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Biu: The Place, The People, Their History

By Ben Tomoloju   |   29 November 2015   |   4:24 am  

History-of-Biu--29-11-15For Dr. Bukar Usman, who retired from the Presidency as a Permanent Secretary in 1999, his new phase as an elder statesman is a vindication of the proverbial wine that grows better with age. His literary output in the recent past has been phenomenal.

The year, 2015, brings another, A HISTORY OF BIU, (Klamidas Communications Limited, Abuja; 2015), a 693-page publication containing fourteen chapters which treats a wide variety of subjects on the location, the people, their past and, in certain instances, present realities. Notably, Biu (an English corruption of ‘Viu’ – the actual pronunciation) as a city-state, was founded around 1535 by a Kanem-Bornu prince known as Yamtarawala.

The establishment of Biu was the result of a royal contest between Yamtarawala and his younger brother over the right of succession to the Kanem Bornu throne. The former, a warrior-prince lost out in a simple palace test of legitimacy and migrated with a retinue of families, fighting wars and conquering towns and villages until he arrived and settled down at Biu.

The first three chapters deal with ‘Location and Physical Features’, ‘Origin of Biu Kingdom’ and ‘Settlement History of Biu Kingdom Groups’ in that order.

The expedition of Yamtarawala, leading to the establishment of Biu Kingdom, has a modicum of mythic accounts which the author compares with that of ‘Oduduwa of the Yoruba and Bayajidda of the Hausa people of Daura.’ Written aspect of the history, though documented only as late as 1956, traces the remote ancestry of the Biu aborigines back to Kush.

Of this, J.G. Davies writes, ‘The tribes (Bura, Marghi, Kimba, etc.) were an early Kushite stratum, earlier than Kanuri or the ruling families of Biu or Shani, and they covered Biu Division being the earliest inhabitants of the area who are still there…… ‘

Drawing from Bukar Usman’s reference and relying further on Roland Oliver and J.D. Fage in ‘A Short History of Africa’, it probably means that the real antiquity of Biu could have stretched as far back as the late first millennium and early second millennium B.C. And from that point a south-westward migration from the Nubia area to the Lake Chad region commenced, culminating in the settlements peopled by those whom the author refers to as ‘indigenous people who generally spoke Bura language and lived in fairly independent communities.’

This suggestion is cautiously arrived at despite Usman’s categorical submission that ‘practically nothing is known about Biu’s (recorded) history until 1500.’ One is of the humble opinion that further research could be embarked upon concerning that period to unravel the fullness of Biu antiquity.

Mai Idris Alooma the Great popped up in this narrative, after the Yamtarawala era in what, today, would appear like a diplomatic connection. Thenceforth, the ‘Settlement History’ unfolds, spotlighting key pre-colonial settlements with piquant stories surrounding their respective origins.

Chapter Four takes the reader through ‘Traditional Administration in Biu Kingdom’, whose Traditional Ruler is reverently referred to as Kuthli. The establishment of Biu town by Kuthli Paskur and its futuristic lay-out by visionary-warrior Kuthli Mari Biya (which remains the archetypal plan of the city till this day) are explained in this chapter. It also outlines the traditional administration system as well as some historic deviations that altered the hereditary, primogenitorial order of succession to the throne. Royal burial and installation are among the traditional observances highlighted in this chapter.

The Fifth Chapter, ‘People and Languages of Biu Kingdom’ is literally a showcase of ethnic plurality where the Babur, Bura, Tera, Kanakuru, Chibok, Marghi, Pidlimdi, Jara, Komberi and Fulani live together. Among all these, there is something unique about the ethnic duality called Babur/Bura.

Since reading Dr. Usman’s autobiography, HATCHING HOPES, one has never failed to be intrigued by the undifferentiated differentiatedness of the two-in-one ethnic group. While the other eight are non-homogeneous, the Babur/Bura are unequivocally referred to as one and the same people who speak the same language with only slight difference in pronunciation.

