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A Guide to the Indigenous People of Nigeria

Nigeria is home to many different people
Nigeria is home to many different people | Lize Okoh / © Culture Trip
With about 197 million people belonging to any of the 300 ethnic tribes present in Nigeria, this West African country is the most diverse nation in modern Africa. Here’s a concise guide to some of the indigenous people of Nigeria.

Brief history

Nigeria as a nation has a rich and complex history which can be traced to when it first became a British protectorate in 1901. As a colony, it was initially divided into the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and Northern Nigeria Protectorate. The southwest has always been dominated by the Yoruba people, descendants of the Oyo Empire, while the southeast has always been dominated by the Igbo people from the Nri Kingdom. Most of the north is inhabited by the Hausa and Fulani people who are descendants of the Hausa Kingdom, Fulani Empire and Songhai Empire.

These tribes, Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo, are the three major tribes in Nigeria. However, there exists a large number of other tribes with over 520 languages, some of which had initially branched out from these main three. This is an ultimate guide to some of the indigenous people of Nigeria.

Hausa

The Hausa people are the largest tribe in Nigeria, making up approximately 25% of the population. Hausaland is concentrated in northern Nigeria, situated between the River Niger and Lake Chad.

The Hausa practise a very homogenised culture, keeping their traditions and way of life during and after colonisation. Islam is the main religion of Hausas and is said to have been brought by traders from Mali and Guinea during their trade exchanges, which they quickly adapted. Aside from English, they primarily speak the Hausa language.

Hausa men in traditional attire © Nathaniel Ajibola / WikiCommons

Yoruba

The Yoruba people make up the second largest tribe, constituting an estimated 21% of the population. The Yoruba states are located in southwest and north central regions of Nigeria. However, Yoruba speakers can also be found in parts of nearby countries, such as Benin Republic and Togo.

The Yoruba people practise Christianity and Islam, while a minority still follow ancestral traditional beliefs. They are people of many cultural traditions, and Ile Ife which in Yoruba mythology is where life began is held as the spiritual centre of the Yoruba tribe.

A Yoruba bride in traditional wedding attire © Fhadekhemmy / WikiCommons

Igbo

The Igbo people are descendants of the Nri Kingdom, the oldest in Nigeria. They have many customs and traditions and can be found in southeast Nigeria, consisting of about 18% of the population. This tribe differs from the others in that there is no hierarchical system of governance. Instead, a traditional republican system exists with a consultative assembly of people, which guarantees equality to citizens.

The Igbo people also had their traditional beliefs, but after colonisation, the majority (more than 90%) converted to practise Christianity, with a large number becoming Catholic.

The Igbo people also play an important part in the Nigerian oil trade since most of this natural resource is found within Igbo land.

A family portrait of an Igbo family in traditional attire © Jerry Emeka Obi / WikiCommons

Ijaw

The Ijaw people make up about 10% of Nigerian population and are situated in the delta of the Niger River. Their community is made up of 50 kinship clans who mostly work as fishermen and farmers. Some 70% of Ijaws practise Christianity.

Ijaw land is very rich in oil which has led to their communities undergoing extensive oil exploration, effects of which has caused ecological vulnerability. Also, tensions have arisen in the past between the community and the government and oil companies due to the mismanagement of revenue generated from oil. It is argued that a substantial amount of the wealth derived from this natural resource has not made its way to benefitting local communities.

Former Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan is an Ijaw man © Amanda Lucidon / White House / WikiCommons

Bini

Also referred to as the Edo tribe, the Bini people (derived from Benin), can be found in Edo State in the south of Nigeria, although they can also be found spread across the Delta, Ondo, and Rivers states. They are descendants of the Benin Empire and speak Edo language, including several other dialects.

The name Benin was derived from “Ubinu” which was used to describe the capital of the kingdom. But was then mispronounced by the Portuguese as “Bini” and then further to Benin around 1485 when the Portuguese began trade relations with Oba Ewuare who was the traditional ruler at the time.

Many Binis are Christians or Muslims. It is important to note that according to historical sources, the Bini people today are the descendants of the Yoruba Prince Oranmiyan of Ife who was invited to rule them after they were dissatisfied with their then King. Also, modern-day Lagos was found by the Bini army in the 16th century while they were out on a hunt. At the time Lagos was a forest with no inhabitants. The Bini army settled there and began developing the area which in the local language is known as Eko, even till today.

Edo traditional dress © Abiodun King / WikiCommons

Kanuri

It is estimated that the Kanuri people make up 4% of the Nigerian population. This tribe can be found in the northeast of Nigeria.

The Kanuri people are mostly Sunni Muslims. Unfortunately, the extremist group, Boko Haram have used Kanuri lands as a base for operations, subjecting Kanuri people to violence and Sharia law.

Kanuri women in a 1955 report © The National Archives UK / Flickr

Ibibio

The Ibibio people make up about 3.5% of the population of Nigeria. They’re a minority group located mostly in the southeast region of the country.

They’ve retained a rich oral history which is passed down through generations. Before Nigeria’s independence, the tribe had made some efforts to create their own sovereign state within Nigeria, even entering into talks with the British Crown.

The Ibibio people mostly identify as Christians and are known for their artistry, such as creating intricate wooden masks and carvings.