Standard 4

The Human and Physical Characteristics of Nigeria

"People’s lives are grounded in particular places. We come from a place, we live in a place, and we preserve and exhibit fierce pride over places. Our sense of self is intimately entwined with that of place. Who we are is often inseparable from where we are."

- Geography for Life, 1994


This quote expresses one of the basic assumptions of geography: people exist in particular geographic contexts with specific physical and human characteristics. People inhabit particular parts of the Earth, which offer different opportunities and challenges for life. This section focuses on the characteristics of Nigeria’s places, be they small or large. Through this discussion, the main goal is to improve our understanding of distant others in a different part of the world. We attempt to understand the lived experiences of ordinary people and the meanings that they associate with their own places. One of the main themes guiding this investigation is the dynamic nature of places. Because places are ever changing, it is important to know how particular places have changed and why they have changed.

Nigeria as a Place

"Nigeria is an African place created by Europeans." It is a political creation of British colonialism. Indeed, before 1914, there was no such territorial entity as "Nigeria." This is a good illustration of the dynamism of places. The British had more influence on Nigeria than simply defining the boundaries of the Nigerian nation-state. This is particularly evident in southern Nigeria where the English language, western education, and Christianity are all prominent legacies of the colonial era. But, as the opening suggested, Nigeria is an African place; it was never transformed into a new European enclave. What kind of a place is Nigeria, then?

First, Nigeria is a big place. Although only about twice the size of California, Nigeria has the largest population in Africa at 110-120 million and is among the ten most populous countries in the world. Second, Nigeria is a country of farmers. While urbanization is occurring at a rapid rate, the vast majority of Nigerians, like most sub-Saharan Africans, are small-scale farmers. "Small-scale" means different things in different contexts. In the case of Nigeria, this term refers to farmers who work only the amount of land that can be cultivated by hand. Thus, landholdings are often 5 acres or less. As this last point might suggest, Nigeria is a very poor country by global standards. Per capita incomes are low, and many people struggle just to meet the bare necessities of food and shelter. Poverty also impacts overall social welfare. Quality of education, public health, and standard of living all suffer under the weight of poverty. Amidst material poverty, however, exist cultures of hope and vibrancy. Religious involvement is intense and passionate, the arts flourish, and individuals retain close attachments to family and neighborhoods. It is often difficult to maintain a balanced perspective on a place like Nigeria. Within the western context, the majority of the images produced about Africa are negative. It is easy to think of Africa exclusively as a place of refugees, disease, and famine. The following sections deal with particular aspects of Nigerian places. Throughout these, the aim is to present a more balanced perspective on Africa and Nigeria in particular. While we cannot ignore the negative aspects of Nigeria’s places, it is also imperative that we paint a balanced picture of life, emphasizing positive characteristics when appropriate.

Culture and Place in Nigeria

What are some of the cultural characteristics of Nigerian places? With regards to the country as a whole, one of the most critical characteristics is cultural diversity. Although Americans and others tend to lump Africans together, the reality in Nigeria and many other African countries is immense cultural diversity. Just as there is great diversity amongst European and European-derived cultures, it should be no surprise that there is great diversity amongst Africans. Nigeria provides one of the clearest examples of this point. In terms of linguistic diversity, Nigeria has more languages than any other African country. While this diversity provides more localized identity for millions of Nigerians, the next section shows how this diversity can also pose challenges.