Chapter Six is based on ‘Cultural Practices’ of the Kingdom ranging from folktales through tribal marks, which is running out of fashion nowadays, to marriage tradition. The practice of the Native Doctor is mentioned with poetic relish. ‘The forest, not the pharmacy shop’, writes the author, ‘is the traditional healer’s source of medicine.’ One remarkable point about these traditional medicare providers is their humaneness in practice. ‘They accepted whatever the patient could afford which, at times, was no more than a chicken to be offered for sacrifice.’ The chapter also reveals, under the section on the traditional barber who carries out male circumcision, that ‘no female circumcision takes place among Biu communities.’ This is a noble precursor to the current advocacy against female genital mutilation.

Chapter Seven offers a refreshing insight into the advent of the British colonialists in Nigeria. The transitional phase from tradition to modernity has been a major topic in the history of African communities, some of which – like Opobo, Benin, Kano, Lagos and Itsekiri – have experienced brutal expeditions from the British.

One notable point of interest about the dynamics of change in the colonisation process in Biu – as the book shows – is the tacticality of Kuthli Mari Garga Kwamting and his son, Mai Ari Dogo, who succeeded him, in negotiating power-concession and power-retention without endangering the Biu polity with any threat of war. In this process, under the Native Authority/Indirect Rule system, Biu rulership and, by extension, the community grew in status with expanded territory which later became an Emirate. The Kuthli was, thereafter, addressed as an Emir.

Chapter Eight elaborates on the Native Authority Administration, the sub-division of Biu into five Districts, protocols, functions, tax collection, establishment of the Native Police and other developments, based on the systematic upgrading of the Biu monarch. The political authority of the Emir and his Council of traditional or public administrators flourished during the colonial era and the First Republic. However, such political profile began to wane in all traditional institutions across the country with the advent of military rule in January, 1966, until it was virtually wiped out by the Local Government Reforms of 1976.

Focusing on ‘Biu City, Districts and Local Government Areas’, the Ninth Chapter goes a little bit back to the pre-colonial years, especially during the reign of Kuthli Mari Biya (1873-1891), who is regarded as ‘the first demographer of Biu town.’ He established the plan on which the town is patterned even today. Infrastructural transformations have since taken place, but his ward-centred town-planning continues to drive new physical development over a hundred years after.

And, despite evidences of modernity in terms of social amenities – roads, housing, potable water, electricity, telecommunications, schools, etc. – within the last hundred years, the author frowns at the unsavoury profile of the Local Government in the new political order. He points, for instance, at a situation where between 1970 and 2012 (about 42 years) only eight out of 33 Chairmen of Biu Local Government were elected. ‘The rest,’ he concludes, ‘were appointees of the state government which tagged them as “chairmen”, “sole-administrator” or “caretaker”.

The reader will particularly enjoy, in this chapter, the story of Dorugu and Bukar Abiga (a.k.a. Abbega). They were Hausa and Marghi respectively. They were slaves who ended up in England and performed the role of Hausa-language teachers to their bosses. They rose from slavery to positions of eminence.

Abbega, a Marghi from Bornu, was eventually appointed by the colonial administration as the Chief of Lokoja ‘when it served as the capital of Northern Nigeria and, briefly, in 1914, as the capital of Lord Lugard’s newly amalgamated Nigeria.’

Abbega’s story, with its inspiring, cosmopolitan appeal, must have radiated around the old Bornu Province, including Biu Division just as that of Samuel Ajayi Crowther – whom Abbega actually interacted with – during his Bishopry in West Africa.

While highlighting the contributions of the missionaries in the field of agriculture in the past as well as recent efforts by the federal and state governments to give it a boost, the lack of interest among the younger generation in farming is still a source of serious concern.

Definitely, without romanticising, there is much to celebrate in terms of the commitment of the grassroots populace to agriculture and commerce, even ideologically. The Tera community in Wuyo, for instance, engaged in a system of exchanging goods and services, reflecting a paradigm of traditional African ideology of communalism extolled in his lifetime by the Nwalimu, Dr. Julius Nyerere, first President of Tanzania. That was in a pre-literate period, and it paid off by adding value to life.

