2.4c(ii) “The [Okun] Yoruba and the Peoples of the Niger-Benue Confluence”

     Author’s Note: The focus of this work is on contacts between the Okun Yoruba and other groups over a broad time frame. It was written in 2003, and was intended to be a chapter in an edited volume titled Yoruba Frontiers. It reflects my longstanding interest in the Confluence area (broadly defined) as an area of considerable cultural and economic contact and circulation. However, the work for which the chapter was written has never been published (as of December 2020).

The chapter contains a great deal of information on the period covering the nineteenth century and the turn of the twentieth century, in which slavery, slave raiding, the extraction of slaves as tribute, the slave trade, and the escape/return of slaves are prominent features of the narrative.

The work is reproduced in its entirety here, because any attempt to extract just the slavery-related material runs the risk of producing a lack of coherence and of introducing errors due to the removal of some of the endnotes included in the original. In addition, reproducing the work in its entirety here may be my only opportunity to preserve it for future students and scholars.

     For a published work utilising the same material, but focusing on themes and questions designed to stimulate future research, see Ann O’Hear, “The History of the Okun Yorùbá: Research Directions,” in Toyin Falola and Ann Genova, eds., Yorùbá Identity and Power Politics (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2006, 111-126.

The [Okun] Yoruba and the Peoples of the Niger-Benue Confluence

©Ann O’Hear 2003

Ann O’Hear

The peoples of the Niger-Benue Confluence area include various Northeast (or “O-kun”) Yoruba groups and a variety of others, including Nupe, Ebira, and Igala.i In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the word “Yoruba” was used to describe the more central Yoruba peoples, a distinction being made, both by Western-educated Nigerians and by colonial officers,ii between these and the peripheral northeastern groups who spoke dialects of the Yoruba language. At the same period, it is very unlikely that the Yoruba speakers of the confluence area had any notion of a “pan-Yoruba” consciousness that would include them: even a Bunu ex-slave, who returned to the confluence as a missionary in the mid-nineteenth century, differentiated between his own people and the “Yoruba,” though he admitted that their languages were “almost alike.”iii In the course of the twentieth century, however, the Northeast Yoruba came to claim a connection with the wider Yoruba world, very probably with the intention of counterbalancing their precarious and isolated position as Yoruba speakers and largely non-Muslims in what was, until 1967, the Northern Region of Nigeria.iv

The Northeast Yoruba (Owe, Oworo, Bunu, Ijumu, and Yagba) have been neglected by academic historians and much of their history is obscure.v This chapter concentrates on the Northeast Yoruba closest to the confluence, namely the Owe, Oworo, and Bunu (including Ikiri), using published and other material available to the author to sketch an outline of their interactions with other groups, including the Nupe, Ebira, and Igala. Much more research, however, will be needed before this outline can be satisfactorily fleshed out.

Origins, Contacts, and Connections

It seems likely that the Owe, Oworo, and Bunu have lived near the confluence for a considerable period of time.vi Their longevity in the area is included in the suggestion that the Northeast Yoruba were the “‘proto-Yoruba,’ indigenous to the land and adhering to a political organization which characterized the whole language group before it became ‘the heritage of Oduduwa.’”vii For Ade Obayemi, linguistic and other evidence suggests that “the ultimate origins of the Yoruba-speaking peoples are to be located not very far from the Niger-Benue confluence area.”viii However, while this hypothesis is interesting, it needs a great deal more linguistic and other investigation.ix

Obayemi has argued that the Yoruba and the Igala were once immediate neighbors to the west of the confluence, noting, for example, surviving Igala settlements on the right (west) bank, including Ajaokuta and Geregu.x In contrast, many of the present-day neighbors of the Northeast Yoruba, including the Nupe-speaking Cekpã, Kupa, and Kakanda and the Ebira of the Okene and riverine areas, seem to have been relatively recent settlers on the right bank, mostly, it seems, crossing the Niger and/or Benue in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was a period of considerable population movement owing much to the aggression of Nupe and Fulani (Nupe and Nassarawa Emirates) rulers.xi

