- ABAKALIKI, Ebonyi
Known for its fine rice and irresistible yams, Abakaliki is the capital of Ebonyi State in southeastern Nigeria. The name of the city was derived from Aba Nkaleke which is the name of a community among the Izzi people, one of the predominant ethnic groups in Ebonyi. Izziland is also referred to as Nkaleke. Aba Nkaleke is also translated to mean Main Abakaliki.
- ABEOKUTA, Ogun
The name was derived from two Yoruba words ‘abe’ and ‘okuta’, which mean ‘under’ and ‘rock’ i.e under the rock. The rock being referred to here is the historic Olumo Rock which served as a place of refuge and reconnaissance for the Egba people during various wars.
- ADO EKITI
‘Ekiti’ is a term that is said to denote a settlement of many hills. Hills are common geographical features in Ekitiland and are responsible for the division of Ekitiland into smaller kingdoms and subunits. Ado has been defined as a name for a political society. History has it that when Ewi (King) Awamaro conquered Ulesun community, he deposed the ruling monarch Elesun and thereafter established a new town that he named Ado, meaning ‘here we encamp’.
- AKURE, Ondo
The story behind the naming of Akure is an interesting one indeed. According to oral folklore, Akure was established by Prince Omoremi, the son of Ekun and the grandson of Oduduwa Omoluabi, believed to be the progenitor of the Yoruba race. At a time, he left the royal city of Ile Ife in Osun State looking for a place to settle after Oduduwa had made him pass through a rigourous test in which he was kept in solitary confinement for nine days (this is still commemorated in Akure till date). When Prince Omoremi entered the city that is now Akure, the heavy royal beads on his neck were said to have snapped or cut and the people exclaimed ‘Àkún rę’ meaning ‘the beads have snapped’. Over time, the usage became constricted to become Akure.
- ASABA, Delta
Also referred to as Ani Mmili, the correct Igbo pronunciation for Delta State’s capital city is Àhàbà. Ahaba is derived from ‘ahabagom’, in the words of Nnebisi, the founding father of Asaba. It means ‘I have chosen well.’ Former Nigerian First Lady, Maryam Babangida was born in Asaba.
- AWKA, Anambra
An exciting city, Awka is also spelt as Ọka. It is believed that the first people to settle in Awka were the Ifiteana people and their deity was Okanube (or Okiki-na-ube). Thus, they were referred to as Umu-Okanube meaning ‘worshippers of Okanube’. Later, this was shortened to Umu-Oka, and then its present anglicized version, Oka, or Awka.
- BAUCHI, Bauchi
Nicknamed the Pearl of Tourism. ‘Bauchi’ is Hausa word meaning the southern flanks of Hausaland. Tribes living in the southern parts of the Hausaland were referred to as kasashen bauchi and the area they lived in later came to be known simply as Bauchi. Then, kasashen bauchi included the areas that we now call Bauchi itself, Plateau State, Northern Niger, Southern Sokoto (that includes Yauri and Zuru) and Southern Kaduna (hello to my Barnawa friends). It was a major center for the slave raiders of the day. In another rendition, the state was named for Baushe, a famous hunter who settled there before the 19th century while another states that ‘bauchi’ is Hausa word for slavery since it was a center for slave raiders. You decide.
- BENIN CITY, Edo
It is reported that Benin as an empire-state was administered by the Ogisos (Kings of the Sky). Upon the demise of the last Ogiso, a fight broke out as to who would assume the throne. A message was then sent from Benin to Ife addressed to the Ooni of Ife, Oba Oduduwa. It was said that the contents of the letter was an appeal to the Ooni to send them a king. The Ooni responded by sending his grandson, Prince Oranmiyan who upon getting to Benin, had a hard time adapting to the new environment. He was then said to have changed the name of the city to Ile Ibinu (meaning the Land of Anger) in Yoruba language before storming out of the city.
- BIRNIN KEBBI, Kebbi
Of all the 36, I find Kebbi particularly interesting and controversial at the same time. According to the Kebbi Chronicles, the state was founded as a kingdom in 600 BCE by refugees escaping from the Assyrian Empire after its conquest by forces from Babylon and Medes. But that is not all o, in the Chronicles, Mesopotamian kings were listed out as the earliest ancestral kings of Kebbi. It was also deduced that Kebbi (Kabawa) was derived from the Holy Ka’aba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. You really need to read up the scholarly and extremely detailed work of Dierk Lange to get the full gist (see reference on website). That said, Birnin is a Hausa word for ‘city’.
- CALABAR, Cross River
Nigeria’s Paradise City is also called the Canaan City. The seat of the Eastern Naval Command of the Nigerian Navy, the meaning of Calabar is not certain but Rosalind Hackett in her scholarly work, Religion in Calabar: The Religious Life and History of a Nigerian Town stated that Calabar might have been derived from the Portuguese word calabarra orcalabaro which means ‘the bar is silent’, in a reference to the calm waters of the estuary. Considering the fact that the Portuguese were some of the first Europeans to land in Nigeria, this may not be an entirely implausible idea. However, another suggestion is that Dutch explorers who also frequented the area in the earlier times referred to the place as Olde Carlburg which is German. Also, when the British came, they pronounced Kalabari (for the Kalabari people whose ancestor was Perebo Kalabari) as Calabar, which later became the name for Old Calabar, an Efik town. Whew!