What obtains now, as deduced from the book, is a legion of challenges – virtual neglect of agriculture by the younger generation in spite of the innovations by the Kashim Shettimas and Akinwunmi Adesinas, climate change, insurgency and refugee crisis as well as a pan-Nigerian syndrome of arrested potentials. And this is where the writer seems, in an authorial aside, to be sounding a note of warning, reiterating the need to develop local industries in all ramifications – not only agriculture – to avoid economic doom.

Chapter Twelve treats the subject: ‘Politics and Social Development’, opening with a brief history of Nigerian nationalism from the pioneering days of Herbert Macaulay when primordial differences leading to inter-tribal wars were sunk and Nigerian nationalist elites collaborated to face a common enemy; the colonialists. Upon the attainment of independence came a reversal of the gains of nationalism. Mutual suspicion and self-preservation take hold of the political class, and it has been one manifestation of primordial cleavages or the other, dressed in new rhetoric, that Nigeria and Nigerians have had to contend with.

At the local level, the author recalls how a battle of supremacy broke out between Biu and Fika over whose Emir was ‘superior’ in the ‘order of precedence’. Another is the boundary dispute between Biu and Damboa. The two examples are a microcosmic manifestation of larger national realities which, in no small measure, stultify the wheel of progress.

On ‘Values and Lifestyle’, in Chapter Thirteen, the author touches on some social values in the lives of people. They include respect for family values, abhorrence of sexual immorality, dignity of labour, sense of community, reverence for ancestors and respect for elders. Of course, religion plays a vital role in character development. Thus and in view of the melting-pot nature of Biu and the ingrained humanism among the people, religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence are taken very seriously as being fundamental to beneficial interpersonal and group relationships. Bukar Usman refers to the Yoruba and the Zuru as bearing similar attributes with the Biu in this respect.

The chapter also highlights the Community’s modes of dressing, social organisation, skill acquisition for youth empowerment and the impact of modern technology on relationships. For instance, many young people in Biu now have access to the internet, and ICT ‘has broken the traditional barriers on the interaction of bachelors and spinsters.’ Thus, the role of the traditional match-maker is largely eliminated during the process of courtship.

Bukar Usman, like a newsman, breaks in his book, the culturally alarming news – at least it’s news to me – that the Durbar, one of Nigeria’s most dignified, colourful and edifying showpieces in communal carnival art, has not been held in Biu in the last thirty years. Could it be because of the feudalistic ideology and martial motif that runs through it? Tribal wars belong in the past. But the prestige and dignity of culture and the arts, the gracefulness of bodies in rhythmic motion, the agility of riders and their horses, the display of economic prosperity in flowing linearity and a loud language of grandeur under the regal inspiration of the traditional ruler, should not be thrown away with the bath-water. Even as a personal advocacy, in response to the ‘news’ from Bukar Usman, one would ask the situation to be redressed as soon as practicable.

The story of Biu Robin Hood, Malam Gulani who, in the 1960s, robbed the rich to pay the wretched, is one of those human interest bits that spice up this history book. It is the kind of historical experience – except for our overly conservative tendencies – that can be developed into a rich literary material, shorn of undue sensationalism, while exploring its paradoxes.

The last chapter of A HISTORY OF BIU is about ‘Environment and Tourism’. It gives an account of the Emirate’s flora and fauna. The author reveals even the history behind some of these natural objects. For instance, the neem tree which is natural to Biu was presented as a special gift to the Saudis by the late Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello. According to the author, it now ‘provides shades at the Arafat in Mecca.’

Among the variety of tourist attractions in Biu, are Tilla Hill, the highest point in the Emirate, and Tilla Lake, which dried up a couple of decades back and resurged in recent years. There is also the mysterious underground stream which is said to connect with the lake in a mythical narrative by the folks. But Dr. Bukar Usman delved into the secret behind the lake’s resurgence and found out during his investigation what the people called a mystery was, in fact, science at work. A German researcher from the University of Frankfurt, working on a joint project with the University of Maiduguri, was the one who drilled the bottom of the lake and water gushed out.

So far, this review has only attempted to expose the reader to some of the key facts contained in A HISTORY OF BIU. There are, however, other matters to consider.

