There is probably no “indigenous” Lagos family that is more famous than the Tinubu family. But, although the family is now clearly culturally Yoruba, its ethnic provenance is traceable to what is now Borno State, according to Lagos historians, underscoring the historical and sociological inaccuracy of notions of ethnic purism in Nigeria.
The patriarch of the Tinubu family, historians of Lagos say, was a Kanuri man known as Momodu [it was most probably Modu since Kanuris tend to shorten Muhammad to Modu] Bugara who was also alternately called Momoh Abubakar, Momoh Bukar, or Alfa Ibunu. He was an Islamic scholar who migrated from the defunct Bornu Empire to what was then the Lagos Colony in the 1800s and achieved some renown in the Lagos society.
In the mid-1800s, he was employed as an Islamic spiritual guardian by Madam Efunroye Tinubu, a famous wealthy slave trader, power broker, and agitator in Lagos (who was later banished to Abeokuta by the Lagos Oba of the time). In time, the spiritual guardian fell in love with his employer, and they got married.
But the marriage didn’t produce children. Apparently, the childlessness of the marriage was a consequence of Madam Tinubu’s infertility because she consented to Bugara marrying other women with whom he bore children.
A mark of the cordiality that existed between Madam Tinubu and Alfa Bugara in spite of Bugara’s marriage to other women and having children by them was evident in the fact that Bugara’s children adopted Tinubu as their family name even though they didn’t share any filiation with Madam Tinubu.
I distilled these tidbits about the history of the Tinubu family from an insightful inaugural lecture titled “The Undertaker, the Python’s Eye and Footsteps of the Ant: The Historian’s Burden” delivered by Professor Siyan Oyeweso at the Lagos State University (LASU) in 2006. Oyeweso, one of Nigeria’s well-regarded historians who had an extensive academic career at LASU, now teaches at the Osun State University.
Professor Oyeweso quoted Madam Tinubu’s biographer by the name of Oladipo Yemitan as saying that while most people who bear the Tinubu name were children of Bugara who had no direct blood link with Madam Tinubu, scions of her former slaves and relatives from Abeokuta also bear it.
“During this association of Momoh Bukar and Efunroye Tinubu, the latter’s name was so pervasive and all-embracing that all within the household perforce assumed the name ‘Tinubu’,” Oyeweso quoted Yemitan to have written. “Included in this household were the children of Momoh Bukar by his other wives and Madame Tinubu’s relatives from Abeokuta who had joined her in Lagos and lived with her. Of course, a number of slaves also assumed the name.”
Nonetheless, based on my own knowledge of the people and sociology of Kanem-Bornu, Momodu Bugara was not Kanuri—at least not on his patrilineal side. He was most certainly a Shuwa Arab. Shuwa Arabs, who have been integral to the Bornu society for centuries and who number a little over a million in contemporary Borno State, are called “Baggara” [i.e., cattle herders] by Middle Eastern Arabs. I am certain that “Bugara” is the corruption of “Baggara” by Lagosians of the 1800s.
Although several Baggara people (whom Kanuris call “Shuwa Arabs”) still speak their dialect of the Arabic language, often called Chadian Arabic in the linguistics literature, many of them have intermarried with the dominant Kanuri people in Borno and have adopted the Kanuri language. The late Abba Kyari was a Kanurized Shuwa Arab/Baggara. For all you know, Abba Kyari and the “Bugara” line of the Tinubu family in Lagos may share distant ancestral links!
Now, why is this history important? For one, it helps to exemplify the complexity and syncretism of ethnic identity in Nigeria. For another it says something about the name “Tinubu” particularly in light of Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s declaration that he wants to be the next president of Nigeria.
When Professor Oyeweso delivered his lecture in 2006, Bola Tinubu was the governor of Lagos State. This fact wasn’t lost on Oyeweso.
