Away from politics, today’s column on the back page of Saturday Tribune explodes myths and unmasks the ethnic origins of Nigeria’s past military and civilian heads of state: Nigeria’s education system robs Nigerians of basic knowledge about their country and its people. That’s why although ethnic identity is a central part of Nigeria’s national imagination, most Nigerians know awfully little about the ethnic identities of their rulers.
In the absence of accurate, official information, most people have resorted to assumptions, guesswork, and outright falsehoods on the ethnic origins of their rulers—and on most things about the country, leading me to once characterize Nigeria as a “know-nothing nation” in my August 10, 2013 column.
I have chosen to dedicate today’s column to providing accurate, verifiable information about the ethnic identities of Nigeria’s past presidents and heads of state.
- Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Several people, particularly in the South, have assigned a Hausa, Fulani, or “Hausa-Fulani” ethnic identity to Nigeria’s first Prime Minister. But he was neither ethnically Hausa nor Fulani. Of course, if he was neither Hausa nor Fulani, he couldn’t conceivably be “Hausa-Fulani.”
He came from a small ethnic minority group called the Gere, whom Hausa people call Bagere or Bageri (singular) and Gerawa (plural). Gere is not mutually intelligible with Hausa or Fulfulde. It’s a wholly separate ethnic group that traces distant roots from what is now Chad.
As I pointed out in my January 23, 2016 column titled “Gere:Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s Real Ethnic Group,” a 1905 Journal of the Royal African Society article by a G. Merrick titled “Languages in Northern Nigeria” said the Gere are “closely related to the Bolewa [a minority language spoken mostly in Fika Emirate in Yobe State] and living to the west of them.”
- Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi: There is no question that Aguiyi-Ironsi, who became Head of State after Tafawa Balewa’s assassination, was Igbo from Umuahia in what is now Abia State.
- Yakubu Gowon: Although he was raised in Wusasa near Zaria, which is home to Fulani Christians, his parents were Angas (also called Ngas) from what is now Plateau State. Angas is an Afro-Asiatic language like Hausa, but it is mutually unintelligible with Hausa.
As I pointed out in my April 3, 2016 column titled “Nigerian Languages are More Closely Related Than You Think,” “Another surprising fact about Nigeria’s language family classification is that Hausa, the most prominent member of the Afro-Asiatic family in Nigeria, shares the same ancestor with the Angas of Plateau State. In fact, just like Hausa, Angas belongs to the Chadic subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Yet two ethnic groups couldn’t be more culturally different than the Hausa and the Angas.”
- Murtala Mohammed: Murtala Mohammed’s paternal identity is the subject of elaborate, long-standing speculations. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, who is now Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II, once wrote that Murtala Mohammed was Fulani. A few other people from Kano say the same thing. But several other people say it was only Murtala’s mother that was Fulani from Kano.
His paternal identity is shrouded in controversy. But the most credible clue to his paternal identity, in my opinion, is the assertion that his father was from northern Edo State. A man by the name of Austin Braimoh, who says he is Murtala’s paternal first cousin, wrote in a February 19, 2016 Vanguard article titled “Remembering Murtala Mohammed” that Murtala’s father’s name was Dako Mohammed and that he migrated to Kano from the village of Igbe in the Auchi area of Edo State after briefly living in Lagos.
“It is well documented that General Murtala Mohammed made efforts to reach out to his paternal relations before his demise,” he wrote. “Two months into his tenure as Head of State, he was at Auchi to confer with the Otaru of Auchi Alhaji Guruza Momoh. He invited him to join him to that year’s Hajj in Mecca. On his way out of Auchi, he directed that a mosque be erected at Aviele, near Auchi in a predominantly Muslim settlement. The mosque was completed after his death and named after him.”
Given the number of people with “Auchi” ancestry who rose to prominence in the Kano society, including the legendary Isyaku Rabiu, this claim isn’t far-fetched.
- Olusegun Obasanjo: Obasanjo’s Owu ethnicity is well-known. There is nothing to add or take away from it. Of course, the Owu are a subgroup of the Yoruba ethnic group.
- Shehu Shagari: Shehu Shagari’s Fulani ethnicity is also well-known. Although he also spoke Hausa, he self-identified as Fulani. His great-grandfather founded the town whose name he adopted as his last name.
- Muhammadu Buhari: Apart from being phenotypically Fulani like Shagari, Buhari also never missed an opportunity to proclaim his Fulani ethnic identity. In fact, at 18, when he applied to enlist in the Nigerian military, he gratuitously mentioned his ethnicity. “I have the honour to apply for regular service in the Royal Nigerian Army,” he wrote on October 18, 1961. “My name is Muhammadu Buhari and I am a Fulani.”
- Ibrahim Babangida: IBB’s ethnic identity is surprisingly a magnet for controversy and speculations. He has been called Gbagyi (whom Hausa people call Gwari), Nupe, and even Yoruba from Ogbomoso or Osogbo. But he told journalists and his biographers at different times that his immediate ancestors were Hausas from Kano who migrated to what is now Niger State.
I’d rather go with his self-definition of his ethnic identity than the evidence-free claims of others.
- Abdulsalami Abubakar: Because Minna, where Abubakar was born, was founded by the Gbagyi, people have also assumed that he is Gbagyi. But he told a biographer that he was born to Hausa parents. Since Hausas are not native to Minna, it must mean that, like IBB, his immediate ancestors came to Minna from Nigeria’s northwest.
- Umaru Musa Yar’adua: Yar’adua has been erroneously called “Fulani” because of his phenotypic features, but his immediate paternal ancestors are actually Tuaregs, possibly from Mauritania. The Tuaregs are a branch of the Berber cluster in North Africa. Many Tuaregs (whom Hausa people call Buzu) in northern Nigeria tend to be mistaken for Fulani because of the similarities in their physical features. I got to know that the Yar’Adua family are Tuaregs when I lived in Katsina town in the late 1990s.
Another prominent Tuareg family in northern Nigeria that people mistake for Fulani is the Baba-Ahmed family in Kaduna State.
- Goodluck Jonathan: Jonathan is often mistaken for an Ijaw, but he is not. He is from a small ethnic group called the Ogbia (or Ogbinya), which is linguistically and ethnically unrelated to Ijaw. As of 2006, according to records, the Ogbia were a little over 266,000.
As I pointed out in my August 3, 2013 column titled “What’s REALLY President Goodluck Jonathan’s Ethnic Group?” while Ijaw belongs to the Atlantic-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo language family, Ogbia belongs to the Central Delta subphyla, but historians say the ancestors of the Ogbia people most likely migrated to their present location from present-day Edo State. Ogbia has its own dialects, which are all mutually intelligible, according to Ethnologue. They are Agholo (or Kolo), Oloibiri, and Anyama.
A distribution of the paternal ethnic identities of Nigeria’s presidents and heads of state shows that the Hausa and the Fulani each had two, and Yoruba, Igbo, Angas, Ogbia, Tuareg, and Etsako (or Afenmai) each had one.
Of course, that’s simplistic. Identity in northern Nigeria is more complex than that. Religion is a more important marker of identity than ethnicity is. For instance, although Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was Gere, he was culturally Hausa and was indistinguishable from a Hausa or Fulani Muslim.
Nonetheless, in the interest of historical accuracy, it doesn’t hurt to be familiar with the facts about the ethnic identities of Nigeria’s past and present presidents and heads of state.