- DAMATURU, Yobe
Historically a base for pastoral Fulanis, Damaturu is the capital of Yobe State. Turu is a kind of Fulani drum (Turu can also mean the name of a Fulani subethnic group) while Dama is the name of another ethnic group.
- DUTSE, Jigawa
This is quite straightforward. Dutse means ‘stone’ in Hausa. It also means rocks and the name was derived from the hilly rocks that encircled the town of Garu, the headquarters of the Dutse Emirate.
- ENUGU, Enugu
Also known as Nigeria’s coal city, Enugu derived its name from two local words enu ugwu which means ‘top of the hill’. Amazingly, that itself is a derivative of the village of Enugu Ngwo, which is located just to the west of the city. Enugu City itself is not on the hill, it is actually at the base of a plateau but the village is situated right on top of the hill.
- GOMBE, Gombe
Established as emirate during Jihad by Modibbo Buba Yero, a Fulani warrior and student of Uthman Dan Fodio in 1800, the modern-day Gombe State was carved out of Bauchi State. Gombe was known in the 1930s for its groundnuts and for cotton in the 1950s. Today nko? Gombe is mainly populated by Fulanis and the state has been named ‘Gombe’ which is the dialect of Fulani language (Fulfulde)spoken in the area.
- GUSAU, Zamfara
The word was derived from the Hausa word ‘gusa’ which means ‘move’.
- IBADAN, Oyo
Ibadan is a name derived from Yoruba words Ẹ̀bá-Ọ̀dàn, which means ‘Edge of the Savannah.’
- IKEJA, Lagos
Now, this is an interesting one. IKEJA is an abbreviation that stands for Ikorodu and Epe Joint Administration, a term that was used by the British colonial masters to assist in the administration of the Lagos colony.
- ILORIN, Kwara
Ojo Isekuse is one of the legendary founders of Ilorin. While he was alive, he worked with iron tools and he had a special stone called Okuta Ilo Irin(which means stone for sharpening metals, okuta means stone, irin means metal or iro while lo is to grind in Yoruba). The Ilorin is a contraction of the Ilo Irin. The stone is located at the Asaju’s Compound at Idi-Ape Quarters and can still be seen till date. At a point, the stone was worshipped and used as a site of ritual sacrifice.
- JALINGO, Taraba
According to the book, The Emirates of Northern Nigeria: A Preliminary Survey of their Historical Traditions, Jalingo was derived from the Fulani word which means ‘to conquer’.
- JOS, Plateau
The original name for the city of Jos was Gwosh which was actually the name of an old village that was located at the site of the present-day Jos. Another explanation has it that Jos is a shortened form of ‘Jasad’ which meant ‘body’ in order to distinguish it from the surrounding hill tops. It was referred to as ‘Jas’ but when the British colonists mispronounced it as ‘Jos’.
- KADUNA, Kaduna
In Hausa language, kaduna means crocodiles, in apparent reference to the ones living in the Kaduna River. Simple. Kada is singular for crocodile.
- KANO, Kano
The legendary Kano Emirate was said to have been established around the AD 999 and it was named after Kano, a blacksmith of the Gaya tribe who settled in the area while sourcing for ironstone (from which iron can be smelted) around the Dalla Hill. Kano itself was initially called Dalla and would eventually be captured by the rampaging British in 1903.
- KATSINA, Katsina
Founded in cc. 1100, Katsina was named for Katsina, the wife of Janzama, the local ruler at that time. She was also a princess of Daura.
- LAFIA, Nasarawa
Lafia means ‘peace’.
- LOKOJA, Kogi
There are various explanations for the meaning of Lokoja. A 1986 publication of the Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria states that according to tradition, the origin of Lokoja can be traced to one of the kings of the Patti, a hill-top settlement. This king was named Oki and he called his town Olo Koja (which means the Strong). In the local Oworo languages, there is another version where Lokoja is said to mean ‘ a fine place that has men attracted to it’. There is another Nupe explanation that renders it as Patti Lakonji meaning ‘Hill of the Dove’. But that is not all, Baikie speakers say Lokoja means ‘the tree with the red bark.’ The Yoruba version states that it is derived from Ilu Oke Oja meaning ‘country of the scattered villages’. Now, pick yours! Lol!
- MAIDUGURI, Borno
Duguri is a Kanuri word which means ‘bottom’ or ‘low’. Borno is one of the two Kanuri-majority states in Nigeria. The other is Yobe. Mai meansking. You do the collabo yourself na…lol!
