Born in Madras, India, the son of the Rev. F. G. Lugard. He was raised in Worcester and was educated at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He entered the army in 1878, joining the Norfolk regiment (9th Foot), joining the second batallion in India. He served in the Afghan War of 1879-1880, in the Sudan campaign of 1884-1885, and in Burma in 1886-1887. In May 1888, while on temporary half-pay, he took command of an expedition organized by the British settlers in Nyasaland against the Arab slave traders on Lake Nyasa, and was severely wounded.
He left Nyasaland in April 1889, and in the same year was engaged by the Imperial British East Africa Company. In their service he explored the Sabaki river and the neighbouring region, and elaborated a scheme for the emancipation of the slaves held by the Arabs in the Zanzibar mainland.
In 1890 he was sent by the company to Uganda, where he secured British predominance and put an end to the civil disturbances, though not without severe fighting, chiefly notable for an unprovoked attack by the "French" on the "British" faction. He was Military Administrator of Uganda from December 26, 1890 to May 1892. While administering Uganda he journeyed round Ruwenzori to Albert Edward Nyanza, mapping a large area of the country. He also visited Albert Nyanza, and brought away some thousands of Sudanese who had been left there by Emin Pasha and H. M. Stanley.
In 1892 Lugard returned to England, where he successfully opposed the abandonment of Uganda by Great Britain, a step then contemplated by the fourth Gladstone administration. In 1894 Lugard was despatched by the Royal Niger Company to Borgu, where, distancing his French and German rivals in a country up to then unvisited by any Europeans, he secured treaties with the kings and chiefs acknowledging the sovereignty of the British company.
In 1896-1897 he took charge of an expedition to Lake Ngami on behalf of the British West Charterland Company. From Ngami he was recalled by the British government and sent to West Africa, where he was commissioned to raise a native force to protect British interests in the hinterland of Lagos and Nigeria against French aggression. In August 1897 he raised the West African Frontier Force, and commanded it until the end of December 1899. The differences with France were then composed, and, the Royal Niger Company having surrendered its charter, Lugard was chosen as high commissioner of Northern Nigeria.
He was High Commissioner of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria from 1900 to 1906. The part of Northern Nigeria under effective control was small, and Lugard's task in organizing this vast territory was rendered more difficult by the refusal of the sultan of Sokoto and many other Fula princes to fulfil their treaty obligations. In 1903 a successful campaign against the emir of Kano and the sultan of Sokoto rendered the extension of British control over the whole protectorate possible, and when in September 1906 he resigned his commissionership, the whole country was being peacefully administered under the supervision of British residents.
In 1912 he returned to Nigeria as Governor of the two protectorates, and was made Governor-General 1914-1919 after Northern and Southern Nigeria were joined under one administration.
Lugard was created a C.B in 1895, a K.C.M.G in 1901, and a G.C.M.G in 1911. He was sworn of the Privy Council in 1920. He became a colonel in 1905, and held the local rank of brigadier-general. He married in 1902 Flora Louise Shaw (daughter of Major-General George Shaw, C.B., R.A.), who for some years had been a distinguished writer on colonial subjects for The Times.
Sir Frederick (then Captain) Lugard published in 1893 The Rise of our East African Empire (partly auto-biographical), and was the author of various valuable reports on Northern Nigeria issued by the Colonial Office. Throughout his African administrations Lugard sought strenuously to secure the amelioration of the condition of the native people, among other means by the exclusion, wherever possible, of alcoholic liquors, and by the suppression of slave raiding and slavery.