The Yoruba and Other Major Nigerian Ethnic Groups

Frank Huang '94 (English 32, 1990)

Yorubaland, the western part of Nigeria in the Western High Plains, contains the states of Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, and Lago and parts of the Bendel and Kwara states. In this region, which is largely covered with savanna parkland and grass, many streams disappear during the dry season.

As far back as Nigerian history recalls, the Yoruba have dominated this region. The Yorubas, who have a mixed origin, assimilated periodic waves of migrants all of whom possessed common language and culture. The territory of the Yoruba has never been a unified, although larger Yoruban groups occasionally dominated smaller ones. In the mid-nineteenth century, as Yorubas gained access to economic and educational resources, they became aware of the kinship between their own languages and cultures and the term Yoruba became widely used. Nevertheless, Yoruba unity has occured only under certain political, economic, or religious circumstances.

Today, the Yoruba encompass over 20% of the 300 Nigerian ethnolinguistic groups. Christianity has been a dominant religion since the middle of this century with the Anglican, Methodist, and American Southern Baptist demonimations being the most popular. The Yoruba, who believe that modern higher education is the path to prestigious, lucrative, and powerful positions, dominate the public and private sectors of Nigeria and provide a large proportion of the nation's elite -- educated politicians, judges, and wealthy entrepreneurs.

A major factor in Nigeria's political dynamics comes from the relationships between the Yoruba and the other two major Nigerian enthic groups, the Hausa and the Ibo. The predominantly Islamic Hausa, which include 21% of Nigeria's ethnic groups, inhabit northern Nigeria in the Kano, Sokot, and Kaduna states. Because the Hausas are so culturally varied and geographically diverse, many specialists believe the term Hausa has more linguistic than ethnic validity. The Ibo, which contain approximately 16% of Nigeria's ethnic groups, live in the eastern section of Nigeria in Gongola, Benue, and Anambra. Historically, the Ibos resided in villages and towns smaller than those of the Yoruba or Hausa. Like the Yoruba, the Ibos were greatly influenced by Christian missions in the mid-nineteenth century. Contemporary differences among these major Nigerian ethnic groups owe most to developments in the twentieth century, such as rates of education, modernization, and economic growth.

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