The term centralised states means large political units, each of which covered large territorial areas and in most cases thousands of square kilometres. Each of such political units was controlled by large number of rulers, led by a king variously referred to in local languages. For example, Sarki in Hausa, Mai in Kanuri, Alafin in Oyo and Oba in Benin.

All parts of each state were controlled from the centre by the king through subordinate officials, arranged according to seniority. Such rulers earned their livings through taxes, tributes, labour and other resources obtained from people.

The common characteristics of centralized states are:

  1. All of them had specific territories and boundaries or were territorially defined through military conquests.
  2. They usually expanded to other territories.
  3. These centralized states were ruled by semi-divine kings who were of divine nature. Alafin of Oyo, Aku of Jukun, Etsu of Nupe and Oba of Benin, etc.
  4. All these centralized states had standing armies. Their expansions depended on their armies.



The various centralized states did not emerge at the same time. Contrary to popular but erroneous belief, not even the Hausa states emerge at the same time. Some of the states emerged before 1000A.D. Many emerged in the period between 1000A.D. and 1500A.D. Others emerged at a later date. Centralised states did not emerge by magic. The building of such states was a process of trial and error that was slow and difficult.

Some communities succeeded in building centralized states that lasted to the end of the 18th or 19th centuries. Others failed and were either incorporated into centralized states or remained at the clan or village level of political organization.

The ability to build and sustain a centralized state depended on a number of factors and historical circumstances. The basic characteristics of centralized states are as follows:

  1. All of them were territorially defined, that is, they had specific territorial boundaries.
  2. All of the centralized states had powerful rulers as well as semi-divine kings.
  3. Centralised states equally had standing armies. Their expansion depended on the size of their armies.
  4. Centralised states had population concentration. Centralised states had their genesis in the settlements of large population. It was normally the leaders of such settlements that eventually emerged as kings.


By 1800A.D. there were two types of centralised states in the Northern Nigeria area. There were the large and highly developed state systems. For example, Kanem, Borno, Kano, Katsina, Zazzau, Gobir and the Jukun states of Kwararafa, Kona, Pindiga and Wukari. On the other hand, there were centralised states whose political structures and institutions, territorial extent and the number of differentiation in the rank of state officials were not as developed and well defined as the first one. These included the Igala, Nupe and the Ebira kingdoms.

Examples of centralised states in pre-colonial Nigeria were as follows: Hausa states, Kano, Katsina, Zazzau, Gobir, etc; Kanem, Borno, Jukun states Kona, Pindiga and Wukari, Oyo, Benin, Nupe, Igala and Ife.

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