Nigeria: What’s in a Name?

Nigeria: What’s in a Name?

Saturday, December 19, 2020 9:09 am

Dr. Chris Anyokwu

By Chris Anyokwu

American literary scholar and theorist of poetry, Harold Bloom in one of his magnum opuses, entitled The Western Canon credits William Shakespeare with being the single incarnation of the genius of the West, his work covering virtually all the major and minor genres and sub-genres of literature. As a matter of fact, there is hardly any topic or subject under the sun that Shakespeare did not write about. Small wonder, therefore, he thought it necessary to muse on the significance of names which human beings bear. Thus in his romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, Juliet in a fit of crazed desire and longing for love, enthuses thus: “Tis but thy name that is my enemy; /Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What’s a Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,/ Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part/ Belonging to a man. O, be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet;….” Inherent in this outburst is the paradoxical nature of naming: it is or can be both a blessing or/ and a curse; it could open doors of opportunity for you or slam same in your beseeching and suppliant face. Still on the signal importance of naming, notably from our indigenous perspective, Niyi Osundare remarks: “For in the Yoruba imagination – and pragmatics – words are abstract, innate and mute until given the breath of the human voice, called forth, as it were, from it to it-ness, from relative nothingness into being. The calling forth is easier, more efficacious when the referent has a name, the name being the product of a cooperative principle between verbal signification and ontological identity. The name opens the door to the house of being; it is the readiest, most direct channel to a person’s ori and all it stands for in the liturgy of existence.” By the same token, Olatunde Olatunji, a professor of Linguistics, quips that: “The Yoruba believe that the name which a man bears affects his life, dictating his fortunes in life.” Such is the universality of this belief that the world over people takes great care in christening their children as well as other personal possessions. This much is evident in the creative practice of assigning meaningful names to fictional characters in works of imaginative art, a popular practice championed by Charles Dickens, George Lamming, Achebe, inter alia. Among the Yoruba, for instance, the circumstances of birth, family history and hopes and fears for the future help in determining what name a newborn baby is given: a set of twins bear Taiye and Kehinde; a spirit-child is called Abiku, Kokumo, Durojaiye and to foreground their belief in reincarnation, they call any child thought to be the reincarnated form of a dead relative, Iyabo (female) and Babatunde (male). People also bear names affiliated to deities and the gods they serve, e.g., Ogunbiyi, Sangotedo, Osofisan, Osundare or, to indicate their conversion to Christianity, they rechristen themselves, Jesubiyi, Jesutedo, Jesutomi and so on and so forth. The reason for this finical attention to onomastic detail is because it is normally believed that names are powerful; they are self-fulfilling prophecies as memorably exemplified in Biblical personages like Jabez, Jacob, Abraham, Sarah, Saul (Paul), Nabal and Ichabod. Your name is your destiny. If, for instance, you bear Patience or Endurance, you are in for a long journey to Eldorado, but if you bear Fortune or Favour, Mercy and Goodness, rejoice, yours is eternal sunshine! But, have you realised people love to bear names of animals? As a matter of fact, not only people but nations, organisations, clubs, name it! Nigeria’s soccer team is called The Super Eagles; then you have The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, the Desert Foxes of Algeria, the Taranga Lions of Senegal, the Three Lions of England and so on and so forth. Why so? Are animals better than humans? Did God not give Adam (and, by extension, all of us, his progeny) the power and the authority over All the beasts and birds of the earth? Why then do we crave and covet their qualities to the extent of bearing their names? Let’s face it, the lion is known for strength, dominance, power, royalty; the eagle exemplifies sterling qualities of control, pride, tenacity, vision, hence, we have it on our Coat of Arms; and the fox is a metaphor for cunning and survivalism. Name or naming can be a feel-good ritual. Thus in our more mundane, workaday world of secular activities, name is everything. Accordingly, a roadside mechanic would introduce himself at a polite event as mechanical engineer; the PHCN technician is a systems engineer; a farmer is a horticulturalist; the Akara seller is a chef/caterer; the agbo seller is a therapist; the prostitute is a care-giver, soul-provider, an escort; the cart-pusher is sanitation officer (wole-wole of old); and the agbero, the armed robber, the yahoo-yahoo scammer and other shadowy types are all business moguls. All of this simply highlights the great importance people attach to their names and the art of naming. And that brings our own dear native land, Nigeria, to mind. