Nupe:The Past,The Present & The Future -By Prof. M.A.T. Suleiman & Dr. I. Ndagi Adamu

The Past

Nupe or Nupenchi: which of the two do we place first? In other words, if the Nupe of today cannot find a “link” that goes back to its origin, isn’t there the danger of not linking with the real root of the Nupe people.

Origin of Nupe

Anthropological studies have shown that Nupe has lived around the confluence of the Rivers Niger and Kaduna, but this does not address the question of the origin of the Nupe.

The postulation is that the dispersal of human beings from point of origin started some 80,000 years back. Arguably, the Nupe stock got to its present location after many years of movement. It is therefore inferred that it was in the process of the great movement that the Nupe sub-stock broke off from the main Hausa of Katsina group.

Such reasoning can hardly stand critical appraisal by the science of anthropology. First, the lack of other interphase subgroups(s) that share the linguistic and cultural characteristics, i.e. (1) common physical type, (2) common cultural patterns, and (3) genetically related languages, (Winters 1989)  of the Nupe and Hausa between the two locations of Katsina and the Nupeland questions the tenability of the Nupe –from- Katsina thought. Secondly, “…archeological research has shown that people were already living along the confluence of the Rivers Niger and Benue as early as 9000 BC perhaps earlier”. Finally, “Excavation from Kainji Dam has shown that there were iron working activities in the area by the second century B.C.” (Shaws and Daniels 1984). These are therefore pointers to the fact that Nupe and Hausa are distinct languages and the speakers of the respective languages may therefore not have much in common beyond the ordinary human evolutionary process (Jagodzinki).

Nupe Language

Language is a social institution. It is therefore imperative that the language element is what appeals to Research in order to account for the origin of a language or its change over time.

Applying the anthropological parameters of toponyms (place names), anthroponymns (personal names) and eluthonyms (names of ethnic groups), it has been possible to chart the “migration of people in West Africa” (Diop 1999). Granted that “linguistic change is culture specific, (generally)…  African languages change much slower than European languages” (Armstrong 1962). This is readily evident by the empirical fact that “African vocabulary items collected by Arab explorers over a thousand years ago are analogous to contemporary lexical items” (Diagne 1981 p. 239).

Similarly, it is a known fact of anthropology that the socio-political structures and settled life of African societies are at tangent with exerting pressure that could “…cause radical internal linguistic changes…(It can therefore be concluded that languages in African societies) changed less with the passage of time” (Diop 1974).

Appraised against the backdrop of the theory of language constancy therefore, it stands to reason that Nupe as a medium of communication could not have evolved either from Hausa or Fulani. In effect, Nupe is simply Nupe: one of the Kwa languages whose root lies in the main Niger-Congo phyla.

There is therefore logic in the thought that the Nupe language has not been significantly penetrated by emigration from any land lest of all Hausaland. This does not however imply a total discountenance of the possible influence of the Hausa and indeed Kanuri, Yoruba and Igala on the Nupe culture and tradition; one of such influences is readily noticeable in the “similar system of government by…aristocracy’.

But a hole still remains in our knowledge: How did we come about Nupe? It is prudent that we at this juncture rest our case with Almighty God’s pronouncement: The Biblical account in Genesis 11: 1 asserts: “Now the whole earth had one language and one speech”. However, man’s contempt of the Lord attracted His swift reprisals which saw the one language thrown into the “confusion” of many languages which were subsequently “scattered” throughout the earth (Genesis 11: 5-8). Couldn’t one of these be Nupe?

The position of the Qur’an is: “O Mankind, We created you from a single (pair) of male and female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honoured of you in sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you” (Quran 49 v. 13).

The Authority

Legend has it that the seed of the aristocratic governance of Nupe land was planted by Tsoede: an Igala prince of Nupe mother. Tsoede it was, who having been bestowed the “chieftaincy of Nupe with the insignia of office” by his ailing father founded an independent dynasty and “assumed the title of Etsu Nupe…about 1530”. Gbara was the capital of his Kingdom (Johnston).

It is acclaimed that the content of the historical truth of this legend has been largely “treasured by the Nupe people”. The general acceptance of the legend was “one of the foundations of the political and cultural unity which they (the Nupes) gradually evolved” (Nadel 1942 p. 74).

Proud of their history, the Nupes’ drive for enterprise and commerce which were rooted in agriculture, fishing, smithing and woodcarving knew no bound. Barter was largely the medium of exchange.

The spiritual thirst of the Nupe before the advent of revealed religions in the land was met largely by the worship of deities in the traditional fashion: Kuti with Sogba as the intermediaries was approached for personal or family spiritual needs. The community on the other hand would appeal to Ndakogboya or Ndadunma (the god of the river). Societal cohesion was assured by the watchful eyes of the gachi: wizards and witches. These exist in various grades of sophistication.

