Nigerian tribes and their monikers

Nigeria is peopled by about 250 tribes. But three of them stand out and are divided among the three pre-independence regions, namely the East, the West and the gigantic North. The East was pre-dominated by the Igbo. Other tribes in the old region included the Ijaw, the Ikwerre, the Ogoni, in the present-day Rivers state; the Effik and the Ibibio in the present-day Cross River state, spreading to Akwa Ibom state.

The West harboured mainly the Yoruba speakers. The Binis, the Ishan, the Urhobo were part of the old West before the Mid-West was carved out of the region shortly after independence.

The big North was pre-dominated by the Hausa and Fulani. Other notable tribes were the Kanuri, the Beriberi, the Berom, the Nupe, the Jukun, the Tiv, the Eggon, and the Igbira.

Of these tribes, the three that stand out are the Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo. It was from their languages that the Wazobia coinage sprang. The words, Wa in Yoruba, Zo in Hausa and Bia in Igbo mean ‘come’ in English.

The three tribes that defined the old region soon dissolved into different contemptuous monikers across the country. For instance, the Igbo of the South-east refer to the Yoruba as ‘Ngbati Ngbati’. It was like the Yoruba often laced their conversation with the word ‘Ni ‘gbati’ meaning ‘when’.

The Yoruba refer to the Igbo as ‘Ajokuta ma mu mi’ or ‘Kobokobo’. ‘Ajokuta ma mu mi’ is derived from the hard swallows like akpu, garri and pounded yam, a euphemism for German floor which is squeezed down the throat without the aid of water. Ajokuta ma mu mi, therefore, means one that swallows stone (hard foods) unaided by water.

I really do not know how the Igbo are also called Kobokobo. I know the Igbo like money a lot. Could it be that in those days when kobo coins had value, the Igbo always had the denomination on their lips? Remember the joke that if you wanted to be sure an Igbo man was dead, you had to just jingle coins in his ears. If he did not stir back to life, then you can prepare the corpse for burial.

The Hausa refer to the Igbo as ‘Yamiri’. Miri means water in Igbo. The story is told that when the Igbo began to make inroads into the northern part of the country, apparently full of thirst, they were asking their hosts for water. Hence they were called Yamiri, meaning give me water.

The Igbo and even the Yoruba refer to the Hausa/Fulani as Aboki, meaning friend. The moniker must have been borne out of the friendly nature of an average northern Hausa/Fulani who calls every stranger ‘Aboki’. The Yoruba also refer to the Hausa/Fulani as Ajegoro, meaning kola nut eaters. Curiously, kola nuts are grown mostly in the South-west but the Hausa/Fulani are the major consumers! On the other hand, the Hausa/Fulani call the Yoruba Beherebe or something like that. I have almost cracked my skull to trace the origin/meaning of that moniker. Can any Hausa/Fulani folks out there help out?   

Another tribe that has lost its originality in most parts of the North are the Tiv from Benue state. Mention Tiv to an average Hausa/Fulani man and he would fire blank. But his understanding will come alive if you call him Munchi or Munci. Munchi means we have eaten it in Hausa. The story is also told that a Hausa man gave something chewable to a Tiv man to keep for him and when the former came back for it, the latter responded with Munchi. The Hausa/Fulani were later to come up with a variety of Munchi: Munchawa… Munchochi…Munchaye. This Munchi account is verifiable.

Berom is one of the predominant tribes in the upper Plateau state. A story is also told that when the late Sage, Papa Awo, steamed his campaign train to Jos in the late 50s, he encountered the Berom who greeted him and his entourage with ‘sho’ everywhere they turned to. The natives then lost their Berom identity to the word ‘sho’, hence they were referred to as ‘shosho’ by the Yoruba.

Another tribe in the present-day Kogi state are the Igbira whose form of greeting is ‘Tao’. ‘Tao tao’ like ‘sho sho’ has become a moniker for the Igbira folks. My very best friend so far in life, Dauda Oyibo, is a ‘Tao’. We used to tease each other a lot: He would ‘ngbati’ me and I would ‘tao’ him. Our friendship lasted for about five years and up to a point that I could speak a halting Igbira and vice versa. Curiously, whatever ‘tao’ I learnt from him has vaporised over time for lack of usage of the language after we parted ways several years ago.

Also in Kogi state is a tribe from Okun land in the old Kabba Province. Stretching from Kabba, down to Ijumu, Isanlu and Egbe, the inhabitants are referred to as Okun. Okun like sho and tao is a word of greetings in that axis, meaning pele. Hence you hear okun, okun wherever they are… at home and away. Again, I am open to clarifications since I am no great shakes in this field.

Some other tribes and people have also lost their identities to some appellations. For instance, the Offa people, and I happen to be one of them, are better known for the kind of food they love most. Offa is known for sweet potato cultivation. It is common knowledge that no Offa folks would eat pounded yam that is not laced with sweet potato… hence they are called “Ara Offa aje anamo”, meaning Offa people the sweet potato eaters.

The first time I was served the strange combination was when I was in my early teens. Having been used to the kinds of pounded yam prepared in Ghana where I was born and bred for close to 10 years, the Offa brand tasted extremely strange. When I took the first morsel, it froze in my mouth and I did not know whether to swallow it or spit it out. I rolled the morsel to one corner of the mouth and asked my cousins at the table: “What kind of pounded yam is this?” He was amused by my question. But he volunteered an answer: “It is 60 per cent yam and 40 per cent sweet potato”. I watched with an open-mouthed bewilderment as he ate the meal with gusto! In Ghana, I was used to pounded yam laced with cocoyam, or fufu made from unripe plantain and cassava pounded together.

Out of politeness, I tagged along with my cousin because we were eating from the same bowl. However, I swallowed more than half of the meal without dipping the morsels in the soup! The damn meal was too sweet for my liking. After that encounter, I avoided the meal whenever I visited home. So, whenever I hear the appellation, “the sweet potato eaters” after Offa folks, I don’t find it funny at all.

Then, there are the folks from Idomaland, called Agatu. Agatu folks were known for farming in the present-day South-west. They were commonly available for hire… very energetic and hardworking. In my younger days, I used to hear the Yoruba farmers singing this song: “Agatu ki je igbin, oku eran ni Agatu nje.” It means the Agatus don’t eat snails, the Agatus eat dead animals. Looking back now, I cannot but wonder whether their hirers expected them to be consuming live animals like the Chinese. It is this primitive habit that many believe was responsible for the emergence of Covid-19 in Wuhan.

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