Pre-Colonial Nigeria

exhibit 2
Nigerian men sitting for a group photo

Has anyone really stopped to think or picked an interest to find out who we were as a people before the advent of the colonial era? Who were we before the northern and southern protectorates were amalgamated to form what we call Nigeria today? With no thanks to the Nigerian education system which has all but scrapped out history as a subject , I really cannot fault anyone.

History is such an important aspect of every civilisation as it gives us much to learn. It also gives us a sense of identity as a people. A failure of a people to preserve their history is never a thing to be proud of. A lot of civilisations for years keep records to be passed down to the next generation. For example; The egyptians, who  have preserved their history and not only that have turned it into a million dollar tourism enterprise.

The British have also kept their history and have preserved all sorts of things like; letters, castles of their kings from as far back as the 14th century, paintings , clothing and so on . The Jews have preserved and still study their history which can be found in the Bible (Torah) and other extra-biblical books. Present generations from these countries know their history and it will be true for the future generation as well.

Its safe to say that history makes a nation as they are able to look back and improve where their ancestors have failed. Shall we be lacking as Nigerians in such an urgent matter? So In light of this unfortunate decline in the study of our history, this article seeks to give an insight into the early settlers that dwelt in territories of what is today called Nigeria.

The early birds

The early birds AKA our ancestors of the pre-colonial era, were known to have settled in territories in what is today called Nigeria about 13,000 years ago. Archeological escavations were carried out, and the earliest known fossil found in west Africa was discovered at Iwo-Eleri which is situated in the western region of Nigeria. These early settlers were dispersed and never coming togehter as a concentrated unit. They formed small units  known as villages all over the region.


Archaeological evidences also show that these early settlers were skilled in works of Bronze and iron. Most popularly the Nok people and their famous terra-cotta sculptures. The Nok people are the earliest people in pre-colonial nigeria to be recognised and discovered for their artefacts. As early as 6000BC people had already settled in places like Nsukka, Afikpo and Igbo-ukwu. The early settlers not only made use of bronze but they also experimented with stone tools which they in turn used in the development of pottery.

With the development of pottery came the advent of agriculture between 4000 and 1000BCE. Before then our ancestors were hunters and gatherers and so settlement wasnt always permanent. But with agriculture came the reduced need to wander from place to place and so these dispersed villages became more centralised and settlements became more permanent. Some of these settlements became famed and mighty kingdoms like; The Benin kingdom in the west, the Igbo Kingdoms of onitsha and Aro-chukwu in the southeast and the Hausa fulani Kingdoms in the north.

African slaves with their captors

As time went on and with the trans-atlantic slave trade, these kingdoms grew in power due to their dealings with the europeans. Here slaves would be sold by the cheifs or rulers of these kingdoms in exchange for manufactured goods like ceramic, mirrors, gin,etc. These slaves that were sold were captured during wars that would occur between two villages. But it is also known that as the slave trade boomed people were being kidnapped to be sold as slaves and not always as a result of tribal wars.

The ruling empires

In the course of all these developments some empires did spring up. They are considered to be the most recognized established political systems of that time. We will now  look at a brief introduction of each of these empires, to get an insight on who they were as a people.

The Benin Kingdom:  The Benin kingdom is in arguably considered to be the most developed and oldest political power that existed in west Africa at that time . The Benin kingdom can be traced as far back as the 11th century. Founded by the Edo peoples, history and oral traditions tell us that the Edo people were first ruled by the Ogiso; interpreted as the king of the sky. Through the leading of the Ogiso the city of Benin was formed but was initially named Ubini. The name Benin was formed by the Portuguese in the 15th century.

However it didn’t take long for a rebellion to rise against the Ogiso. Thus the Ogiso  dynasty came to an end by the 1300’s and  Oranmiyan became the new leader. Oranmiyan considered himself to be the first Oba of Benin. He had a son called  Eweka I and thus the oba dynasty was born.In the year 1440, a ruling oba came to power known as Ewuare. Through Oba Ewuare, Benin was turned into a mighty Kingdom. Benin was the dominant political power over most of Midwestern Nigeria  as we know it today. The Ijaws, Western Igbo’s, Niger Delta and Itshekiris were all             under its rule.

The Oba of Benin receiving portuguese explorers
The Oba of Benin receiving Portuguese explorers

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to come in contact with the Benin Kingdom. A man named Joao Afonso de Avero was the leader of the first expedition in 1485. Through this expedition, a trade relationship existed between the two empires. Palm oil, clothing, slaves, ceramics were among the many items that were exchanged between the Portuguese and the people of Benin. The British shortly arrived between the 16th and 17th century. It was through the British expeditions that tales of the great Benin kingdom and her developed city and roads were circulated all over Europe.

Business as usual, trade did ensue between the two kingdoms .However, this trading relationship was cut short because sadly, the British had other plans. Between 1896-1897, the city was burned and looted by the British empire. The Benin Kingdom was famed for its bronze, iron and copper artefacts. During the sacking by the British a lot of these artefacts were destroyed. The few that remained were taken to London. Most of which you can still find today at the British museum.