Linguistic Geography and the Political Geography of Nigeria

One of the most frequently noted aspects of European colonialism in Africa was its distinctive territorial division of the continent. Interestingly, the political entities that Europeans created in the period 1885-1900 have proven relatively durable. This is due in large part to positions by the Organization of African Unity and others that colonial borders should remain intact. One of the consequences of such a policy is that African states continue to be divided along ethnic and cultural lines. Perhaps the most visible manifestations of these fractures are found in the study of African linguistics. While there are few examples of true nation-states (i.e. a single nationality that corresponds to a single state) in the contemporary world, there is certainly a continuum of diversity within particular states. For example, Spain is typically seen as fairly homogenous culturally and linguistically apart from its Basque and Catalonian minorities. Canada is thought of as fairly homogenous outside of Quebec and parts of the Atlantic provinces. Africa, however, is marked by a bewildering diversity of ethnicities and languages that give a different qualitative meaning to the term multi-national state. No African state illustrates this point better than Nigeria. Nigeria has hundreds of different ethnic groups and hundreds of different languages. Ethnologue estimates that Nigeria has approximately 470 languages. Even assuming a somewhat more conservative estimate, this is a very large numbers of languages for relatively small area. As might be evident from such a high language total, Nigerian linguistic geography is highly regionalized. That is, speakers of most languages are highly concentrated in particular regions of the country. Thus, local and regional languages are an important aspect of Nigerian places. For example, if one were to visit the northern city of Katsina, you would quickly discover that the major language is Hausa. A trip to Enugu would reveal that Igbo is the dominant indigenous language. As might be expected, however, the regionalization of languages contributes to many public problems. It is important to note, however, that most Nigerians are not mono-lingual. Besides their native language, most people speak at least one national or regional lingua franca. In the North, the lingua franca is Hausa. In the southwest, it is Yoruba. And, in the East, the lingua franca is Igbo. Significantly, all the languages just mentioned are indigenous African languages. The one major drawback to the use of these lingua francas is that they are highly regional in their appeal. These languages are closely connected with Nigeria’s three largest ethnic groups, the Yorubas, the Hausa, and the Igbos. Because of the historic tensions among these groups (most evident in the 1967-1970 Biafra War), the country has not been able to agree upon a single indigenous lingua franca. Instead, there has been an uneasy maintenance of English as the language of government and interregional business. The continued use of English has been problematic for many Nigerians because of the legacy of European colonialism that the language embodies. English has remained, however, because it is a "neutral" national language that does not have a domestic constituency like the other languages. Hence, although it is the language of the former "colonial masters," the promotion of English as an official language does not exacerbate internal domestic tensions. The above state of affairs was institutionalized in the 1979 Nigerian Federal Constitution. In this constitution, Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba were established as "national languages." Significantly, English was cited as an official language, but not as a national language.

While the co-recognition of the three national languages and English addresses in piecemeal fashion the lingua franca problem, it does not directly address the future of the numerous minority languages within Nigeria. If Nigeria evolves toward a single lingua franca for both official and "national" purposes, what happens to the numerous minor languages that persist? How would the loss of minority languages affect people’s sense of place? Perhaps more intriguing, what are the cultural implications for such a transition? This is particularly relevant in a country with a relatively low literacy rate and relatively low rates of educational attainment. The following excerpt indicates some of the linguistic change that is occurring in the contemporary period. The discussion illustrates linguistic and cultural change that is taking place in the northern region of Nigeria. Again, the focus is on the dynamic processes that are constantly remaking places.

Things have been changing . . . Maiduguri, the central city of Kanuri influence in the twentieth century, was chosen as the capital of an enlarged Northeast State during the civil war. Because this state encompassed large sections of Hausa-Fulani areas, many of these ethnic groups came to the capital. This sudden incorporation, together with mass communications, interstate commerce, and intensification of travel and regional contacts brought increased contacts with Hausa culture. By the 1970s, and increasingly during the 1980s and into the 1990s, Kanuri speakers found it best to get along in Hausa, certainly outside their home region and even inside Borno State. By 1990 women were adopting Hausa dress and hairstyles, and all schoolchildren learned to speak Hausa. Almost all Bornoans in the larger towns could speak Hausa, and many Hausa administrators and businesspeople were settling in Borno. Just as Hausa had incorporated its Fulani conquerors 175 years earlier, in 1990 it was spreading into Borno, assimilating as it went. Its probable eventual triumph as the universal northern language was reinforced by its utility, although the ethnically proud Kanuri would retain much of their language and culture for many years. (emphasis mine)


Here are some basic language statistics from Ethnologue online:

Total number of languages: 250 - 470

Hausa speakers: 19 million (21% total population)

Yoruba speakers: 19 million (20 % total population)

Igbo speakers: 17 million (17 % total population)

Additional web resources:

