Nigeria is the most populated country in Africa and the sixth-most-populated country in the world. It encompasses over 250 ethnic groups and twice as many languages. This diverse patchwork of ethnicities also means a massive diversity in names and naming conventions.
The various Nigerian ethnic groups have rich naming traditions, and each group has its own set of names. Some names are so closely linked to a particular ethnic group that you can identify at a glance whether they’re Hausa, Igbo, or from another group.
In this article, we’re going to look at Nigerian last names, how they’re given, and what they mean.
It must be noted that hereditary last names, as Westerners understand them, are not common in Nigeria or Africa at large. People from certain villages may bear a similar name, especially if a village is composed of a large extended family, and some Nigerians may bear hereditary surnames. For instance, former president Goodluck Jonathan’s children are named Ariwera Jonathan and Aruabai Jonathan.
However, unlike the English “Smith”, there’s not really a notion of common Nigerian last names, whether we refer to “common” or “last name”. Nigeria is a country with many and varied ethnic groups and languages, making “common” a difficult notion at best.
With all this in mind, we’ll cover Nigerian names in general, so you can better understand how names work in the most-populated country in Africa.
General African names and Nigerian names have many similar naming conventions. However, Nigeria’s various ethnic groups have their own cultures and traditions, and we’ll cover these specific cultural details in the later sections.
Below is a breakdown of the most common naming conventions in Africa as a whole and Nigeria specifically:
A particularly African naming practice is choosing names that reflect the circumstances of the child’s birth. For example, a child may bear a name pointing to their day/time of birth or birth order. Nearly anything that occurred during or related to the birth could also become a part of the child’s name, such as where or when the child was born.
Names like Alaba (“second child born after twins”), Bandele (“born away from home”), or Nwamdi (“father’s name lives on”) are thus common among Nigerians. For example, four Nigerian footballers bear the name Nwankwo: Nwankwo Kanu, Nwankwo Obiora, Nwankwo Tochukwu, and Simeon Nwankwo, better known as Simy. Their name means “born on Nkwo”, a day in the Igbo week.
Just like people the world over, parents may give a child a name referring to a notable physical quality. Names like Akerele (“one who, despite being small, is strong and tough”), Dogo (“tall”), and Iteku (“big-headed child”) are common among the various ethnic groups of Nigeria.
Parents often want their children to grow up a certain way. In that vein, many African names refer to qualities that the parents hope their child will bear when they grow up. Similar to how Americans may be named Faith or Honor, a Nigerian may be named Chitunda (“dignity”) or Rimari (“very generous”).
Another type of African name is the declarative. These names translate to full, meaningful sentences that encapsulate a person’s character. We can see this in names like Olatayo (“greatness deserves happiness”), Ibarisha (“I respect the ancestors”), Ginikanwa (“nothing is greater than a child”), and Inifo (“I am free already, I have survived”). These names are similar to desired characteristics, expressing good wishes for the child.
Some Nigerian names have negative meanings, which may be surprising to people outside of the culture. However, there are reasons behind such names.
A common reason for giving a child a negative name is to avert evil and bad luck. This is especially popular with parents who have lost children – these parents may give later-born children negative names so that spirits ignore (and spare) the child. Names like Umata (“you know what you are saying is untrue”), Onyema (“sorrow”), or Iyapo (“child of many trials”) wish protection for the child bearing them, even if their literal meaning is negative.
The names may also serve as warnings or challenges to the child’s later enemies. A name like Ekwensi (“devil”), Isabele (“I can’t stand them”), or Afedele (“they are jealous of our wealth”) may deter enemies, for the name may come to trouble them instead of its bearer.
Having been colonized, Nigeria has never been isolated from the outside world, so some Nigerian names bear influences from other cultures and countries. For example, some ethnic groups, in particular the Hausa, are Muslim and bear Islamic names in addition to their own.
Some names have either become detached from their original ethnic groups or came from elsewhere and have no ethnic association at all. These are the closest we can get to common Nigerian surnames.
Below are some of the most common Nigerian names regardless of ethnicity:
The Hausa people are the largest ethnic group in West Africa. Of the 53 million Hausa in the world, about 36 million live in Nigeria, forming 25% of the country’s population. Many Hausa live in northern Nigeria.
The Hausa have their own pool of names, which follow African naming conventions. However, the Hausa are also largely Muslim. Thus, a Hausa person may bear Arabic names in addition to their Hausa names.
This is a list of 20 common Hausa names:
The Yoruba are West African people who live in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. They are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa and make up 21% of Nigeria’s population, about 42 million people. Many Yoruba live in Western Nigeria.
Like most African names, Yoruba names have a variety of meanings. Yoruba tradition allows not just parents but also grandparents, great-grandparents, relations, and family friends to give names to a newborn. Because of this, a Yoruba child may bear up to five or six names. Generally, the parents decide which name their child will eventually use.
Here are 20 common Yoruba names:
The Igbo people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, typically living in southeastern Nigeria on either side of the Niger River. About 31 million Igbo live in Nigeria today, making up 18% of its population.
There is a strong and unified Igbo identity, making their names particularly recognizable. The Igbo are also the most-Christianized ethnic group in all of Africa, which is reflected in their names – many Igbo names invoke or refer to God.
These are 20 common Igbo names:
Though the Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo peoples make up 60% of Nigeria’s population between them, there are millions of Nigerians from other ethnic groups, each with its own culture and naming themes.
This is a list of 20 common Nigerian names and which ethnic group the name comes from. Note that this does not cover the entirety of Nigeria’s diverse demographics.
Nigerian names bear a wide range of meanings, from the physical to the birth-related to the esoteric. Some are even complete sentences or wishes for the child. Nigerian names often tell the stories of the people who bear them – their order of birth, when and how they were born, their parents’ wishes for them, and so much more.
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