The Northeast Yoruba, including the Owe, Oworo, Bunu, Ijumu, and Yagba groups, reveal much linguistic and cultural similarity (along with some variation). According to Eva Krapf-Askari,

A number of cultural traits are more or less common to all the Okun tribes, though differently patterned in each. Thus, in the field of traditional religious belief and practice, there is the public worship of a category of spirits known as Ebora, who are thought of as inhabiting lonely and inaccessible places, especially the tops of the low but steep inselbergs in which the region abounds, and to function as protectors of social groups of varying span; the subsidiary cult of Egungun; the existence of respected and feared women’s possession cults . . . ; the almost complete absence of the traditional Yoruba orisa. (Ogun is honoured by hunters and blacksmiths; Ifa diviners are freely consulted, but seem to be regarded more in the light of skilled fortune-tellers than exponents of esoteric knowledge.) Aside from Ebora and Egungun rites, the most important public ritual is that associated with funerals. . . . As regards political organization, the most noticeable characteristic is a system of promotional title-taking based on wealth, very different from the lineage-hereditary titles and dynastic sacred kingship of the Western Region Yoruba. These title systems, as well as certain other structural features, show a curiously consistent tendency to be arranged in sets of three.xii

The Northeast Yoruba groups were noted for the use of red cloth for funerals, manufactured in Bunu and traded to the Owe, Oworo, and Ijumu (as well as to the Ebira).xiii

The Northeast Yoruba display some similarities with the wider Yoruba world, as well as some differences. In contrast with most other Yoruba, they lack what has been called “[t]he institution of sacred kingship.”xiv They are organized into “mini-states” that are very different in size from the large-scale kingdoms typical of other parts of Yorubaland, though not much different in size from the Ekiti polities and the old Egba kingdoms. They lack much of the Yoruba pantheon, but they do recognize Ifa, Egungun, and Ogun. They share some linguistic and cultural traits with southeast Yorubaland.xv

The confluence area (broadly defined) seems to have been one of major cultural and economic sharing, of contact and circulation over centuries. It is suggestive that the area has long been known for brass-working, “the Jukun, Igbirra, the north-east Yoruba and Nupe being acknowledged experts.”xvi  Other cultural circulation centers around cloth, as Obayemi reports:

[t]he red cloth used for burials and for the regalia of the masquerades by the north-east Yoruba is called ukpoxvii—the Edo and Igala word for cloth—and Ikiri traditions claim that these were introduced from Idah and later on traded to the Igbirra. The fabrics used in its weaving were scarlet, probably imported by the Europeans to Benin but obtained via Idah.xviii

Obayemi also notes political and religious connections:

The dynasties of the Igbirra kingdoms of Panda and Igu, the rulers of the Alago kingdom of Doma, Attama and Eze of the Nsukka area in north-west Igboland on the border of the Igala, as well as the Oku of Ikiri in north-east Yorubaland claim either that their founding ancestors came from Idah or derive the legitimacy of their offices from the Atta of Igala. Dynasties apart, the clans of the Igbirra [Ebira] Tao (Okene area), the Osomari Igbo south of Onitsha, some clans of the Idoma and Agatu claim migrations from Igala territory.xix

The personnel behind the Egu-afia of the Igala, the Eku-oba of the Igbirra, [the] Alekwu of the Idoma and the Egun of the . . . Abinu [Bunu] and Oworo share many things. The Igbirra ovopa, the Abinu obakpa, appear to be cognate with the Jukun Abakwa. . . . The Ekwe masquerade, sometimes described as the principal Igala masquerade, is traditionally said to have belonged to the Jukun. The long masquerade, the okula, ouna, iro and okponobi of the Abinu, Oworo, Owe and of some Ijumu towns or the Ewuna of the Bassa Nge all derive from a common tradition.