Religious Diversity in Nigeria

The previous section emphasized the linguistic diversity in Nigeria. Nigeria is also a country of religious diversity. In fact, religious difference is one of the central dimensions of Nigeria’s cultural diversity and a key aspect of place. The main religious division within the country is that between Christians and Muslims. These two broad groups compose nearly 90 percent of the entire population. Indigenous religions, many of which are animist in nature, account for the remainder of the population. While this is the broad outline of religious diversity in Nigeria, it is important to remember the diversity that exists within the generalized Christian, Muslim, and indigenous populations. For example, while most Muslims are Sunni, many people belong to Sufi orders, which increases the religious diversity in the Muslim community. Likewise, Nigerian Christians belong to particular denominations. There are Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, and different forms of Pentecostalism, just to name a few. In addition to these Western denominations, however, many African denominations and movements have developed. Some of the distinctive characteristics of these churches are their upbeat, spirited music and dance that enlivens their meetings.

Religion is an important aspect of place in Nigeria for several reasons. First, religion shapes people’s systems of values and beliefs. This is important in defining cultural and social behaviors and norms in a particular place. For example, things like gender roles, banking practices, and attitudes toward education are all influenced by religion. There are important differences between Islamic places and Christian places, although it is critical not to overestimate the influence of religion in people’s lives. Not all Nigerians are deeply religious, nor do all of them closely follow their religion’s guidelines for behavior. This said, however, Nigerians are generally deeply religious people. This leads to the second reason, which is that religion influences the material landscape and people’s sense of place more generally. In Muslim areas, for example, mosques are prominent features of the landscape; periodic calls to prayer are an important marker of people’s daily schedules. In Christian areas, Biblical surnames are common and people often incorporate Biblical phrases into various aspects of the textual landscape (e.g. signs, posters, etc.).

Other Aspects of Culture

What are some other dimensions of culture and place? One striking feature of Nigerian places (and especially southern Nigeria) is bright, colorful fashion. Nigerian women, in particular, are known for their vibrant fabrics and clothes. One is often struck by the stark contrast between the vivid colors of clothing and the drab impression of the built environment. Nigerian arts, both formal and informal, also contribute to a lively sense of place. Dance and music are two performance-based cultural form that are prominent in the country. It is not uncommon to witness informal, spontaneous dance-music displays. It is important not to overemphasize this point, however. Dance and music cannot generally put food on the table. Given the harsh material conditions under which many people struggle, it is important to keep a balanced perspective on cultural life and economic life. While most Nigerians are quite expressive compared to Americans, this does not erase the fact that life is a constant battle for survival.

Economic Life

Nigeria’s economic conditions are representative of much of sub-Saharan Africa. This means that Nigeria is an extremely poor country by world standards. Indeed, sub-Saharan Africa is the poorest region of the world by most standards. This does not mean that Africans are less valuable as people, only that they struggle under material conditions that are much harsher than the rest of the world. Later standards will address the reasons for this situation (see especially standards 11, 13, and 17).

Economic conditions have a vital role to play in people’s experience and perceptions of place. A person or a household’s socioeconomic status influences the range of opportunities and constraints that people face. In fact, socioeconomic status affects almost all aspects of life. It affects nutrition levels and health, geographic mobility, educational attainment, and overall quality of life. For example, poor urban residents often deal with the realities of poor sanitation. Informal trash dumps are often just around the corner. Water supplies are often polluted and unsanitary. In addition, the urban poor are often crowded into tight living conditions, with multiple households sharing a single house. Poverty is also a major factor in urban crime rates. Large cities like Lagos or Ibadan have become very dangerous places, especially at night. Because of high unemployment rates, many people find work in the informal sector of the economy. They experience urban life as small-scale traders, scavengers, or street vendors. In rural areas, crime is often lower and living conditions less congested. But rural people often have much lower access to amenities like pipe-borne water and electricity. While many people in developed countries take things like electricity and tap water for granted, lack of these amenities has a major impact on daily life in rural Nigerian villages. Women often deal with these effects in a more direct way. When safe water is not available in each house, women are often responsible for acquiring the daily supply of water. While wells are sometimes relatively close, many women spend one to two hours or more each day getting household water. The same can be said for fuel wood, the primary source of energy in rural areas. While the majority of people collect wood for household cooking, some collect a surplus that can be sold in urban areas.

