Nigeria contains more historic cultures and empires than any other other nation in Africa. They date back as far as the 5th century BC, when communities living around the southern slopes of the Jos plateau make wonderfully expressive terracotta figures – in a tradition known now as the Nok culture, from the Nigerian village where these sculptures are first unearthed. The Nok people are neolithic tribes who have recently acquired the iron technology spreading southwards through Africa.
The Jos plateau is in the centre of Nigeria, but the first extensive kingdoms of the region – more than a millennium after the Nok people – are in the north and northeast, deriving their wealth from trade north through the Sahara and east into the Sudan.
During the 9th centurya trading empire grows up around Lake Chad. Its original centre is east of the lake, in the Kanem region, but it soon extends to Bornu on the western side. In the 11th century the ruler of Kanem-Bornu converts to Islam.
West of Bornu, along the northern frontier of Nigeria, is the land of the Hausa people. Well placed to control trade with the forest regions to the south, the Hausa develop a number of small but stable kingdoms, each ruled from a strong walled city. They are often threatened by larger neighbours (Mali and Gao to the west, Bornu to the east). But the Hausa traders benefit also from being on the route between these empires. By the 14th century they too are Muslim.
In the savanna grasslands and the forest regions west of the Niger, between the Hausa kingdoms and the coast, the Yoruba people are the dominant tribes. Here they establish two powerful states.
The first is Ife, on the border between forest and savanna. Famous now for its sculpture, Ife flourishes from the 11th to 15th century. In the 16th century a larger Yoruba empire develops, based slightly further from the forest at Oyo. Using the profits of trade to develop a forceful cavalry, Oyo grows in strength during the 16th century. By the end of the 18th century the rulers of Oyo are controlling a region from the Niger to the west of Dahomey.
Meanwhile, firmly within the forest, the best known of all the Nigerian kingdoms establishes itself in the 15th century (from small beginnings in the 13th). Benin becomes a name internationally known for its cast-metal sculpture, in a tradition inherited from the Ife.
In terms of extent Benin is no match for Oyo, its contemporary to the north. In the 15th century the region brought under central control is a mere seventy-miles across (people and places being harder to subdue in the tropical forest than on the savanna), though a century later Benin stretches from the Niger delta in the east to Lagos in the west.
But Benin’s fame is based on factors other than power. This is the coastal kingdom which the Portuguese discover when they reach the mouth of the Niger in the 1470s, bringing back to Europe the first news of superb African artefacts and of the ceremonial splendour of Benin’s oba or king.
The kings of Benin are a story in themselves. In the 19th century they scandalize the west by their use of human sacrifice in court rituals. And they have stamina. At the end of the 20th century the original dynasty is still in place, though without political power. All in all, among Nigeria’s many historic kingdoms, Benin has earned its widespread renown.