By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
When I reviewed Nigerian social media chitchat in the wake of the death of the Emir of Kano and the appointment of his successor, I noticed that Hausa-speaking Nigerians almost never use the word “Emir” to refer to the Emir of Kano when they write in Hausa. They use “Sarkin Kano,” sarki being the Hausa word for king. They only use “Emir” when they write in English.
This seems like an obvious, self-evident, banal observation. But it’s not—at least from a pragmatic point of view. (Pragmatics is the branch of linguistics that studies how social contexts affect the meaning of language). To start with, many southern Nigerians invariably associate the term “emir” with Muslim northerners. Many southern Nigerians, in fact, think “emir” is a Hausa word. Yet it isn’t natural for Hausa-speaking northerners to refer to their traditional rulers as “emir” when they converse in Hausa. Saying “emir” while speaking Hausa is generally understood as code-mixing, that is, interspersing a conversation with foreign words.
In other words, “emir” is a foreign word in Hausa. It was introduced to Hausa-speaking Nigerians by British colonizers, which is kind of interesting, even a bit ironic, considering that “emir” is derived from an Arabic word that has historical roots in Islam. As most linguists know, “emir” is the Anglicization of the Arabic “amir,” which literally means “leader” or “commander.”
The successors to the prophet of Islam (called “Caliphs” in Islamic literature) were often called “amir-ul- muminin,” which roughly translates as commander of the faithful (i.e., Muslim faithful). (Interestingly, Hausa people don’t call the most prominent traditional ruler in the Muslim north the "Sultan of Sokoto"; they call him “Sarkin Musulumi,” which translates as leader of Muslims—obviously a domestication of “amir-ul-muminin”; it’s also more natural for Hausa speakers to say “daular Usmaniyya” than to say “Sokoto Caliphate”).
Well, the linguistic journey of the word “emir” into English was a little tortuous. It was the French who first domesticated “amir” to “émir." Then the word came to English as a French borrowing. As the reader can see, the English rendering of the world is unaltered from French, except for the dropping of the grave accent on the letter “e.” Etymologists say the first appearance of “emir” in English can be traced to 1593.
Another prominent, widely used derivative of “amir” in English is “admiral.” It is derived from the Arabic "amir-ul-bahr,” which translates as “commander of the sea.”
Nonetheless, although “emir” is an English word, it evokes connotations of Hausa-Fulani Muslim overlordship in Nigeria. That is why Yoruba nationalists who want to “reclaim” Ilorin resent the labeling of the traditional ruler of the town as “Emir of Ilorin.” Every so often, Yoruba cultural nationalists spearhead the advocacy for the appointment of an “Oba of Ilorin.”
When I was a reporter for the Weekly Trust in 2000 I was assigned to cover a controversy over the calls for an “Oba of Ilorin.” In the course of my investigation, I spoke with people from all classes of the Ilorin society.
One thing that struck me throughout my stay in Ilorin for the story was that everybody in the town, including members of the ruling family, called their traditional ruler “Oba” when they spoke in Yoruba. “Emir” sounded strange, even forced. Like Hausa people up north, the Ilorin people don’t relate well to the word “emir” unless they are putting on airs or speaking in English.
A particularly insightful encounter for me was an interview I had with an old, uneducated man who identified himself as a descendant of Afonja, the Yoruba founder of Ilorin who lost power to the progenitor of the current ruling family. I asked him if he wanted an “Oba of Ilorin.” He was genuinely befuddled. His response, in Yoruba, was: “what are you talking about? We already have an Oba.” Using the categories that have been popularized by the Nigerian news media, I said, “no, you don’t have an Oba; you have an emir.” His comeback threw me off. He didn’t know what an emir was. “Kilo je be? [what is that?],” he said.
That was when it dawned on me that “emir” is an English word that only western-educated northerners use to refer to their traditional rulers when they speak in English. Just like Hausa speakers call their traditional rulers “sarki,” Ilorin people call theirs “oba.” Every Ilorin person calls the emir’s palace “ile Oba” (which literally translates as “the Oba’s house”). The biggest market in Ilorin, which is close to the emir’s palace, is called “Oja Oba,” which translates as “the market of the Oba.”
So “emir” is rarely used in Ilorin—as in other northern Muslim places—outside official communication and in English-medium conversations. A more appropriate question for the old man should have been “do you want an Oba who is Yoruba rather than this Oba whose ancestors are Fulani?” I actually did rephrase my question like that after realizing that the old man couldn’t relate to the term “emir.”
How about “chief”? In southern Nigeria, a chief isn’t a traditional ruler; he is just someone who has been conferred with a traditional title by a traditional ruler. But Westerners, particularly Americans and Britons, tend to think Nigerians who prefix “Chief” to their names are kings who have dominion over communities. When I lived in the US state of Louisiana about 10 years ago, I read the newspaper profile of a cocky Nigerian resident of a Louisiana city who was described as the “ supreme king in absentia” of three different Nigerian communities because he told his interviewers that he was a “triple high chief,” whatever in the world that means. The editor of the paper was embarrassed when I later told him that a “chief” is merely a traditional title holder in southern Nigeria.
In northern Nigeria, however, “chief” is a politically loaded term and has a completely different meaning from how it's used in Nigeria's south. It can mean a non-Muslim traditional ruler of any rank. It can also mean a low-ranked or unranked Muslim ruler in northern Nigeria, usually one whose lineage has no direct link with the Sokoto jihad. Increasingly, Muslim traditional rulers whose status has been elevated prefer to take on the title of “emir” in official documents. For instance, when the recently murdered Emir of Gwoza in Borno State was promoted to a second-class (and later first-class) traditional ruler, his title changed from “Chief of Gwoza” to “Emir of Gwoza.” In northern Nigeria it is offensive to call a Muslim traditional ruler a “chief” if he has been elevated to an “emir.” An acquaintance of mine, who is the son of the traditional ruler of Jere, didn’t take it kindly when I referred to his dad as the “Chief of Jere.” He had recently been elevated to an “emir,” although the people of Jere call him “Sarkin Jere” irrespective of his official designations.
While an “emir” has notional jurisdiction over an “emirate,” a “chief” rules over a “chiefdom.” In my part of Borgu, which is predominantly Muslim with Songhai-descended rulers whose “emirates” predate the Sokoto jihad by more than 100 years, we didn’t get the memo that a “chief” was a somewhat inferior ruler in Muslim northern Nigeria. In my hometown of Okuta, for several years, our traditional ruler was called a “chief” in official communication and his palace was called the “chief’s palace.” Of course, like everywhere else, natives call him “suno,” the Baatonu word for king. When my people became familiar with the pragmatic signification of “chief” in northern Nigerian officialese, they quickly changed the official title of the traditional ruler to “Emir.” The “Chief’s Place” became the “Emir’s palace.”
All this point to the context-dependence of the meanings of the linguistic markers we deploy for everyday communication.