Sugurti Ethnic in Northern Borno State Northeast
The Sugurti ethnic group is located in northern Borno state and parts of the Niger Republic. The name Sugurti is somehow synonymous with a prominent businessman, Bukar Bolori, the owner of the Bolori Brothers business empire.
The Sugurti people are believed to have some connections with the legendary Sao people who between 1342 and 1352 dominated Kanem-Borno. There are those who believe that the Sugurti people might be part of the Tubo or the Ngumati people. However, the most accepted history is that the Sugurti nation originated from Kanem. The Kanem-Borno Empire was a large African state which existed from the 9th century through the end of the 19th century and which spanned a region that today includes the countries of Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Nigeria. The empire was founded by the Zaghawa nomadic people, who may have been the first in central Sudan to acquire and make use of iron technology and horses. The empire was first mentioned by Arab chroniclers in the 9th century, and by the 10th century, the ruler of Kanem had control of the Kawar Oases, a vital economic asset.
The political structure of the Kanem empire had most likely grown out of rival states coming under the control of the Zaghawa. In the 11th century, the Zaghawa clans were driven out by Humai ibn Salama, who founded the kingdom of Kanem with a capital at Njimi. The Saifwa dynasty was established, a dynasty that ruled for 771 years—the longest known reign in history. Saifwa rulers (known as mais) claimed they were descended from a heroic Arabic figure, and the dynasty greatly expanded the influence of Islam, making it the religion of the court. Wealth came largely through trade, especially in slaves, which was facilitated by the empire’s position near important North-South trade routes.
The empire had a policy of imperial expansion and traded for firearms and horses, wielding huge numbers of cavalry. When a mai desecrated a sacred animist religious artefact, conflict occurred between the dynasty and groups like the Bulala. Conflicts from outside forces were also enhanced by the empire’s policy of collateral succession of brother succeeding brother which produced short reigns and unstable situations. In the late 14th century the Saifawa were forced to retreat west across Lake Chad and establish a new kingdom called Bornu. This is the origin of the name Kanem-Bornu. Bornu expanded territorially and commercially, but increasing threats from other rival states, drought, trade problems, and rebellious Fulani groups eroded state control. Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi, a Muslim cleric, eventually defeated the rebellious Fulani and built a new capital at Kukawa in 1814. His successors ended the Saifwa dynasty and the Kanem-Bornu Empire when they killed the last mai in 1846. Al-Kanemi’s Shehu dynasty was short-lived and succeeded by a slaver and warlord Rabih Zubayr, who was defeated by the French in 1900.
Kanem-Borno peaked during the reign of the outstanding statesman Mai Idris Aluma (ca. 1571-1603). Aluma (also spelled Alooma) is remembered for his military skills, administrative reforms, and Islamic piety. His main adversaries were the Hausa to the west, the Tuareg and Toubou to the north, and the Bulala to the east. One epic poem extols his victories in 330 wars and more than 1,000 battles. His innovations included the employment of fixed military camps (with walls); permanent sieges and “scorched earth” tactics, where soldiers burned everything in their path; armoured horses and riders; and the use of Berber camelry, Kotoko boatmen, and iron-helmeted musketeers trained by Turkish military advisers. His active diplomacy featured relations with Tripoli, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire, which sent a 200-member ambassadorial party across the desert to Aluma’s court at Ngazargamu. Aluma also signed what was probably the first written treaty or cease-fire in Chadian history. (Like many cease-fires negotiated in the 1970s and 1980s, it was promptly broken.) The administrative reforms and military brilliance of Aluma sustained the empire until the mid-1600s when its power began to fade. By the late 1700s, Borno rule extended only westward, into the land of the Hausa. Around that time, Fulani people, invading from the west, were able to make major inroads into Borno.
By the early nineteenth century, Kanem-Borno was clearly an empire in decline, and in 1808 Fulani warriors conquered Ngazargamu. Usman dan Fodio led the Fulani thrust and proclaimed a jihad (holy war) on the irreligious Muslims of the area. His campaign eventually affected Kanem-Borno and inspired a trend toward Islamic orthodoxy. But Muhammad al Kanem contested the Fulani advance. Kanem was a Muslim scholar and non-Sayfawa warlord who had put together an alliance of Shuwa Arabs, Kanembu, and other semi-nomadic peoples. He eventually built a capital at Kukawa (in present-day Nigeria). Sayfawa mais remained titular monarchs until 1846. In that year, the last mai, in league with Wadai tribesmen, precipitated a civil war. It was at that point that Kanem’s son, Umar, became king, thus ended one of the longest dynastic reigns in regional history.
