Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
When Nigeria achieved independence from British colonial rule on October 1, 1960, the prospects appeared promising and expectations for the future of the country were high. Nigeria was the most populous country in Africa, and the potential for economic growth was great, buoyed largely by the discovery of commercial quantities of petroleum in the Niger delta region in 1958. Nigeria was dubbed the “Giant of Africa,” and many people both inside and outside the country believed that Nigeria would soon rise to claim a leading position in African and world affairs. Nigeria also saw itself as a beacon of hope and progress for other colonized peoples emerging from the yoke of alien rule. By 1970, however, Nigeria's stability and prestige had been greatly damaged by a decade of political corruption, economic underdevelopment, and military coups. Most damaging, however, was the culmination of these problems in a two-and-a-half-year civil war from 1967 to 1970 that rent the country along regional and ethnic lines, killed between 1 and 3 million people, and nearly destroyed the fragile federal bonds that held together the Nigerian state.
The underlying cause of all the problems that Nigeria experienced in the 1960s and has experienced since then is what is often called the “national question.” What is Nigeria? Who are Nigerians? How does a country go about developing a meaningful national identity? The geographical area now known as Nigeria was created by the British colonial administration in 1914, not by indigenous peoples themselves.