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Arewa and Oduduwa More Alike than Unlike

By Farooq A. Kperogi Twitter: @farooqkperogi The past few months have ignited impassioned and frenzied political brickbats between the elite...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Twitter: @farooqkperogi

The past few months have ignited impassioned and frenzied political brickbats between the elites of the South and those of the Muslim North. Plus, over the years, the differences between the people of the regions are often magnified and their similarities papered over. In today’s column, I show how this is all elite manipulation.

Centuries before colonialism and the British-supervised formation of Nigeria, much of what we know today as northern and western Nigeria have had robust relational and cultural encounters, evidence of which still endures in the contemporary linguistic and cultural artifacts of the people.

Photo: Iba of Kishi, Oba Engr. Dr M O A Lawal Arowoduye ll, and HRM Emir of Yashikiru Alhaji Umaru Sariki Sabi Kpass II during a Gaani Festival, which is celebrated in Borgu. The Iba still retains his connections to Borgu and its traditions.

The centuries-long Trans-Saharan Trade between the Arab world and so-called Sub-Saharan Africa, which passed through much of what is now northern and western Nigeria between the eight and the seventeenth centuries, brought traces of Islam and cultural interchanges in both places. 

Thereafter, both regions witnessed massive migrations of the Mandinka people from the Mali empire who brought more concentrated expressions of Islam—and monarchies.  That is why much of what used to be the Oyo empire was actually ethnically syncretic. Take northern Oyo, called Oke-Ogun in Yorubaland, for example. Several of the towns and villages there were founded by people from Borgu who themselves trace their ancestry to Mali.

For instance, Ogbomoso, a major Oyo town, was founded by a Baatonu (Bariba) prince. The title of the town’s monarch, “Soun,” is a corruption of “Suno,” the Baatonu word for king. Kishi, another major town in Oke-Ogun, was founded by a Baatonu prince by the name of Kilishi Yeruma. Kilishi is the Hausa word for rug (which symbolizes the throne) and Yeruma is the corruption of the Kanuri “yerima,” which means prince. But “Kilishi Yeruma” is a fossilized, time-honored title in all of Borgu, which is a cultural melting pot, for the heir apparent to the throne.

Even the town of Igboho whose son, Sunday Igboho, has become the symbol of “Oduduwa republic,” is ethnically syncretic. Apart from the large number of Fulani people in and around the town who have lived there for centuries, some of whom have become culturally and linguistically Yoruba, there is a major neighborhood there that is called Boni.

 Boni is the generic Borgu birth-order name for the fourth son. That is why many Igboho people embrace me as their brother when they find out where I am from even though I don’t speak Yoruba well enough to sustain a conversation in it.

Historical accounts also reveal that during the Trans-Saharan Trade, many Hausa people worked as intermediaries between Arab traders and the Alaafin of Oyo. Most didn’t return to their places of birth, and their descendants are now Yoruba people.

Similarly, we read from the late Professor Abdullahi Smith’s account of the tiff between Afonja and the Alaafin of Oyo that a large chunk of Afonja’s army, called the Jama’a, was drawn from Hausa slaves who escaped from the Alaafin’s palace.

And the Fulani presence in Yoruba land preceded the coming of Mu’alim “Alimi” Salihu to Ilorin by several decades, perhaps centuries. As I pointed out in a past column titled “Ilorin is an Ethnogenesis: Response to Kawu’s Anti-Saraki Ilorin Purism,” some of Afonja’s followers, with whom he fought the Alaafin, according to Abdullahi Smith who quoted the Ta’alif, a pamphlet written in Arabic by an Ilorin Yoruba Muslim cleric about the events of the time at the time they occurred, were Fulani pastoralists who were never Muslims. 

The pastoralists had lost their cattle to tsetse fly bites and “had nothing to lose,” according to Smith, so they became Afonja’s mercenaries. One of the Fulani pastoralists whom Alimi couldn’t convert to Islam, was a man named Ibrahim Olufade who spoke perfect Yoruba and Fulfulde and acted as the interpreter for Afonja in his initial interactions with Alimi. 

