On Oct. 1, Nigeria celebrates its Diamond Jubilee — marking 60 years since the country became an independent nation with the end of colonial rule.
With an estimated population of about 204 million people, Nigeria today is the most populous Black nation on Earth and the seventh most populous country in the world.
There is so much to learn about Nigeria, its people, and its cultures. With so much history and cultural richness, there are many lessons to be learned from Nigeria’s impact on the African continent and the world at large. Global Citizen celebrates the resilience and ingenuity of the Nigerian people on this historic and important day.
Here are 11 historical facts you should know about the country often referred to as the “Giant of Africa”:
1. Nigeria was formed in 1914.
The land area known today as Nigeria was formed in 1914 when colonial authorities merged the Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria, to form the amalgamated Protectorate and Colony of Nigeria.
This merger brought together over 400 ethnic groups and tribes into what was then the largest British colony in the world. The name “Nigeria” is also derived from colonial sources.
2. Nigeria gained independence from colonial rule in 1960.
Nigeria gained independence from the British empire in 1960, initially adopting a British style of government with Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as the first Nigerian head of government (prime minister). The country then had a population of over 45 million people.
3. Nigeria has been ruled by military leaders for a combined 29 years.
On Jan. 15 1966, a group of young, idealistic, UK-trained army majors overthrew Nigeria's democratic government in a violent military coup — the country’s first.
A succession of increasingly repressive military governments ruled Nigeria for 29 of the next 33 years, until the restoration of democracy in 1999.
Some of the blowback effects of this coup include:
- the secessionist Biafra movement;
- it propelled a group of young military officers onto the national stage and they still wield enormous influence in Nigerian politics;
- corruption — the military decreed that all natural resources be controlled by the state, which has entrenched the do-or-die nature of Nigerian politics;
- the army's politicised past means that Nigerians live with the (real or imagined) fear that a coup is a possible outcome of any political crisis.
4. The Nigerian civil war started in 1967.
In 1967, following two coups and turmoil that led to about a million Igbos (one of Nigeria’s most-populous ethnic groups primarily from the Eastern region of the country) returning to the south-east of Nigeria, the Republic of Biafra seceded.
The Nigerian government declared war and after 30 months of fighting, Biafra surrendered. On Jan. 15 1970, the conflict officially ended.
5. Nigeria’s oil boom began in the 1970s.
Oil profitability in Nigeria was greatest during the 1970s, when it became the wealthiest country in Africa.
Within two years, state profit increased by almost 50%, to an all-time high of N5.3 billion in 1976.
Nigeria bolstered profits when it joined the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1971, and the discovery of oil is widely believed to have influenced the course of the civil war.
6. A Nigerian was the first African recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Wole Soyinka was the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he won in 1986, and he is also a prominent social critic and political activist.
As an activist, he has been a voice for justice, freedom, and the end of tyranny. He has risked his life again and again to articulate the principles that provide the foundation for human rights, both in his native Nigeria and around the world.
7. Nigeria won its first Olympic gold medal in 1996.
Nigeria’s most successful Olympic outing was the 1996 Olympics, with the men’s football team winning Gold, and Chioma Ajunwa also winning a Gold medal in the women’s long jump event.
In total that year, Nigeria won two Gold medals, one silver medal, and three bronze medals.
8. Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.
The 1999 transition of Nigeria from military to civilian, democratic government, was a defining moment in Nigerian history, representing the beginning of the longest, uninterrupted government since Independence in 1960.
The presidential election took place in February 1999, and Olusegun Obasanjo, who as head of state in 1976–79 had overseen the last transition from military rule, was declared the winner.
9. Nigerian model Agbani Darego was the first African woman to win the Miss World pageant
Rivers State-born Agbani Darego was the first African woman to win the Miss World pageant — entering the history books with her victory in 2001.
Darego has worked with top brands such as Avon, Christian Dior, Sephora, Target, and Macy’s and appeared in world famous magazines such as Elle, Marie Claire, Allure, Trace, Stitch, Cosmopolitan, and Essence. She remains Nigeria’s most famous beauty queen.
10. Nigeria became Africa’s largest economy in 2013/4.
In April 2014 — looking back at the previous financial year — the statistics bureau of Nigeria confirmed the rebasing of the Nigerian economy's gross domestic product (GDP) to $509.9 billion.
This placed it well above South Africa's nominal GDP of $322 billion and elevated Nigeria to the position of the largest economy in Africa.
11. Nigerians became the first Africans to qualify for the Olympics bobsledding event in 2018.
Three Nigerian-American women — Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere, and Akuoma Omeoga — made history and their Olympic dreams come true by being the first-ever African bobsled team to qualify for the Olympics. They were also the first Nigerian athletes to compete in a Winter Olympics event.
Nigeria is home to the greatest number of people living in extreme poverty in the world — meaning that efforts to tackle extreme poverty and its systemic causes in the country are vital to the Global Goals' mission to end extreme poverty by 2030. You can join the movement to empower and protect vulnerable Nigerians by taking action here.