Concerning sources of history – oral, dug up or written, Bukar Usman clearly acknowledges the efforts of foreigners at documenting aspects of Biu history. It was a good job, but limited in terms of chronological range, covering only between 1850- 1960. Oral history and correlative archival materials make up for the massive chunks that the foreigners just could not access.

And this is garnered through exhaustive research, personally implemented or supervised by the writer. So helpful, too, are works of distinguished scholars like Professors Bala Usman, Nur Alkali and Sa’ad Abubakar on Biu.

Evaluation of the pattern of presentation in each chapter can only be subjected to a certain measure of approximation. There is no hard and fast rule about it because writing in any form, apart from being driven by facts of life, flourishes with inspiration, sometimes in spontaneity.

Yet a certain pattern is observable in A HISTORY OF BIU. It tends to open with traditional antecedents and proceeds to reflect neighbouring influences, with windows of discourse opening to the Islamic and Western. It goes on to discuss the dynamics of change – for instance from traditional to modern – on a dialectical basis. The author engages in comparative analysis, drawing relevant matters and ideas from Nigeria and other parts of the world. The book is profoundly enriched by this method. Sometimes in the course of ‘telling’ the story, he makes comments, not in the manner of editorialising, but to shed more light on the issue at stake with all the implications.

Notwithstanding, the author does not shy away from controversial subjects – a mark of scholarly integrity –  either within the matrix of the very history of the subject he is treating or as juxtapository reference to happenings in other climes. An example of the first is found in the Biu-Fika contest of supremacy over who, among the traditional rulers of the two Emirates is ‘superior’ in the ‘order of precedence’. Another is the Biu-Damboa land-dispute.

Controversies on the origin of dynasties are exemplified by the passage on Muhammadu Abu Adamu’s dismissal as mere fiction various historical accounts on the origin of the Seven Hausa States, while affirming that the one contained in the Girgam is the authentic version.

Another is the controversy recently sparked off by some Bini elites on the origin of Yoruba dynasty and documented by I.O. Umodiagbontaen in his book, THE ORIGIN OF BENIN PEOPLE AND ITS DYNASTY (2011). It appears, against all known facts and logic, as an attempt to rewrite the history of the Yoruba. Considered offensive by the Yoruba intelligentsia, the Bini story seems to ride on that theory of a simple ‘germ of truth’ which Bukar Usman invokes in the analysis of certain issues on myths of origin.

In the case of the Yoruba, that germ of truth that the Bini want to explore is the undenied fact that there were aboriginal ward rulers in Ile-Ife who rotated suzereignty among themselves before the advent of Oduduwa. (See Akinjogbin (Ed.) THE ORIGIN OF A RACE; IFE, Sunray, Port Harcourt, 1992.) When Oduduwa arrived, it was Obatala (not Orunmila – the High Priest, as implied by a Bini source) that was the political head. And this is just as Yamtarawala met other community chiefdoms in Biu before grafting them into a powerful nation and was enthroned by popular consent.

Moreover, Oliver and Fage state: ‘The coherently preserved traditions of Benin indicate that its dynasty was founded by immigrants from Ife… The settlement of Ife was certainly older.’ Further verification could be done with the carbon-dating records of ancient Ife art which, according to Olapade, ‘flourished between the 8th and 16th centuries’. Empiricism, applied to an issue of this nature proves more reliable than the mythicisation of history, which could amount to sheer tendentiousness and distortion.

So much for how much thoughts a good book could provoke. It is the hallmark of A HISTORY OF BIU because the author vaults cerebrally above provincialism. Research into the subject is comprehensive just as it is viewed from a global perspective.

The author makes ample use of statistical information. Tables, maps, graphic and pictorial illustration are generously used. They are complimentary to the author’s enterprise and complementary to the text without being superfluous. They certainly enhance the aesthetic appeal of the book.

A HISTORY OF BIU is written in a highly intelligible prose. It is a landmark addition to literatures on Nigerian History and one that should be read, not only by scholars, administrators and students, but the general readership.



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