Fulani and origin of the names “Yoruba” and “Yamiri”

FORMER Minister of Culture Femi Fani-Kayode started a healthy national conversation about the constructed-ness of collective identities in Nigeria when he repudiated his “Yoruba” identity because he said the name owes etymological debts to the Fulani and that it has pejorative denotations and connotations. This is, of course, both a historical and factually inaccurate.

As I pointed out in my preliminary intervention on his claims on social media, the name “Yariba” was first attested in a
treatise by a 16th-century Songhai Islamic scholar by the name of Ahmad Baba to refer to the people of the ancient Oyo
Empire, which included all of present-day Oyo State, most of Osun State—and parts of Kwara and some western  Nigerian states.

Ahmad B aba’s 1613 essay, titled “Alkashf wa-l-bayān li-aṣnāf majlūb al-Sūdān” (translated into English as “The Exposition and Explanation Concerning the Varieties of Transported Black Africans”), mentioned “Yariba” among ethnic
groups Muslims were justified to enslave.

In his 1806 treatise titled “Bayan Wujub Al-Hijra, Ala L-Ibad,” Sheikh Usmanu Dan Fodiyo referenced Ahmad Baba’s essay and contested some of its claims. Ahmad Baba had written that “the people of Kano, some of Zakzak [Zaria?], the people of Katsina, the people of Gobir, and all of the Songhay” were Muslims who could never be enslaved.

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Since Dan Fodio didn’t think the Islam in Hausaland at the time was authentic, he needed to justify his jihad, so he responded to Ahmad Baba posthumously by asserting that what was true of Ahmadu Baba’s claims 200 years ago, “might not necessarily be true at all other times, since every scholar relates what he sees in his own days.”

Dan Fodio’s son, Muhammad Bello, wrote Infaq al-mansur in 1813 where he also responded to Ahmad Baba’s 1613 essay, and had cause to mention “Yariba.” In other words, the name “Yariba” had been used to refer to people of the ancient Oyo Empire at least 200 years before Dan Fodio and his son, Muhammad Bello, used it.

That invalidates the claim that it was the “Fulani” who “gave” the name “Yariba” to people in today’s western Nigeria. In any case, “Yariba” doesn’t mean anything in Fulfulde.

As etymologists remind us, before a word is attested in writing, it must have existed several years in demotic speech. That means “Yariba” had been in use much earlier than 1613 when it first appeared in writing—which is hundreds of years before the Fulani encountered the Yoruba.

Now that we have established that it is chronologically impossible for the Fulani to have “given” the name “Yariba” to Oyo people, where did the name come from?  It’s obvious that Songhai people (who are now found in Niger Republic, parts of Benin Republic, and parts of Mali as Zarma and Dendi) have called Oyo people some version of “Yariba” since at least the 1500s. But the name may not be original to them, either.

Dr. Hussaini Abdu, in his forthcoming book titled Partitioned Borgu: State, Society and Politics in a West African Border
Region, makes the persuasive case that the name “Yoruba” owes lexical provenance to the Baatonu people of Borgu,
Oyo’s immediate northern neighbors, whom contemporary Yoruba people call Bariba, Baruba or Ibariba. The Baatonu
word for Oyo people is “Yoru” (singular), “Yorubu” (plural). The third person reference to the people is “Yoruba.”

“The name was probably sourced from Songhay contact with Borgu, later reinforced through interviews with Baatonu
slaves in Sierra Leone and popularised by European travellers like Clapperton and missionary documentation, such as
the works of Samuel Johnson in the nineteenth century,” he wrote.

This isn’t a far-fetched proposition because Songhai, Borgu, and Oyo had deep cultural and historical ties. For one, it was
Songhai-speaking Mande people from ancient Mali who brought Islam to Borgu and to Yoruba land, which explains why Islam is called “imale” in the Yoruba language.

Two, the three polities share several common cultural vocabularies. For instance, recently, Professor Oyeronke Oyewumi of New York’s Stony Brook University and daughter of the current Soun of Ogbomoso, asked me if the term Wundia, which means a young unmarried woman in Yoruba, had origins in the Baatonu language because, as she said, “it is clear to me that it’s not an original Yoruba word.”