In other words, Fulani people had been bearing Yoruba names in Yorubaland at least a century before Nigeria was formed. I won’t be surprised if descendants of Ibrahim Olufade are now Yoruba (nationalists) if they are in western Nigeria.

My hunch has some basis in real-life examples. One of northern Nigeria’s most celebrated journalists, the late Hajia Bilikisu Yusuf, was descended from Yoruba people who migrated to Kano generations ago. She was one of the most passionate defenders of Arewa that I know.

When the late Mohammed Sule, author of the famous The Undesirable Element in the Pacesetter Series, told me of Hajia Bilikisu’s Yoruba background in Kaduna in the late 1990s, I was incredulous. But he said they were neighbors in Kano and swore that Hajia Bilikisu’s grandfather still spoke Yoruba.

The ancestors of the late Professor Ibrahim Ayagi of Kano were Yoruba. As he himself told the Daily Trust on September 2, 2018, “Unguwar Ayagi was initially inhabited by the Yoruba and Nupawa, who came from outside and settled here. That’s how the place became known as Ayagi. So most of the people in Ayagi are Yoruba, Nupe and, of course, Hausa.”

In fact, a one-time civilian governor of old Sokoto State (i.e., present-day Sokoto, Zamfara, and Kebbi states) traces his ancestry to a Yoruba man. And he governed the heart of the caliphate. 

Given this depth and breadth of relational interconnectedness, it is no surprise that northern and western Nigeria share an extensive repertoire of cultural vocabularies that are derived from Arabic, Songhai (because the Malians who brought Islam to Hausa land, Borgu, and Yorubaland abandoned their language and spoke a dialect of Songhai called Dendi), and mutual borrowings. 

I will give a few examples. In both Yoruba land and Borgu, the term from an unmarried girl is some version of the word “wondia.” That’s a Songhai word for an unmarried girl. “Bere,” a title of respect prefixed to the names of older people in Borgu and parts of Yoruba land, is a Songhai word. The word “karambani,” which I was shocked to find out occurs in Yoruba, is a Songhai word that is now integral to the lexis of many languages in Borgu.

Asiri, the word for secret in Hausa, Yoruba, Kanuri, Baatonu, and many other languages in Muslim northern Nigeria, is derived from the Arabic “as-sirr” where it also means “secret.” Wahala, which used to be limited to Yoruba and languages in Muslim northern Nigeria but which is now widely used all over Nigeria, is derived from the Arabic “wahla,” which means “fright,” “terror.”

Yoruba and most languages in Muslim northern Nigeria also use “talaka” (talika in Yoruba) to refer to the poor. The word also appears in Mandinka, Songhai languages, Teda, and in other West African polities where Islam is predominant.

Talaka is derived from “talaq,” the Arabic word for divorce. (The chapter of the Qur'an that deals with the subject of divorce is called Suratul Talaq). Talaq is derived from the verb “talaqa,” which means to “disown,” to “repudiate.” In times past (and it’s still the case today in many Muslim societies) if a woman was divorced, she was invariably thrown into poverty. Thus, Tuaregs used the term “taleqque” to denote a “poor woman.” But Hausa, Kanuri, Yoruba, Mandinka, and other West African languages expanded the original Tuareg meaning of the word to include every poor person.

And although the term “alufa/alfa” has now been replaced by “malam” in Hausa, it is still widely used in Yoruba and other languages in Muslim northern Nigeria and owes etymological debt to the Mandinka. It denotes a Muslim scholar but has evolved to other meanings in the languages that use it. It can be a synonym for Muslim in Baatonu and a husband among Yoruba Muslim women. 

It is derived from the Arabic “khalifah,” which means a “successor” or a “representative” (of the prophet of Islam). It was first corrupted to “Alfa” by the Songhai-speaking Mandinka from Mali who later exported their version of the word to western and central Nigeria—and to other parts of West Africa.