This was the trend until the Fulani pastoralists made incursion into Nupeland and introduced Islam. This served as a precursor to the eventual arrival of the Islamic preacher Mallam Dendo in the land at about the 17th century. Christianity was introduced later by the European missionaries.

The Nupes of yesterday experienced a few internal dissensions. These were largely precipitated by the struggle amongst siblings for the succession of the throne of Estu Nupe.

Mallam Dendo in his capacity as the Sarkin Fulani was to eventually play a balancing role in the territory. Eventually, one of Mallam Dendo’s sons: Usman Zaki outsmarted Tsoede and ascended the throne of Etsu Nupe in 1836. He introduced the Emirate form of governance into Nupeland.

Etsu Masaba’s re-ascension to the throne about 1860 marked the zenith in the territorial acquisition by the successive Etsu Nupes up to that point in time. Etsu Masaba saw to the moving of the capital from Raba to a more central place in Bida, and thence embarked upon the enlargement of the boundaries of the kingdom. This saw the inclusion of Kamuku area to the North, the Kakanda, Oworo, and Kupa outlays to the South, as well as the Bunu, Igbira and Kukuruku – Afamai,

The fall of Bida to the British occupying forces in 1897 during the reign of Etsu Abubakar can be described as sunset at noon in the history of the Nupe people of earlier time. This was however not before the Nupe people have (1) evolved and nourished a robust culture of gallantry and bravery as underscored by the defeat suffered by the British occupying forces at the hands of the Nupe Calvary on 26th June 1896 at Ogidi in the present day Kogi State; (2) a well established tradition of hardworking agrarians anchored in humility, (3) the infatuation for the inclusion of all people related to the Nupe stock, and (4) the technology of jewelry and smithing. These are the qualities that stood the Nupe of yesteryears out as people of “tremendous achievements in the history of the black race”.

The Present

The destabilization of the traditional Nupe aristocratic arrangement by colonial officials following the fall of Bida, can be taken as the dawn of the Present Era of Nupe. Colonial records show that Bida Province was one of the initial 11 (Eleven) provinces created by the colonial administrators after the Sokoto and Kano campaign. The reduction of the number of provinces in the North from 17 to 13 in 1911 ostensibly as a result of the financial demands of World War I set into motion the gradual pluralization of the hitherto well organized and cohesive Nupe people. This is because insubordination, inter communal conflicts and rivalry hitherto unknown in the land started manifesting.

The situation was to be accentuated by the evolution of the Native Administration system which saw the reduction of Nupeland into cleavages in the name of Native and/or Sub Authorities and Districts. The pre-Independence attempt at parliamentary democracy under the tutelage of the colonial officials only succeeded in adding insult into injury. This is because the colonial administrators took advantage of the pre-election campaign to consolidate on their strategy of divide-and-rule by actively encouraging the erosion of whatever communal binding ethos there was left amongst the Nupe people. The post Independence Local Government Reforms of 1974 was the last nail into the coffin. And so began the individual scramble for personal gains for self aggrandizement from public resources to the utter detriment of the Community. Greed and selfishness, coloured by one sentiment or the other drove the individual Nupe person and/or Communities into their respective cocoons. The consequence was a people that have lost cohesive developmental focus.

On reflection, it can be argued that the geographical size of Nupeland is larger than a couple of Independent nations.

  • Yes there are some 12 or more Local Government Areas (more than there are in some of the States in the Federation) in Nupeland spread across both sides of the Niger. But what positive and concrete evidential impacts of these are there to be pointed to?
  • Yes the Nupesare in majority in one of Nigerian’s States and of significant number in another two. But how has these translated in socio-infrastructural developments in the Nupe Communities?
    • A bridge across the River Niger in Nupeland to promote the communal relationship?
    • Booming small scales enterprises?
    • Yes a few tertiary institutions are located in the Land. But what has been the net impact of these?
      • Increase output in farm produce or fishing?
      • Upturn in the drive to generate self employment by the graduates of the institutions?
      • Innovating the traditional farming and/or technical skills of the Nupe people?


The fact is that the physical and infrastructural achievements of Nupeland over the recent years have been at a price. The most obvious of which is the lack of unity that now rent the land. Secondly is the glaring fact that most of the products of educational institutions in land have become active pretentious and consumers of industrial goods, and relatively non-propellers of the local economy. Thirdly, is the adulteration and sullying of the Nupe language and its dialects. Finally and perhaps the costliest is the erosion and derogation of the hitherto cherished culture and traditions of Nupe people. Certainly these are not positive pointers to the desired Nupeland.

The Future

Our Identity:  Nda Nupenchi, who are you? ‘I am who you were; I will be what you are’.

How does the Nupe see himself? A tribesman? A member of an ethnic group? Or what?  Language alone does not make a people. The imperative therefore is that people necessarily call for an identity for themselves. The thrust is that the identity by which a people have chosen to be known becomes the tag of the people. The two imperatives which are but one is true of this assumption: One leg of the identity should naturally lie in the past. This leg would be the “rich legacy of memories” of Nupe of the past. The other leg stands in the present, i.e. the collective will of the Nupe to live together in harmony so that they can perpetuate their heritage and actualize their dreams.

