 1979 constitution and lives on in the current 1999 constitution. This system categorizes all Nigerians as indigenes or non-indigenes (the latter also labelled 'settlers') to a region based on where their parents or grandparents were born. The mechanism's intent was to ensure ethnic parity in education and employment, as well as to protect traditional cultures. But in 2006 Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group separately reported that the principle has instead systematically marginalized millions of Nigerians and encouraged ethno-linguistic identity politics that have fanned the flames of inter-communal violence. The mere definition of which groups are indigenous to a region creates many controversies; disputed historical migration patterns and intermarriage often make clear delineations impossible. The policy has become a tool for indigenes across the country to exclude competing 'settlers' from scarce educational and employment opportunities, even if these are life-long residents of the community. Not surprisingly, this has led to fierce resentment among the excluded.

In diverse Plateau State indigeneity has been used by Christian politicians to maintain dominance through exclusion of Muslim Hausa and Fulani 'settlers'. The Jarawa ethnic group is also classified as 'non-indigene', although it also fails to qualify for indigenous status anywhere in Nigeria. Between 1999 and 2004 in Plateau State, inter-communal fighting arising from disputes over indigeneity, land and religion resulted in 250,000 internally displaced persons. April 2006 fighting between members of the Pan and Gomai ethnic groups over issues of indigeneity resulted in over 100 killed and 8,000 displaced persons.

Legal developments

An important and groundbreaking decision which related to the impact of oil exploration on the Ogoni population in Nigeria (Communication 155/96, The Social and Economic Rights Action Center and the Centre for Economic and Social Rights) was decided by the Commission of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights in 2002. Even though it took the Commission six years to reach a decision on this case, it eventually held that not only had there been violations of the Ogoni population's rights to life, health, property and family, but also their right, as a people, to disposal of their natural resources and to a general satisfactory environment. Although not expressly in the Charter, the Commission also found violations of rights to housing and to food. It called on the government, among other things, to stop all the attacks on the Ogoni community and ensure adequate compensation was paid to victims of the violations.

In a Resolution on Nigeria in June 2004, the Commission condemned 'ethnic and religious violence' in Yelwa, Plateau State and Kano State and the resulting loss of life and creation of internally displaced persons. It deplored the violations and called on the authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice and comply fully with the ACHPR. Minority Rights Group International (MRG) supported the attendance of a representative of the evicted communities at the United Nations Working Group on Minorities in Geneva on 30th May 2005 and joined Nigerian human and minority rights groups in calling on the Rivers State government for a full investigation into the demolitions and evictions and the actions of government authorities, the police and the Agip Oil Company.

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