views updated Jun 11 2018


ETHNONYMS: The Nupe call themselves Nupeci and refer to their language as Nupe. Their neighbors, such as the Hausa, Gbari, Birnin Gwari, Yoruba, and Kakanda, identify them by other names: Nufawa, Abawa, Anupeyi, Anufawhei, Tapa, and Anupecwayi.


Identification and Location. The Nupe are divided into different subgroups, including Batau, Kyedye, Eghagi, Ebe, and Benu, along with several others that speak related languages. Some Nupe have always lived outside the group's boundaries, and other peoples have lived in Nupeland. Although the Nupe are scattered over several states in west-central and northern Nigeria, the majority resides in Niger State in Nigeria. A sizable population lives in Kwara and Kogi states as well as in the Federal Capital Territory. The main towns are Bida, Minna, Agaie, Lapai, Mokwa, Jebba, Lafiagi, and Pategi.

The Nupe occupy a lowland of about 6,950 square miles (18,000 square kilometers) in the Niger Basin, mostly to the north of the river between the Kontagora and Guara confluents, from Kainji to below Baro. Despite its inland location, most of the area is less than 330 feet (100 meters) above sea level and never rises more than 820 feet (250 meters). Its ecology is typical of Guinea savanna, drier to the northwest and more humid to the southeast, but it also has broad areas of seasonally flooded land along the major rivers, notably along the Kaduna and the Niger.

Demography. The first official census, carried out in 1952-1953 by the British government, put the total population in the Nupe province at 319,465. Censuses conducted by the independent Nigerian governments in 1962 (revised in 1963) and 1973 are considered unreliable. The controversial 1991 census placed the population of Nupe at 1,062,000. The population of Nupe seems to be increasing as a result of advances in hygiene and preventive medicine in Nigeria since the 1940s. The death rate, especially among children under age five has declined, while the birthrate remains relatively high.

Linguistic Affiliation. Linguistic evidence suggests that the Nupe language belongs to a branch (Nupoid) of the Benue-Congo group of languages. Others languages in the group are Igbira (Ebira), Gbagyi (Gbari), Gade, and Kakanda. Nupe is related most closely to Gbari and Kakanda in structure and vocabulary. There are at least two markedly different dialects: Nupe central and Nupe Tako.

History and Cultural Relations

The oral traditions of the Nupe credit the foundation of the Nupe state to Tsoede in the fifteenth century. Before his time there were a number of small semiautonomous states in the area, such as Ebe, Gbidye, Kusopa, Benu, Beni, Dibo, Kede, Ebagi, Batsoi, Kupa, Cekpa, and Gwagba. Tsoede, who first took the title of Etsu (king), was an Igala prince from Idah, south of the Niger River. The Nupe state was brought about by conquest. The Nupe have influenced and been influenced by their neighbors in cultural matters, including language, religion, arts, agricultural techniques, and trade. Bronze figures found at Tada and Jebba suggest a connection with Ife and Benin. Stone figures found among the Igbomina-Yoruba of west-central Nigeria that have Nupe and Yoruba cultural traits suggest interactions between those groups.

The history of Nupe in the early part of the nineteenth century was marked by political instability caused by disputes over succession. This conflict culminated in 1796, when two rival Etsu, Jimada and Majiya II, claimed the throne. Islam has been an important northern influence, and the first Nupe king to become a Muslim reigned about 1770. The Fulani conquest that occurred in stages after 1820 was even more influential. At the end of the century British rule was established through the activities of the Royal Niger Company. The Bida Emirate was governed as part of the British colony of Nigeria until 1960, when Nigeria gained independence. During the creation of states by subsequent Nigerian governments, Minna was made the capital of Niger State, although Bida remains the largest predominantly Nupe town.


The Nupe live in large villages or towns called ezi. Small settlements are called tunga or kangi, words that signify a "daughter-settlement" of a village or town. The local arrangement of Nupe settlements is consistent, with clusters of compounds consisting of a number of walled compounds, or "houses," forming a ward, or efu. The wards are separated by stretches of open land and farms. A Nupe settlement with its scattered wards used to be encircled by a large town wall, whose remains can still be found in many places. The militant history of the Nupe led to walled villages and towns to protect people from attack. The traditional house consists of a number of huts, mostly round, built of clay and thatched with grass and surrounded by a high mud wall. In the twentieth century Western architecture and taste became common, especially among people living in towns. Sheets of corrugated iron are used in place of thatch roofs, and concrete cement houses are replacing mud constructions. Individual families that earned high enough salaries built their own houses rather than living in extended family homes. The refusal to contribute to the cost of the repairs of the extended family home often led to the early disintegration of those homes.


