Tiv Swange
Tiv Swange Dancers from Benue State


1. Abia 13. Ekiti 25. Nasarawa
2. Adamawa 14. Enugu 26. Niger
3. Akwa Ibom 15. Gombe 27. Ogun
4. Anambra 16. Imo 28. Ondo
5. Bauchi 17. Jigawa 29. Osun
6. Bayelsa 18. Kaduna 30. Oyo
7. Benue 19. Kano 31. Plateau
8. Borno 20. Katsina 32. Rivers
9. Cross River 21. Kebbi 33. Sokoto
10. Delta 22. Kogi 34. Taraba
11. Ebonyi 23. Kwara 35. Yobe
12. Edo 24. Lagos 36. Zamfara

We all hail from one [or more] of the 36 states of the Nigerian federation. But many of us do not actually know the meanings or the story behind the names of these states. Iyaniwura has brought that to you. Happy reading:


Abia is an acronym derived from the name of the four main groups of people in the state as at the time it was formed in 1991. These were the: Aba, Bende, Isuikwuato and Afikpo.


The area that is now Adamawa State was conquered by Modibbo Adama Bin Ardo Hassan, a warrior of the Ba’en  clan of the Fulanis, in the beginning of the 19th century. Modibbo is a Fulani courtesy title that means ‘The Lettered/Learned One’ (in Hausa, it is Mallam). Modibbo Adama was also the regional leader of the Fulani Jihad led Uthman Dan Fodio in 1804. That made the Adamawa Emirate a vassal state of the Sultan of Sokoto. He hailed from the Gurin region (now a tiny hamlet) and got the green flag (to lead the jihad) in 1806. A man of humble beginnings (father was a local teacher and mother, a simple Shuwa Arab lady, according to some historians), he later founded Adamawa Emirate in 1809.

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Akwa Ibom is named after a river, the Qua Iboe (or Kwa Iboe) River. About 20 miles to the entrance of this river is the popular Qua Iboe Offshore Oil Terminal and the Qua Iboe Onshore Oil Field.

Translating Qua Iboe itself was not an easy task. Some records indicate that the river emptied itself around a settlement in Ibeno called Aqua Obio (meaning ‘Big Town’) but early European explorers corrupted it to become Qua Iboe.


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Okay, this is pretty straightforward. It was derived from the name of the Oma Mbala (Omambala) River (in Ibo, the native name of the river is Ànyịm Ọma Mbala). Anglicize the pronunciation and you have Madam NAFDAC’s homestate. The river is quite long o, about 210 kilometers, it is a major tributary of the River Niger, the most important below Lokoja.


‘Bauchi’ is Hausa word meaning the southern flanks of Hausaland. Tribes living in the southern parts of the Hausaland were referred to as kasashen bauchi and the area they lived in later came to be known simply as Bauchi. Then, kasashen bauchi included the areas that we now call Bauchi itself, Plateau State, Northern Niger, Southern Sokoto (that includes Yauri and Zuru) and Southern Kaduna (hello to my Barnawa friends). It was a major center for the slave raiders of the day. In another rendition, the state was named for Baushe, a famous hunter who settled there before the 19th century while another states that ‘bauchi’ is Hausa word for slavery since it was a center for slave raiders. You decide.

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In the old Rivers State, it was the tradition to use acronyms when naming the local government areas (LGAs). For example, Brass LGA was simply called BALGA, Yenagoa was YELGA while Sagbama was just SALGA. And since it was the people of these three former LGAs of Rivers State that clamoured and fought for the creation of the state forming the State Creation Movement, the name that they finally agreed upon was this: BA + YEL + SA = BAYELSA. Simple. No long thing.

