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Wole Soyinka’s Ignorant Statement on Ebiras and Fulanis

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. In my August 10, 2013 article titled “ A Know-Nothing Nation ” I had cause to lament what I called “Niger...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In my August 10, 2013 article titled “A Know-Nothing Nation” I had cause to lament what I called “Nigeria’s national culture of reflexive know-nothingness.” In the article I talked about how, in spite of our consociation as a country for over a century, we know so little about each other. We cherish inaccurate, and often prejudiced, notions of our ethnic identities.

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka is the last person I expect to find guilty of this abject national malaise. He is, after all, our most famous intellectual on account not only of the Nobel Prize he won in 1986 but also of his towering stature in Nigeria’s politics and culture. But a quote I came across recently from Wole Soyinka’s 2007 memoir titled You Must Set Forth at Dawn disappointed me deeply.

The quote goes thus: “One was a self-hating Igbira, a minority tribe from the Nigerian hinterland, whose yearning to be mistaken for a Fulani aristocratic scion had resulted in his changing his name from Daniyan to Dan’Iyan.” 

I have no interest in the politics behind Soyinka’s harsh characterization of this person, but I am bemused that the venerable professor managed to package so much inexcusable ignorance in just one sentence. Let me unpack it.

First, the ethnic group is called Ebira, not Igbira. Ebira people take exception to being called Igbira. They say it's pejorative. Not being Ebira, I have not the vaguest clue why the people resent the name, but who are we to deny them the luxury of their appellative choice? I have been aware that Ebira people resent the name “Igbira” for at least the past 20 years. In fact, the first sentence in the Wikipedia entry on “Ebira people” (which needs a whole lot of cleaning up, by the way) states: “These days Ebira is no more pronounced or spelt ‘Igbira or Igbirra’ because it is considered to be insultive [sic] to most of the Ebiras…” How could Soyinka not be familiar with this?

Second, Ebiras are not a "tribe." They are an ethnic group—the same way that Egbas are, except Soyinka also calls his own Egba people a “tribe”—which would be doubly ignorant. A tribe is a group of primitive people. As the Oxford Dictionary of English says, “In historical contexts the word tribe is broadly accepted (the area was inhabited by Slavic tribes), but in contemporary contexts it is problematic when used to refer to a community living within a traditional society. It is strongly associated with past attitudes of white colonialists towards so-called primitive or uncivilized peoples living in remote underdeveloped places. For this reason it is generally preferable to use alternative terms such as community or people” (p. 1897).

Soyinka is perhaps Nigeria’s most accomplished wordsmith and should know enough to not refer to any community of Nigerians as a tribe. If he intended it as an insult to the over 1 million Ebira people in Nigeria because he didn’t like one Ebira person, that’s bad. If he doesn’t know “tribe” is a word of disesteem to denote and connote primitivism, that’s even worse.

 Third, by what logic does changing the spelling of one's name to mimic a name in another ethnic group translate to self-hate? That's a wild, illogical stretch, to put it nicely. For me, it's at best mere orthographic exuberance, not least because the Dan’Iyan he was talking about also bears Alexander as a middle name, which sort of cancels the charge that he wants "to be mistaken for a Fulani aristocratic scion." I know of no "Fulani aristocrat" in Nigeria who bears a Christian or English middle name. 

In any case, even if it's true that the man is so enamored of the "Fulani" that he intentionally contorted the spelling of his name to make it look like a "Fulani aristocratic" name, the most logical leap one can make from that act is that the man loves "Fulani aristocracy," not that he hates himself or the people he is a part of by accident of birth. A love for the other doesn't necessarily mean a hate for self. It seems likely, to me, that Soyinka is merely giving expression to his own anxieties about and animus toward Fulani people in that statement. 

In any case, Daniyan is actually not a uniquely Ebira name; it’s borne mostly by the Okun Yoruba of Kogi State, who are next-door neighbors to Ebiras. So deforming the usual spelling of the name can’t possibly be self-hate. Plus, many Ebiras, in fact, bear Yoruba first and last names. Would Soyinka also condemn such Ebiras as self-haters for wanting to be mistaken for Yorubas?

 Fourth, Dan'Iyan isn't even a Fulani name; it's a Hausa name at best. "Dan" is Hausa for "son (of)," and "iyan" is Hausa for "one who is capable." But I know the source of the ignorance: the founder of the Sokoto caliphate was called Usman Dan Fodio. Since Dan Fodio was Fulani, any name that contains "Dan" must be a Fulani name. Wrong. The Fulani word for "son (of)" is "bii." (Incidentally, that’s also the word for “child” in my Baatonu language).  "Iyan" makes no sense in Fulani, although it's true that "Dan Iyan (enter name of town)" is a title in northern Nigeria.

I know all this because I asked people who know. You would think someone who is freezing his thoughts in a book form would make some efforts to confirm these basic facts.

 Finally, when Soyinka says "...HAD resulted in his changing his name from Daniyan to Dan’Iyan," does he mean the guy had stopped writing his name as "Dan'Iyan" at the time he (i.e., Soyinka) wrote his book? If yes, then Dan'Iyan was self-evidently just being experimental with a variant spelling form of his last name. If that's not what Soyinka means, then his tense needs some structural and grammatical surgery. You can't use "had" for something that hasn't stopped. 

That's way too much ignorance in just one sentence from someone of Wole Soyinka’s intellectual standing.

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