In the area of ancestor personification, the Igbirra . . . have a certain pre-eminence as founders of a cycle of these masquerades. The Igbirra . . . are mentioned as having introduced some of the masquerades to the Abinu and Oworo, while the priests to some of these masquerades orders have the clan name Adoga, a name found among Idoma speaking peoples. The powerful women’s cult Ofosi or Ohosi of the Abinu, Ikiri, Oworo, Owe, and some Ijumu towns are all said to derive from Olle in Bunu, the founder being a man who [came] from the Igala-Idoma side of the Niger some centuries ago.xx The language of this cult is not locally intelligible. The importance of the intermediary position of the Igbirra groups is further marked in the case of the Igala by the fact that the clans performing the ilo (iro among the north-east Yoruba) in the Atta’s burials are . . . clans . . . ultimately of Igbirra origin.”xxi

The Nineteenth Century

In the nineteenth century, the most visible (and decidedly brutal) forms of contact between the Northeast Yoruba and other peoples were the raids and overlordship of the Nupe-Fulani Emirate; other contacts came about  as a result of the population movements provoked by the activities of the jihadists in Nupe and Nassarawa and by trade along the River Niger.xxii The Fulani in Nupe, however, may not have initiated the raids. According to Elphinstone, raids from the Nupe kingdom had already started before the Fulani takeover: “It is largely owing to . . . Majia’s raids that the tribes in the Kabba Division are so mixed. The Yagba, Bunu, Aworo and Kakanda seem to have paid the Nupe tribute unless left sufficiently long without a visit.”xxiii

Nupe-Fulani attacks on the Owe may have begun in 1827.xxiv An early attack on the Bunu probably took place in 1832.xxv In the 1840s, raids continued. The 1841 Niger Expedition learned of a recent military campaign, a war

with the Bunu, a people between Kakanda and Nufi: some were taken captive, and others driven into the bush or to the opposite side of the river. It is said . . . that there were sent to Rabba last month, 4000 Bunu and Kakanda slaves, 1000 black cattle, and 1000 measures of cowries, being plunder taken from the countries of these people.xxvi

Referring perhaps to the same campaign, Meek reported that

Early in the forties of last century Mamudu, Malam Dendo’s son, raided Bunu country and the extreme west of the Aworo district. . . . The Aworos do not appear to have suffered from this early raid of Mamudu. They seem to have united under a strong minded chief—Okpoto of Ika—and possibly Mamudu thought it better to leave them alone. A year or two later however Masaba came in force and reduced all Aworo. . . . Okpoto was retained as paramount chief and the Lukwan Isa—Masaba’s Son—was formally installed at Ika as the Filani ajele.xxvii

In the 1860s, Nupe-Fulani overlordship over various peoples of the confluence was reaffirmed:

Between 1860 and 1870 the Nupe Filani under the Emir Masaba had pretty well overrun all that country now called the Kabba Division. The Aworo, Kakanda, Yagba, Bunu, Egbirrasxxviii and Akokos were all overrun in turn. . . . In many of these raids the pagan Igbona Chiefs joined. It is said that the Olupo of Ajasse helped to raid the Aworo, and the Oloru of . . . Oke Ora the Igbirras.xxix

Although it was mostly the Nupe-Fulani who controlled the Northeast Yoruba and the Ibadan and other Yoruba who operated in Akoko and elsewhere, this was not a cut and dried arrangement. Nupe influence increased in Akoko, Igbomina raided the Oworo, and the names of Ibadan generals are recorded in the traditions of the Northeast Yoruba.xxx

In the final years of Nupe-Fulani hegemony, it appears that raids on the Northeast Yoruba increased again despite their tributary status,xxxi while at the same time large amounts of tribute also continued to be demanded. As a clergyman traveling with Bishops Tugwell and Phillips in 1894 reported,