It is a word from the Batta language ‘Binuwe’ which means ‘Mother of Waters’. Streams forming watershed from the Adamawa Plateau drain into this mighty river and it has its roots in northern Cameroon. Interestingly, the Benue (La Benoue in French, and it was also formerly called Chadda (Tchadda) River) has many tributaries in the Adamawa Emirate. These include the Beti, Kunini and the Lamorde. During the months of August and September, the river becomes very navigable as it reaches its widest and can stretch up to a mile from bank to bank bringing with it flood plain deposits of fertile soils that has made the state one of the best locations for farming in Nigeria. It reaches its lowest level in March and April and stretching for 1,400 kilometers, it is the longest tributary of the River Niger.

The name was derived from ‘Borno’, an alternative name of the Kanuris who form the predominant ethnic group in the state. Kanuris are also known as Yerwa, Sirata or Beri Beri (known in places like Ilorin as Baruba or Bariba). However, another rendition has it that it means ‘Barr Nuh’, which is Arabic for ‘The Land of Noah’ as it was believed that the Ark of Noah landed there after the Flood. Some historians do not subscribe to this because they believe it is a fancy of some Arabists. You decide.

First, it is Cross River State and NOT Cross Rivers State. And yes, it is Rivers State, not River State. Don’t get it twisted. The state took its name from the Cross River (known to natives as the Oyono, and the Manyu River in Cameroon). Flowing through swamps, creeks and inland delta, it joins the Calabar River to end up in the Atlantic Ocean.

Obviously, it was named for the delta of the River Niger formed as it enters the Atlantic Ocean. The geographical feature formed when a river is about to enter a larger body of water like the sea or ocean is called a delta and there are various shapes.

Known for having some of the nation’s finest rice, yams and richest salt deposits, the state was named after the Aboine River which rises from the Enugu Highlands and cuts through Abakaliki, the state capital. It was formed in 1996 under the military junta of the late General Sani Abacha.

Hmmmmn, Edo. Initially applied to mean the Bini people (they’ve always called themselves Edo or Iduu, after the progenitor of the Edo race) of the Benin Kingdom (which existed for about 1,000 years before the British conquered it in 1897), Edo today also means the land itself, the culture and the language. It also refers to the adjoining peoples, cultures and languages. The name appears in the royal title of the Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo.

‘Ekiti’ is a term that is said to denote a settlement of many hills. Hills are common geographical features in Ekitiland and are responsible for the division of Ekitiland into smaller kingdoms and subunits.

Also known as Nigeria’s coal city, Enugu derived its name from two local words enu ugwu which means ‘top of the hill’. Amazingly, that itself is a derivative of the village of Enugu Ngwo, which is located just to the west of the city. Enugu City itself is not on the hill, it is actually at the base of a plateau but the village is situated right on top of the hill.

Established as emirate during Jihad by Modibbo Buba Yero, a Fulani warrior and student of Uthman Dan Fodio in 1800, the modern-day Gombe State was carved out of Bauchi State. Gombe was known in the 1930s for its groundnuts and for cotton in the 1950s. Today nko? Gombe is mainly populated by Fulanis and the state has been named ‘Gombe’ which is the dialect of Fulani language (Fulfulde) spoken in the area.

This wonderful state is named after the Imo River (Imo Mmiri). Its main tributaries are the Otamiri (a very important river in the state too)and the Njaba, Ulasi, Oramirukwa rivers. According to some, there is a deity (alusi) who owns the river (provides water for fishing, transport and agriculture) and there is a festival for the goddess between May and July during which it overflows its banks. Imo Mmiri is also considered a goddess of fertility and is particularly respected in the Ngwa and Mbaise communities. A bridge crosses the Imo River to connect Rivers State and Akwa Ibom. One of the biggest rivers in Igboland, it starts from the Okigwe/Awka uplands and runs for about 240 km before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean.

The state was named after its distinctively golden-coloured soil, Jigawa. Jigawa can also be translated to mean sand or sandy in Hausa. The colour is said to stand for the resilience, strength, determination and endurance that comes with living in the dry Sahel and Savanna, in which the state is located.

In Hausa language, Kaduna means crocodiles, in apparent reference to the ones living in the Kaduna River. Simple. Kada is singular for crocodile.

