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“Mesu jamba,” a Slur against Ilorin People, is a Linguistic Fraud

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi For those who are not clued-in on Yoruba cultural politics, “ mesu jamba ” is a t...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

For those who are not clued-in on Yoruba cultural politics, “mesu jamba” is a term of insult that Yoruba people deploy to demean Ilorin people. Its usage spiked exponentially in the last three years with the ascension of Bukola Saraki to the Nigerian Senate presidency. Yoruba people loyal to Bola Tinubu routinely slur Saraki as “mesu jamba” because of his Ilorin origins, which, incidentally, some reactionary, intellectually impoverished Ilorin nativists are now calling into question.

Interestingly, too, in a September 2018 tweet, former culture minister Femi Fani-Kayode extended the insult to Lai Mohammed, who is not from Ilorin but from Oro, a town in the Irepodun Local Government Area of Kwara State where people speak a dialect of Yoruba called Igbomina. Fani-Kayode taunted Mohammed as an ''ugly little mesu jamba parrot.''

I don’t know if this extension of the “mesu jamba” (sometimes spelled as “mesujamba”) insult to all Yoruba-speaking Kwarans is widespread among the Yoruba of southwest Nigeria. Nevertheless, “mesu jamba” is often said to be a Hausa loan in Yoruba to mean “fraudulent people.” (Since it is sometimes used even for a person, it can denote a “fraudulent person”). But this is a linguistic fraud, and here is why.

If the expression were to be written in Hausa, it would be rendered as “masu zamba,” which would mean the people of fraud—or simply scammers. “Masu” is the plural form of “mai,” which functions as what linguists call a “relater” or a particle. It is used in Hausa to introduce nominal (and sometimes verbal) phrases and to indicate possession of or close association with the noun (or verbal phrase) mentioned. So a person who sells water is called a “mai ruwa.” Groups of people who sell water would be “masu ruwa.” Zamba means fraud in Hausa. So one fraudulent person would be “mai zamba” and multiple fraudulent people would be “masu zamba.”

The expression “masu zamba” (which was supposedly corrupted to “mesu jamba” in Yoruba) reputedly stems from Hausa people’s experience with the widespread fraud among Ilorin people. The problem is that, historically, Hausa people have never had any untoward relationship with Ilorin people to warrant characterizing them as scammers. If anything, as I pointed out in my two-part series titled, “Ilorinis an Ethnogenesis: Response to Kawu’s Anti-Saraki Ilorin Purism,” Hausa people are integral to the founding of Ilorin in its current form.

“The Ilorin identity is the product of the fusion of Yoruba, Fulani, Hausa, Baatonu (Bariba), Kanuri, Nupe, Gwari, and Gobir ethnicities and influences,” I wrote. It is a relatively new ethnogeny that was birthed in the full light of history. As I pointed out in my article, a Hausa man by the name of Bako nearly became the first emir of Ilorin and, as I’ll show shortly, ex-Hausa slaves from Oyo were part of Afonja’s foot soldiers.

Phonological fraud
It is phonologically implausible that “masu zamba” would be rendered as “mesu jamba” in Yoruba. Yoruba does not have a “z” sound, and whenever it borrows a word from another language that has a “z” sound, it almost always substitutes “z” with “s.” That is why Aziz becomes Lasisi, why Zubair becomes Suberu, why Zakari becomes Sakari (and later Saka), why Zamfara is pronounced Samfara, etc. For more on the phonological and morphological domestication processes of Yoruba, read my July 13, 2014 column titled “Top 10 Yoruba Names You Never Guessed Were Arabic Names” and my May 13, 2012 column titled, “The Arabic Origins of Common Yoruba Words.”

There is no instantiation I can find of a “z” sound from a donor language being substituted with a “j” sound when borrowed in the Yoruba language. I see no reason why “zamba” would defy the enduring phonological logic of the Yoruba language and become “jamba.” I welcome any Yoruba speaker with contrary information to challenge or educate me.

Interestingly, in my native Baatonu language, (which Yoruba people call Baruba, Bariba or Ibariba), the Hausa “zamba” is domesticated as “samba,” and it means not just fraud but guileful fraud. Baatonu, like Yoruba, has no “z” sound and always substitutes “z” with “s.” So what is true origin of the expression “mesu jamba”?

