Nigeria – Africa's Linguistic Tower of Babel?

Every Person From the North = Hausa

I was speaking to some friends recently and they pointed me to some online debates among Nigerians who “refused to believe” that there are 250 ethno-linguistic groups in Nigeria. Even those that concede there are 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria, do not realise that a great many of those 250 are in the north.

There is a tendency among southern Nigerians to ignorantly refer to any northerner as “Hausa”. The recent furore regarding the Jos murders, General Domkat Bali and Major-General Saleh Maina (GOC of the army’s 3rd armoured division in Jos) is a case in point. There has been an explosive debate with many Christians, middle belters and southerners accusing Maina of pro Fulani bias because he is “Hausa-Fulani”. The ignorance of the furore is palpable, because Maina is NOT Hausa or Fulani. He is Kanuri, but has fallen victim to the generic mindset of “every northerner is Hausa”. Many southern Nigerians ignorantly label Nigeria’s past northern leaders like Abacha, Babangida, and Abubakar as “Hausa” when in fact NONE of these men was Hausa. I am sure that many are also unaware that Nigeria’s Senate President David Mark (i.e. citizen no. 3 in Nigeria) is from the Idoma ethnic group in the middle belt.

The Maina/Bali controversy is not the topic of this article. I hope our Nigerian and friends from other countries reading this will be enlightened by the diversity in their own country – especially in the north. A few sobering statistic (I know some of you do not like stats, but I cannot help it right now):

The Koma and all those “Minorities”

1) About 700-800 languages are spoken in Nigeria and Cameroon alone. Two countries with less than 1% of the world’s population speak over 10% of ALL languages in the world.

2) Which is the most linguistically diverse region in Nigeria? The North. Many do not realise that there are states in Nigeria where one encounters different ethnic groups/languages as one moves from one town to the next. Some groups like the “Big Three”, the Tiv, Kanuri and Ijaw number in the millions. However, others are in the mere thousands and are so obscure that the federal government might not even be aware of their existence.

3) States like Adamawa, Bauchi, Plateau and Taraba are reputed to have over 50 (yes, I said FIFTY) ethnic groups EACH.

4) Who reading this has nostalgic memories of the Koma people? With approximately 50,000 people, this was the ethnic group that remained “undiscovered” in the mountainous highland area to the north-east, living a naked Pagan lifestyle up in the mountains with no interaction with modern society. There were “discovered” in 1986 during the administration of Colonel Yohanna Madaki – then Military Governor of Gongola State. Early missionaries who tried to convert them had to go naked so as not to make them feel uncomfortable around clothed strangers.

Christians North, Muslim South

A few days ago, Libyan leader Colonel Ghaddafi advocated splitting Nigeria between Muslims and Christians. Sounds plausible right? Should be easy since the “north is Muslim and south is Christian”? Wrong. The Muslim north/Christian south discourse has been a massive myth for decades. Some northern states like Kaduna, and southern states like Oyo have mixed Muslim and Christian populations. Let’s not even mention Kwara state. Aside from having sizeable Christian and Muslim populations, no one can even agree whether it is in the north or south!

Ask anyone about the far north western corner of Nigeria, and they are likely to think of it as the home area of President Yar’Adua and as the area of Nigeria where Muslim Sharia law started. Zamfara state in the far north west was the first Nigerian state to adopt Sharia law when it was governed by Ahmed Sani. Yet right next door the first footsteps of Sharia in Nigeria, there is an indigenous Christian minority ethnic group. Who remembers Colonel Dauda Musa Komo – former Military Governor of Rivers State and nemesis of Ken Saro-Wiwa? Komo, and other famous individuals like Sani Sami, Ishaya Bamaiyi and Tanko Ayuba are from the minority Zuru Christian area in what is now Kebbi State.

Nigerians are unaware of the diversity in their own country because many do not have experience of interaction with the numerically smaller ethnicities. Most Nigerians who travel outside their home areas do so to get to big cities like Abuja and Lagos. It is rare (except for NYSC) to find Nigerians living in the rural/local parts outside their home area.

Nigeria – Earth’s Tower of Babel

Nigeria is Earth’s answer to the biblical Tower of Babel. A kaleidoscope of different cultures, languages and labyrinth diversity. Let us open our eyes and minds to the breathtaking diversity of the area called Nigeria. Before you call that fellow across the road an [Hausa][Fulani][Yoruba][Igbo], have a hard think, you might be surprised at what you find out…

Till next time,


Written by
Max Siollun
Join the discussion

  • My point exactly when the debate comes up as to the splitting of Nigeria!!

    Would it be on ethnic lines? According to the old 3-4 region or older 2 protectorate basis? Religious?

    One big reason as to why the average Nigerian is oblivious to who we are is educational or the lack of mass education. Within the current education system ethnic identity is officially shunned-Q: where are you from or what is your ethnicity? A: I’m a Nigerian!

  • Nice article, Max. The only problem is that the term “unity in diversity” has been tabooed in present day Nigeria, mainly because most times, minority groups fall behind the main groups once its time to enjoy certain benefits, then try to distinguish themselves from their larger neighbours when the going gets tough.

    Also, there’s one thing we must all observe, which is the existence of sub-groups or autonomous dialects that exist within some tribes, especially the major ones. For instance, Igbo has as many as 20 sub-groups which include Ngwa, Abriba, Ikwerre, Izzi, Ezza, Ahoada, Anioma ( Igbos of Delta state who currently rule the entire Igbo nation ), Onitsha, Aro and many others. They can’t be rightly classified as separate ethnic groups, but indeed, the diversity in some of the sub-groups and dialects make one tempted to classify them as languages on their own, as some don’t understand the other unless when central Igbo is spoken.

    I have lived in the North, so I understand what you are saying about their “hidden” diversity, but like I said before, the minority tribes who are not even sub-groups often cue behind the major tribe when the going is good, so others refuse to distinguish them from same major tribe when they appeal for such differentiation. A steady idnetity is needed.