The ever-present “lafia/alafia/lapia” that dots the lexis and structure of Yoruba and many languages in Muslim northern Nigeria is derived from the Arabic "afiya," which means "health." And “alubosa,” the Yoruba word for “onion,” was borrowed from the Hausa “albasa,” which Hausa itself borrowed from the Arabic “al-basal.”

There are also direct borrowings from the native vocabularies of Yoruba and Arewa languages. To give a few examples, the Yoruba “lakaye” is derived from the Hausa “la’akari.” Seriki, which is even a personal name in Yoruba land, and which often collocates with titles, is borrowed from the Hausa “sarki,” which means king.

 Jaara in Yoruba (which has spread to other Nigerian languages, including Pidgin English, where it means a courtesy addition after a purchase) is a loan from the Hausa gyara. Pali in Yoruba is kwali in Hausa.

In a conversation with Dr. Muhammad Shakir Balogun, a polymathic epidemiologist at ABU whose parents are from Offa but who was born and raised in Kano, I also learned that many everyday words in Hausa are borrowed from Yoruba. The examples he gave include ashana [asana], akwatu [apoti], alaakun [alakun], kwana-kwana [pano-pano], gwale-gwale [gbale-gbale], tale-tale [tele-tele], agwaluma [agbalumo], saukale [sokale], awara [wara], atarugu [atarodo], teba [eba], alabo [elubo], ayoyo, agushi [egusi], alala [olele], agogo, keke, kia-kia.

Of course, sharing cultural and linguistic similarities is not a necessary and sufficient condition to unite, but it’s a good starting point. It also helps to remember that while we are different in many ways, we are also more alike than the elites want us to acknowledge. 

Related Articles:

The Arabic Origins of Common Yoruba Words

Top 10 Yoruba Names You Never Guessed Were Arabic Names

Ilorin is an Ethnogenesis: Response to Kawu’s Anti-Saraki Ilorin Purism (I)

Ilorin is an Ethnogenesis: Response to Kawu’s Anti-Saraki Ilorin Purism (II)

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


  1. Elites manipulate to remain elites.
    The end for them justifies the means even if it means disowning whatever prehistoric ties that unites us.

  2. My grandfather told me that they couldn't settled in the southern part of the country with their herd because of Tsetse flies.So they choosed to settled in Southern Kaduna,and the then Emir of northern region Sardauna gave them what's now known as Ladduga grazing reserve.If not because of tsetse flies maybe i could have been from the South.We share lots in common but it's rather unfortunate that our thieving leaders used our differences to archieve their devilish ambitions.Our youth must wake up to do what's expected from them.

  3. Prof, in your 2016 article Is There Such a Thing as “Hausa-Fulani”? you took a position that is against the commonality of the present-day Hausa and Fulani peoples even though it is obvious in many ways (especially as Buhari had explained it to you). But in this article, you are in favour of the commonality of Yoruba and northern groups - something that is even less obvious. Or maybe I didn't understand you well.

    1. No, you're comparing apples and oranges. I said there's no ethnic group called "Hausa-Fulani," but I admitted that there's no parallel for the depth of cultural melting that has taken place between the Hausa and the Fulani. Read the article again. It's here in the archives.

      In spite of the cultural melting 9f the Hausa and theFulani, people generally just claim their patrilineal identity as their ethnic identity. The notion of Hausa-Fulani was popularized by the Southwest media in their attempt to simplify for themselves an identity that they don't understand, which is basically northern Muslim identity, which is increasingly becoming non-ethnic. Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, for example, was called "Hausa-Fulani" even though he was neither Hausa nor Fulani. But his being neither Hausa nor Fulani didn't cost him any privileges in Muslim northern Nigeria.

      This column doesn't assert that Yoruba people and northern Muslims are one; it only argues that they're more alike than unlike in spite of the geographic and political differences between them. Completely different issues.