Although the dynasty ended, the kingdom of Kanem-Borno survived. But Umar, who rejected the title, mai, for the simpler designation, Shehu, (from the Arabic “shaykh”), could not match his father’s vitality and gradually allowed the kingdom to be ruled by advisers (wazirs). Borno began to decline, as a result of administrative disorganization, regional particularism, and attacks by the militant Wadai Empire to the east. The decline continued under Umar’s sons, and in 1893 Rabih Fadlallah, leading an invading army from eastern Sudan, conquered Borno. According to Professor Umara Bulakarima, a revered Kanuri scholar and lexicographer who is also from the Sugurti nation, the Sugurti are no more than 7,000 people. It is believed that they have mostly been absorbed by neighbouring ethnic groups like the Kanembu. There are a few Sugurti people in the republics of Niger but their number is not known.
The climate of the Sugurti region is typical sub-Saharan savannah. Rainfall averages 22 to 27 inches per year, nearly all of it falling from June to September. The Harmattan, the wind off of the Sahara, blows cool from mid-December to mid-March and then may heat up to 100 degrees. The temperature may remain there for weeks at a time until the rains start in June. Most of Borno is flat, except for the southwest, where the rugged Bauchi Plateau rises steeply. The eastern part, on the shores of Lake Chad, is marshy. Because of the flatness of the terrain, the summer rains create swamps, and travel becomes impossible. The soil is sandy and covered with scrub bush, scattered thorny trees, and occasional baobabs. There are also large flat surfaces of hard grey clay at the bottoms of ridges, which provide material for buildings and pottery.
The Sugurti people are partly arable farmers and partly pastoralists. They live on Lake Chad Island, along the shores and villages in Abadam, Kukawa and Munguno Local Government Areas of Borno State. A few Sugurti are sedentary and these are mostly traders (selling natron, cattle, locally made goods and foodstuffs) who reside in the city of Maiduguri and other places within the state. The Sugurti people are gifted businessmen and their expertise in buying and selling goods is highly commendable. Their success in business is exemplified by the accomplishments of Bukar Bolori, a Sugurti man and one of the dominant figures in trade and real estate in Borno State. Other Sugurti men have continued to play prominent roles in the state administration and politics. Sugurti women are, however, less visible in society as most of them observe the Purdah code of Islamic ethics. There are however scores of Sugurti elderly women trading in the local markets of Munguno, Baga, Kukawa and even in Monday Market of Maiduguri.
The Sugurti people speak Sugurti, a dialect of the Kanuri language. In addition to the Sudurti language, they also speak real Kanuri and Hausa languages. The Sugurti are among the kanurized ethnic groups of Borno. The Sugurti language is similar to Kanembu, but they are a distinct group of people who are mostly nomads. They number about 50,000 and they are mostly found in the Kukawa Local Government Area of Borno State. The Sugurti language has no known dialect.
The political organization of the Sugurti empire operated at two levels, central and provincial. At the head of the empire was the Mai, a hereditary sovereign chosen from the descendants of Saif. He was the personification of the empire and the well-being of his subjects was identified with his state of health. Originally, divine rulers, the Mais were sacrosanct and preserved all the outward attributes of sacred monarchy long after their conversion to Islam. They ate in seclusion, appeared ceremonially before the public gaze on very rare occasions and gave audiences to strangers from behind a screen curtain. In strict theory, their position as both political and religious leaders of their people gave them absolute power in all spheres of government. In practice, they were constitutional rulers who had to heed the advice and ambitions of their councillors (Stride and Ifeka, 1971; p.128). One notices, again and again, the wide gap between royal absolutism in theory and despotism in practice. Besides a few councillors who held hereditary titles, the Mai appointed court and state officials and assigned responsibilities to them. All important activities of the state took place in his palace. But the official organ of government was the Council of Twelve, which advised the Mai on policy and saw to its implementation in his name
This council was composed of the great officials of the state who were selected both from the royal family and influential men of servile origin. Without their cooperation, the Mai was practically powerless; they, on the other hand, could govern the country with little reference to his wishes. The administration of the Sugurti empire was very similar to that of another Muslim empire, the Songhai which Stride and Ifeka (1971) described as “the greatest indigenous empire in the history of West Africa”. The progenitors of the Songhai empire were people living in small communities on both sides of the Niger river in the Dendi area. They included the Da (sedentary farmers), the Gow (hunters) and the Sorko (fishermen and canoe-men). They were invaded from the northeast and conquered by bands of dark-skinned Zaghawa nomads. Over time, they were forged into a powerful empire that reached the peak of its power in the 16th century under the Sunni dynasty. The Sugurti people, despite having a high rate of illiteracy, are nevertheless highly politically conscious today. Most of them belong to the All Nigeria Peoples Party.
Marriage is considered of high importance among the Sugurti people. It is abnormal for a woman not to get married by the time she comes of age. In fact, women get married in their teens and most young men marry in their early twenties. Polygamy is common. The Sugurti people marry and divorce according to the tenets of Islam. There are however some simple traditions that are still being observed in the Sugurti society and other Kanuri language-speaking societies. Apart from the wedding Fatiha, the nalle meaning, decoration of the bride with local pomade also takes place. The tattooing ceremony takes place usually on a Wednesday. It is usual to give the bride’s family gifts such as textile materials, shoes, carpets, soaps, cream, dishes, locally made thread [gashuwur], sari, henna [nalle] and perfume for its application among other things. The henna is used to decorate the bride’s feet and palms. This practice is known as nallero yekko and it signifies the beginning of purdah as enunciated by Islam.
