The Shuwa Arabs in Borno

By Gambo Dori


That’s the title of the book, written by Mohammed Adam, that was presented to the public in a well-attended ceremony, held penultimate Wednesday, in the conference hall of Musa Usman Secretariat in Maiduguri.

Readers are probably aware that a good number of ethnic groups across Nigeria trace their roots to the Arabian Peninsula. Of them, the Shuwa Arabs of Borno are today the only ethnic group that has retained not only the language of their progenitors but also the physical traits plus customs, and traditions. The history of the Shuwa Arabs has been largely covered in explorers’ stories, colonial reports, memoirs, and biographies. For me, it will be the first time, and in this book, I would find a comprehensive account that is devoted entirely to the Shuwa Arabs.
No doubt, Mohammed Adam has done a very commendable job at bringing the rich history of the Shuwa Arabs to light. The book details the migration of the Shuwa Arabs from the 15th Century into the Lake Chad region, Borno in particular, where they were ubiquitous as nomads, living life around their cattle. Some settled in the cities as scholars and traders thus beginning an era of partnership with the dominant Kanuri. When you consider that this was his 1977 BA/History dissertation from Bayero University College, Kano, of Ahmadu Bello University, you would appreciate the amount of diligent scholarship Mohammed Adam has brought to this magnificent work.
The other half of the 19th Century were tumultuous times in those parts where the new El-Kanemi dynasty was settling in as rulers of Borno after dispensing with the erstwhile Sayfawa strongmen. The Shuwa Arabs as allies of Sheikh El-Kanemi were in the thick of it all as courtiers, warriors, wealthy cattle owners, and crucial links with the Arab-speaking north of Borno for the smooth flow of arms and ammunition. The partnership with the El-Kanemi ruling house was not always smooth.
At a point, the Shuwa Arabs played antagonistic roles particularly when Rabih Fadlallah, a renegade Sudanese slave merchant, and military adventurer invaded and occupied Borno for seven devastating years at the tail-end of the 19th Century. Many of the Shuwa Arabs clan heads, saw him as one of their own, cooperated with him, and even took positions in his administration. That betrayal rankled until the arrival of the colonial powers at the turn of the 20th Century. Gradually the British settled as the overall colonial power and in due course, the Shuwa Arabs were integrated into the administration. Due to their urbane disposition, the Shuwa Arabs found it easy working with the colonial officers sent to Borno. The fact that many of these colonial officers spoke Arabic having been posted from a sister colony, Sudan, made the Shuwa Arabs play crucial roles as important intermediaries across to the Kanuri aristocracy.
exposure made them quickly grab the opportunities of western education for their wards ahead of many other groups in Borno. This probably explains the highly visible roles of the Shuwa Arabs in the top echelon of Borno society till today. The book gave some detailed accounts of notable Shuwa Arabs that shone on the national horizon. These include Abba Habib, northern regional minister, Musa Daggash, Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Defence in the first Republic, Kam Salem, Inspector-General of Police during Gowon’s regime, General Muhammad Shuwa, commander of Nigeria’s First Division during the civil war and later Federal Minister of Trade, Asheikh Jarma, Federal Minister and former Borno State Governor, Air Marshall Daggash, Commandant Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna, Abba Kyari, late Chief of Staff, Presidential Villa, and a host of others.
One interesting aspect brought out by Mohammed Adam is the observation of the convivial relationship that subsists between the Shuwa Arabs and the Kanuri compared to what obtains between the Hausa and the Fulani. He writes: “While the Kanuri and Shuwa jointly defeated the Jihadists and eventually came to share state responsibilities in equal partnership the Fulani on the other hand wrested power from the Hausa and reduced them to mere subjects to this day. However curiously the Fulani despite their political and military triumph, have been culturally losing ground to the Hausa so much that today one could hardly hear Fulfulde spoken in the Palaces. In Borno however, apart from adopting each other’s culture in dress, food, facial marks, hair-do, etc., the majority of the Shuwa Arabs speak Kanuri, while several Kanuri, Kotoko, Gamergu, and Mandara speak Shuwa Arabic.”
I have known the keen interest Mohammed Adam had shown in the history of Borno for a considerable length of time. We worked together in the same department in Chad Basin Development Authority starting from the mid-70s and met again in the higher echelons of the Borno State government in the 80s. Mohammed Adam had one of the most enduring public service careers with the state government serving at least three administrations as commissioner for education, during part of the period I also served as permanent secretary in the political department and government house. Mohammed Adam has a passion for writing books. At least I know of three that have emerged from his prodigious pen, mostly on northern Borno, particularly his beloved Dikwa. The present edition, The Shuwa Arabs in Borno, is a well-researched book richly stocked with pictures and maps. It is highly recommended.

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