  4. Master master!

    Direct me and I shall go.

    Prof. You're the best!

  5. Prof, you have paid paid your 'dues' at 150% to both your generation as well as the current generation. We pray that Allah ( Glory be to Him) bestow upon future generations, someone with In-depth knowledge of the of Arts and the social sciences in general without which the knowledge of sciences being imparted upon the Youths may be counterproductive or misplaced. The knowledge of Arts and social sciences guides the society as to why this is so and how to change that order and of course fir peace to reign across societies. May you live long enough for generations to reap from your depths of knowledge.

  6. Dear Prof,
    An interesting intervention. Though it is there, many do not know. I want to draw your attention to the etymology of 'Alfa'. This is the second time I am reading you tracing it to Khalipha. However, the origin of the word is from Al Faqih (one who is versed in jurisprudence). It is this shortened to Alfa, which you can see tally with the profession of the people meant to be so called. Alefa is the Yoruba corruption of Khalipha. It is mostly Christians, especially the white Garment churches, who borrowed the term from from Muslims who usually used the 'alufa' variant. You will also notice that the word is common among the Malians and Borno people who embraced Islam before the Hausa and responsible for the earliest spread of Islam among the Yoruba. It is the reason why 'malam' is rarely used in Ilorin, from where Islam had its greatest impetus among Yoruba from the 19th century. The Sokoto connection to Ilorin was after the emirate was established, hardly before. This etymology of the word I found in the biography of Prof Asmau Saeed's father written by her and I think it is correct.
    Recently a friend even tried to link the word to Ifa! Because Yoruba language is tonal, it is very easy to conflate or mis-asign the etymology of some words.

    1. Every linguist I know traces Alfa to Khalifa. Since most West African languages don't have the guttural "kh" sound Khalifa, they usually change it to either "h" or "a." Ober time, the intermediate "i" in Khalifa deteriorated to give birth to Alfa or alufa. There's no phonological logic by which al fiqih can become Alfa. None. African languages won't ignore a "qi" sound in a borrowed word. There is no example of that that I know of. Note that Alfa is used all over Muslim West Africa.

  7. Dear Prof,
    I am not a linguists but I will be glad if you can point me in the direction of these linguists. I said Al Faqih (describing the person) not fiqh, the discipline. A little more research, then I can come back to it. Thank you

    1. Read Sergio Baldi's “On Arabic Loans in Yoruba," which was presented at the Annual Conference on African Linguistics in California, USA, in March 1995. He showed that "alfa" is derived from "khalifa." It makes absolutely no linguistic sense for "al-figih" to become "alfa" in any African language. None at all. There is no example of an Arabic loanword in any African language where the last consonant is elided. For Al-fiqih to become "alfa," the "qih" sound in "al-figih has to be elided. African languages don't elide terminal consonants at all. If African languages had domesticated al-fiqih, it would have been "alfiki," not "alfa." Alfa is unquestionably a corruption of khalifa.

  8. I am from Ogbomosho and I disagree with you the origin of the word Soun.

    1. At least you don't disagree that the Soun's ancestry is Baatonu (Bariba), not Yoruba. That's a good start. In fact, I would have questioned your claim to being from Ogbomoso if you did. Well, if you disagree with my etymology of "Soun," what's yours?

      Here's the justification for my own etymology of soun. One, the Baatonu, whom the first Soun was, call their kings "suno." It's entirely reasonable that the ancestor of the current ruling family would be called suno. Now, how did suno become soun? Simple: Yoruba sometimes swallows middle consonants over time, which explains why "olorun" sometimes becomes "olo'un," why even "Yoruba" (itself a foreign word derived from the Baatonu) becomes "Yo'oba" in everyday speech, etc. On this model, the "n" in "suno" is swallowed to produce "suon," which later became "soun" after the transposition of the "o" and "u" vowels in the word.


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