Africa’s Giant: The Best Books to Understand Nigeria

Lagos, Nigeria, 2012/Photo © Shutterstock

Since becoming an independent nation in 1960 following decades as a British protectorate, the Federal Republic of Nigeria has lurched between periods of civilian democratic governance, military coups, and dictatorships. Comprising the largest population in Africa, Nigeria is home to a wide variety of diverse cultures, although, in terms of religion, the population is mostly split between Christians in the south and Muslims in the north.

In recent years, Nigeria has made international news largely due to attacks orchestrated by the Boko Haram, a terrorist organization aligned with the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), most notably the 2014 kidnapping of 276 female students from secondary school in Chibok.  The incident, generally known as the Chibok Kidnapping, gained worldwide attention and outrage in part because of the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign – one that for all its flash and star power proved sadly ineffective. Boko Haram remains active in Nigeria and has been responsible for thousands of deaths within that country.

Despite decades of unrest, military coups, counter-coups, and sectarian violence, Nigeria lately appears to be finding some measure of stabilization. The 2011 and 2015 presidential elections were both viewed favorably by the international community and Nigeria is entering conversations as an emerging global power.  Beyond its politics, Nigeria has long featured a thriving literary community no doubt driven by its diverse populace on the one hand and decades of strife on the other.  The books listed below, most by Nigerian authors, represent a cross-section of Nigeria’s strong literary tradition and will hopefully provide some insight into the nation and its cultures.

  • The cover of the book AKE


    The Years of Childhood

    Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian author, political activist, and, notably, the first African to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature.  His celebrated memoir chronicles his childhood in a Yoruba village called Aké in Western Nigeria.  Soyinka followed Ake with an equally captivating memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, centering on his turbulent adult years both in, and in exile from, his beloved Nigeria.

  • The cover of the book Never Look an American in the Eye

    Never Look an American in the Eye

    A Memoir of Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian Amiercan

    In Never Look an American in the Eye, Okey Ndibe recounts his sometimes harrowing, oft-hilarious experiences immigrating from his native Nigeria to America.  Ndibe describes his experiences editing a perpetually insolvent magazine, his relationships with various Nigerian literary luminaries (several of whom are on this list), and the often vast differences in Nigerian and American etiquette and politics.

  • The cover of the book Known and Strange Things

    Known and Strange Things


    This collection of essays from Teju Cole, born to Nigerian parents in the U.S. and raised in Nigeria, covers a wide variety of topics across politics, travel, history, and literature just to name a few.  Cole’s commanding grasp of language and its intricacies is on display in this collection in ways that are witty, profound, and at times devastating.

  • The cover of the book The Famished Road

    The Famished Road

    The Famished Road, which won the Booker Prize in 1991, is perhaps Ben Okri’s most well-known and celebrated novel. The novel weaves elements of magical realism with Yoruba folklore in a tale that examines Nigeria through the lens of a young boy named Azaro, a spirit child pulled between the worlds of the living and the dead.

  • The cover of the book The Joys of Motherhood

    The Joys of Motherhood

    The novel The Joys of Motherhood from Buchi Emecheta chronicles the story of Nnu Ego, a woman struggling against tribal perceptions of the role and worth of women in Nigerian society.  Unable to conceive in her first marriage, Nnu is banished and eventually succeeds in having children before seeing her life and the lives of her children upended by World War II.

  • The cover of the book Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

    Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

    This New York Times bestseller from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is framed around a response Adichie penned to a letter from a childhood friend seeking advice on raising a daughter to be a feminist. Its fifteen suggestions are remarkably potent and prescient – and essential.

  • The cover of the book Everything Good Will Come

    Everything Good Will Come

    With her debut novel, Nigerian writer Sefi Atta charts the lives of two Nigerian girls born to different castes. Beginning a year after the Biafran War during one of Nigeria’s periods of military rule, the novel traces the girls’ lives and their friendship through adulthood.

  • The cover of the book The Chibok Girls

    The Chibok Girls

    In this short nonfiction book, Nigerian writer Helon Habila provides a powerful account of the kidnapping of the Chibok Girls and the various factors that contributed to both it and the rise of the Boka Haram in Nigeria. Habila, who grew up in Northern Nigeria, gained access to the families of the girls and recounts their stories with devastating clarity, reminding readers that as many as 200 of the girls remain missing.

  • The cover of the book I Do Not Come to You By Chance

    I Do Not Come to You By Chance

    In popular culture, Nigeria is perhaps best, if regrettably, known for the infamous “Nigerian Prince” scam and its myriad variations. This novel from Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani sheds light into the very real world of the often desperate individuals who perpetuate these scams.  At turns comical and poignant, I Do Not Come to You by Chance leverages a notorious facet of Nigerian culture to craft a very interesting portrait of life in the country.

  • The cover of the book Americanah


    The bestselling 2013 novel by Adichie tells the tale of Nigerian immigrant Ifemelu and the man she left behind, Obinze. Through this work of fiction, Adichie offers up a gorgeous story of the experience of an African finding her way in America – and finding herself as an adult.