To some people, the name Nigeria was a joke, a neologism casually flung across the table by the girlfriend of Frederick Lugard after a raunchy Saturday afternoon rutting in the tropical heat.
“What shall we call the monster you’ve created, Fred? What about ‘Ni-ge-ria’? And the people shall be called Ni-ge-rians. Terrible name, but what do they know?”
The latest voice to give vent to the “Nigeria-Must-Go” sentiment had a great deal of gravitas. It was the voice of Akin Oyebode, SAN, Professor of Law, a man of erudition and great passion for the cause of the nation. His point of view was always well considered.
In the past week or so, a video of Professor Oyebode has been in circulation in the social media, talking about why Nigeria’s name should have been changed at Independence, preferably to “Songhai”. Nkrumah had taken the bull by the horn and wiped the slate clean for his people, giving them a new beginning, by changing his country’s name from the colonial moniker “Gold Coast” to “Ghana”. Ghana, Songhai and Mali were the great civilisations in West Africa before the white man came and started putting it about that there was nothing before him. The rulers of Nigeria at Independence did not have the vision of Nkrumah.
It was really your son Ayodeji who brought the matter back up after you had mulled over it for a bit and let it go. Ayodeji lives and works in the United Kingdom. Like many people of his age in the diaspora, he is intensely focussed on Nigeria, and nothing in the local news or social media passes him by.
He sent you a clip of the Oyebode interview on WhatsApp one evening, with a query attached to it.
“Daddy, what do you make of this?”
Instinctively, you were concerned about his concerns, and always took pains to address them seriously.
Akin Oyebode is an academic who has a lot of street-credibility in “progressive” circles. He would not normally advance a proposition that did not pass through his own rigorous analysis. Though you encountered his thought now and then in the public space, the last time you actually saw him “in person” was several years past in the Senate Chambers of the University of Lagos. Your jolly-good-fellow, squash-playing friend from Edinburgh, Tokunbo Shofoluwe, was Vice Chancellor, and you had been invited to sit in on an Employment Panel. Shaking hands with the eggheads, you stopped in front of Akin as he remarked you had not published a book recently. Partly in jest, you replied you had your hands full with the weekly newspaper column you were then writing, apart from your work-a-day life running a busy Teaching Hospital. The expression on his face said volumes about how little he esteemed the writing of a newspaper column beside the writing of a book. It was an encounter shot through with poignancy for a different reason. That would also be the last time you would see your friend Tokunbo alive.
What was in a name? The trite answer was probably “Not a lot”.
If Nigeria became a world power, nobody would thumb their nose at it, or disrespect Nigerians. “Songhai” might have been a good idea at Independence, just to symbolise a fresh start, but it was not the reason Nigeria was bereft of virtue or self-esteem.
However, in the various cultures of the many peoples of Nigeria, it was impossible to dismiss the importance of a name. To the Yoruba, a name said something not only about the person, but his antecedents. It even gave a pointer to his destiny. “Taiwo” was different from “Kehinde” in a very fundamental way, and they were not interchangeable, though they were twins from the same womb.
Deriving from such logic, it would seem reasonable to give the professor’s “Songhai Project” – to wit the discarding of a name that had brought the country little other than pain and aggravation in a century of enforced existence, in favour of a name that was emblematic of the glorious past of Africa, a long and serious consideration. “Nigeria”, according to Oyebode, was also tainted with a racial slur. He cringed every time he saw Nigerian sportsmen wearing the abbreviation NGR in international competitions. The name, and its abbreviation, had their roots in “Nigre” – the word for black, which had become a term of racial abuse in many parts of the world. He felt humiliated.
It was, to your mind, a persuasive but ultimately self-defeating argument. The way to deal with being labelled “black” was, surely, not to run away from it! African Americans discovered that when James Brown sang “Say it loud, I’m black and proud” It was a battle in the zone of the mind that had to be won. If Nigeria started to achieve greatly in governance, in technology, in ideas and innovation, “NGR” would become not a label to cringe at but a badge to be proudly worn. It was not the “black” that was the issue, it was the associations attached to it, in the mind of the “victim”, as well as the “perpetrator”. People could change mind associations if and when they took their destiny in their hands and made things happen in the real world.
If Nigeria became a world power, nobody would thumb their nose at it, or disrespect Nigerians. “Songhai” might have been a good idea at Independence, just to symbolise a fresh start, but it was not the reason Nigeria was bereft of virtue or self-esteem. Only the Nigerian could make a deliberate choice to bring virtue and self-esteem back into his life and take his rightful place in the world. Even if the nation’s name was changed to “Songhai”, or whatever, and the Nigerian mind did not change with it, it would be more of the same.
For a long time, there was silence from the other end, and you began to think that Ayodeji had wearied of the prolonged messaging on WhatsApp and gone off to sleep. Later, a single line of letters appeared on the phone screen.
“I think I agree with you, daddy. Thank you.”
Femi Olugbile wrote this article for Business Day.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.