Nigeria’s three largest ethnic groups, the Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo, represent 71 percent of the population. Of the remaining 29 percent of the population, about one-third consists of groups numbering more than 1 million members each. The remaining 300-plus ethnic groups account for the final one-fifth of the population.
The Hausa, concentrated in the far north are the largest of Nigeria’s ethnic nations. Most Hausa are Muslims engaged in agriculture, commerce, and small-scale industry. While most live in smaller towns and villages, others occupy several larger indigenous cities. Many people of non-Hausa origin, including the city-based Fulani, have become assimilated into the Hausa nation through inter-marriage and acculturation. Other Fulani continue to depend on their livestock and have retained their own language, Fulfulde, and cultural autonomy.
The Yoruba of south-western Nigeria incorporate seven subgroups— the Egba, Ekiti, Ife, Ijebu, Okun (Kabba), Ondo, and Oyo— each identified with a particular paramount chief and city. The Ooni of Ife is the spiritual head of the Yoruba. There is a strong sense of Yoruba identity and the majority of Yorubas are educated farmers or traders who live in large cities of pre-colonial origin.
The Igbo of south-eastern Nigeria traditionally live in small, independent villages, each with an elected council rather than a chief. The Igbos have a very rich culture and are known to be the best business oriented group in the country. Other large ethnic groups include the Kanuri, centered in Borno State; the Tiv, from the Benue Valley near Makurdi; the Ibibio and Efik in the Calabar area; the Edo from the Benin region; and the Nupe, centered in the Bida area. Although small by Nigerian standards, each of these lesser groups has more members than almost any of Africa’s other ethnicities.
Most Nigerians speak more than one language. English, the country’s official language, is widely spoken, especially among educated people. About 400 native Nigerian languages have been identified, and some are threatened with extinction. The most common of the native languages are Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo. Other major languages include Fulfulde, Kanuri, Ibibio, Tiv, Efik, Edo, Ijo, and Nupe. The most widely used languages have several distinct regional dialects, and in some regions, such as the Jos Plateau and surrounding middle belt, hundreds of small groups make for wide linguistic variations across short distances. The two main trade languages are pidgin, a distinct language in which English is combined with native languages, and which is used commonly in the south, and Hausa, used mostly in the north.
Islam, Christianity, and indigenous religions are central to how Nigerians identify themselves. In the late 19th century, Christianity became established in southern Nigeria. In the Yoruba southwest, it was propagated by the Church of England, while in the Igbo southeast the Roman Catholic Church dominated. Today, close to half of the south-western peoples and far more than half of the south-eastern peoples are Christians, usually along lines established by Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, and Baptist missionaries. Christianity is also widespread in the middle belt, but it is virtually absent in the far north except among migrant populations. In recent years, Protestant fundamentalism has grown, particularly in the middle belt. Nigeria also has many independent African churches, such as Cherubim and Seraphim, which incorporate African cultural practices such as drumming, dancing, and polygamy (marriage with more than one wife) into Christianity.
Dominant in the north, Islam continues to spread, especially in the middle belt and in south-western Nigeria. However, Islamic practices such as the seclusion of women and strict fasting tend to be ardently observed only in northern cities. Islamic fundamentalists have increased in recent years, resulting in clashes with other Muslims, with Christians, and with the state. The Nigerian government has achieved great success in reducing such clashes. Nigerian society varies greatly between urban and rural areas, across ethnic and religious borders, and with levels of education. Still, most Nigerians share a strong attachment to family and especially to children, clearly differentiated roles for men and women, a hierarchical social structure, and the dominance of religion in shaping community values.
Polygamy is widely practiced among Muslims, among adherents of traditional religions, and among Christians who belong to independent African churches. Among northern Muslims and in many more traditional societies, most girls enter family-arranged marriages near the age of puberty. The daughters of more educated populations, particularly in the south, tend to marry when they are in their late teens or early twenties. Men usually marry at a later age, especially if they come from families that are unable to afford the high cost of weddings and bride-price (payment given to the bride’s family by or on behalf of the future husband).
Social life has traditionally revolved around ceremonies: weddings, infants naming ceremonies, and public performances associated with cultural and religious holidays. Young adult males living in cities enjoy going to cinemas, dance clubs, and bars for recreation. Some Muslim women, for example among the Hausa, have their own social institutions revolving around the bori, a cult of spirit possession. Bori ceremonies provide women with a forum for interaction that is relatively free of male control, and offer explanations and remedies that help women cope with problems such as the death of their children.
Clothing in Nigeria symbolizes religious affiliation, wealth, and social standing. Northern Muslim men wear long, loose-fitting garments such as the kaftan, together with colorful embroidered hats or (among traditional officials) turbans. Most Yoruba men also wear elaborate gowns and hats, somewhat different in style. Many Nigerians in the south wear casual Western-style dress. Women wear wrap-around garments or dresses, typically made from very colorful materials, and beautiful head-ties that may be fashioned into elaborate patterns.
