Last week I requested that a family member of the late Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa should reach out to me to set the records straight on their patriarch’s ethnic identity. The son of the late Prime Minister’s oldest surviving daughter, Alhaji Ahmad Yakubu Wanka (who holds the traditional title of Sarkin Dawaki Mai Tutan Bauchi), graciously contacted me a day after my column was published.
But before I share what he told me, it’s good to recapitulate the context of my interest in the ethnic heritage of Nigeria’s first and only Prime Minister. In my January 9, 2016 article titled, “Is There Such a Thing as Hausa-Fulani?” I pointed out that “the late Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was and still is often called a ‘Hausa-Fulani’ by the southern press even though he was born of a Shuwa Arab father and a Fulani mother.”
Many people wrote to contest the accuracy of my ascription of “Shuwa Arab” ethnicity to the late Prime Minister. While some said he was of Sayawa ethnicity, others said he was Jarawa. Both the Sayawa and the Jarawa live in Tafawa Balewa town in Bauchi State from where the late Prime Minister derived his last name.
In a response to the objections to my description of him as half-Shuwa Arab, I pointed out that biographies of the late Prime Minister (such as Trevor Clark’s A Right Honourable Gentleman: Abubakar from the Black Rock) identified his patrilineal ethnic group as Bageri, which some people thought was a variant spelling of Bagara or Baggara. Since Bagara is the name by which Middle Eastern and North African Arabs often call sub-Saharan African Arabs, I chose to describe the late Prime Minister as “Shuwa Arab,” the ethnic descriptor by which most people (at least in northern Nigeria) know the Bagara in Borno and Chad.
It has now come to light that this is not entirely faithful to the facts. The Bageri are different from the Bagara. Alhaji Ahmad Yakubu Wanka said his grandfather’s ethnic group is Gere, but that when Hausa people make reference to the ethnic group, they prefix “ba” to it to indicate a singular form and “awa” to pluralize it. So the singular form of the ethnic group’s name in Hausa is Bagere, which later became Bageri, and the plural form is Gerawa. But the people themselves self-identify as Gere. Anyone with even a faint familiarity with Hausa syntax should understand this. For instance, in the Hausa language, a single Yoruba person is called a Bayarbe and several Yoruba people are Yarbawa. One Hausa person is Bahaushe, and several Hausa people are Hausawa.
Interestingly, according to Wanka, who is completing his doctoral studies in the law of maritime safety, the Gere are not native to Tafawa Balewa. In fact, they have not the remotest ancestral connection with the town. The late Prime Minister’s father, Mallam Yakubu Dan Zala, Wanka said, “hailed from Zala village in Tirwun on the outskirts of Bauchi,” pointing out that “Tirwun is a Gere town which has now been subsumed as a satellite town of Bauchi” because of urban sprawl.
So how did the late Prime Minister end up in a town his ethnic group has no ancestral affinity with, even going so far as to bear the town’s name as his last name? Ahmad Wanka responds: “If you read the Right Honorable Gentleman, you will discover that his father was a domestic servant of the then Ajiyan Bauchi who was the District Head of Lere, then headquartered in Tafawa Balewa. That was how they went there, and he was enrolled in school at Tafawa Balewa, thus the name, since he was deemed to be from there. But he had nothing to do with the town.”
In addition, contrary to what many biographies state, Ahmad Wanka told me that the late Prime Minister’s mother, Hajiya Inna, wasn’t Fulani. He said she “was also a Gere having hailed from the Zaranda area of Bauchi,” but he added that the woman “was reported to have had a Fulani mother.” Until relatively recently, Wanka said, the Gere didn’t embrace Islam; they were mostly adherents of traditional African religions, but whose “culture has now been subsumed by the dominant prevalent Islamic culture in Bauchi.”
Gere, unfortunately, is one of minority languages in Nigeria that are in imminent danger of extinction. Hausa is gobbling it up, and only a few older people speak it now. A 1905 Journal of the Royal African Societyarticle 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. They claim to have originated in a district called Gere in Bagarmi situated about 18 Long. and 120 Lat.” (p. 44).
I don’t know how accurate this information is, but it’s interesting that Merrick mentioned Bagarmi, which Alhaji Ahmad Wanka, in my correspondence with him, mentioned as the alternative name for Shuwa Arabs. “The Bagara, or Bagarmi as we call them, are a Chadian stock whom migration brought to some parts of the North East; they are different, look different and their language differs from the Gere completely,” he said.
I was never aware that Shuwa Arabs or the Bagara were also called Bagarmi. But now that a 1905 article by a British researcher claims that the Gere claim descent from Bagarmi, my curiosity is provoked. Maybe Bagarmi was (or is) the name of an area in or near present-day Bauchi, which has no relationship with the local name for Shuwa Arabs in the Bauchi area. I don’t know. It is significant, though, that the Bolewa language (or Bole) is an Afro-Asiatic language—in common with Hausa and Arabic.
If the Gere are indeed linguistically related to the Bole, my initial description of them as “Shuwa Arabs” may not be as far-fetched as it seems.
I have been informed that the Bagarmi are an ethnic group in Chad who are not related to Shuwa Arabs.