Last week’s column with the above title generated more buzz than I anticipated. Several people wrote to me to add to our understanding of the ethnic and linguistic identity of the Gere people and of their most prominent son, the late Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Unfortunately, I can only feature a few here because of the constraints of space. But before I reproduce a sample of the letters I received, I want to point out that, contrary to what has been insinuated in some quarters, Alhaji Ahmad Yakubu Wanka did not say that the Gere people became Muslims “fairly recently.” That was my interpretation of what he said.
His exact words to me were: “Gerawa are not related to Shuwa Arabs in any manner whatsoever. They were an animist tribe that were Islamised and their culture has now been subsumed by the dominant prevalent Islamic culture in Bauchi.” I refused to use the expression “animist tribe,” preferring instead the expression "adherents of traditional African religions" because “tribe” and “animism” are unflattering words native English speakers use to connote primitivism and backwardness when they describe non-Western people and their modes of belief.
I took the liberty to characterize the conversion of the Gere people to Islam as “fairly recently" because I interpreted Wanka as saying that the Gere people became Muslims after the people of Bauchi. “Fairly recently” is a relative and elastic time limit. It merely implies that the Gere people went from being what Wanka called an "animist tribe" to being "subsumed by the dominant prevalent Islamic culture in Bauchi." That means, as I said, they became Muslims AFTER the people of Bauchi, thus "fairly recently” considering that Islam is at least 1200 years old in Nigeria and at most 600 years old in Bauchi. Throughout last week’s article, I took care to put Wanka’s direct words in quotation marks to differentiate them from my own editorial interventions. I frankly think people are being a little too sensitive, but I understand.
The Baghirmi, or Bagarmi, are an ethnic group in Southern Chad. They are not related to the Shuwa Arab. The Baggara is a corruption of Baqqara, meaning cattle owning Arabs, as distinct from the camel owners. Both are represented in the Shuwa Arab group. The Baghirmi had an ancient Kingdom that lasted until colonial conquest. They, the Mandara, and Borno were the powers of the Eastern Bilad as Sudan from the 15th to the end of the 19th century. The Gerawa of Bauchi claim origin from Baghirmi, not from among the Baqqara Arab.
The Bagarmi may be a reference to the Baghirmi/Bagirmi of today's Chad. They are not Shuwa Arabs, though there has been a lot of assimilation with them as there is between the Hausa and the Fulani. An urban dialect of Shuwa Arabic is their lingua franca.
I don't know why we, especially people from Bauchi, like to be linking ourselves to Fulani or Shuwa Arabs. When Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was offered [the position of] district head of Tafawa Balewa, he refused and it was given to my father 'Dallatun Bauchi Aliyu Dadi' who replaced Ajiyan Bauchi.
Our great grandfather (the Yakubu Dadi) and those who came after him, in truth, came from a distinctly Gere ancestry, which has roots in the old Ngazargamu dynasty of the old Borno Empire. It is reasonable to assume that after the collapse of the dynasty many migrated further afield, among whom are the Gerawa, Bolawa, Terawa, Jarawa & some [ethnic groups] in the Pankshin area of present-day Plateau state. We all have certain characteristics and similarities in our dialects. If in doubt, one can go to those places including Pankshin to see the relics of our common ancestral link with the old Borno Empire. Indeed, sometimes when I listen to our Gere language on the radio and then tune to Bolawa, Jaramci, Teranci or Kanuri, it's very easy to understand a few phrases!
Abubakar Sadiq Ajiya
I am very much interested in such kinds of discussions: histories, lineages, origins, early lives, ethnic heritages, linguistic affiliation, and what not. I sometimes want to join in the debate but my 'fear' of the outcome or the repercussions when you are discussing in a world where there are no boundaries or referees of 'matured' nature keeps me away.
In my area of study, literary history, we have discussed extensively on Abubakar Bauchi, (that was his original name, no relation what so ever with Tafawa Balewa, until later in life). We got most of our information from his novel Shaihu Umar, (which, if given the required scrutiny, will tell us more on the person and his ancestry.)There are so many things 'hidden' about ATB and which most biographies, 'deliberately' fail to mention or skip, to make their 'stories' more 'juicy', acceptable or adaptable to the 'current status' of the Right Honorable Gentleman. I saw some 'truth' in the remarks made by Wanka....'his father was a domestic servant.....,' The Gere are part of Bauchi, and they have their identity and subsumed within the hierarchical worlds of the 'rulers' and 'servants' as found in many areas of the 'core North.' Thanks once again.
Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi
I just read your column on Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa's real ethnic group with a special interest. I am Bole. I teach General English, Literature in English, and Language Teaching at FCE Tech, Potiskum, Yobe State. I did some linguistics as part of my BA Ed / English training back in UNIMAID. Potiskum and Fika towns are the two towns in which most Boles or Bolewa live in Yobe. Neighbouring Gombe State has an even bigger number of Boles, I think. Information from your column now makes me want to go to Bauchi and find out from those who speak Gere. Thank you, Prof. Your columns are always useful.
Naser Jangas Mohammed