Physical Geography of Nigerian Places

In the broadest sense, the best one-word description of Nigeria’s physical environment is "tropical." This section seeks to briefly outline some of the physical characteristics of Nigeria’s tropical environment. The first part describes Nigeria’s climates. The second part briefly describes the country’s topography, while the final section deals with vegetation.

Climatic characteristics

Nigeria is a tropical country, located in the 4-11 degrees north latitude range. Because of this location and because most of the country is at a relatively low elevation, there is little temperature variation within Nigeria. Temperatures are warm (75-85 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout the year. This lack of temperature variation includes both seasonal variation and regional variation. Because of this, precipitation is the major variable that climatologists use to describe Nigeria’s climates and seasons. The two key aspects of precipitation variation are amount and seasonal distribution. The southern part of Nigeria receives 80 inches of rain or more per year, while the extreme north receives approximately 25 inches annually. In general, the amount of total annual precipitation declines as one moves north. In addition, rainfall becomes more seasonally concentrated as one moves north. Most of Nigeria is characterized by a monsoonal rainfall regime in which the vast majority of precipitation falls within a well-defined period of time. In northern Nigeria, the dry season is typically six to eight months. In southern Nigeria, the dry season is much shorter, lasting only about two to four months. In the southern two-thirds of the country, there are really two dry seasons, one long and one only about one month or less in duration. Using precipitation as the criteria for defining seasons, southern Nigeria basically has four seasons of unequal length and northern Nigeria has only two seasons of roughly equal length. Another related dimension of regional climates is relative humidity. In general, relative humidity is higher in the southern part of the country. During the wet season, relative humidity is typically above 80 percent in southern Nigeria. Relative humidity in the northern half of the country is lower on average in the wet season, typically in the range of 60-80 percent. During the dry season, northern Nigeria seldom sees relative humidity above 40 percent. Relative humidity is important not only for its impact on human comfort. In areas of low relative humidity, rates of evapotranspiration are much higher, allowing water to escape back into the atmosphere much faster.


Africa can be described as a plateau of plateaus. Nigeria basically conforms to this pattern. The country is predominately composed of plains and plateaus. The major upland features are in the east, northeast, north-central, and west-central parts of the country. The major lowland areas are: 1) the Lake Chad basin in the northeast 2) the Sokoto Plains in the northwest 3) the Niger-Benue trough formed by the river valley of the country's two largest rivers and 4) the coastal lowlands. Nigeria’s topography has many impacts on both human and physical systems. A few of these impacts include: 1) determination of Nigeria’s watersheds and river networks 2) climatic consequences and 3) effects on human activities like agriculture.

Vegetation Regions in Nigeria

Nigeria’s vegetation can be broadly grouped into three main categories. Since the vast majority of Nigeria’s vegetation falls within only two of these categories, the third category, montane vegetation will only be discussed in passing. The other two categories are forest and savanna. While there is a diversity of vegetation patterns within each of these categories, well over 90 percent of Nigeria falls under one of these two categories. The major physical distinction between forest areas and savanna areas is the density of tree cover. In savannas, trees are much more widely spaced than in forests. Between interspersed trees, savannas are marked by grasses of varying lengths. The forests contain little, if any grass cover and are typically marked by different layers of tree cover. The southern part of Nigeria is dominated by thick mangrove swamps in the immediate coastal regions (particularly in the Niger Delta and in the extreme southeast part of the country), and by rain forests. Further north, the dense rain forests give way to savannas with dispersed trees. In the extreme northeastern part of the country near Lake Chad, scrub vegetation is dominant. Although Nigeria is a medium-sized tropical country, it has a substantial amount of environmental diversity based on climate, soils, and vegetation. This regional environmental diversity promotes the production of a diverse assortment of agricultural and economic products. Although their cases are different in many ways, the diverse physical geography of Nigeria promotes regional economic specialization similar to that found in the United States (this is particularly true when one examines the agricultural sectors of these two countries). Below is a list of the seven vegetation sub-types, followed by a general geographical location of each zone. Note that the list generally proceeds from south to north.

