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The People of Nigeria, Ethnicity

Nigeria’s three largest ethnic groups, the Hausa–Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo, represent 71 percent of the population (although as in most of Africa, ethnic labels are often imprecise, obscuring differences within groups and similarities among groups). Of the remaining 29 percent of the population, about one-third consists of groups numbering more than 1 million members each. The remaining 300-plus ethnic groups account for the final one-fifth of the population.

The Hausa, concentrated in the far north and in the Republic of Niger, are the largest of Nigeria’s ethnic nations. Most Hausa are Muslims engaged in agriculture, commerce, and small-scale industry. While most live in smaller towns and villages, others occupy several larger indigenous cities. Many people of non-Hausa origin, including the city-based Fulani, have become assimilated into the Hausa nation through intermarriage and acculturation. Other Fulani continue to depend on their livestock and have retained their own language, Fulfulde, and cultural autonomy.

The Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria incorporate seven subgroups—the Egba, Ekiti, Ife, Ijebu, Kabba, Ondo, and Oyo—each identified with a particular paramount chief and city. The oni of Ife is the spiritual head of the Yoruba. There is a strong sense of Yoruba identity but also a history of distrust and rivalry dividing the various groups. The majority of Yoruba are farmers or traders who live in large cities of precolonial origin.

The Igbo of southeastern Nigeria traditionally live in small, independent villages, each with an elected council rather than a chief. Such democratic institutions notwithstanding, Igbo society is highly stratified along lines of wealth, achievement, and social rank. Overcrowding and degraded soil have forced many Igbo to migrate to nearby cities and other parts of Nigeria.

Other large ethnic groups include the Kanuri, centered in Borno State; the Tiv, from the Benue Valley near Makurdi; the Ibibio and Efik in the Calabar area; the Edo from the Benin region; and the Nupe, centered in the Bida area. Although small by Nigerian standards, each of these lesser groups has more members than almost any of Africa’s other ethnicities.

 

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