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Half of A Yellow Sun, writes: “In 1914, the governor-general joined the North and the South, and his wife picked a name. Nigeria was born.” Adichie narrates further that: “At Independence in 1960, Nigeria was a collection of fragments held in a fragile clasp.” Over 60 years down the line, this “collection of fragments” called Nigeria has become increasingly fractured, balkanised and brittle owing in large part to a welter of factors cavalierly characterised as “the National Question”, one which General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida once famously execrated as “defying logic.” Whilst our state actors, mostly well-heeled, albeit po-faced members of the political class, fiddle with this Ariadne’s thread and make a show of trying to loosen the Gordian knot, with the hapless masses gawking on, let us advert our collective attention to a critical element in the working-out of the fate and future of the Republic, to wit: the name, NIGERIA. The country is reputed to have been named by Lord Fredrick Lugard’s good-time girl, Flora Shaw under a rather indelicate circumstances. Shaw’s coital epiphany is believed to have been informed by the geography of our history: the environmental role of River Niger; the preponderance of negriod sub-species in and around the area; and, more significantly, the umbilical cord connecting black slaves in the New World (known as “Niggers”) and their kith and kin here in sub-Saharan Africa. So, it was easy for Flora Shaw to ejaculate “Nigger-Area” as she gained orgiastic crescendo. Eureka! There it is: Nigeria! This “collection of fragments” has shown tell-tale debilities, neuroses and pathologies of a dying and decaying entity, wasting away with such horrible issues as disunity, ethnicism, nepotism, chronic underdevelopment, a dysfunctional federalism, all of which are pushing it towards becoming a failed state. It is also argued that the name, Nigeria, sounds too similar like its francophone neighbour, NIGER REPUBLIC, and, farther north, ALGERIA, thereby rendering it nearly indistinguishable from these two countries. Also, its sounding, Naijiria (Nigeria) hardly ever evokes or awakens in anyone a sense of ancestral wistfulness or/and affective myths of origin complete with culture heroes, ethnic or racial avatars as well as pantheons of legendary founders in the mould of Aeneas of Italy, Achilles and Odysseus of ancient Greece, Chaka the Zulu of Azania (South Africa), Oduduwa of the Yoruba, Abraham of Israel and Palestine and Thomas Jefferson of the United States of America. Postcolonial Nigeria’s Big Three – Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello were, to be charitable, at best, ethnic revanchists with pan-Nigerian ambitions. There’s to date no single Nigerian alive or dead, male or female, who totalises and imbricates a pan-Nigerian vision unblinkered by parochial impedimenta. How do we therefore mine or quarry a truly national, truly autochthonous inclusivist name from our violated, fragmented past? Professor Akin Oyebode, retired professor of law at the University of Lagos and former Vice-Chancellor of Ekiti State University, Ado-Ekiti, recently lent his respected voice to the chorus of Nigerians calling for a rechristening of Nigeria. In his inimitably laconic style, he succinctly set forth the whys and wherefores of our country’s naming, uncovering the denigratory and demeaning ramifications of the name, Nigeria, having been confected from “Nigger”, a slur heavy with a long and painful memory of racial enslavement, transversing past and present realities. Our green passport, for example, is hardly a badge of honour at international borders and airports but an emblem of shame because of the deleterious activities of enemy nationals such as drug pushers, money launderers, internet fraudsters, scammers, and law-breakers. These quislings and renegades give us all a bad name like the Biblical Cain. Where do we go from here? We need to delve into the depths of our ancient past, the age of Empires such as the Benin Empire, the Songhai Empire, Mali Empire, Kanel-Bornu Empire, Oyo Empire and the Ghana Empire. Since Ghana and Benin have been taken, perhaps we should settle for Songhai. Bornu and Oyo are too restrictive and exclusionary. We could set up a committee comprising eminent Nigerians drawn from both the major and minority ethnic groups, including youth organisations, civil society organisations, and the diasporans and charge it with the responsibility of re-naming Nigeria. It should be a befitting and beautiful name capable of banishing all the bitter memories of the past and usher in a great and glorious era of national pride for ALL our peoples. So, what’s in a name? Everything!

Chris Anyokwu, PhD.
Associate Professor of English
University of Lagos.


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