At Ayeri, a town close to Kabba, the king came to call on us . . . and told us the English king was the ruler of the world, and he besought us white men to come and help him. He said that four years ago, on his coming to the throne, the Nupes came and took away 300 of his people. He told us that oppression has been the rule here for forty years; that at first the Nupes only demanded couriers [cowries?], then farm produce, and that now they will have slaves as well. As all their own slaves are gone as tribute, they have to give their own children, and many, after giving their wives and children for tribute, have left the town and not come back—among others his own brother and cousin; that there are hardly any young people in the country, and that their nation is becoming extinct.xxxii

Tribute of various types was extracted, including cowries, farm produce, textiles, soldiers, and slaves. Generally speaking, it seems that cowries and other products were demanded at first, and that slaves became important later when cowries were progressively devalued and when other goods could not meet the value of the tribute desired.xxxiii The experience of the Oworo may have been typical. Once they had been “reduced” by Masaba and his army, Okpoto had been “retained as paramount chief,” and the Lukwan Isa had been installed as Fulani ajele,

Tribute was fixed as 200 cowries per man. There were no demands for slaves and there was no undue oppression. . . . During the reigns of Umoru and Maliki [1873-95] the Aworos continued to pay the tribute imposed—more reluctantly each year as the demands of Bida became more rapacious. The tribute was raised annually  until it became a poll tax of 10,000 cowries and when the tribe was unable to meet this tax it was invited to send slaves in lieu of cash. In Maliki’s time the demand for slaves had become unlimited.xxxiv

In some places, such as “Ayeri” (see above), the demands may have been so exorbitant that slave supplies dried up and the overlords had to revert to demands for other types of goods. A chief in Ikiri-Bunu reported to a researcher that “[i]t came to a time when we could not get people for the Nupe to be taken away to Bida . . . [then] they said that we should begin to pay money as well as our locally woven cloth.”xxxv

The tributary areas also had to supply soldiers to assist the emirate armies on campaign.xxxvi A further form of tribute was extracted when wealthy and prominent individuals died, as exemplified by the treatment of the chiefs of the Oworo. When Okpoto died (dated to 1854), “[t]he Lukwan proceeded to administer the dead chief’s estate—a form of robbery which added vast sums to the incomes of the Filani chiefs.”xxxvii The next chief was deposed and replaced by Abba (Aba). When Abba died in 1864, it was recorded that “all his property went to Masaba in Bida.”xxxviii He was succeeded by Ajetto (Ajeto), who died in about 1895. Little of Ajetto’s great wealth apparently ever reached his heirs, for the emir in Bida

sent the Benu to administer Ajetto’s estate. As a preliminary offering the Aworos presented 15 slaves, 400 dane guns, a houseful of powder, and three houses full of cowries to the Emir. Administrations then took almost as long as they do now. The Benu spent 3 years over this one, the total fees paid to Bida being just over 10,00 [sic: should read 1,000?] slaves!”xxxix

Although these reports clearly illustrate the rapaciousness of the Nupe-Fulani Emirate, the accounts of the death and estate of Ajetto equally clearly reveal the profitability of accommodation with the Fulani, at least during an individual collaborator’s lifetime, if not for his heirs. At Ajetto’s burial, “about 20 slaves were slaughtered. Some of his wives were also slaughtered and others were buried alive. . . . Several little boys and girls were also entombed. . . . Precious stones and other valuables belonging to the dead chief were also buried with him, and six cases of gin.”xl

There was certainly resistance to Nupe-Fulani depredations, especially in the early period of Fulani raids. Many of the fortifications in Northeast Yoruba, including those of the Owe settlements and of various towns in Bunu, date back to this early period.xli And the Oworo under Okpoto united in the face of Mamudu’s raid in the early 1840s, though they were soon “reduced” thereafter. The Owe (apart from Okaba, or Kabba) resisted or revolted under “Ogun Gberi” at some unspecified time.xlii However, among the Owe, Oworo, and Bunu there seems to have been no military resistance of the scale and tenacity of that offered by the Akoko (to the south) in the late 1870s and by the Ijumu, Akoko, and Yagba in alliance in the 1890s.xliii