Another tradition known as ferogenata is also observed among the Sugurti people during the marriage. The bride will sit upon a white mat as some verses from the Koran – “ayatul kursiyu” – are being recited for protection. Also, the bride will be advised on various issues pertaining to her matrimonial home. Thereafter, a reception known as maskeru is held immediately after fafarai as friends and well-wishers accompany the bride for dubdo which is a period of relaxation, arrangement and beautification of the bride’s room. It is usual to hold a ritual known as kalawa in which the bride is attired with traditional attires and bracelets or rakka shibe, njeran, muskaram or bracelets and murzam. The bride’s parents will organize karate which is a kind of marital benediction and fund raising ceremony for the bride. The proceeds are handed over to the bride.
Girl Child Marriage: Child/Early marriage refers to any marriage of a child younger than 18 years old, in accordance to Article 1 of the Convention on the Right of the Child. While child marriage affects both sexes, girls are disproportionately affected as they are the majority of the victims. Their overall development is compromised, leaving them socially isolated with little education, skills and opportunities for employment and self-realisation. This leaves child brides more vulnerable to poverty, a consequence of child marriage as well as a cause. Child marriage is now widely recognised as a violation of children’s rights, a direct form of discrimination against the girl child who as a result of the practice is often deprived of her basic rights to health, education, development and equality. Tradition, religion and poverty continue to fuel the practice of child marriage, despite its strong association with adverse reproductive health outcomes and the lack of education of girls. Poverty is a critical factor contributing to child marriage and a common reason why parents may encourage a child to marry in Sugurti society. Where poverty is acute, a young girl may be regarded as an economic burden and her marriage to a much older – sometimes even elderly – man is believed to benefit the child and her family both financially and socially.
In communities where child marriage is practised marriage is regarded as a transaction, often representing a significant economic activity for a family. A daughter may be the only commodity a family has left to be traded and sometimes girls can be used as currency or to settle debts. A girl’s marriage may also take place as a perceived means of creating stability. In uncertain times, poor harvest conditions or war, a family may believe it is necessary to ensure the economical ‘safety of their daughter and family, through marriage. In Sugurti society, the monetary value of bride price, or bridewealth, is linked with marriage. Bride price is a sum, either in cash or kind, used to purchase a bride for her labour and fertility. In the context of poverty, the practice of paying bride prices can encourage early marriage. Young girls, a resource with which their parents can attain greater wealth, are married off at a young age, for the bride price and also as a way for parents to lessen their economic burdens.
Haido: Beautiful Sugurti girls feature the kila yasku, shangeleti and goto hairdo.
Societal Etiquette: Sugurti society teaches its members some etiquette, such as respect for elders, honesty, hard work, endurance, perseverance and patience.
Staple food: The staple food of the Sugurti people consist of millet or guinea corn grits and spinach [karasu] soup or baobab [the dried leaves] soup mixed with beans, groundnuts and dried fish. Fura with fresh milk, yare yau [fried millet snacks] is also consumed. The Sugurti also consume a lot of locally made pap known as koko which is made from millet grains, ginger, pepper and sugar.
RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
The Sugurti have been Muslims since the 11th century. Two centuries earlier, the Sugurti succeeded in imposing their authority on the politically disunited and scattered communities of the Lake Chad Basin. Sugurti oral traditions credit this achievement to Say’fwa Dhi Yazan (or simply Saif) who established the Saifwa dynasty, the longest dynasty in Africa. The Sugurti are mono religious. They are 100 % Muslims. There is no known Sugurti Christian in Borno State. They live in accordance with the teachings of Islam. Whatever contradicts Islam is regarded as a taboo in Sugurti culture.
The Sugurti people are basically nomadic in nature and they are mostly found near and around Lake Chad. Most of them are tall, fair in complexion and strongly built. They are generally peaceful and industrious. They detest sycophancy and idleness. The Sugurti intermarry with most of the Kanuri speaking peoples. They are 100% Muslims. The average Sugurti wants to be treated with dignity and respect. They are wise and flexible to embrace changes that are likely to advance group interest and concern.
The major misconception about the Sugurti is that so many people assume that they are Kanuri. Even though they understand and speak Kanuri, they are originally distinct from the Kanuri. They are also distinct from the Kanembu nation.
Although the Sugurti ethnic group has a very small population, it is nevertheless a very important nationality. The Borno State government should do more to improve their standard of living by providing them with potable water, health care services, educational facilities and agricultural extension services.
Abubakar Isa Sani, a Sociologist, teaches at the Federal Government College in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria.