What are the origins of Nigerians ?
Any list of appointments is scrutinised by Nigerians to see whether it contains the names of someone from their state or political zone. If the list contains no one from their area, they instinctively reject the list and complain that their people are marginalised. So, where are we all from and what makes us feel bound together? Most ethnic groups in Nigeria have a myth of coming from the East or North East of Africa, crossing the Sahara desert to arrive in Nigeria. The Sahara was not always a desert.
Nigerian politics takes zoning seriously and now insists that each zone be represented in all appointments. Nigerians also insist that public office should rotate from zone to zone and such rotation is expected within the states making up a zone. It is not always possible to achieve this. Failure to do so raises more cries of marginalisation. These symbols of inclusion and the vicarious pleasure enjoyed by people when they find the names of people from their state or zone in any appointment list are important but should not be exaggerated. Indeed Nigeria even has the Federal Character Commission, whose job is to see that people from all parts of Nigeria are included in Federal appointments.
During the last referendum in Scotland about whether or not Scotland should be independent, I was amazed that throughout that debate the fact that many past Prime Ministers of the United kingdom were Scottish or descended from Scotland – Gordon Brown, McMillan, Cameron, McLean, MacMillan, etc – did not feature in any of the debates. It was irrelevant as far as the main issue, Scottish Independence, was concerned. If such a referendum were to occur in Nigeria the debate would be dominated by how many people from one area have been Presidents, ministers, etc. Indeed the origin of our leaders is the very stuff of politics.
Nigerians have a hazy memory of their ancestry. Many people simply answer the names of their towns and villages – Tafawa Balewa, Gusau, Shagari, Kano, etc – some have tribal marks on their faces which should clearly identify their places of origins. The scarification of important members of the elite in Akwa clearly identifies their status. Among Yoruba one could, in the old days, tell people from Ibadan, Oyo, Iwo, and Abeokuta and so on from the marks on their faces. Not only is the practice dying off among Yoruba, those who still have tribal marks cannot so easily be identified. In the North there are several types of facial scarifications but it would be misleading to read any meaning to them. General Abacha had the facial marks of a Kanuri but he claimed he was from Kano and he could not speak Kanuri.
Abacha’s claim to be from Kano is part of the myth surrounding nearly all of our leaders. President Babangida is said to come from Ogbomosho because he has a middle name Gbadamosi which he allegedly changed to Badamasi. Olusegun Obasanjo is from Abeokuta but there are all kinds of stories about him.Some Inspector of Police from Onitsha, but based in Abeokuta, was said to be OBJ’s father. But I know that in 2000, he took all his children to the village of his parents and where they were buried. People, however, have sworn that he is from Onitsha. The myth is strengthened by OBJ’s reticence about his father but quite vocal about his mother.
There is a story that every person has a twin replica somewhere in the world, his or her doppler. On a tour of the United States with President Obasanjo in 1999, we went to Harvard University for a lecture to be delivered by him at the Kennedy International Centre. We met this young post-graduate student who had been given the task to organise the event and welcome the President and his entourage. Her name was Obiageli Ezekwesili: many people were struck by the resemblance of Miss Ezekwesili to OBJ. They thought that OBJ, in sowing his wild oats, may have something to do with the strikingly efficient lady who looked so much like him.
General Murtala Mohammed claimed to come from Kano, a city which was remarkable for being able to assimilate people of different ethnic nationalities. But there is a photograph of the general and a man said to be his father who came from Agbede, in Edo State. There is even a story that he built an imposing Mosque in Agbede.
There are three dominant influences over Onitsha: the Igala came down from the confluence of the Benue and Niger Rivers. In Onitsha they communed with Ibo people as well as the influence of Benin spreading east from Benin. In Onitsha the kingship was modeled on Benin culture; just as the Benin influence spread East, West, North, and South. Just like the Fulani, there are Edo/Urhobo, Edo/Isoko, Edo/Itsekiri, influences. An Edo prince went to or was invited to Ife, the cradle of Yoruba, to become the King. The prince married an Ife woman whose son, as one tradition goes, became the founder of Yoruba. This myth has a reverse version – that it was the Oduduwa’s son who went to Benin to found the dynasty.
The Yoruba had an influence on the Itsekiri. The difference between the Fulani and the Hausa in the North is that the Fulani conquered the Hausa kingdom or chiefdoms, intermarried with the Hausa and produced this construct, unknown in history and every ethnic and anthropological study – a phenomenon called the Hausa-Fulani. The Ibo influenced the Ikwerre, and the Ika-Asaba, Agbor, and Kwale in Delta State. But none of this relationship produced an Edo/Urhobo, Edo/Yoruba or Edo/Isoko, although there is a classification known as Ika-Ibo. But this is not classification of the combination of two different ethnic groups.
Can two ethnic groups coalesce to become one as is claimed by the Hausa and Fulani where conqueror adopting the language of the conquered, the Fulani, by marriage and tradition, adopting Hausa language and traditions in order to fuse themselves and the Hausas into one, now known as Hausa-Fulani?
The Ijaws of Bonny adopted the language of their slaves, Ibo, and speak Ibo now. In other Ijaw areas, competent Ibo slaves became chiefs of administration, Chief of Staff or even war generals. In two Ijaw enclaves, they became kings themselves – King Jaja of Opobo, King Amakiri of Buguma, and King Pepple of Bonny. These facts did not make Buguma, Opobo or Bonny Ibo, any more than it turned the Yoruba of Ife and Lagos into Edo because the Edo provided their kings and other paraphernalia which went with kingship. In Ife and Lagos, there was no question of conquest as with the Fulani and Hausas in the North. Among the Kalabari Ijaw, Amakiri is said to come from Amakalakala, in Ogbai. But where do the Ogbia people come from? In Kalabari areas, there are sub-groups – Obonnema in Abonnema, Dekema in Degema, Ido in Buguma, Bukuma in Tombia. All these sub-groups speak a language mutually intelligible to themselves but unknown to the Ijaw Kalabari who dominate them.
President Obama had said recently that unless you are a Red Indian, every other American came from somewhere else. They were all Immigrants. He may inadvertently have raised an issue which may haunt the U.S. later – their treatment of the Red Indians – the original indigenes of the U.S. and Canada. But the point of President Obama is that a new classification had evolved, now known as American. Ethnic minorities in other parts of the world had suffered persecution and attempts to exterminate them, such as the Indians in Brazil, Argentina and the Caribs of the Caribbean, the Romanis or Gypsies in Europe, the Aborigines of Australia. However, in none of these cases has there grown up a new ethnic and massive political unit such as the Hausa-Fulani, forged and supported by the British for obvious political reasons.
The full name of President Goodluck Jonathan is Goodluck Azikiwe Ebele Jonathan. Azikiwe is an Ibo name. Ebele may be Ibo, meaning mercy also, whereas Obele is Ijaw meaning sweetness, goodness. But Jonathan is from Ogbia which is not strictly Ijaw. Mrs. Jonathan is from Abia although she had lived in Okrika for a long time. Thus we are so diverse; we may as well stay together. Several nations have been built by different people coming together, the U.S.
All of us ultimately are one. We are descended from the earliest man having evolved from the humanoid primates found in East Africa at the duval valley. Our true ancestors are primates. Every now and again I meet people who confirm that – people looking remarkably like gorillas!!Who are the Hausa-Fulani? The French of Normandy conquered England in 1066 and adopted their language. They were not known as French-English but as English. In East Africa the Arabs had a large influence and a new language known as Swahili became the lingua franca, the common language. Thus in the North of Nigeria they should be known as Hausa.
Dr. Patrick Dele Cole, Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR), is former Ambassador to Brazil