The legendary Kano Emirate was said to have been established around the AD 999 and it was named after Kano, a blacksmith of the Gaya tribe who settled in the area while sourcing for ironstone (from which iron can be smelted) around the Dalla Hill. Kano itself was initially called Dalla and would eventually be captured by the rampaging British in 1903.

Founded in cc. 1100, Katsina was named for Katsina, the wife of Janzama, the local ruler at that time. She was also a princess of Daura.

Of all the 36, I find Kebbi particularly interesting and controversial at the same time. According to the Kebbi Chronicles, the state was founded as a kingdom in 600 BCE by refugees escaping from the Assyrian Empire after its conquest by forces from Babylon and Medes. But that is not all o, in the Chronicles, Mesopotamian kings were listed out as the earliest ancestral kings of Kebbi. It was also deduced that Kebbi (Kabawa) was derived from the Holy Ka’aba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. You really need to read up the scholarly and extremely detailed work of Dierk Lange to get the full gist

The name ‘Kogi’ is a derivation of the Hausa word ‘kogi’ meaning ‘river’. The two biggest rivers in Nigeria, the Niger and the Benue form a confluence in the state. Quite simple, isn’t it?

Created in May 1967 as the West Central State, the name was changed to Kwara (Kuwara, Quarra or Kowara), which is the local name that the Nupes have given to the River Niger which forms the northern border of the state. In Nupenci (Nupe language), Kwara means ‘Sea’ or ‘Lake’ of the Nupes. The Nupes are some of the most amazing and enchanting tribes in Nigeria and they live on both sides of the River Niger (in Kwara and Niger States). For the Nupes in Niger State, the same river is also called Edu, and there are already agitations for the creation of an Edu State for the Nupes. Some Hausas also refer to the River Niger as ‘Kwara’ or Gulbi Nkowora (River Kwara). At almost 4,200 kilometers, it is the 3rd longest river in Africa.

In 1861, the Oba of Lagos ceded the area to the United Kingdom thus becoming a colony and was named the Settlement of Lagos and Dependencies. The indigenous name for Nigeria’s most popular subregion was Eko (you can add Aromisalegbelegbe if you like) but in the 17th century, the name was changed to ‘Lago di Curamo’ by the Portuguese traders and explorers after a port in Portugal which bears the same name and then finally called it Lagos. ‘Lagos’ means lakes (lago = lake) in Portuguese and it was inspired by the many lagoons, rivers and water bodies in the state. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach Lagos in 1472. Till today, the Portuguese/Brazilian influence is still very much visible.

There is an interesting story here. The founder of the old Nasarawa Kingdom, Makama Dogo had to form his kingdom before the river because doing so beyond the river would mean all his children would turn pagans. Thus, he cited the kingdom before the river and declared victory (Nasara is the Hausa word for victory) and then named the area ‘Nasarawa’ meaning the ‘Victorious’.

The largest of all the 36 in terms of area, the state was named after the River Niger, one of the longest in Africa. Called the nahr-al-anhur or the River of Rivers by the Arabs, the local Tuaregs would later modify the name to become Niger meaning the ‘big river’.

Is named after the Ogun River. The river courses through the state in a north-south direction before emptying into the Lagos Lagoon and it can be troublesome with its flooding. Among the Yorubas, Yemoja is the mother goddess of women (especially pregnant ones) and of the River Ogun. (Yemoja =Yeye Omo Eja, Mother of Fish-Like Offspring). For some, the river is still worshipped.

The state was named for the Old Ondo Kingdom. The people inhabiting the area were referred to as the Ondo meaning ‘the settlers’.

The state was named after the River Oshun (or Osun), believed and worshipped by many as the manifestation of Oshun, one of the wives of Sango, the Yoruba god of thunder. There is annual Osun Osogbo Festival in honour of the goddess. It draws many from all over the globe and is usually quite colourful. The river itself drains into the Lagos Lagoon and the Gulf of Guinea (Atlantic Ocean).

