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How to Read a Map - Nigeria and its Rivers

Lagos, Nigeria

Nigeria is one of the most sociologically and geopolitically complex operating environments in West Africa. Having previously explored how geography influences geopolitics by looking at Iran in the MENA region, Nigeria was a natural choice when turning to Africa more broadly. A word of caution, while we will seek to extract some further principles for reading maps with a geopolitical lens in this post, we must bear in mind that Nigeria is far too complex to be analyzed comprehensively in a single blog post. This will be a post with some general notes. I will leave out relevant aspects in this post, quite intentionally (and perhaps even unintentionally), in the interest of brevity. The overarching goal is for the reader to come away with some useful principles and tips for future map reading and a sense of how geographic features have influenced modern Nigerian politics.

Nigeria: Geographic First Impressions

What do we first notice when we look at Nigeria? In my case, I immediately note that portions of the Niger and Benue Rivers are visible even from satellite images (See Fig. 1 below). Like prominent veins, they trace winding paths across the country and, together, they stamp a visible "Y" shape on the country.

Fig. 1: Satellite image of Nigeria with the Benue and Niger Rivers marked.

While not visible in the above image, we can easily trace large portions of the winding path both rivers take using satellite images. Both the Niger and Benue trace convoluted courses over diverse surfaces and climates and include lakes, streams, and tributaries along the way. As we have suggested previously, rivers, "tend to be transit and trade routes, but they can also be barriers in certain circumstances." Ergo, the prominence of Nigeria's rivers in our first impression suggests they warrant further exploration.

Other features of note in Nigeria's geography that are visible at first glance include:

  • Nigeria's southern coast: It provides the country's exit/entry to the ocean via the Gulf of Guinea and, thus, constitutes Nigeria's route for ocean-based international trade. The southern coast also links to the Niger (perhaps most prominently via the Niger Delta) and other rivers like the Cross River. Other trade routes into Nigeria apart from the southern coast will historically have been riverine or land routes (setting aside modern aviation for a moment).

  • Nigeria's diverse climate: The image above also shows Nigeria's diverse climate zones. It's clear that as we move northward from the southern coast, the landscape becomes less green and more akin to arid savannah or even desert.

What do these features tell us? Broadly, on the basis of this "first impression" we would expect the following to be true:

  • The rivers will likely be particularly important for trade. Given the courses they run, we would expect the presence of riverine communities reliant on these rivers as lifelines for trade, transport, and agriculture. However, we must keep in mind that rivers can also serve as barriers and we can see that the Niger and Benue rivers dissect the country into at least three major areas given their "Y"-like formation.

  • The southern coast probably hosts several important trade hubs given that it is Nigeria's main entry/exit point to the ocean and links to prominent rivers that traverse the country. Since rivers were key means of transport before the industrial area, we would expect that southern coast trade hubs have probably obtained their economic prominence over a longer period of time. The key southern trade hubs will likely have riverine connections and, if they have access to a deep, natural sea port, even better. Such geographic "prime real estate" is generally accompanied by higher population density and economic (and potentially political) importance.

  • The more arid climate areas in northern Nigeria will likely have different trade connections. Arid climates are prone to nomadic population movements and parts of this area link with the broader trade routes of the Sahel.

Nigeria's Rivers and its Southern Coast

The Niger River, among Nigeria's most prominent, traces a winding route of over 4,000 km, making it the 10th longest waterway in the world. Together with the Benue, it is among Nigeria's most prominent geographic features. For centuries, the rivers were a lifeline and source of livelihood to the riverine communities scattered along their banks. Even further inland, the rivers, not unexpectedly, were sources of trade and communication. But we must bear in mind that rivers are not always a means of connection; sometimes they serve as barriers and a source of conflict. Indeed, the influence of Nigeria's rivers must be considered in historical context.

The key principle to recall is that, the geography of a country influences its formative historical periods and the scars and memories of these periods can shape its later politics.

While we do not have readily-available maps of land cover in early 18th and 19th century Nigeria, land cover maps from 1975 provide some sense of the composition of earlier terrain (See Fig. 2).

The extensive legend for this map (available at the link above), suggests 18th and 19th-century Nigeria would have had some significant land barriers--forest, woodland, swamp forest, and mangroves-- between the southern banks of the Niger-Benue leading down to the Niger Delta and coastal trading enclaves on the southern coast. Such land barriers would presumably (i.) compound the importance of rivers as trade routes--especially as they link the international trade hubs on the southern coast with hubs further inland--while (ii.) fostering a sense of relative isolation for those on the southern part of our riverine "Y".

Adding some historical context

In fact, when we consider historical context, we note that by the early 1800s, the Niger-Benue was contested and controlled in lots that were fought over and exchanged. The Niger-Benue was populated by diverse migrant and indigenous groups. The course of the rivers was often a closely-guarded secret sometimes lost in translation due to the diversity of languages spoken among the varied communities. Crucially, however, it was the economy of the slave trade that served as a major factor in encouraging the dynamic of the rivers as a natural obstacle. By the early 1800s, it was difficult to find a community in the Niger-Benue area that was not engaged in the slave trade. As a result, the rivers played a role either as routes for the trade or defensive obstacles to provide protection against conquest and capture. Travel between main port cities and trade hubs along the Niger typically required armed escort for this reason.

