Famous Nigerians of the 19th century include 'Uthman dan Fodio (d.1817), who founded the Fulani empire at the beginning of the century, and Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1809–92), a Yoruba missionary of the Church of England who was consecrated first bishop of the Niger Territories in 1864.
The Palm Wine Drinkard and other stories by Amos Tutuola (1920–1997) exploit the rich resources of traditional Nigerian folk tales. Benedict Chuka Enwonu (b.1921), Nigeria's leading painter and sculptor, has gained international fame, as has Wole Soyinka (b.1934), a prominent playwright who was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, the first African so honored. Novelists of note include Chinua Achebe (b.1930) and Cyprian Ekwensi (b.1921). Sports figures include Dick Tiger (1929–71), twice world middleweight champion and once light-heavyweight champion.
Herbert Macaulay (1864–1946) is regarded as the father of Nigerian nationalism. Among contemporary political figures, Dr. (Benjamin) Nnamdi Azikiwe (1904–96), long one of the leading West African nationalists and formerly premier of the Eastern Region, was a founder of the NCNC and first governor-general and president of independent Nigeria. Former chief rival of Azikiwe and founder of the Action Group, Chief Obafemi Awolowo (1909–87) resigned as premier of the Western Region to lead the opposition in the federal House of Assembly. He was named commissioner for finance in the Federal Military Government. The hereditary leader of the Hausa-Fulani ruling class in northern Nigeria and leader of the NPC until his assassination in January 1966 was Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, sardauna of Sokoto (1909–66), who became prime minister of the Northern Region in 1954. The first prime minister of the Federation was Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (1912–66), who also was assassinated in the 1966 coup. Chief Simeon Olaosebikan Adebo (1913–94), a leading Nigerian diplomat, has held several UN posts. Maj. Gen. Yakubu Gowon (b.1934) headed the Federal Military Government from July 1966 to July 1975, when he was deposed in a bloodless coup during his absence from Nigeria at an OAU meeting. Gowon is credited with formulating the post–civil war policy of reconciliation with the Ibos that resulted in the country's rapid recovery. Alhaji Shehu Shagari (b.1925) served in several high government posts before being elected president in 1979. Reelected in 1983, he was subsequently deposed in a military coup from which Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (b. 1942) emerged as leader of the Supreme Military Council and head of state.