My February 15, 2020 column with the above title attracted more attention than I thought it would. First, readers drew my attention to the omission of Sani Abacha’s name from the list of past heads of state.The omission was inadvertent. Abacha was a Kanuri man who was raised in Kano. His prominent Kanuri facial marks were the most visible stamps of his Kanuri ethnic identity.
Although Nnamdi Azikiwe was Nigeria’s first president, he had no executive powers. It would have been duplicative to list his name along with Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s as Nigeria’s heads of state between 1960 and 1963.
I regard Ernest Shonekan as an extension of IBB’s regime. He neither won (or even rigged) an election nor staged a coup—the two primary ways people got to power in Nigeria—and merely ruled for IBB by proxy. In any case, the Igbo and Egba/Yoruba identities of Azikiwe and Shonekan are not in doubt.
So I’d rephrase the first paragraph of my concluding thoughts to, “A distribution of the paternal ethnic identities of Nigeria’s presidents and heads of state shows that the Hausa and the Fulani each had two, and Yoruba, Igbo, Gere, Angas, Kanuri, Ogbia, Tuareg, and Etsako (or Afenmai) each had one.
There was also a lot of controversy regarding the paternal identity of Murtala Muhammad. One reader from Kano wrote to say that “Murtala is not from Auchi but rather a Fulani of Gyanawa clan in Kano.You may wish to refer to a biography of the Gyanawa written by Ibrahim Ado Kurawa, titled ‘GENEALOGY OF THE GYANAWA.”
Yet another reader from Kano rehabilitated the old myth that Murtala’s father was a Berom from Plateau State. And someone sent me a scanned copy of a June 10, 2007 Sun Newspaper interview where the late Major General David Ejoor claimed on page 13 of the paper that Murtala was Urhobo on his paternal side. “When he was head of state, his father came to see him,” he claimed. “Then he told his father, ‘All these years, you did not care for me. Now that I am head of state, you come. Go away. If I come down, I will kill you and I don’t want to commit murder.”
He claimed that Murtala’s father, who was supposedly called Irue, was a railway worker in Kano who married a Kano woman with whom he went to his hometown but whom he later divorced after marrying another woman. Murtala’s mother, he claimed, went back to Kano.
“After Murtala had finished primary school, he left for Kano to meet his mother. From there, he changed his surname to Muhammed, which is his mother’s father’s name,” he claimed. “So Murtala was an Urhobo man and that is why in his coup, he did not do anything against me. He knew we share the same Urhobo blood.”
I had never read this nor heard anyone even remotely suggest that Murtala Mohammed was paternally Urhobo. But it’s highly implausible that a Christian from the south would be allowed to “marry” a Muslim woman from Kano in the 1930s when Murtala was born.
Murtala Mohammed obviously doesn’t have the phenotypical features of a Fulani person, and could easily pass for a member of any of the ethnic groups often attributed to him. What is indisputable, though, is that, having been born and raised in Kano, he was culturally Hausa. I hope a living relative of his can intervene to put the question of his paternal ancestry to rest.
Lastly, Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, whose family I referenced tangentially in the article, wrote to say that although the paternal ancestry of the Baba-Ahmed family in Zaria is indeed traceable to Mauritania where Tuaregs (also called Moors or Berbers) are more than half of the population, they are actually Arabs. Read his response below:
My name is Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed. I just read your column in Tribune on the ethnic origins of Nigeria’s past heads of state. You made reference to our family, Baba-Ahmed of Zaria, asserting that it is Tuareg, not Fulani as is mistakenly generally assumed.
I thought I should correct the error, believing that it was a genuine mistake on your part. Our father was Arab from the Talaba Clan and Shingit in Mauritania. Most people familiar with centuries of history of Arabs in Mauritania and their origins in Saudi Arabia will recognize this description.
It is important to make this correction because, as you are aware, it is wrong in Islam to attribute wrong paternity or identity if the facts to avoid doing this are available. This is an ancestry we are both humbled by, and grateful for, the same way we are proud of our Nigerian nationality and identity.