This writer finds the history of Nigeria fascinating. Why shouldn’t you be thrilled by the stories of the once great kingdoms of the Atlantic coast and the glittering riches of the northern emirates? What isn’t there to be marveled by in the ancient oars of merchants that crossed the Niger Delta in the 16th century, or the caravans of kings that trekked the savannah half a millennia earlier?
One of the interesting things about our history as a people
is how the towns and cities we see today were founded. Their origins are
usually attributed to legendary figures who undertook great expeditions
centuries ago and settled on lands which they immediately began to build upon.
And there are the stories of conquest and exile, of refugees setting up
shelters that later became urban centers (as was the case with Abeokuta1),
and warriors setting up military garrisons (Ibadan2).
But not every town fits this mold. A lot of our favourite cities have far more mundane origins. Here, we’ll be looking at locations which came into existence for commercial reasons.
Today, Port Harcourt is the capital of Rivers State and the chief center of Nigeria’s petroleum industry. But long before crude dominated its economy, a different fossil fuel ruled the roost on its coasts.
The British colonialists founded Port Harcourt in 1912
because they wanted a port that would take the coal they mined
from the South East, and have it shipped to the United Kingdom. Prior to its
establishment, the area was a complex of farms belonging to inhabitants of the
The coal mined in Enugu was transported via a rail line to
Port Harcourt, a distance of almost 250 kilometers. The structure was built by
the colonialists, but not without a lot of cheap local labour3. In time,
a conurbation formed around the port, and it grew into one of the country’s
The discovery of crude oil in the 1950s eventually led to a
change in the city’s economy, as the emphasis of commerce shifted towards the
petroleum industry. There was an influx of people from across the country in
the decades that followed, most of them drawn in by the opportunities that the
‘oil city’ promised.
Unlike the settlement stories of many Nigerian towns and cities (like Kano, Badagry, and Ikorodu), Enugu’s founding figure wasn’t a local warrior or farmer. He was a British miner, Albert Kitson, who discovered coal deposits in the Udi area in 1909.
It was the age of coal-powered engines, and the Europeans
were thirsty for more of the dark energy source. Interest in the Udi coal finds
grew, and by 1914, the first haul of coal from the area was shipped to the
United Kingdom. By 1917, Enugu,
a mining settlement, had become recognized as a township4.
The town soon became the principal commercial hub for the
colonialists, as they sited some of their business interests in its vicinity.
It remained the South East’s chief administrative center after Nigeria gained
It soon dawned on the British that they could ship more out of Port Harcourt than just coal. Tin had been found in abundant quantities further north from Enugu, and they were determined to send as much of it as they could back home.
So they extended the rail lines to Jos, which was the main
town in the heartland of the tin extraction business. Starting about 1927,
Makurdi developed as a stop along this rail route. In a couple of decades, it
grew into a major market town, with its own inland maritime economy (situated on
the Benue, linked to the Delta in the south and the Niger in the West) and
a bustling local commercial environment5.
These days, Makurdi is the capital of Benue State and home
to well over 300,000 people.
Sapele is the oldest town on this list. It’s also worth noting that it’s not even clear when it came into existence, but available records suggest that it was well established by 1912, when a local chief referred to it in a letter written to a colleague. An earlier reference by a British colonel from 1891 speaks of the freshness of ‘the waters of Sapele”.
But it’s reasonable to think that it was a market town in its earliest days, as many other settlements in the same area were. Historians believe that Sapele may have arisen as a village of oil palm traders on one of the many rivers in the Niger Delta6.
Because of its location, it also became an important fish
and rubber trading town. It has had a fairly large wood industry for over eight
Salubi A. (1960), The Origins of Sapele Township, from Waado.org.
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