Some people love controversies for the sake of controversies. They are like one Aare Onakakanfo who wanted a war desperately but found none. The Aare then stoked a rebellion against himself at home and scrambled to crush it. Lawyer, son of a lawyer and a former minister of aviation, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, last week mounted the social media horse to launch an all-out attack on ‘Yoruba’ as a name and as a concept. He said he was no longer a Yoruba because he had discovered that the name was given to his people by the Fulani and it was negative. Hear him: “The name ‘Yoruba’ derives from ‘Yariba’ and it means ‘shady and unreliable.’ I reject that strange name and label and I hope and pray that the good people of southwestern Nigeria will see the wisdom in doing so too. I am not a ‘Yariba’ or ‘Yoruba’ but an ‘Omo Karo Jire’ or an ‘Ooduwan’ and my language is not ‘Yoruba’ but ‘Anago.’” He named Uthman Dan Fodio’s son and successor, Sultan Mohammed Bello, as that Fulani who first used ‘Yoruba’ as the collective name for the people of western Nigeria.
Fani-Kayode did not disclose the source of his newfound ‘facts.’ He probably thought he needed not prove his claims since his social media followers trusted his judgement. They won’t ask him why the sudden disclaimer. And they didn’t. He was hailed. A huge chunk of those who agree(d) with him online are southerners but who do not bear Yoruba names. Instructively, one of the first challengers he got is US Professor and Saturday Tribune columnist, Farooq Kperogi, who said his claims were wrong and gave what he called preliminary reasons. I have read Fani-Kayode’s defiant follow-up reposte of October 23, 2019 where he said, without reasons, that he stood “by every word” he wrote in that article titled ‘We are sons and daughters of Oduduwa and not Yorubas’. One is tempted to ask the motive for his fire and what usefulness the controversy would serve as we roll in the mud of 21st century challenges of existence in Nigeria.
I am sure Fani-Kayode has read the very detailed 24 October, 2019 intervention by respected professor of history, Banji Akintoye, author of A History of the Yoruba People, a monumental book. And did he read Kperogi’s calm, incisive 1,400-word article of 26 October, 2019 on the back page of the Saturday Tribune? What does he think of the Kperogi facts which lead to his conclusion that the word ‘Yoruba’ likely came from the Baatonu (Baruba) ‘Yorubu’ for Oyo Ile people and that it has no historical link with the Fulani? Kperogi’s article is a valuable contribution to the conversation on the history of ethnic relations in Nigeria and, in particular, the root and meaning of ‘Yoruba’ as an ethnic identity and marker. As seminal as that Kperogi piece is, however, the talk must still continue since research is a continuous process. I intend to challenge his thesis by asking if he does not think the existence of Yoru or Yorubu in his Baatonu (Baruba) language could be as a result of the very long history of interaction between Baruba and the Yoruba dating back to the sack of Oyo Ile by the Nupe and the exile of the Alaafin to Borgu in about 1535 (See Richard Smith’s The Alaafin in Exile: A Study of the Igboho Period in Oyo History published in The Journal of African History, Vol. 6, Issue 1, March 1965 from pages 57 – 77). Could it be that the word was an export that accompanied the Alaafin to Baruba’s Borgu which then became corrupted to Yoru/Yorubu?
Again, can Fani Kayode and Kperogi examine Sultan Bello’s and other researchers’ findings which indicate that the word ‘Yarba’ or ‘Yaarba’ may have existed outside sub-Sahara Africa long before Yoruba-Baruba and Yoruba-Hausa/Fulani interactions?
Sultan Bello in his Infaku’l Maisuri told what he believed was the migration history of the Yoruba. He wrote: “The people of Yarba are descended from the Kanaana and the kindred of Nimrod. Now, the reason of their having settled in the West, according to what we are told, is that Yaarubu, son of Kalitou, drove them out of Irak to westwards and they travelled between Masar and Habsa until they reached Yarba…”(See Arnett, E.J. 1930, page 16).The statement from Sultan Bello could not have meant that some people were “shady and unreliable.”
Fortunately, some scholars have subjected the Sultan’s claims to scrupulous validation scrutiny, pursuing his words along the route he named. They probed into the accuracy of his geographical and anthropological claims. Their facts are worth examining. Jeffrey’s (1959) finding shows that Masar, mentioned by Bello, “is Egypt and Habsa is Abyssinia.” Tracing that route further, he says: “Turning to Arabia, one finds that there was there a tribe by the name Yaarba.” Yet there is this further claim by Wilson (1954), referenced by Jeffrey, who notes that the earliest settlers of Oman appear to have been of Euro-African stock who were “displaced or absorbed by a great Semitic immigration from the North, the invaders being composed of two main stocks – the Qalitani who colonized Yemen and the Adnani who peopled that part of the peninsula farther to the north…the earliest settlers from Yemen were the Yaariba of Qalitani origin.” (See Jeffreys, M.D.W. 1959. Braima alias Abraham: A study in Diffusion, in Folklore, Vol. 70, No. 1, pages 323-333).
See also Denham and Clapperton, 1826, page 22 (quoted in Samuel Johnson, 1921) where the Sultan, as host of the explorers, spoke of the ‘Yarba’ as an extensive province of prosperous traders. There is no mention of ‘shady and unreliable’ in those statements.
Some Yoruba who are sympathetic to Fani-Kayode’s position have demanded the meaning of the word ‘Yoruba’ in Yoruba language? That sounds like asking for the meaning of ‘meaning’. We may go round and round but we shall get there. There has also been a claim that since we are all from Ile Ife, the race ought to be bearing the name ‘Ife.’ I read that and told myself that one day we would drag the argument to the point where we will ask ourselves what language Oduduwa spoke before landing in Ile Ife with his party.