- MAKURDI, Benue
Established in the early 1920s, Makurdi is renowned as one of the food baskets of Nigeria. Makurdi is a river port and is older than the state itself which was created in 1976. The first settlers in the area were Hausas and the name of the city was derived from the Hausa word ‘kurdi’ which means a flow of water from a central point to create a lagoon, in reference to the swift flow of water from the Benue River. Kurdi itself was coined from kurdawa. However, an alternate explanation states that it means Mai Kudi, meaning ‘a person who has money’, also of Hausa origin.
- MINNA, Niger
Minna is the corrupted form of myina, a Gwari word meaning ‘to spread fire’. The word itself can be traced back to the ancient annual ritual bonfire and festival celebrated in front of the Gwari chief’s residence on top of the Paida Hill. Some of the most prominent Gwari indigenes from the state including former heads of state and army generals Abubakar Abdulsalami and Ibrahim Babangida.
- OSHOGBO (OSOGBO), Osun
Osogbo is said to be translated to mean ‘misfortune’ or in another variant,Oso Igbo, the goddess of the Osun River, after which the state itself was named.
- OWERRI, Imo
The proper name of the capital of Imo State is Owere but it has been anglicized to Owerri. History has it that the city was founded in the 14thcentury by Ekwem Oha. Ekwem had fled from Umuori Village in Uratta when an argument broke out with his younger brother, Ndum, over the funeral cow of their late dad. Over fears that Ndum wanted to assassinate him over disagreement on how to share the cow, Ekwem, who was the first son, fled to Egbu, a neighbouring town where he settled. However, his sister was not too comfortable at Egbu thinking that Ndum could still kill him there and told him to move further. Thus, one night, assisted by anowa (native torch) he left Egbu with some assistants and headed to an unknown destination where they eventually settled permanently far from the sight of the devious Ndum. This new place was on a hill and was called Ugwu Ekema. Tired after the long journey, upon reaching the hill top they cried out in excitement:
‘Owere la ihe maraya aka’
Meaning: He has taken what is his right, or what rightly belonged to him.
Thereafter, he beat the drums as his sister had advised so that they could know his new location. Thereafter, she went to his new location and they celebrated.
- PORT HARCOURT, Rivers
Port Harcourt was named after Lewis Vernon Harcourt, 1st Viscount Harcourt who was then the Colonial Secretary (Secretary of State of the Colonies since 1910 to 1915) in charge of the area. Upon the establishment of the port in 1912, there was a furore as to what name to give it. In August 1913, Sir Frederick Lugard, the Governor-General wrote to Harcourt: “…in the absence of any convenient local name, I would respectfully ask your permission to call this Port Harcourt.” To which he replied: “It gives me pleasure to accede to your suggestion that my name should be associated with the new Port.
- SOKOTO, Sokoto
Named after the defunct Sokoto Caliphate, an empire that stretched from Burkina Faso to Cameroon. The Caliphate itself once consisted of more than 30 different emirates. Sokoto (or Sakwatto) is the anglicized version of the Arabic word ‘suk’ which means ‘market’ or ‘place of commerce’. Sakwatto Birnin Shehu da Bello means Sokoto, the Capital of Shehu and Bello, in reference to Shehu Usman Dan Fodio, the founder of the Caliphate and first Sultan of Sokoto. Mohammed Bello was his son and second Sultan. Upon his death, his brother, Abu Bakr Atiku took over.
- UMUAHIA, Abia
The name ‘Umuahia’ started off as a Central Market Post referred to as Ama Ahia which means market place. With time, the name was transformed to become what it is called today: Umuahia.
- UYO, Akwa Ibom
Uyo is named for the wild apple fruit called uyo in the area. Uyo people from Edik were said to have settled in the area in search of the uyo which was commonly found in the area as an indigenous. The uyo fruit is edible, has medicinal properties and in fact, it is used in making a popular dish and it is called ‘Efere Mbukpap Uyo’.
- YENAGOA, Bayelsa
Yenagoa was named after Yenagoa, one of the most popular traditional market centers. Others include Lobia, Patani, Tereke, Iwoama and Igwueama.
- YOLA, Adamawa
Yola is derived from the Fulfulde (the language of the Fulanis is called Fulfulde) word yolde meaning ‘an extensive rising ground’, or an elevated point.
FEDERAL CAPITAL TERRITORY
Or you thought I’d forget Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory? No! Nigeria’s capital city took its name from the ancient Hausa emirate of Abuja which itself was in turn named after a fortified settlement near Zuba by Abu(bakar) Ja in 1828 (meaning Abu the Red (or Fair-Skinned like some Fulanis), ja is the word for red or fair-complexioned in Hausa). In 1976, a panel headed by Justice Akinola Aguda selected Abuja as the new capital as Lagos was then suffering from overcongestion. Abuja was originally established by the ruling Hausa dynasty of Zaria in the 1600s. And did I tell you? ABJ is Nigeria’s first planned city. Okay, I guess that’s it!