Subsistence. Most Nupe are farmers, and the staple crops are millet, guinea-corn, yams, rice, and groundnuts. Cassava, maize, and sweet potatoes (grown inland) are of secondary importance. The large proportion of seasonally flooded (fadama) land has allowed a greater emphasis on growing rice, sugarcane, and onions. This has encouraged the establishment of commercial growing and refining of sugar at Bacita. The Nupe practice hoe agriculture, using a large, heavy hoe called a zuku and a small hoe called dugba. The Nupe system of agriculture is based on shifting cultivation combined with rotation of crops. The low population densities and less intense form of agriculture allowed more of the original savanna to survive, and woodland products are significant, particularly from the shea-butter tree and the locust-bean tree. There are many fishermen in the villages on the banks of the Niger and Kaduna rivers and their tributaries. Cattle raising is engaged in by the Bororo Fulani, who move their herds from one pasture to another as necessity dictates.

Commercial Activities. Every Nupe town or village has a market and regular market days. Markets are held either once a week or every five days to accommodate the needs of each area and the system of local transportation. Every kind of trade and craft is represented in the markets, including agricultural produce, foodstuffs, livestock, pots, and tools, along with products and services of tailors, leather workers, barbers, and butchers.

Industrial Arts. The traditional industries, especially guild-organized crafts in which membership is largely hereditary, are done by men. These trades include blacksmithing, brass and silver smithing, glassmaking, weaving, beadwork, building, woodcarving, and carpentry. Nupe brasssmiths (tswata muku) are found mostly in Bida. The woodcarving tradition of the Nupe does not depend on the ceremonial or ritual use of artifacts but is almost entirely "art for art's sake."

Trade. The development of cash crops has involved mostly foodstuffs for the Nigerian market rather than industrial crops for exportation overseas. Nupeland was an important market center on trade routes. Those ancient trade routes have given way to motor roads and railways. Nupe exports rice, kola nuts, smoked fish, palm kernels, shea nuts, shea butter, groundnuts, and craft items to other parts of Nigeria and imports palm oil, salt, southern kola nuts, and livestock.

Division of Labor. A Nupe woman's obligations as a wife are to prepare meals for the family, perform child care, wash clothes, and bring firewood and water. Women spin, weave, cook food for sale at the market, or practice hairdressing. Men perform the primary productive activity, such as cultivating or transplanting crops; women occasionally assist in the harvesting. Women are in charge of preparing and marketing agricultural produce. The division of labor is flexible, and couples generally help each other when necessary.

Land Tenure. Under traditional conditions only men can hold or claim land. Lands were apportioned by the village head among the heads of families. The family head granted the right of occupancy to members of his family. Land cannot be sold, but it may be redistributed after the migration of the holder or the extinction of the family. The small individual plots (buca) are situated near the village, and the larger family plots (efako) some distance away. Old men who own plots are given preference by locating their plots near the village so that they do not have to walk too far.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Nupe have only one word for kinship, dengi, which defines relationship in the widest terms as well as in a more restricted sense. The basic structure of kinship is the extended family, which entails living together in the same "house" and recognizing a common family head, emitso. Kinship and the access to political and religious rights vested in it are determined by paternal descent.

Kinship Terminology. Within the kinship group generation, older brothers are distinguished from younger brothers, and the father's older brothers from his younger brothers. The older brothers, who represent the potential family heads senior to one's biological father, are called "father"; the younger brothers, who may be placed as junior relations under one's father, are called "little father."

