In William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, we’re introduced to this unforgettable line by Juliet Capulet that goes: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

The rest of the world might side with Juliet here, but Nigerians might beg to differ. We have a very strong affection for names and their connotations. For example, in 2012, when former president Goodluck Jonathan decided to honour MKO Abiola by changing the University of Lagos to MAULAG, students of UNILAG protested and even sued the president, who eventually had to back down. In another example, Osun state has been in fisticuffs over the years following a proposal to change it to the State of Osun — weird, we know. 

[Rauf Aregbesola, former governor of Osun / Vanguard]

Given that the naira scarcity has dominated discussions over the last few weeks, we decided to look into how our currency even got its name in the first place. If you already know, then chapeau to you. If you don’t, the answer may (or may not) surprise you. 

A brief history of our currency

Between 1907 and 1958, Nigeria used the British West African Pound issued by the West African Currency Board that was set up by the British authorities. This was the currency used across British West Africa. At the time, the pound and the pound sterling were at parity; that is, one pound equalled one pound sterling.

[Twenty-shilling note / West African Currency Board]

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) was established by parliament with the CBN Act of 1958. By July 1959, it began operations and started issuing the Nigerian pound, which was in use until 1973. 

How the naira got its name

On January 1, 1973, the Nigerian naira was introduced. It was exchanged at ₦2 to £1. At the time, Obafemi Awolowo was the federal commissioner for finance. He had the honour of naming our currency, now fifty years old. 

A firsthand account of what inspired the name comes from his daughter, Olatokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu. Here’s what she said in a 2016 interview with Punch when asked how her father came about the name “naira”:

“He just took the name of Nigeria and collapsed it to Naira. That’s what he told us, and that was how he arrived at the name ‘naira’, and that was when he was the federal commissioner for finance.”

For this and his contributions towards the creation of the Nigerian state, he has been immortalised by having his portrait grace the ₦‎100 note. But that’s not all there is to it. He’s also said to have named the kobo. How did that one come about? Well, kobo is a corruption of the word “copper”, which coins were made of then.

As of today, March 13, 2023, £1 is now exchanged for ₦‎912. Crazy eh?

That said, could Awolowo have created a sexier name for our currency? Probably, lol. Would a sexier name have allowed the naira’s value to appreciate over the years? Clearly not, which was Juliet’s point all along.



Zikoko amplifies African youth culture by curating and creating smart and joyful content for young Africans and the world.