Etymology of “mesu jamba”
As I pointed out earlier, Ilorin is an ethnogeny that is synthesized from a multiplicity of disparate ethnic identities, among which are Hausa or Hausa-speaking people. When Afonja rebelled against the Alaafin of Oyo in the early 1800s, he assembled a multi-ethnic army he called “jama” (sometimes spelled as “jema” in the historical literature). Jama is the corruption of the Arabic jama’ah, which translates as “congregation” or “community” in English.

Professor Abdullahi Smith’s book titled A Little New Light, which I cited liberally in my “Ilorin is an Ethnogenesis” series, clearly shows that Afonja’s “jama” had in it Yoruba, Hausa, and Fulani foot soldiers who were notorious for their unfeeling ruthlessness. Afonja invited Alimi, the forebear of Ilorin’s contemporary traditional ruling family, to permanently settle in Ilorin and to become his spiritual guardian. Afonja later told Alimi to relocate his entire family from Sokoto to Ilorin.

But Alimi brought more than his immediate family. Several Hausa-speaking Muslims from Sokoto, who were not his blood relatives, came along as well. And since, according to historical records, Afonja’s jama was still active even after Alimi’s death, the newly arrived Hausa-speaking Muslims from Sokoto referred to Afonja and his foot soldiers as “masu jama’a,” which denotatively means people of the community, but which connotatively meant members of Afonja’s jama army. The singular form of “masu jama” would be “mai jama.”

These expressions—“mai jama’a” and “masu jama’a” are still active in the Hausa language. The nickname for Hon. Zakari Mohammed, the House of Representatives member from Kwara State representing Baruten and Kaiama local governments, is “Mai Jama’a,” which connotes “man of the people.”

But the “jama’a” in the original “masu jama’a” referred only to Afonja’s army, which, as I’ve pointed out, was literally called “jama” (or “jema” in the writings of Yoruba historians). Over time, “masu jama’a” came to mean the Ilorin people who were loyal to Afonja, who died in a battle with Alimi’s descendants in the 1830s. That’s the historical basis for the pejorative undertone of “masu jama’a.”

In the course of time, however, Yoruba speakers domesticated “masu jama’a” to “mesu jama” (and later “mesu jamba”). Phonological intrusion isn’t uncommon when languages borrow from another language, so the intrusive “b” in “jamba” isn’t unusual. The fact that members of Afonja’s jama were war-mongering mercenaries and bandits, not to mention non-Muslims, redounded to the semantic derogation of the term. Since the jama was disbanded and most Ilorin people pledged allegiance to the emir, “masu jama” went into disuse in Ilorin.

Nevertheless, the term was picked up by Yoruba people in the southwest, who have no awareness of the etymology of the term. They now use it indiscriminately as a catch-all slur for all Ilorin people. It’s a linguistic fraud that should get to the end of its shelf life now.

Isn’t it a supreme irony that a fraud is deployed to characterize people as frauds?

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  1. Very interesting reading.

    I think,the word "jamba" on its own signify fraudulent or "someone who is not trustworthy". It is general use in discussions among people in Ilorin and even among general yoruba in the south west.
    For example, when someone is describe as "oni jamba" Every listeners see that a person as "fraudulent".
    Hence, I think it will be interesting if etymology of the word "jamba" can be explore in other language.

    Ilorin is a "melting-pot" of many languages.

  2. Very interesting indeed. Since I was a young university student in the early 80s I have always been interested in the "mesu jamba". I attempted some interrogation but never got a satisfactory result.For this article has gone a long way to fill some of the gaps for me.

  3. Very interesting indeed. Since I was a young university student in the early 80s I have always been interested in the "mesu jamba". I attempted some interrogation but never got a satisfactory result.For this article has gone a long way to fill some of the gaps for me.

  4. Actually, fraud is a narrow connotation of the word jamba. It is more of danger than fraud which is only a type of jamba.

    Also, there's no reason to conclude that a word in a language must come from only one source or retain the exclusive fullness of the meaning from that source. Language cannot be boxed in academic purism.

    Today, the Mesu even resonates more with jamba in the sense of Devilish - mo esu - know the devil!

    Now that brings me to a seeming oddity in the author's rendition of Ilorin history in a number of articles I have read, which is the screaming omission of the widespread belief that Afonja's friends did him a Brutus, they killed and usurped him! If this is a fact then coupled with the murderous harassment of their empire, Mesu jamba "devilish danger" can be the endeared adoption of the epithet for them.


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