Diets vary regionally and between city and country. Grain-based dishes such as tuwo da miya, a thick sorghum porridge eaten with a spicy, vegetable-based sauce, dominate the northern diet. Dishes made from root crops, such as pounded yam and gari (a granular product made from cassava), are more prevalent in the south. Northerners eat more meat, either in sauces or as kebabs known as tsire. Yogurt and soured milk (nono) produced by Fulani pastoralists form an important part of rural northern diets. Modernization has made cheaper bulk food staples such as cassava, maize (corn), rice, white bread, and pasta increasingly important in both rural and urban areas. Muslims generally do not approve of drinking alcohol, especially northern Muslims, who tend to prefer tea and soft drinks. In the rest of the country, it is common to drink commercially brewed beer or traditional drinks such as beer made from sorghum or millet and palm wine. Kola nuts are used widely as a stimulant, especially in the north.
Nigerians, particularly youth, are avid sports fans and participants, and by far the most loved game is soccer, known as football. At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, Nigeria’s national team won the gold medal. Several Nigerian footballers have achieved prominence playing professionally in Europe, and all major cities are represented in Nigeria’s highly competitive national football league. Nigerians have also excelled internationally at track and field, particularly in short-distance races, and in boxing. Other popular sports are field hockey, basketball, table tennis and lawn tennis.
Arts and Literature
Nigerian arts reflect African, Islamic, and European influences. In northern Nigeria, Islam has shaped architecture and calligraphy. As Islam traditionally forbids the representation of people and animals, art forms such as ceremonial carvings are virtually absent in the north. In the south, indigenous peoples produced their own art long before Europeans arrived. Portuguese figures first appeared in Benin bronzes dating to the 16th century. Since the dawn of the colonial era, Western influences have challenged, threatened, and in certain ways enriched Nigerian culture.
Nigeria’s modern literature grows out of a tradition of story-telling and historical remembrance that has existed in Nigeria for millennia. Oral literature ranges from the proverbs and dilemma tales of the common people to elaborate stories memorized and performed by professional praise-singers attached to royal courts. In states where Islam prevailed, significant written literatures evolved. The founder of the Sokoto caliphate, Usuman dan Fodio, wrote nearly 100 texts in Arabic in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His prose and poetry examined issues such as good government and social relations from an Islamic moralist perspective. The legacy of this Islamic tradition is a widely read modern literature comprised of religious and secular works, including the Hausa-language poetry and stories of Alhaji Abubakar Imam.
In 1986 Nigerian Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Soyinka is a prolific author of poetry, novels, essays, and plays that blend African themes with Western forms. His uncompromising critiques of tyranny, corruption, and the abuse of human rights have often angered Nigeria’s military rulers. One of his most powerful books, The Man Died (1972), was written while Soyinka was imprisoned during the civil war of 1967 to 1970. Chinua Achebe, whose novels include A Man of the People (1966) and No Longer at Ease (1960), is another Nigerian writer whose work commands a wide international audience. Other important novelists include Cyprian Ekwensi, Nkem Nwankwo, Elechi Amadi, Flora Nwapa, and Clement Ogunwa, who write mostly in English. John Pepper Clark, Gabriel Okara, Christopher Okigbo, and Ken Saro-Wiwa are well-known poets.
Music and Dance
Virtually all Nigerian cultures have their own traditions of music and dance, which are central to the way Nigerians remember their past and celebrate their present. Songs and dances are played on drums, flutes, trumpets, stringed instruments, xylophones, and thumb pianos, and are often linked to specific places and events, such as the harvest. Although traditional song and dance continue in modern Nigeria especially in rural areas and on ceremonial occasions, their central place in Nigerian life is threatened by the spread of radios, tape recorders, video cassette recorders (VCRs), and other mass-culture media, especially among youth. Sometimes, however, modern media allow musicians using traditional instruments and forms to reach a mass audience.
Popular music in Nigeria began in the late 1940s with the arrival of highlife music from Ghana. Highlife blended Western sounds ranging from big bands and guitars with African beats and instruments. Among the leading early bands were those of Rex Jim Lawson and Victor Olaiya. During the 1960s and 1970s, King Sunny Ade and I. K. Dairo, among others, established a new style of music known as juju. A rhythmic dance music style, juju blends Western instruments with elements of traditional African music. In the 1980s and 1990s Fela Anikulapo Kuti commanded a large following, both in Nigeria and internationally, with a form of Afro-Beat inspired by funk, jazz, and highlife and accompanied by provocative lyrics in Yoruba and pidgin. Popular music stars of recent years include Victor Waifo, Charlie (Boy) Oputa, Onyeka Onwenu, Christie Essien Igbokwe, Wasiu Ayinde Marshal, Femi Kuti (Fela’s son) and Lagbaja.
Theatre and Film
Contemporary theatre in Nigeria grows out of a long tradition of masquerades, festivals, and story-telling. Masquerades, which emphasized costume and dance rather than dialogue, were a key instrument of social control and political commentary, especially in traditional southeastern Nigerian cultures. In the southwest, Alarinjo, a court masquerade and professional popular theater, was common, especially in the 14th century Oyo kingdom. The traditional Ozidi dramas of the southern Ijaw took three days and nights to perform, after several years of rehearsal. The theatrical traditions of the northern Hausa, still practiced today, include the performances of traveling minstrels known as ‘yan kama’ and public ceremonies of the bori spirit possession cult. Kwagh-hir, an amalgamation of traditional masquerades, puppet theatre, acrobatics, dancing, and music, is a modern adaptation of traditional Tiv theatre arts.