If you’ve never encountered the name Natasha H. Akpoti, it’s probably because you are not active on Nigerian social media. Akpoti was a Kogi Central senatorial candidate on the platform of the Social Democratic Party in this year’s election who deftly deployed social media to both vigorously campaign and to call attention to the horrors of Kogi governor Yahya Bello’s barbarous brutalities against political opponents.
A personal reflection she wrote recently on the history of Nigeria, particularly how our country came to be named “Nigeria,” trended excitedly on social media. More than 10 people forwarded it to me on Facebook and WhatsApp in just one day. Nevertheless, several key points in the reflection are problematic and invite a remedial response.
She started her essay by recollecting an airplane conversation she said she had with an unnamed “American professor of African history” who persuaded her to believe that contrary to what she had been taught, Flora Shaw, Frederick Lugard’s girlfriend and later wife, who came up with the name of our country didn’t invent the name “Nigeria” from River Niger.
“Republic of Niger was named after River Niger not Nigeria,” she quoted the unidentified American professor to have told her.“That’s what white historians want you to believe. I don’t understand the gullibility of blacks. You have so much information but chose not to research but dwell and believe all the white man says. Nigeria simply means ‘The Nigger Area’ or ‘Land of the Black slaves.’ Nigger was a common derogatory slang used for slaves.” This claim is almost wholly historically inaccurate. Here’s why.
Pan-Atlantic University’s The Centenary Project, which was launched in 2014 to mark 100 years of Nigeria’s formal existence in its present form, published a scanned newspaper clipping of a January 8, 1897 article titled “Flora Shaw Gives the Name” in The Times of London where Flora Shaw first suggested Nigeria’s name. Shaw’s original article was titled “Nigeria.”
In the article, Shaw said the area she wanted to be known as Nigeria used to be owned by the Royal Niger Company. She argued that naming the former Royal Niger Company’s possession “Royal Niger Company Territories” is “not only inconvenient to use but to some extent is also misleading.” So she suggested a shorter, cuter, more memorable “title for the agglomeration of pagan and Mohammedan states which have been brought, by the exertions of the Royal Niger Company, within the confines of the British Protectorates, and thus need for the first time in their history to be described as an entity by some general name.”
She acknowledged other competing names that some geographers had called the territories she wanted named Nigeria but dismissed them as unsuitable. For instance, she said the name “Central Sudan,” which some historians and cartographers had used to call much of what is now northern Nigeria, “has the disadvantage of ignoring political frontier-lines, while the word ‘Sudan’ is too apt to connect itself in the public mind as the French hinterland of Algeria, or the vexed questions of the Niger Basin.”
She also said the territories she wanted to be named Nigeria had been called such names as “the Niger Empire,” “the Niger Sudan,” “the Central Sudan,” and “the Hausa territories” by European explorers, all of which she said would be problematic as names of a country.
What is clear from the foregoing is that Flora Shaw intended for the name “Nigeria” to be applied only to the area that is now known as Northern Nigeria, of which her boyfriend and later husband was initially High Commissioner. She wrote that the name “Nigeria” was important because it would “serve to differentiate them equally from the British colonies of Lagos and the Niger Protectorate on the coast and from the French territory of the Upper Niger.”
In other words, she wanted the name “Nigeria” to differentiate the territory her boyfriend ruled (i.e. Northern Protectorate), from Lagos (which was governed separately from 1862 to 1906), most of what is now Southern Nigeria, and what is now the Republic of Niger. Of course, the name “Nigeria” later came to refer to the whole of Northern Protectorate, the Southern Protectorate, the Lagos Colony, and Northern British Cameroon.
Flora Shaw didn’t invent the name “Niger”; when she named us “Nigeria” in that 1897 newspaper article. The term “Niger” had already been in existence for hundreds of years, as I’ll show shortly. She clearly coined Nigeria from an elision of “Niger area.” What we should question is the etymology and semantic content of the term “Niger.” Does it share etymological affinities with the racial slur “nigger”?
In at least three previous columns, I’ve argued that Niger is derived from the Latin word for ‘black’. For instance, in an April 19, 2014 column titled “Republic of Songhai formerly known as Nigeria,” I said our country’s name “is a product of outmoded… European obsession with race and skin colour. Nigeria is derived from ‘niger,’ the Latin word for ‘black’, which has assumed deeply pejorative connotations in English over the years.
“River Niger, the longest and most important river in Nigeria from which our country’s name is derived, is named after our skin colour. Why should we in the 21st century still be stuck with a name that has fallen into disrepute and that, in the first place, invidiously and needlessly calls attention to our skin colour?”
I have since discovered that this assertion isn’t uncontested. A school of thought disputes the notion that Niger is a Latin derivative. It says Niger is a corruption of ger, the Berber word for river. Berbers, who are native to North Africa, call River Niger ger-n-ger, which translates as “river of rivers.” Interestingly, the first reference to River Niger in Western writing is traceable to Leo Africanus, a Moroccan Berber who wrote mostly in Italian and Latin—and occasionally in Arabic.
In his 1550 book of geography titled ‘Della descrittionedell’Africa et dellecosenotabilicheiuisono (which was translated into English in 1600 as A Geographical Historie of Africa), Africanus, whose real name was al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, referred to West Africa’s longest river and Africa’s third longest river as “Niger.” European cartographers and explorers adopted the name from then on.
Nevertheless, since Africanus wrote in Latin and Italian where “niger” means “black,” he could very well have used the word to refer to the people who live around the river, although Berbers are not and have never been dark-skinned. Alternatively, he might actually have used the word as an Italian domestication of the Berber ger-n-ger, but European explorers might have adopted the name because of its lexical and semantic closeness to the Latin Niger.
Whatever the case is, by the time Europeans adopted Niger as the name for West Africa’s most important river, the word “nigger” was not the pejorative name for black people that it is today. Etymologists are united in asserting that the pejoration of Negro to nigger didn’t occur in English until the mid-20th century. (In linguistics, pejoration is said to occur when a word changes from a neutral or positive meaning to a negative one). So it can’t be accurate that Nigeria means “nigger area.”
Akpoti also wondered which Nigerians countersigned the papers that amalgamated Nigeria in 1914 since Nigeria’s nationalists were too young at the time. Well, we were conquered. The British didn’t need the imprimatur of the locals to do with their “possessions” as they wished. People in Lagos did protest the amalgamation, though…