It was named after the Old Oyo Empire, one of the strongest in Africa. Now a much smaller kingdom, Oyo is headed by the Alaafin (the Owner of the Palace). Old Oyo was known as Katunga and is now a tiny location along the Kwara-Oyo border (a nice place for historical excursion if you ask me). The exact meaning of Oyo itself is shrouded in so much controversy, some accounts even suggest that the name was a foreign word imposed by the Nupe warrior king, Tsoede, when he conquered the Old Oyo Empire. And that’s where it gets murky.

This extremely beautiful but scarred and injured state was named for the Jos Plateau, one of the most breath-taking in Africa. The Shere Hills form the highest point of the plateau at a height of about 6,000 ft. Rivers Kaduna, Yobe, Gongola and Hadejia all take their source from the Jos Plateau.

A state criss-crossed by many water bodies, Rivers State (once again, it is not River State) was named for many of the rivers present in the area.

Named after the defunct Sokoto Caliphate, an empire that stretched from Burkina Faso to Cameroon. The Caliphate itself once consisted of more than 30 different emirates. Sokoto (or Sakwatto) is the anglicized version of the Arabic word ‘suk’ which means ‘market’ or ‘place of commerce’. Sakwatto Birnin Shehu da Bello means Sokoto, the Capital of Shehu and Bello, in reference to Shehu Usman Dan Fodio, the founder of the Caliphate and first Sultan of Sokoto. Mohammed Bello was his son and second Sultan.

The 3rd largest state in Nigeria and the home of the Chambas, Mumuyes, Jukuns, Ichens, Wurkums, Mambilas and many others, the state was named after the Taraba River which rises from the hills around Gashaka flows into the River Benue as one of its largest tributaries. It flows along the southern flank of the state and is called Teraba in German (Germany actually tried to colonize that area and succeeded to an extent). Taraba itself is a word that has been given various meanings by the locals who bear it as a surname: from the Arabic taraba ‘to drink’, to ‘gardener’ or even ‘favoured by God’.

In a place called Fune in this state, there is the Dufuna Canoe which is 8,000 years old. Discovered in 1987 by Fulani herdsmen, it is the oldest canoe in Africa and the third oldest in the world but that is story for another day. The state was named after Komadugu Yobe (Waube or Ouobe) or River Yobe (or River of Yo). In Kanuri, ‘komadugu’ means ‘river’, ‘a mass of water’ or literally ‘water place’. It is also called River Yo or Yeou because it passes through a town of the same name and it enters Chad at the town of Bosso. Please note that at that time, Yo (or Yoo, Yeou) was the most important town in the region, crisscrossed by caravan traders while Wau (or Ouo) was just a small village to the east. Based on this, many historians believe that the proper name for the river is Komadugu Yobe and not Komadugu Waube.

Carved out of Sokoto State in 1996 by General Sani Abacha (the Khalifa), Zamfara State that we know today was once a bustling Hausa Kingdom from the 10th to the 18th centuries. Like Gobirawa, Kebbawa and Adarawa, the Zamfarawa people are one of the ethnic (actually, more of linguistic groups) in the state. Zamfarawa is one of the subdialects of Eastern Hausa linguistic group and that is where the name came from. In the past, the area was known for revolts, rebellions and for conducting extensive military raids into neighboring towns and settlements.

Ok, just one more. Or you thought I’d forget Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory? No!

Nigeria’s capital city took its name from the ancient Hausa emirate of Abuja which itself was in turn named after a fortified settlement near Zuba by Abu(bakar) Ja in 1828 (meaning Abu the Red or Fair-Skinned like some Fulanis), ja is the word for red or fair-complexioned in Hausa). In 1976, a panel headed by Justice Akinola Aguda selected Abuja as the new capital as Lagos was then suffering from overcongestion. Abuja wasiccc originally established by the ruling Hausa dynasty of Zaria in the 1600s. And did I tell you? ABJ is Nigeria’s first planned city. Okay, I guess that’s it!