Accommodation to the  Nupe-Fulani was displayed by various chiefs and leaders. It might, however, be active in nature, as in the case of the Oworo chief, Agboshi, who is said to have succeeded Okpoto and, hearing (with regard to the civil war then raging in the Nupe-Fulani Emirate) “that Masaba had had to retire to Ilorin, he decided to throw in his lot with Umoru Maiyaki,” while “Abba chief of Agbaja preferred to remain loyal to Masaba.” Unfortunately for Agboshi, however, “the strife which arose ended in the deposition of Agboshi, on Masaba’s return to Nupe country,” and the accession of Abba.xliv

In Bunu, “upstart” chiefs became coordinators and assistant coordinators of tribute collection.xlv No doubt some of these were among the Bunu chiefs who converted to Islam, presumably in part at least as a gesture of accommodation to their Fulani masters.xlvi Their accommodation was rewarded. A Bunu informant explains that the Nupe-Fulani had “devised a method of paying our chiefs every month on the basis of their success in persuading villagers to contribute people. It was not easy to stop because by stopping this practice, the chiefs would not have their monthly salary. If that happened, where would they get money to eat?”xlvii

The Owe settlement of Kabba and especially its chief (the Obaro) cooperated with the Nupe-Fulani, who used Kabba as the headquarters for their forces.xlviii In 1897, when George Goldie and his Royal Niger Company forces entered Kabba, the Obaro did a swift about-turn, transferring his accommodation immediately to the British. As Goldie and his force came through the town,

the chief and leading people threw themselves on their knees before him, and thanked him for having rid them of their oppressors. . . . this demonstration must be taken for what it is worth, as far as concerns the old chief, who would have welcomed either side impartially. He is known to have received a subsidy for collecting so many slaves and tribute from his own people.xlix

For many people, withdrawal was the only available form of resistance to Fulani raids. Various settlements moved to the tops of steep hills, refusing to come down until well into the twentieth century. Some people withdrew to other “inaccessible places,” “caves and rock-shelters as well as . . . the patches of rain and gallery forest where visibility was limited and cavalry movements difficult.”l Others fled across the Niger to the left (east) bank.li In the late 1850s, many Bunu people were residing at Gbebe on the left bank, having left their home area to avoid Fulani raids and engage in tradelii Some towns and villages were deserted,  their inhabitants having fled or been taken as slaves. When missionary Obadiah Thomas journeyed to Bunu in the 1870s, he found the “remains of ruinous villages” and noted that his party traveled behind Budan (or Budon: a Kakanda town on the Niger) almost all day before coming across a single small farm village.liii

Some towns, however, increased in size. Lokoja was founded and became a center of population at the confluence, attracting refugees from its hinterland.liv Kabba, Michael Mason suggests, also grew: “as an administrative centre . . . it attracted traders as well as soldiers and other clients connected with Nupe over-rule.”lv Seymour Vandeleur, however, observing Kabba town in 1897, reported that it was

evidently a shadow of what it has been once upon a time. The mud wall plainly shows the former extent of the town, over a mile from side to the other, but it has been so reduced by raids and slavery for the past century, that now there cannot be more than 5000 inhabitants. It had been a sore tax on the inhabitants, having this war camp of the Fulahs at their very doors.lvi

While this account may reflect the intensification of tribute collection in the late years of the nineteenth century, it is impossible to judge the previous population of Kabba town without earlier reports to consult. And the large space inside the walls may simply reflect the common practice of including farm and pasture land within them.

