Last week, I pointed to the presence of non-Muslim Fulani pastoralists in Afonja’s army before the arrival of Alimi in Ilorin in 1817- at the behest of Afonja. Professor Abdullahi Smith’s book shows that Afonja’s army, called “jama” (derived from the Arabic jama’ah, which translates as “congregation” in English), also had several Hausa ex-slaves who all became part of Ilorin.
As most people know, Afonja didn’t found Ilorin. That distinction goes to a Yoruba hunter named Ayinla, according to the Ta’alif, who, out of respect, gave up his dwelling to Afonja. Afonja then used Ilorin as the main base for the formation of his fierce and feared multi-ethnic jama with which he attacked the Alaafin in Oyo-Ile, where Afonja was born.
We learn from many historical sources that in c.1821, four years after Alimi’s arrival in Ilorin, Afonja’s jama used the town of Iseyin (incidentally the hometown of the late Olusola Saraki’s mother) as a base to launch attacks on the Alaafin. Afonja had been doing this for at least 20 years before Alimi came to Ilorin from the Yoruba town of Kuwo in Asa Local Government of Kwara State. (As I pointed out last week, Alimi had lived in Ogbomoso for three months and in Ikoyi for a year before moving to Kuwo where he lived for three years prior to his invitation to Ilorin by Afonja).
I bring all these examples to illustrate the originative ethnic cosmopolitanism in the evolution of Ilorin’s ethnogenesis and to show the hollowness and inadmissibility of notions of Ilorin purism. Language and religion, not ethnicity or ancestral provenance, are the most important cultural markers of the Ilorin identity. (Emotional attachment and self-identification are other central markers of the identity, as I’ll show in my conclusion.)
The language is Yoruba, but it’s a dialect of Yoruba that bears poignant linguistic testament to the labyrinthine identities that blended to form the Ilorin identity. In the Yoruba dialect spoken in Ilorin, you encounter distinct, if muffled, echoes of Hausa, Fulfulde, Baatonu, Kanuri, Nupe, and, of course, Arabic. Yet the language is mutually intelligible with the Yoruba spoken in much of Nigeria’s southwest. Islam is another central building block in the construction of the Ilorin identity. It’s often said that it is easier to find an “indigenous” Kano non-Muslim than it is to find an “indigenous” Ilorin non-Muslim.
Many people who despise the Sarakis and want to rhetorically sever their connection to Ilorin like to point to an apocryphal account of their Egba (Abeokuta) origins. I interviewed the late Olusola Saraki in early 2002 (read my November 24, 2012 column titled “My Last Encounter with Saraki”), and he told me his paternal great-grandfather was a Malian Fulani Islamic scholar who was drawn to the Islamic ferment that was taking place in Ilorin.
There is certainly a huge Malian influence in Ilorin and many parts of Nigeria, which I’m currently researching. Although the Malians who brought Islam to Yoruba land were Mande, not Fulani, people, there was a lot of mixing between the Mande and the Fulani in old Mali. It is entirely plausible that the Sarakis are patrilineally descended from the Malian Islamic scholars who migrated to Yoruba land (and elsewhere) in large numbers from the 15th century up until the late 19th century.
But let us, for the sake of argument, agree that Olusola Saraki made up his Malian Fulani ancestry to cozy up to the northern Nigerian political establishment, and that his father, Muktar Saraki, was only an Islamic student in Ilorin from Abeokuta. Well, that was precisely how much of Ilorin was formed: people coming from different parts of what is now Nigeria into Ilorin in search of Islamic education from the mid-1800s up until the early 1900s. Muktar Saraki was clearly born in the 1800s, which coincides with the incipience of Ilorin as we know it. That makes him as authentically Ilorin as anybody else who claims that identity.
And insisting that Muktar Saraki not being born in Ilorin delegitimizes his claims to Ilorin origins would open a Pandora’s box of unintended delegitimizations. Let’s start from the obvious. It would mean that Abd al-Salam, Ilorin’s first emir who reigned from c. 1823 to c.1836, according to Smith’s chronology, was not an Ilorin man since he was not born in Ilorin; he was born in Sokoto, according to the Ta’lif. It would also mean that Shi’ta, Abd al-Salam’s younger brother who succeeded him as emir and ruled from c. 1837 to c. 1863, was not an Ilorin man since he, too, was born in Sokoto. It would, of course, also mean that every child born of Ilorin parents outside of Ilorin town is not native to Ilorin. That’s simplistic nativist logic.
What is even more simplistic, not to talk of ahistorical and unsociological, is the claim that Bukola Saraki’s Yoruba given names (Olubukola Olabowale Adebisi) somehow denude him of his Ilorin bona fides. Modibbo Kawu said, “These are not names an Ilorin person would normally be called.” Well, one of Ilorin’s distinctions is the rich cultural and onomastic tapestries its people embody with grace and pride. I know of no Ilorin person, whatever his or her ancestral provenance may be, who does not have a Yoruba given name.
Even Kawu himself used to be known as Lanre, the short form of Olanrewaju. The current emir of Ilorin was known as Kolapo throughout his professional career. He only formally became known as Ibrahim after he became emir. Babatunde “Tunde” Idiagbon, one of Ilorin’s most famous sons, who was patrilineally Fulani, didn’t also formally bear his Muslim name, Abdulbaki, throughout his life. In fact, he gave all his children Yoruba names: Adekunle, Babatunde, Ronke, Mope, and Bola.
Ilorin people are simultaneously all of the multiplicity of identities that constitute them and none of it. That’s why they are an ethnogenesis. No one is pure anything in Ilorin, and every Ilorin person knows this. For instance, someone once told me that the ancestors of Professor Shuaib Oba Abdulraheem, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ilorin and head of the Federal Character Commission, came to Ilorin from Mali. When I interviewed him 2000 or thereabouts, I asked if this was true. He shrugged off my question. It was probably his way of saying that it’s impractical and pointless to trace that sort of neat, discrete provenance in a complex ethnogenesis like Ilorin.
In his stirring, delicately phrased tribute to his mother in September 2009 titled “Now I feel Truly Vulnerable,” Kawu admitted that his mother was Yoruba. That’s half of his DNA. The other half, which is Fulani, is mixed with many other ethnicities, so that if a scientific DNA analysis were done on him, the Fulani stemma in him would probably only be about 10 percent or less. This would be true of even the contemporary descendants of Alimi who don’t look anything close to how the Ta’lif describes Alimi, Abd al-Salam, and Shi’ta-“red,” i.e. light-skinned. That’s why scholars of identity, as I’ve pointed out here several times, characterize identity as “fiction,” even though they admit it’s politically consequential fiction that is often deployed to exclude, marginalize, and imagine communities.
The late Dr. Olusola Saraki clearly had enormous emotional investment in his Ilorin identity. He self-identified as an Ilorin person, and that’s all that matters. Ultimately, our identity is what we think and proclaim we are. In any case, Bukola Saraki didn’t choose to be born into the Saraki family, which claims Ilorin origins. That was an accident of birth about which he had no control. To judge people on the basis of invariable attributes, such as the place or circumstance of their birth, is to condemn them even before they were born. Malcolm X called that “the worst crime that can ever be committed.”
In the final analysis, heterogeneity is at the structural and symbolic core of the Ilorin identity, and nativism and rigid ethnic exclusivism are a painful betrayal of the intrinsic hybridity of that identity.