Is Goodluck Jonathan Lucky?

Naming practices in Nigeria.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and U.S. President Barack Obama

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan made headlines by replacing the leaders of his security forces on Wednesday. He’s not the first Nigerian political leader to have an auspicious name: Lucky Igbinedion was the governor of Edo state. Jonathan’s wife is named Patience Jonathan. Are Nigerian names always so loaded?

Well, Nigerian parents do like to be descriptive, but precise customs vary by ethnic group. Goodluck Jonathan is a Christian Ijaw from the southern part of the country. Many Ijaw have names passed down from the colonial era, often biblical ones like Jonathan (which probably started out as a first name for one of his ancestors). Some families prefer anglicized names, others don’t—but either way, names often express the parents’ expectations for the child or the circumstances surrounding its birth. So maybe Patience’s mother and father hoped their child would be patient, or else felt that they’d patiently awaited her birth. Asked about his son’s name, Pa Ebele Jonathan once told a reporter that after the boy was born he “instinctively realized that this child has that element of fortune.” The Ijaw girl’s name Oweizighe (“a boy has not been born”) reflects parental disappointment.

For the Ibo, another group from southern Nigeria, a name is similarly more than a tag. According to an Ibo proverb, “when a person is given a name his gods accept it”—meaning that a name can have a determining effect on the person’s life. Traditional names may communicate concern for the kid’s future, like Dumaka, which means “Help me with hands.” (As in, I’m going to need some assistance here!) Or faint annoyance, like Obiageli meaning “one who has come to eat.” Or mundane circumstances related to the birth, like Udeafo, meaning “noise of the market.” Raised by Christian Ibos, the famous novelist Chinua Achebe was born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe. His unabbreviated middle name means “May God fight on my behalf.”

Naming traditions among the Yoruba, of the southwest, are similar to those of the Ibo. Circumstance names, for example, are popular. When twins are born, the first to arrive might be called Taiwo, meaning “pre-tasted the world,” and the second Kehinde, meaning “the one who lagged behind.” A traditional name for kids born on a Sunday is Sunday. (Naming a kid after the day of the week on which he was born is popular across many parts of Nigeria and also Ghana.) Muslim groups, like the Hausa in the north, frequently have Islamic first names, such as Ahmad, Abdul, Ibrahim, or Kareem.

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Explainer thanks Toyin Falola of the University of Texas and Philip Leis of Brown University.

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