It is also difficult to assess the overall effect of the Nupe-Fulani raids and collection of tribute in slaves on the population of the area. The account of “Ayeri” in 1894, quoted above, in which the chief claimed that they had given all their own slaves as tribute and now had to give their own wives and children, and said their “nation is becoming extinct,” suggests a large-scale population loss. So does Ade Obayemi, using a number of arguments. First, in common with the chief of Ayeri, Obayemi points out that “tribute in human beings, paid to Bida could not be met by the number of slaves locally owned nor by natural increase.” Second, he argues, population distribution today is uneven, and he suggests that the larger centers, collaborator settlements that were spared the worst ravages suffered by their neighbors, reflect what would have been the normal pre-nineteenth-century demographic pattern. Third, many lineages and sub-lineages are remembered but extinct, some of these being “‘towns’ in some senses of the word.”lvii  These arguments are strong, especially the first and the third, but there are also problems. It is impossible to discount Michael Mason’s point that we do not know “either the absolute population or the population growth rate . . . before the twentieth century,” and that we do not know, “even approximately, how many slaves left the area and never returned,” so we cannot come to any conclusion on the seriousness of the long-term effects. There are “[e]ven lower population densities,” Mason goes on to point out, in other areas (he mentions Borgu) “where the factor of invading armies may be assumed to be negligible.”lviii Early British administrators believed that slave raiding had serious effects on population, and the intensification of slave-taking in the last years before the defeat of Nupe by the British may be argued to be confirmation of their beliefs. As C. K. Meek reported:

Towards the end of Maliki’s and the beginning of Abubakr’s reign the Bida Filanis, fully appreciating the Niger Company’s preparations for war, made a final raid on Aworo and it is safe to say that in the Aworo district today there isn’t a single male or female over the age of 30 who has not been a slave at Bida.lix

Nevertheless, Meek’s account also makes it clear that many of the slaves (especially, it is likely, the newly enslaved) did return to their homes. Other reports of the return of slaves from Nupe to their homes south of the Niger due to British attacks on Nupe from 1897 onward support this conclusion.lx Reports of the large scale of Bunu cloth production in the early twentieth century suggest that many of the returnees were weavers. Ade Obayemi accepts that escape from north of the Niger might not have been too difficult for the slaves,lxi even before the British attacks on Nupe. However, we are still left without real statistical information from which to draw any adequate numerical conclusions.

We can, nevertheless, make tentative suggestions as to some of the economic effects of raids, tribute collection, and enslavements. One important point, made by Femi Kolapo, is that for all the disruptions, normal economic activity did not cease.lxii Agricultural production continued. In 1858, Emir Masaba even told his Bunu soldiers (no doubt conscripts) “that those persons who wanted to trade must go and trade, who wanted to work farm must do it, and leave war.”lxiii Even if the largest part of the produce and products of their work found its way into the Nupe-Fulani coffers, this action of Masaba’s argues for the encouragement of at least some semblance of normal production routines. In any case, warfare was a seasonal affair.

Trade did not cease. Bunu and other traders who moved to Gbebe continued their trading activities, and some of them engaged in the down-river slave trade, in which compatriots of theirs were counted among the merchandise;lxiv these traders profited from raids and kidnappings, not unlike the accommodationist chiefs. Even industrial innovation continued. In 1854, at Gbebe, William Balfour Baikie reported from Gbebe that “in one weaving establishment we found that some of our Turkey reds [blankets] had been taken to pieces and the threads, neatly knotted, were now being interwoven with some of their own white and blue.”lxv These weavers could well have been Bunu men or women; many Bunu women were observed by Bunu returnee missionary James Thomas in 1859 in the same town, “making country cloth.”lxvi A new source of thread for the famed red cloths had been found.lxvii

It seems likely, however, that fairly large numbers of Bunu women weavers (as well as Yagba and others) were taken as slaves to Nupe, where they taught Nupe women of the upper classes to weave.lxviii Indeed, cloth production in the Northeast Yoruba and nearby areas may well have been a factor in the Nupe-Fulani depredations south of the Niger, as Colleen Kriger suggests, because of its value in the northern trade.lxix Thus, the profit from Bunu cloth production, whether the cloths were taken as tribute or their makers were taken as slaves, moved north to Nupe. This did not, however, remain true in the early colonial period, when the cloth trade from Kabba and Bunu to Nupe was reported to be thriving, though in the long run the Bunu women may have decided to concentrate largely on the non-luxury segment of the trade.lxx

