Nigeria is a fascinating country of ancient historic sites, big cities blessed with the luxuries of modern amenities, remote villages with no running water, coastlines filled with swamps, grassy plains with bushy savannahs, and national parks comprised of humid rainforests. Unfortunately, Nigeria has a reputation for corruption and civilian unrest, fueled by conflicts and clashes among the country’s myriad native races and religions. This has largely scared many tourists away from a country that could otherwise be one of the leading destinations in Africa.
Geographically Nigeria lies on the eastern end of the Gulf of Guinea. It is bordered by Cameroon in the East, Benin in the west, Niger in the north, and Chad in the northeast. The country is twice the size of California and features 500 miles of coastline. Its interior is covered with reptile-infested mangrove swamps and hundreds of rivers and creeks. In the north, tropical rainforests predominate, broken up only by small farms created from clear-cutting. This region is littered with tsetse flies that induce sickness in animals. Elephants once roamed this area but have since been wiped out. The forests gradually transform into savanna and woodland in central Nigeria, which continues south into lowlands.
One of the best tourist attractions in Nigeria is its national parks. The main park is the Cross River National Park, which is an adventure to journey through. It begins at the town of Ikom, whose road towards Cameroon features carved monoliths in the shape of circles, believed to be an ancient tribute to ancestors. The park includes the Rainforest Conservation area with its rolling hills and majestic mountains – the habitat of diverse wildlife such as elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, baboons, leopards, and buffalos.
The Yankari National Park is located in the eastern region of the country. While animals such as monkeys, elephants, and crocodiles can be seen, it is known more as a great bird-watching destination. The park is also facilitated quite well with restaurants, hotels and lodges.
Another park is the Gashaka Game Reserve near Yola. It is probably the most scenic of the country’s national parks. You’ll be able to bird-watch and spot a range of animals including some that are highly endangered.
More spectacular views can be seen in other parts of Nigeria, including the seven Olumirin Waterfalls near Akure, the gorgeous Calabar River which is loomed over from above by the town of Calabar high up on a hill. Abuja offers panoramas of Nigeria’s savannah country, and great mountain scenery can be enjoyed around Biu near the Cameroon border.
Nigeria also offers visitors a historical adventure. You can tour the old walled town of Kano, which is one of the largest ancient Hausa cities. It exudes a real medieval atmosphere and features walls that are more than 1,000 years old. It used to serve as a transport and trade hub, linking the Sahara with the lush West Africa region. The highlight of Kano is the Emir’s Palace, the best example of Hausa architecture in the world.
If you are more interested in the ancient Yoruba Empire, you can visit its former capital at Oyo where the ancient city of Oyo-Ile greets you with old Oyo style houses. Nearby is Oshogbo, which is home to many statues and shrines dedicated to various gods and goddesses as well as the UNESCO designated Osun-Oshogbo Sacred Grove; it is the last of the sacred forests that once customarily enclosed the edges of Yoruba cities. You can also visit Ife, the site of the ancient town of Ile-Ife where Yoruba culture once flourished. The town features the Ife Museum, which exhibits Yoruba sculptures that date back to the 13th century. Another historic city to visit is Benin City, where you’ll find the ancient city’s moat, the Oba’s Palace, and Benin art housed in the National Museum.
For handicrafts, pottery, baskets, leather goods, handwoven cloths, and other African craft goods, the best place to go is Lagos Island where you’ll find the craft center at Onikan’s National Museum, as well as the Jankara Market. The towns of Ikot Ekepne and Oron are also known for their weavings, baskets and carvings. And in Kano, you can find the Kurmi Market where numerous tourist souvenirs are hawked.
There are more than 250 tribal groups in Africa, by far the largest number in Africa. Nigeria is also easily the most populous nation in the continent. The Yoruba, Hausa, Ibo, and Fulani comprise the majority of the country’s population. Some of the developed cultures in Nigeria date back over 2,000 years. A few groups are nomadic, while others live in self-contained villages. Each group has their own distinct language and customs.
The Ibo who live mainly in the southeast are primarily farmers who grow yams, vegetables, bananas, and citrus fruits. They are very family-oriented and polygamy is a standard practice. Many of the Ibo have also moved into the bigger cities to work in the large oil refineries and as engineers.
The Yoruba live mostly in southwestern Nigeria and date back hundreds of years. As far back as 1200 AD, the Yoruba founded many kingdoms. The Yoruba are both farmers living in small villages and urbanites working in factories in the bigger cities. They were the first to come in contact with the Europeans, which may be the reason why the Yoruba are more industrious and technologically-capable.
The Hausa and Fulani live in the northern regions of Nigeria where they grow wheat, potatoes, corn, beans, and other staple crops. The Hausa are excellent farmers, metalworkers, potters, weavers, and traders; the latter is a profession that has been handed down within families for centuries and involves traveling from town to town to hawk goods. The Fulani migrated to Nigeria from Senegal about 400 years ago and are more nomadic. Many of them raise sheep and cattle, moving from place to place to exchange dairy products and livestock for other goods.
It is believed Nigeria was first settled by people who migrated from the deserts of northwest Africa to this fertile country. Archaeological excavations have uncovered terra-cotta statues in the village of Nok in central Nigeria, which is believed to have been the center of a great civilization around 500 BC.
In the 9th century, the first known powerful state of Nigeria emerged and was centered in Kanem-Bornu, which became a major transport hub for travelers from the Sahara. Many Hausa city states and trading centers were established between 100 and 1200 AD west of Kanem-Bornu. These states fought each other for centuries, but would band together whenever foreign forces invaded. Around the 14th century, Arab merchants began spreading Islam and Muslim laws to many of the city states, and were eventually conquered in the 19th century by the Islamic leader, Usman dan Fodio.
In southern Nigeria, meanwhile, smaller kingdoms were established around 1,000 AD. Around the 14th century, the powerful kingdoms of Benin, Oyo, and Ife flourished in the forested areas – all of them were renowned for their art.
Europeans arrived in the late 15th century, beginning with the Portuguese and followed by the Spanish, Dutch, and English. Their arrival brought on the slave trade, which lasted for more than 350 years. By the time slavery was abolished, more than 20 million slaves were traded in Nigeria.
In the 19th century, the British began setting up markets for their Industrial Revolution products in Nigeria. They colonized Lagos in 1861 and declared a protectorate over several districts along the Gulf of Guinea coast and the areas along the Niger River.
In 1960, Nigeria gained full independence from the UK. Regional political parties representing the different native groups began contesting for power. The divisions between the northern and southern regions were palpable. As the north had the greatest population and more seats in the legislature, the first Prime Minister, Balewa, was a northerner, but he was assassinated in 1966. Northerners feared his successor, Aguiyi-Ironsi, would favor the Ibo in the south. Ironsi attempted to unify the country and end regional rivalries, which only angered the north and heightened tensions. Ironsi was killed by northern Hausa soldiers who went on to massacre the Ibo who were living in the north. Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon attempted to reestablish stability by breaking up the country into 12 states, including establishing the independent Republic of Biafra in the eastern region in 1967. This triggered a civil war. Nigeria forced Biafra to reunite in 1970.
During the 1970s, Nigeria experienced economic prosperity as a result of the discovery of oil resources. For the next two decades, the country suffered through military coups, overthrows, assassinations, and unilateral annulments of democratic elections. Democracy was finally restored in 1999 when the military General, Abubakar took control and organized a legitimate a multi-candidate election. Olusegun Obasanjo emerged as the victor. Today, ethnic tensions remain high, with any dispute capable of sounding off a spate of violence.