In addition, key trade hubs on Nigeria's southern coast rose in prominence and economic power precisely because of the slave trade. For instance, Lagos, established by the Benin Empire in the 17th century rose to prominence due to its status as a leading depot for the slave trade for European vessels entering the Gulf of Guinea and its navigability as a natural port in West Africa. At the other extreme of Nigeria's southern coast, Calabar established itself as an important capital with connectivity to the Cross River, which was similarly littered with city states. Over time, Nigeria's key rivers began to delineate the borders what eventually became Nigeria's major ethnic groups. Igbo and Yoruba on either side of the Niger and the consolidated Hausa-Fulani to the north (See Fig. 3 below).

Arguably, the ethno-religious "borders" delineated by our riverine "Y" are still very much relevant in understanding Nigerian politics even today.

The key point to recall in this regard, is that the historical context of the slave trade resulted in a tension between the rivers as trade facilitators and barriers-- both a means of connecting and isolating depending on the context--while also imbuing a deep sense of mistrust of strangers in the many of the diverse communities of the country.

It's not entirely surprising then that the after effects of these historical scars remain prominent even in modern Nigerian politics and the rivers roughly trace key electoral blocks as well.

The Arid North

We now turn to some notes on the more arid regions north of the rivers. The trade links here are shaped by the arid climate and consequent pastoralist/nomadic movement and Sahelian land-based trade routes (See Fig. 4 below).

Important trans-Saharan trade routes fostered the influence of Islam in this broader area as early as the 8th century and ultimately linked the people of northern Nigeria to the broader Islamic world. For instance, Kano hosted a widely cosmopolitan population (including Arab, Berber, Tuareg, Fula, etc.) for centuries and was a key commercial hub (See Fig. 5 below).

Fig. 5: Niger and Saharan trade routes circa 1400. Source: By T L Miles - self-made using The Gimp and Image:Africa historical traite.JPG, Public Domain,

There is much that could be about this fascinating sub-region of Nigeria and the broader continent, but, for our purposes, we can point out that, essentially, the more arid climate fomented nomadic, pastoralist, merchant, and agrarian classes. The cultural, religious, and trade links formed were consequently somewhat different compared with the more southern areas of the country. The connection to regional land-based trade routes also laid the groundwork for an Islamic religious identity that was both distinct and "universalist" in nature. That is, the learned class of scholars in the area who were fluent in Arabic would have been connected by a common language to news, scholarship, and sources from the broader Muslim world while others would have been exposed via trade and movement of people.

There were, of course, class divisions even in this smaller northern sub-region of Nigeria (e.g. metropolitan merchants, Muslim teachers/scholars, and itinerant pastoralists).

However, the chief point is that the climate and geography of the area fostered land-based trade and a degree of nomadism/movement that, together with the religious/cultural influence of Islam, linked this region to something of a broader world in a different way.

It was here that the first moves toward amalgamation and political consolidation in Nigeria arguably began during the era of Islamic Revivalism and Dan Fodio. The Sokoto Caliphate (1804-1903) ultimately led to mixing of the Fulani and Hausa; it had significant trans-Saharan trade though slavery ultimately remained an essential component of the economy. In more ways than one, its legacy is still alive today.

What does this all mean?

In the final analysis we can deduce a few key ways in which geography (climate and rivers) influenced Nigeria's history with consequences for its modern politics:

  • The Niger and Benue rivers in particular were key sources of sustenance and trade links for many, but the slave trade also meant they were used as barriers for defense and division.

  • Trade in people ultimately fostered a deep distrust of outsiders among various ethnic groups such that the "Y" shape traced by the Niger-Benue still largely delineates some key ethnic and political divisions in Nigeria.

  • The more arid climate to the north of the rivers naturally fostered more nomadism and land-based trade/movement. This region was thus distinguished by links to the Sahel and trans-Saharan trade, with the consequent influence of Islam and cultural, religious, linguistic links to the broader Islamic world. The Sokoto Caliphate ultimately fostered inter-ethnic Fulani and Hausa mixing and helped solidify Islamic religious identity in the north.

Modern Nigeria is a complex paradox. It has been one of the fastest growing economies of the last century, but remains a poor country with dismal life expectancy. We can at least begin to understand the roots of modern Nigeria's political, ethno-religious divisions by looking at its geography and history (and how the two influenced each other). But this is merely a start for any organization seeking to operate effectively in the country. In a place like Nigeria, we must also seek to understand regional and sub-regional politics, alliances, stakeholders, power players, and how they change and interact. Failing to properly analyze, understand, and monitor such aspects can lead to disastrous consequences for any organizations on the ground.

A final note, for those interested in Nigerian history, I highly recommend the book, Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation, which provided both inspiration and ample context and material for this post.


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