“Mr. Vice – Chancellor, Sir, today, the current administration of Lagos State is headed by a Tinubu,” he said. “The Tinubu’s [sic] are also generally acknowledged as Lagosians. Another Tinubu headed the Lagos State Civil Service for five years. Others had distinguished themselves in journalism, security and community services, the organized private sector and in other walks of life.”
But this is where Oyeweso got it all wrong. Bola Ahmed Tinubu is not a member of any version of the Tinubu family. He is neither from the original Abeokuta Tinubu bloodline, the “Bugara” pedigree, nor the slave line of descent.
Bola Tinubu is from a town in Osun State called Iragbiji, which is the headquarters of Boripe Local Government Area. His older sister is the mother of Alhaji Gboyega Oyetola, the current governor of Osun State. By several credible accounts, including from informants in Iragbiji, Bola Tinubu’s original name was Amoda Lamidi Sangodele.
Amoda is the Yoruba Muslim domestication of Ahmad (which underwent phonetic transformation from Ahmad to Amadu to Amoda). The vowels in the name (“o” and “a” were merely transposed.
Lamidi is the Yoruba Muslim domestication of Abdulhamid. As I wrote in my July 13, 2014, column titled “Top 10 Yoruba Names You Never Guessed Were Arabic Names,” because of Yoruba people’s fondness for the short forms of names, they often dispense with “Abdul” in Muslim names that begin with that prefix. So that leaves us with Hamid.
Now, there is something some people call the “h-factor” in Yoruba, which is the tendency for Yoruba speakers to unconsciously eliminate the “h” sound in words in which it is normally pronounced and to add it to words that don’t have it when they encounter a foreign language. So “eat” is often pronounced as “heat” and “heat” is pronounced as “it.”
Given this phonological characteristic, “Hamid” becomes “Amid,” but the interference of the “l” sound in “Abdul” also causes it to be rendered as “Lamid.” Like in all Niger Congo languages, it’s unnatural for words to not have a terminal vowel in Yoruba, so a terminal vowel is added to Lamid to produce Lamidi.
In other words, in his current name, only “Ahmed” is faithful to his original name since Amoda is the domestication of Ahmad, which is often orthographically Anglicized as “Ahmed.”
Pastor Tunde Bakare helped to push this aspect of Tinubu’s past into the center of national consciousness during a dishonest sermon in December 2020 that pretended to defend Tinubu. In my December 26, 2020, column titled “Bakare Didn’t Defend Tinubu; He Defanged Him,” I unpacked Bakare’s sly unmasking of Tinubu’s identity chicanery.
I wrote: “In Bakare’s political homily, he basically affirmed all the hitherto fringy whispers about Tinubu: that he is from Iragbiji in Osun State; that his current name is not his original name; that he has disowned his biological parents and ‘adopted’ the Tinubu family of Lagos with whom he has zero consanguineal affiliation; that the late legendary Alhaja Abibat Mogaji of Lagos is not Tinubu’s biological mother…”
It’s also intriguing, by the way, that “Mogaji,” the last name of Tinubu’s adopted mother, is the Yoruba domestication of the Hausa name Magaji, which means successor or inheritor. I am curious to know what Alhaja Abibat Mogaji’s ancestral story is. Like her last name, Tinubu’s daughter, Folashade, has become an inheritor of Alhaja Abibat’s “Ìyál’ọ́jà of Lagos” title and privileges.
Well, I can understand Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s opportunistic adoption of the Tinubu name as his family. After all, most people identified with the Tinubu family name in Lagos today aren’t related to Madam Efunroye Tinubu who popularized it in nineteenth-century Lagos.
If descendants of Kanurized Shuwa Arabs (or Baggara) can be Tinubu, why not an Amoda Lamidi Sangodele, a Yoruba man from Iragbiji? But I don’t and can’t understand why he would also “adopt” Alhaja Mogaji as his mother to the point of shunning the funeral of his own biological mother in Iragbiji, according to the late Yinka Odumakin. Well, make of that what you will.