The cultural effects of the nineteenth-century intermingling of peoples and other events were generally limited and superficial. There appears to be relatively little evidence of cultural borrowing or absorption, though some Bunu are said to have been absorbed by the Bassa-Nge on the east bank, and some Yoruba speakers are said to have been “Igbirralised.”lxxi Some limited intermarriage is reported between language groups,lxxii but in general the ethnicities, even when scattered amongst one another, remained separate.lxxiii Obayemi believes that where, as in Oworo, there is evidence of the adoption of Nupe traits, this is “the result of direct copying . . . during the twentieth century.” lxxiv In this, however, he may not be entirely correct. In 1918, C. K. Meek wrote a report on the “Aworo District”:

When I paid my first visit to Agbaja I found that there was no one holding the position of second headman. The Olu was asked if he would prefer to have the old Aworo title of Lessaw restored or whether he would rather retain the Nupe titles of Yerima, Kpotun etc. The Olu preferred the 2nd alternative and . . . he was backed by all the principal men of the town.lxxv

It seems to me that this account is likely to reflect the adoption of Nupe titles during the period of Nupe-Fulani overlordship, as a further gesture of accommodation by the “principal men,” and as a means to disguise any lack of local legitimacy as titleholders among them. The titles seem to have become entrenched by 1918; and it is difficult to suggest a reason why they might have been adopted after the end of Nupe-Fulani rule.lxxvi

There are differing opinions as to the extent to which Islam spread from the Nupe-Fulani into the Yoruba-speaking areas near the confluence in the nineteenth century, but it seems likely that its influence did not extend very far.lxxvii Likewise, the impact of Christianity was not great. Christianity was preached by Church Missionary Society agents at Gbebe and Lokoja; most of them were Sierra Leone “recaptives” or their sons, and two of them were of Bunu origin.lxxviii While they made some progress among the refugee populations in Gbebe and Lokoja, including Bunu and Oworo, they had little impact inland, although they made preaching tours there. It was the next generation of evangelists, early in the twentieth century, who began to have more success in the Bunu area.lxxix The early CMS agents, however, were yet another new group of neighbors that the Owe, Oworo, and Bunu were going to have to deal with, products of the “opening up” of the Niger to Europeans, European trade, and Europeanized Africans, and forerunners of the next imperialist group to arrive in the area, the British.

Politically, the Nupe imperialists had a more immediate impact on the confluence Yoruba groups. A colonial officer even alleged that the area that became Kabba Division was “so devastated and so disintegrated that not only tribal organisation but even village organisation had been well nigh oblitered [sic].”lxxx However, as Obayemi has pointed out, the lineage remained “the basic landowning and land-disposing unit,” giving the individual “his social identity and determining his political standing, his religious expression and economic opportunity.” Returned slaves were reabsorbed into their lineages, and where lineages had died out, “known descendants (even on the female line) were persuaded to return and resettle.” All of the “basic institutions of the ancient polities” were retained.lxxxi And among the Owe, Oworo, and Bunu, group identity was broadened. The introduction, by the Nupe-Fulani for their “administrative convenience,” of overall tribute coordinators or “heads” of the Bunu, Oworo, and Owe peoples was an innovation,lxxxii albeit one that led to considerable problems. In Oworo, for example, “clashes” occurred after the death of Okpoto between Agboshi and Abba. The olu in 1918, reportedly a cousin of Ajetto, was of obscure origins: “Ajokpa does not know who his grandfather was and does not properly belong to Agbaja at all. Ajetto was also an importee (he belonged to an Aworo village called Kabba) and his election was opposed by the family of Abba.”lxxxiii Controversy over the title has continued.lxxxiv