Well, the Yoruba Wundia occurs in the Baatonu language as “wondia,” but it turns out that the word is originally Songhai
where it occurs as “wondia” in both Dendi and Zarma—with the same meaning.

This is just one of several vocabularies shared by Yoruba, Songhai, and Borgu people. In fact, as I showed in my May 13,
2012 article titled “The Arabic Origins of Common Yoruba Words,” several Arabic words in Yoruba such as “alafia,” “alufa,”“borokini,” “tobi,” “suuru,” “wahala,” “faari,” “anfani,” etc., which also occur in the Baatonu language in the same lexical forms, came to the language by way of the Songhai.

So it’s no surprise that there is a vast circulation of cultural and ethnonymic registers between these polities. Interestingly, the Baatonu people (more than 80 percent of whom are now in Benin Republic) don’t call other Yoruba groups “Yoruba.”

For instance, they call the Yoruboid groups in Benin Republic Kawo (plural Kaabu or Kawobu). “Yorubu” is reserved
only for Oyo Yoruba. It’s obvious that Ahmad Baba wrote“Yoruba” as “Yariba” in his 1613 essay because Arabic, the language in which he wrote, does not have the vowel “o.” The three dominant vowels in Arabic are “a,” “I,” and “u.”

Obviously, both the Fulani and the Hausa copied the name “Yariba” from the Songhai who in turn copied it from the Baatonu people of Borgu. I speak the Baatonu language natively; if the name “Yoru” had a meaning in the language, that meaning is lost now. But there is not the faintest whiff of derogation in the name when the Baatonu people use it to refer to Oyo people. Nor does it mean anything even in Songhai, which my mother’s relatives speak natively.

What is significant, however, is that people of Western Nigeria aren’t called “Yoruba” today because the Borgu people
called them so, or because they were identified by a version of that name by Songhai, Hausa, and Fulani people. They
self-identify as “Yoruba” precisely because returnee slaves of Yoruba descent chose the name, popularised it, and encouraged people in the region to embrace it.

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John Raban’s 1832 book titled The Vocabulary of the Eyo, or Aku, a Dialect of West Africa is perhaps the first to mention the name “Yoruba” in writing. Then in 1843, Samuel Ajayi Crowther published A Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language. Raban, like Crowther, was a reverend gentleman and returnee Yoruba slave in Sierra Leone.

In 1859, Nigeria’s first modern newspaper, called Iwe Irohin fun awon Egba ati Yoruba (Yoruba for “newspaper for
the Egba and Yoruba people”) hit the newsstands. The name of the paper suggests that when the newspaper was founded, the “Yoruba” (read: Oyo people) were regarded as different from the Egba and other Yoruba subgroups,
although the language was considered similar enough to have one newspaper for all of them.

It was Samuel Ajayi Crowther who in the nineteenth century actively worked to encourage the amalgam of related linguistic groups in western Nigeria to adopt the name “Yoruba” as their endonym. So an exonym (name given to a people by others) was adopted as an endonym (name by which a group self-identifies) through the instrumentality of an outsider who made himself an insider. Of course, Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group continued and strengthened Crowther’s initiative.

Professor Stephen Akintoye has also done a wonderful job of exploding Chief Fani-Kayode’s claims in his short article
titled “About the Name ‘Yoruba’.” Nevertheless, he misstated a few facts. He said it is Arabs who call Yoruba people “Yarbawa” and that only Yoruba people call Arabs “Larubawa.”

“Larubawa” is actually a Hausa word. It’s the plural form for Arabs in the Hausa language. The singular form is Balarabe.
Yarbawa is also the plural form for Yoruba people in the Hausa language (the singular is Bayarbe, which some Yoruba people mispronounce as “Berebe”). It’s not an Arabic word. Note that “awa” is the lexeme for the plural forms of ethnonyms in the Hausa language. That’s why the plural for even the Hausa people themselves in their language is also Hausawa (singular: Bahause).

And “yamiri”? The Fulani didn’t “give” that name to the Igbo. The Hausa did, and it’s derived from an imitation of yem
mmiri, Igbo for “give me water.”

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