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You probably already know that the naira, Nigeria’s official currency, hasn’t always been the country’s legal tender. And if you’re an older citizen or something of a history aficionado, you’ll be aware that it was preceded by the pound. But how did the naira get its name? And who named it?

The answer to this question comes from an era of Nigeria’s history in which it- or its leaders –was pushing for a strengthening of the country’s image on the international scene, and recovering from a devastating civil war. Determined to build a bold, confident identity for the nation, they set out to fix a number of markers of their independence from the United Kingdom. The naira was part of this drive.

Until the early 1970s, Nigerians traded with the Nigerian pound, which was printed by the West African Currency Board (WACB) prior to the country’s independence. The pound had begun to be printed locally after the Central Bank took over the responsibility of minting the notes from the WACB. However, the banknotes didn’t bear the name ‘Federal Republic of Nigeria’ until 1962.

The name ‘naira’ was coined by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the now revered pro-independence activist and prominent politician of the early post-independence era.  He did so while he was Federal Commissioner of Finance, a position he held from 1967-1971. The common understanding is that he came about the name by collapsing the word ‘Nigeria’ into a short form. It’s an assumption that’s corroborated by the account of his daughter, as reported in The Punch.

The naira itself began circulating in 1973, immediately replacing the pound. The new currency was accompanied by a minor denomination, the kobo, which was itself derived from a local pronunciation of ‘copper’. It was determined that the naira would equal 100 kobo, a standard which still obtains today.

At first, only the one naira note was in circulation. But four years later, in 1977, the ₦20 note was introduced, bearing the image of a former head of state, Murtala Muhammed- the first one to have a prominent Nigerian’s portrait on it. It was put out a year after General Muhammed’s death as a tribute to him.

The ₦20 note remained the highest naira denomination until 1991 when the ₦50 note was introduced. Before that time, lower value notes went into circulation; new ₦1, ₦5 and ₦10 currencies were rolled out in 1979, with inscriptions and engravings showcasing various aspects of Nigeria’s diverse cultures.

In 1991, the 50 kobo and ₦1 coins were minted.

Following the return to democracy in 1999, a new wave of optimism began to spread across the economic landscape. Eager to reflect this forward movement, authorities went on to add new denominations to the existing ones. Between 1999 and 2005, the ₦100, ₦200, ₦500 and ₦1,000 banknotes were issued.

Redesigns of the 50 kobo and ₦1 coins followed in 2007, along with the launch of a new ₦2 coin. Those were part of a wider revamp of lower value currencies, started with a test trial of ₦20 polymer notes. That trial was adjudged to have been successful. As a result, the ₦5, ₦10 and ₦50 polymer notes replaced the older paper notes in 2009.

Further developments in the history of Nigeria’s currency include the commemorative notes: the ₦50 anniversary note celebrating fifty years of independence in 2010, and the ₦100 centenary note, commemorating a hundred years of nationhood marked in 2014.

Nigeria’s relationship with its official legal tender is revealing. It tells the story of a nation’s freedom from colonial domination, an ongoing struggle for total independence, economic booms and busts, our reflections on the past and our hopes for the future. The naira is more than just a variety of notes. It’s a series of thin time capsules, the briefest summaries of Nigeria’s unfolding history you’re ever likely to find.

Feature image source: The Nation

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This article was first published on 12th March 2019


Ikenna Nwachukwu holds a bachelor's degree in Economics from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He loves to look at the world through multiple lenses- economic, political, religious and philosophical- and to write about what he observes in a witty, yet reflective style.

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