The best books about post-independence Nigeria

Alexander Thurston Author Of Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement
By Alexander Thurston

Who am I?

From the moment I first began reading about Nigerian history, I was drawn to the country’s complexity – the mix of religious traditions, ethnic groups, languages, cultures, and intersecting histories. As a graduate student, I delved deeper into the history of Islam in northern Nigeria, first by reading the secondary literature, then by exploring primary documents, and eventually by conducting my own fieldwork. Sadly, as my interest in Nigeria grew, so too did the country’s ongoing tragedies, including the violence perpetrated by Boko Haram. Nevertheless, there is much more to Nigeria than conflict, as is amply demonstrated by the tremendous contributions of Nigerian novelists, musicians, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, and scholars.


I wrote...

Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement

By Alexander Thurston,

Book cover of Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement

What is my book about?

Boko Haram is the story of the most violent and destructive movement in recent Nigerian history. From its murky origins in the far northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Boko Haram (a nickname that loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden by Islam”) grew into a mass movement – and then into a deadly insurgency. The book traces this evolution, focusing on turning points such as Boko Haram’s armed uprising in 2009, its effort to carve out its own territory in 2014-2015, and its convoluted internal schisms. 

The books I picked & why

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Muslim Modernity in Postcolonial Nigeria: A Study of the Society for the Removal of Innovation and Reinstatement of Tradition

By Ousmane Kane,

Book cover of Muslim Modernity in Postcolonial Nigeria: A Study of the Society for the Removal of Innovation and Reinstatement of Tradition

Why this book?

Kane’s book offers readers a rich portrait of the northern Nigerian religious movement Izala. Kane shows how the movement brought together preachers, businessmen, and ordinary Muslims who sought to change how Islam was practiced in Nigeria and beyond. Izala sparked bitter debates by challenging the Sufi orders – mass organizations headed by shaykhs who wielded special spiritual charisma. Rejecting Sufism, Izala offered a new way of being Muslim in a rapidly changing country.


Soldiers of Fortune: A History of Nigeria (1983-1993)

By Max Siollun,

Book cover of Soldiers of Fortune: A History of Nigeria (1983-1993)

Why this book?

Siollun’s Soldiers of Fortune (and its acclaimed sequel, focusing on the consequential 1993 elections and what came after) take readers inside the last few military regimes that dominated Nigeria. Given that so many of the characters Siollun discusses still loom large in Nigerian politics today, the books are indispensable for understanding the country and its trajectory.


Half of a Yellow Sun

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,

Book cover of Half of a Yellow Sun

Why this book?

Adichie’s Americanah is more famous, but I prefer Half of a Yellow Sun. The novelist brings to life the enormous debates and traumatic ruptures of 1960s Nigeria, giving a sympathetic but far from rosy view of the breakaway Republic of Biafra. The unforgettable characters and their entangled lives anchor the reader in a historical period – including Nigeria’s 1967-1970 civil war – that still haunts the country today.


Pentecostal Republic: Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria

By Ebenezer Obadare,

Book cover of Pentecostal Republic: Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria

Why this book?

Scholars of Africa have devoted tremendous attention to Pentecostal Christianity in recent years – and Obadare’s Pentecostal Republic is the best treatment of Pentecostalism in Nigeria. Obadare teases out the interplay between Pentecostalism and politics, a relationship that now reaches the highest levels of Nigeria’s political life. The book is a crucial for understanding the elections of 1999 and ever since, and will remain important for understanding Nigerian politics as elections approach in 2023.


Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria

By Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala,

Book cover of Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria

Why this book?

Nigeria’s most famous economist and the current Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Okonjo-Iweala is a formidable figure nationally and globally. Her memoir about her time as Finance Minister during the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo (in office 1999-2007) gives insight into debt relief negotiations and major economic reforms. Those reforms look less transformative in retrospect – at least 40% of Nigerians remain mired in poverty, and Nigeria’s debt has climbed again, including during Okonjo-Iweala’s second stint as Finance Minister – but the memoir remains important for understanding Africa’s largest economy.


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