British Takeover and British Rule

The next imperialists faced by the Northeast Yoruba were the British. Their early contacts were cordial, with some Northeast Yoruba groups asking the British to come and defend them from the Nupe-Fulani.lxxxv The early results of British intervention against Nupe, first by the Royal Niger Company under Goldie, then by the authorities of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria  (declared in Lokoja in 1900)lxxxvi were positive. Nupe raids and tribute collection ceased. Large numbers of slaves left their masters in Nupe north of the Niger and returned to their homes south of the river.lxxxvii Safety returned to the area, and internal trade increased:

After the fall of Bida Eggan [a Niger port] became a town of very considerable importance. Traders could safely bring in their products not only from the Nupe districts but from Bunu, Kabba, Yagba and Akoko country.lxxxviii

Trade in local cloth flourished. Leo Frobenius, who visited Bida, the Nupe capital, in 1911 described its market, where

dealers with great bales of home-spuns come daily in from the Bunu district in the South, an outlying province of the Yoruban territory. The larger portion of the beautiful stuffs used by the Nupé ladies comes from there, and although they themselves can manage the handloom, their own producing power is a mere fleabite to the enormous output of Kabba and Bunu.lxxxix

Despite Frobenius’s reference to “beautiful stuffs,” on the evidence of the textiles brought back to Europe by Frobenius, as pointed out by Colleen Kriger, much of the Bunu cloth sold in Bida is likely to have been of an inexpensive type, indicating the Bunu women weavers’ strategy of developing  (or redeveloping?) a large-scale industry in low-cost products, which continued until the 1960s (despite some competition from the Ebira) and profited from the pax Britannica, which ensured the safety of long-distance trade.xc

Overall, however, the long-term impact of British rule was less positive for the confluence area. With the development of the railway system, the River Niger lost its importance as a trade conduit; and no major export crop was found. The Yoruba speakers of the confluence and their neighbors, therefore, found themselves in an economic backwater. By 1926, for example, “the Eggan area [was] now but the shadow of its former self. . . . Now there is very little save the town itself, a multitude of native huts on a crumbling sandbank, for most of the trade has gone across the river to Katcha, a market on the Baro-Minna Railway.”xci

Although the British caused the end of Nupe-Fulani domination over the confluence, nevertheless in many ways they allowed the effects of Nupe-Fulani domination to continue. In their boundary making, the British included the confluence peoples and many of the Northeast Yoruba within the Northern Region, to which the Nupe north of the Niger also belonged. Thus the confluence peoples were further pushed to the periphery, both economically and politically.xcii

Within the area, the British retained much of the political system introduced by the Nupe.  Basing their decision on what they considered “the preponderant role of Kabba” during the Nupe period, the British chose Kabba as the capital, and the Obaro as the  “Paramount Head,”  of Kabba Division.xciii The “Oro of Aworro” also remained important, and in 1918 he was given supervisory authority over the Kakanda, Kupa, and Egga(n) Districts, while the “Baro of Kabba” was to oversee other groups.xciv The Owe and the Obaro are said to have been “despised by the other tribes in the Division for their tame submission to the Fulani,”xcv an accusation no doubt fueled by resentment of Kabba’s dominant position in the area during the colonial period. In 1918, the Ebira were said to be “prolific,” and “spreading over the surrounding districts in search of good farm land, or trading,” while the Owe were said to be decreasing in numbers.xcvi The results of this mélange of population change, entrenchment of authority, and economic neglect for the relations between the peoples of the confluence in the twentieth century need to be investigated.xcvii


Much of the story of the confluence peoples, Yoruba and non-Yoruba, and their relations still waits to be researched. Much of our present knowledge, together with promising lines of investigation, we owe to the work of Ade Obayemi. We urgently need to follow up his work. Archaeological and linguistic studies need to be expanded. The examination of cultural connections needs to be continued, though with the understanding that connection does not of itself tell us its direction or its type. Oral testimony needs to be collected before yet another generation dies out. The confluence area may have been something of a backwater in the last eighty years, but only in current economic terms; over the long term it has been an important area of cultural and economic contact and circulation. This is a story that needs to be told.


< Back