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, marriage could be contracted in one of two ways: The would-be bridegroom asked for the consent of the girl (sometimes the girl suggested to her father whom she wanted to marry), or the marriage was arranged by the heads of the families. Polygynous marriages were very common both before and after the introduction of the Islamic faith. Marriage involves the payment of a bride-price by the groom, and postmarital residence is patrilocal. Marriage has no real meaning without procreation. Barrenness is regarded as a curse and a misfortune, and traditional means are utilized to secure fertility or cure barrenness. Divorce rarely occurs because men want to avoid the publicity and ridicule of divorce proceedings in Alkali court (Islamic court). Most marriages are terminated only by the death of a spouse. Widows must remain in the compound for five months before they can remarry.

Domestic Unit. The members of a household share a house and cook and eat together. Household size has declined as young people have migrated to towns to work or attend school. Most households consist of a nuclear family and relatives of the husband or wife. Children are often left in the care of grandparents when married couples move to town. In a polygynous setting each wife has her own hut or room, and in some cases all the women eat together. Maintaining a household requires the labor of both men and women. In times of economic hardship a mother may take over some of the financial duties of the household normally handled by the father.

Inheritance. The deceased's property is divided between his oldest son, other sons, full brothers, and daughter in decreasing proportions. If the children are very young, the money is held in trust for them. If the marriage did not produce children, a woman may inherit from her husband or the deceased's brothers may forgo their right in her favor if they feel she has been a very good wife.

Socialization. Infants and children are cared for by both parents, by grandparents, and by older siblings. Emphasis is placed on sharing, cooperation, avoidance of quarrels, and respect toward one's superiors. Children may be sent right to a boarding school for years, or their relatives may take them in, enroll them in school, and arrange their marriages. Children call these foster parents father and mother and when grown up visit them and give them money before visiting their biological parents.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social organization in Nupe villages and towns follows a consistent pattern. Normally, the village chief rules over his community, assisted by the village elders, the nusazi, or Old Ones. The elders are the heads of families or of groups of families that live together in one compound or efu. Appointment to the position of an elder is expressed in the titles the chief confers on these members of his council. The office of the elders is very loosely specialized. Certain titles reflect the special occupations nusazi and their families follow, such as hunters, drummers, and blacksmiths. No "house" may be excluded from a share of village offices or "own" more than one title. The village elders are the representatives of the chief through whom his orders reach the community; the informants on whom the chief depends, and the spokesperson of the people they represent both in their official capacity and as heads of kin groups.

Political Organization. Among the pre-Fulani (Islamic) Nupe the link with magic and myth, rituals and taboos, and the law of succession separated the king from his subjects. Fulani rule turned this semisacred kingship into strong rulership. The king became the highest rank holder in a royal nobility characterized by precedence and promotion. The elimination of primogeniture provided a system of succession that allowed for a balance of power that could satisfy rivals. The Fulani created emirs (kings), who in a loose sense became vassals of the Fulani Empire of Gwandu. Under British indirect rule in Nigeria the Etsu was still elected from the ranks of the royal princes by gitsuzi and sarakizi (title royal and non-royal elites) and assisted by a council of four.

The Etsu is the head of his government. He is responsible for law and order in his domain, carries out measures of administration, and tries certain legal cases, advised and guided by the district officer in charge of the division. The appointment of a new Etsu was subject to confirmation by the colonial governor of Nigeria, and in some cases the governor could depose the emir on the advice of the district officer. The Etsu Bida and other chiefs of the emirate are paid a salary in accordance with the importance of the office. Since the independence of Nigeria in 1960, the position of Nupe king has continued to be affected by the political situation. However, the practice of compensating traditional rulers with salaries and confirmation of new appointments to the throne has continued under subsequent Nigerian governments.

Social Control. Social control is geared toward ensuring social responsibility. Religious (desecration of sacred objects or places) and kinship (inheritance, violation of marriage rules, incest) offenses may result in ostracism or punishment by the deity. Simpler offenses traditionally were settled by reparation (gyara) or arbitration, and more serious offenses involving "criminal" cases called for formal judgment and punishment (sheri'a). The Koranic law introduced by the Fulani was modified by the British and continued to exist side by side with customary law.