It is against this backdrop that it is being proposed that label of identification of the Nupe should henceforth be: the Nupe Nation. This is because collectively, Nupe is more than an ethnic group. Nupe cannot be classified as a tribe either because it is not a sub-group of a different race which could be described as the main stock. It is in fact self -evident that to the best of the present state of knowledge, other dialects are spoken within the Nupe fold; not the other way round.

The preference for the nationhood of Nupe is further informed by the fact that it would be more amenable to being a platform for accommodating our common experiences (the triumphs, glories, grieves, frustrations, and sufferings) of the past, as well as our shared will (wishes, dreams and hopes) for the future. A Nupe nation will in effect readily bind people in “solidarity in the feelings of the sacrifices of the past generations, and the sacrifices that the present generation is prepared to consensually make will be the blue print for the future generations.

A critical index of a nation is the fact that it discourages the reservation of some rights or privileges for some individuals or groups to the detriment of the larger members. Our nation should however not be devoid of religion. In this regard, religious tolerance shall be the imperative. This is because the isolation of individuals or groups on the basis of religion shall immediately create points of dissention within the nation.

The settling of the question of our identity as Nupe immediately calls to the fore how the nation shall become positively influential in the Nigerian polity. It is a fact of nation building that the amounts of influence a nation can wield is determined by her economic and productive capacity.

The emphasis on the “how” is borne out of the practical realities that nations are never ‘born’ rich or poor. Rather it is the leadership structures of the nation that make it one or the other. The key to ensuring the dream of a prosperous and progressive Nupe nation should therefore be predicated on (1) our conscious collective will to re-embrace Nupe’s virtue for the rule of law and security; and (2) the ever present collective untiring spirit and the motivation to serve the nation selflessly.

The experience of Botswana comes handy in this instance. Geographically speaking Botswana is hardly lager than Nupeland; with a little edge in terms of population. Her economy which is largely rooted in agriculture has flourished over and above similar sized African nations. This is because she took advantage of her “strong tribal institutions (guided by) farsighted” leadership to turn her fortunes around for the better. The stark contrast is to be found in Nogales. This is a city that is transversed by an international line. One half of it lies in America whilst the other half lies in Mexico. Whilst the half within the American border is prosperous by relative standard; the other half within the Mexican territory could have been better located on another continent. The key to the differences between the two halves of the city is not farfetched: whereas one side of the divide enjoys law, the disposition of a government manned by people that are committed to selfless service and transparency against the backdrop of working institutions of law and order, the other half languishes in criminality and violent lawlessness driven by hard drugs.

The implications are: first, our Nupe nation of the future must have to re-embrace the virtues of peer monitoring that was outstandingly characteristic of the society so as to ensure effective social service delivery, assured law and security: the necessary platform for working to reverse poverty and chronic want in the land. Achieving this would not only demand the promotion of the Nupeness in all, but will also encourage people from other places who live among us to feel safe and confident and very willing to invest in our nation. Secondly, the Nupe nation must be active in promoting the unity of all Nupes wherever they are. This would mean the deliberate playing down of the concept of Central or Angular or peripheral Nupe. Every Nupe person whether he is of a dialect or not, of urban or rural antecedents or not need not  have this negatively flaunted at him. The drive should be for inclusiveness not exclusiveness. Thirdly, the custodians of the Nupe nation must be untiring at working for the revival of the customs, traditions and/or myths that are of our common origin. Finally, the Nupe nation cannot afford to live in isolation in a world that is gradually becoming a ‘global village’. The Nation’s leadership may therefore consider it prudent to promote intra-Nupe Community Voluntary Service by young nationals. The same could be considered at the inter-Communities level as a way of promoting societal cohesion, on one other hand, advancing the frontiers of Nupe language, customs and traditions on the other.

Our success at this project may not only position us towards a Nupe Administrative State in future, but will also in no small way determine how effective we could be in strategizing and fortifying the nation against another possible invasion by future dreamer colonialists. Our failure in this regard would fervidly question if at all we have learnt any lessons from our history in the past 100+ years which is the flip side of the Nupe Day Celebration that has become an annual event since 2009.

1. Professor M.A.T. Suleiman, B.Sc [Hons], Ph.D

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Administration)

Federal University of Technology,



2. Dr. I. Ndagi Adamu LL.B [Hons], M.ED, D.Sc, FCAI, DFIAMN, BL.

(Marafan Kupa & Shetiman Kin-Makun Kupa)  is a Lawyer, Educationist, Development Administrator, and a Corporate Consultant. He is the Chairman of Ebunza Ventures Ltd; and Principal Partner at the Lafarma Law Consultants, Lokoja-Nigeria.