    1. Salt-water swamp - lower Niger Delta and southeast Nigeria around the city of Calabar
    2. Fresh-water swamp - upper Niger Delta and coastal strip from Port Harcourt to Lagos
    3. Rain forest - general east-west strip across southern Nigeria whose average width is approximately 130 km
    4. Guinea savanna - largest vegetation zone, lies just north of the rain forest and reaches northward as far Lake Kainji, Zaria, and the Benue River in the East
    5. Sudan savanna, north of the guinea savanna, covering most of the rest of Nigeria
    6. Sahel savanna, covers a small pocket of Nigeria that borders lake Chad
    7. Montane, parts of the eastern highlands bordering Cameroon and parts of the Jos Plateau

Salt-water swamp

As its name implies, this is a swamp where fresh water from the Niger River meets salty water from the Atlantic Ocean. "The typical vegetation is made up of mangrove plants of different species, hence this belt is sometimes known as the mangrove swamp. The vegetation is a tangled mass of stems and aerial roots [i.e. above ground]. The roots are aerial because they tend to avoid the surrounding water." Along the coast, coconut trees and tall reeds predominate.

Fresh-water swamp

North of the salt-water swamp are the fresh-water swamps. Here one finds species like the rafia palm, which cannot handle the salty waters closer to the ocean. The rafia palm, referred to as "Ngwo" by locals, can be tapped to produce a sweet palm wine.

Rain forest

Like the swamp vegetation, the rain forests receive high amounts of rainfall distributed fairly evenly throughout the year. This contributes to the growth of evergreen forests of several layers. Because of this, rain forest vegetation is more diverse than that of the swamps. "The ground storey is made up of herbs, shrubs and grasses growing up to a height of 3 to 6 metres. They are densest where the taller trees have been cleared, and along forest edges . . ." The middle story composes the bulk of the forest visible in photographs. This story is composed of trees in the 18 to 24 meter range. Here hundreds of different species mingle together, forming a dense canopy cover for the rain forest. The upper story consists of scattered species like mahogany, tropical cedar, and obeche that reach heights of 30 to 60 meters. The preceding description is merely an idealized model of the Nigerian rain forest. Where humans have substantially altered the forest, different patterns of vegetation emerge. The two most common altered landscapes are "oil palm bush" and "derived savanna." The first occurs where selective cutting has resulted in a forest dominated by economic species like the oil palm. Derived savanna is created when deciduous species invade northern fringes of the rain forest belt, producing a "parkland savanna" similar to the guinea savanna.

Guinea savanna

This vegetation region covers roughly one-half of Nigeria. This type of savanna is characterized by tall grasses and scattered trees. Trees generally grow in clusters, reaching maximum heights of 6 meters. Elephant grass fills in between the trees, growing to a height of approximately 3 meters. Along rivers gallery forests often develop. These are thin strips of forest that are supported by the groundwater of rivers in the dry season. In general, the vegetation of the guinea savanna is well suited to the seasonally dry conditions and to persistent human-induced burning. The most common tree species are the isoberlina tree, the locust bean tree, the shea butter tree, and the oil bean tree.

Sudan savanna

The sudan savanna is similar to the guinea savanna in broad terms, although it has less vegetative biomass overall. It generally has both shorter grasses and shorter trees. Grasses reach average heights of 1.5 to 2 meters. Most trees are stunted, with the exception of the silk cotton tree, which grows as high as 9 to 15 meters. Other prominent tree species are the baobab (a squat tree with a disproportionate trunk), the acacia, and the dum palm.

Sahel savanna

This is the driest and sparsest of Nigeria’s vegetation regions. In the Sahel savanna, short clumps and patches of grass are interspersed with sand dunes. The acacia is the most prominent tree species. Some date palms are also found in this region.

Modified montane

These are not true montane regions. Most species found in these regions are similar to those found in areas of comparable latitude. However, grasses are shorter and trees are fewer than areas at lower altitudes. The main montane regions are in the Jos Plateau, the Adamawa Plateau, and the Bauchi Highland.


Individual places are composed of complex combination of physical and human characteristics. The places of Nigeria are no exception. This essay has set forth some of these characteristics that are important in understanding Nigeria’s cities, regions, and rural villages. While the presentation of these characteristics has been by individual section, the ultimate aim of geographic understanding is to synthesize all of these disparate characteristics of place together. Through this combination places become more than individual locales that possess facts and statistics. They become dynamic, complex geographic expressions that are constantly changing.