The Yoruba are liberal enough to say orúko t’óba wu ni ni à njé l’éyìn odi (a man is at liberty to bear any name while abroad). Fani-Kayode should understand my drift if I say that a man can wake up midnight and shout that he has changed his surname for whatever reasons. He once did that – and no one said he was wrong. I will, however, be surprised if he does not know that no Yoruba person has the right to slam untrue, negative meanings on the collective identity of the race without a proof. No one should, for whatever reasons, arm the enemy with the brush of infamy to taint all of us now or in the future. That is the point. And from all we have seen and read, it is clear that ‘Yoruba’ may have its root in the word ‘Yarba’ or ‘Yariba,’ but none of the variants means those terrible things the former minister said it meant. Fulani did not ‘give’ the name ‘Yoruba’ to the people of western Nigeria and the name does not share meanings with anything bad, awful, “shady and unreliable.”
Was Sultan Bello the first person to call the Yoruba of western Nigeria by that name as claimed by Fani-Kayode? Sultan Bello’s ‘Infakul Maisuri’ has been described as his “definitive history of the Fulani war and his father’s rule.” This means that it was written after the Fulani War and after the reign of Uthman Dan Fodio. Arnet (1930) on page 322 gives an insight into when the book was written with the clue that “some extracts from the Arabic original were brought to England by Captain Clapperton in 1825…” The Fulani war took place from 1804 to 1810 while Dan Fodio died on April 20, 1817. In 1819, just two years after Dan Fodio’s death and years before Bello wrote his book, Thomas Edward Bowdich in his book, ‘Mission from Cape Coast’, wrote of “a large kingdom called Yariba by the Moors but Yarba by the natives.” (See Bowdich, 1819, page 208). Moors were a people of mixed Arab, Spanish and Berber origins. Bowdich also gives at least an instance of the use of the term ‘Yarba’ by Muslim residents of Kumasi in 1817 (See Andrew Apter, Oduduwa’s Chain: Location of Culture in the Yoruba Atlantic, 2017 at page 123). The Encyclopedia of Geography etc by Thomas T. Smiley published in 1839 says also on page 250 that “the banks of the Niger, below Boussa are occupied by two great and flourishing kingdoms” one of them being “Eyeo also called Yariba, on the West..” The Encyclopedia speaks further of “Eyeo (Oyo), the capital of Yariba” and names Bokoo, Alorie (Ilorin), Jenna and Chaki (Shaki) as “large and populous cities” in the “kingdom of Yariba.”
Two hundred years before Sultan Bello wrote his book, there was the Songhai Arabic scholar, Ahmad Baba, who was credited to have, in his 1615 Mi’raj al-su’ud, called today’s Yoruba ‘Yariba.’ So, what did he mean by Yariba? The Platform Nigeria in October 2017 held a talk on what it themed ‘Putting together the Jigsaw pieces that form Nigeria’. At the event, highly cerebral Reverend Father Mathew Kukah spoke very eloquently on the origin and meaning of the names of the major ethnic groups in Nigeria. Hear him: “The word (Yoruba) was given to them by Ahmad Baba of Songhai and Ahmad Baba used the word ‘Yariba’ not even ‘The Yorubas’ to describe the people who live in what is now modern day Oyo, Osun, Lagos and Kwara states but it simply meant ‘people living in the south’. In the same way that the word ‘Hausa’ is not a Hausa word and the Hausas didn’t give themselves the name. It was simply given by, again, the same Ahmad Baba who was living in Songhai…He just used the word to refer to the people who were living to the south of the Niger.” Kukah spoke also on the word/name Ibo/Igbo and the interesting place and context it came from. “Ibo is not an Ibo word,” he said while explaining that the word was coined by “the largely monarchical” Onitsha people to describe ‘the others.’ But now, everyone in the East is an Ibo, including those who invented the word, to look down on ‘the others.’ (See Facebook page post of The Platform Nigeria on October 4, 2017).
I have not heard a Hausa person or an Igbo person repudiating his/her ethnic identity because it is a xenonym. So, why this Yoruba noise in the year of the Lord 2019 and what is the motive behind it? How is this conversation going to feed the hungry and stop Nigeria from making its poor poorer and the sad sadder?
The noise can only complicate issues for everybody. Identities – especially ethnic identity – once constructed, take a life of their own – notwithstanding their history. We should also know that identity politics – including identity repudiation – can be destructive and unraveling. It is like bartering your dog for a monkey because you think the dog squats too much. That is what I see in Fani-Kayode’s adoption of ‘Anago’ as his preferred language and ethnic identity. If the name ‘Yoruba’, to him, came from an unwanted outside, did he do some simple searches on his ‘Anago’ before cuddling it? And is he convinced that it is a word and name completely indigenous and positive to his people? Well, William Megenney was professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Riverside, United States in 1992 when he explained that “The Brazilians refer to the Yoruba as ‘Nago,’ a word taken from the Ewe language in which it is Anago, meaning ‘Yoruba’.” (See Megenney, W.W. (1992). West Africa in Brazil: The case of Ewe-Yoruba Syncretism, published in Anthropos, vol. 87, pages 459-474). Like the Fulani, the Ewe people also have a history of tension and war with the Yoruba. And Anago is their name for the Yoruba.
So, ‘Anago’ is not just a foreign word; its direct meaning is ‘Yoruba’ – exactly what Fani-Kayode is running away from. To be back to square one as in a situation like this can be very painful, unsettling and upsetting. Ethnic identities are a cul de sac, bottom of the sack. They are a dead-end street, an alley with only one entrance. Once you are born into a language group, it is futile and self-distracting seeking an exit – because an escape route does not exist.
Let us hope our former aviation minister will accept this and let us continue our journey of hope, deviance and deliverance.
©Lasisi Olagunju, Ph.D