The Igbo Kingdoms of Onitsha and Arochukwu: The origin of the Onitsha kingdom is shrouded with differing accounts. But a common ground is shared by most historians and Igbo people that a certain man named Ezechima was the one who founded the Onitsha kingdom. I will attempt to write the two major accounts of how the Igbo people  migrated to what we now know as present day Onitsha.

According to the first account, the Benin kingdom was a ruling power and its power brought other tribes under its rule. Some Igbo people settled in the western vicinity that was under the Benin kingdom. Thus they became clans men and were under the rule of the Oba. A new Oba Esigie ascended the throne and it was customary that  he pay homage to important shrines in the kingdom. The Oba paid respects to every other shrine by slaughtering a cow at the entrance, but the Udo shrine of the Igbo people was slighted. Legend has it that the Igbos were very upset and thus a quarrel ensued leading to an unrest amongst the peoples. Because of this the Igbos went away from the Benin kingdom towards the east and settled in a place that was later called Onitsha.

Another account which seems to be the most popular one says the Ezechima was the son of one the many children of a certain oba of Benin. So in other words Ezechima was a prince. A battle for power among the princes ensued. One of the supporters of Ezechima assaulted the queen Asije the mother of the Oba. He did this because the queen allegedly trespassed on his farmland. The Oba on hearing this was enraged and sent his brother Gbunwala Asije to apprehend and punish the culprit. Ezechima then led a revolt against his uncle Gbunwala. This further deepened the tension which then led to a breaking of the kindom in two. Ezechima led his supporters most likely out of Benin eastward to  what is now known as Onitsha Ado.

It is believed that some words used in the Igbo language were derived from Benin words. example the Igbo term for a king ”Obi” is an offshoot from the Benin term ”Oba”. The town ”Onitsha” is taken from the word ”Orisha”. It is also believed that the migrants were helped by the Igalas in the 16th century to cross a certain river on their way to Onitsha.

The Arochukwu kingdom on the other hand was founded by Igbo migrants from Abiriba. These migrants settled on the land of the Ibibio people. The Igbos then occupied the land as they grew in population,social status and economic power. Tensions did rise between the two ethnic groups leading to the Aro-Ibibio war.  Through the help of a priest called Nnachi, the Akpa people from cross river were asked for help. Together they helped the Igbos win the war over the Ibibios. Following this victory, 19 states were established and the Arochukwu kingdom was born. The first King of Arochukwu was Akuma. Nnachis son oke Nnachi became king after Akuma died.

Arochukwu warriors

The British found their way to the Arochukwu kingdom in the 1890’s. Between 1901-1902 a war broke out. Not surprisingly the British won despite the resistance of the Aro people. This victory won by the British opened the doors for the British to dominate other parts of Eastern Nigeria.

The Hausa Fulani kingdoms: The Hausa kingdom was a large and vast kingdom expanding all the way to ancient Ghana and mali of the western Sudanic kingdoms. It also reached Kanem-Bornu of the eastern Sudanic kingdom. The Hausas were known for their fishing, blacksmithing and agriculture. Kano had become the most powerful state by the 14th century.

Legend has it that a certain prince called Bayajidda a traveler from the middle east married Daura a queen who had seven sons for him. These sons; Kano, Rano, Katsina, Zazzau(Zaria), Gobir, Biram and Daura eventually formed the seven states that made up Hausa Kingdom. These states eventually developed. Each state had a monarch and by the 14th century most had adopted islam as a religion. The Hausa land faced growing threats from the Fulani who came to make a home in their land.

Painting of Usuman Dan Fodio heading to battle

In the 19th century an Islamic fulani scholar named Usuman Dan Fodio declared a holy war against the Hausa states. He complained of their lack of Islamic religious fervor. This war was both political and religious. The fulanis supported Usumans cause and they overthrew the Hausa rulers. Places outside the Hausa land like Adamawa, Nupe and Ilorin were also conquered by Usuman Dan Fodio.

Usuman established the Sokoto caliphate and formed a centralized political governmental system. He formed emirates or states as we know it and appointed new rulers called Emirs over them. Each Emir was responsible for establishing the laws of the emirate. Usuman was the first sultan of sokoto. When he died in 1817 his son Muhammad Bello succeeded him.


And so It seems dear readers, that we have come to the end of all that can be said about pre-colonial Nigeria, in a nutshell. Stay tuned!! There’s more juicy stuff coming your way.

Till next time.



Nnamdi Azikiwe: My Odyssey, Chapter I (Spectrum Books, 1970) “My Genealogy and Nativity” p 11 – 12. 2013. nigeriavillagesquare. [ONLINE] Available at:

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Adeyemi Adisa. 2011. [ONLINE] Available at: 2017. Wikipedia. [ONLINE] Available at:

Kevin Shillington, Encyclopedia of African History (New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005); Alan Frederick Charles Ryan, Benin and the Europeans, 1485-1897 (New York: Humanities Press, 1969); P. M. Roese and D.M. Bondarenko, A Popular History of Benin: The Rise and Fall of a Mighty Forest Kingdom (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2003);. 2017. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2018].

Wikipedia. 2018. [ONLINE] Available at: 

A history of Nigeria by Toyin Falola,Matthew M. Heaton. 2008. Google books. [ONLINE] available at: 2018. Wikipedia. [ONLINE] Available at: 2018. Wikipedia. [ONLINE] Available at:–1800)









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