Conflict. Before the British conquest Nupe history was characterized by conflict with other groups for the purpose of expansion, conquest, or revenue. Villages frequently were involved in the wars of the kingdom, either causing wars by rebelling against the central government or being forced to take part in the wars the kingdom waged against other groups. Three subgroups of the Yoruba close to Nupelandthe Yagba, Abunu, and Igbomina were victims of this aggression. The defeat of Old Oyo (katunga) by the Nupe took place in the early sixteenth century. The Nupe later penetrated deep into Yorubaland, sacking Ede on the Osun River and raiding some Ijesha villages. These military activities continued until the Nupe were conquered by the Fulani and then by the British Royal Niger Company in about 1900.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Precontact religion involved a variety of local deities and the honoring of ancestors. Among pre-Islamic Nupe veneration of the guardian spirit Gunu was the most widespread religious practice and represented the peak of ceremonial life. Animals are sacrificed in his honor, and their blood is poured out as a libation to him. Every eleven months the men go to his altar, where they kneel down and bow their foreheads to the ground. There is also a semireligious institution called Ndakogboiya, in which a man may complain of a wife's conduct and beg that she be exposed, together with any other guilty party. The man then mounts a stilt and appears among the people, proclaiming their evil deeds and receiving propitiatory offerings of goats and fowl. The Ndakogboiya lost most of its efficacy when Islam replaced ancient religious beliefs.

Jubril, a Nupe king of about 1770, was the first to adopt Islam, though Islamic influence in the area may date back to 1700 c.e. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, under Etsu Mu'azu, the impact of Islam was felt through the activities of Mallam Dendo, who came to Nupeland as an emissary of the Fulani.

Religious Practitioners. In Nupe communities religious rituals are relegated to different officials. At Doko the Dibo Saba ritual addressed to an ancestor chief is performed by the chief, while the sako ritual, which involves a small group of hereditary hunters, is performed by the head of that group. The hereditary gunnu priest is known as Gunnuko (Great gunnu) or, more specifically, Ndazo, "the rare man." In Jebba the Ejuko is the guardian of the lineage of Tsoede. The importance of these rituals has not shielded them from the impact of cultural change. After Islamization these activities were curtailed, and they now are regarded as Satanic worship.

Ceremonies. Ceremonial events play a major role in the social life of the Nupe. Ceremonial occasions include funerals, weddings, the naming of newborn, the coronation of a new chief, graduation from a school, the anniversary of Nigeria's independence from Britain, and Islamic and church events. The advent of Islam brought many celebrations to Nupe life: the Islamic New Year (Muharram), Id el Fitri (Ramadan) , and Id el-Kabir (falling in the month of pilgrimage). These ceremonies involve the giving of alms and the sacrifice of a ram by those who can afford it to commemorate the name of God. On these occasions people wear their best clothes and visit friends, relatives, and persons of importance.

Arts. At the time of the Fulani conquest the main forms of artistic expression included weaving, cotton spinning, and hairdressing by women. Other art forms include embroidery, leatherwork, indigo dyeing, straw hat making, mat making, the manufacture of rope and twine, basketwork, and canoe building. These items are not marketed overseas. Drumming, singing, dancing, and oratory (including preaching) are also prevalent art forms.

Medicine. Therapeutic practices among the Nupe include the use of natural materials such as herbs, grasses, roots, and the leaves of trees, which are processed by pulverizing, boiling, or mixing. The manufacture or application of medicine often involves invocations of the deity and sacrifices. The knowledge of medicine is transmitted through teaching and in some cases is considered hereditary. With Islam came Mal· lams, who administer cures and sell charms or amulets prepared in accordance with Islamic belief. Western medicine is practiced in hospitals and dispensaries, but the high cost of such treatment leads people to depend on traditional medicine.

Death and Afterlife. After conversion to Islam the Nupe came to believe that life emanates from God and exists with God in the sky. At birth it is sent down when the child is in the womb, and at death "God takes it away." During sleep body and life soul are separated temporarily; normally the soul will return to the body, but at times a person may die while asleep. Death is accompanied by ceremonial observance. This is consistent with the Nupe religion, which emphasizes ends rather than beginnings. While Islam has reduced the incidence of extravagant burials, ritual elaboration at the death of old people continues, since "they have seen the world" and there is no cause for grief. Drumming, singing, dancing, and feasting accompany their death. This festive aspect is absent in the case of younger people, whose death makes "the heart ache." The funeral includes the burial, called mba, and funeral rites performed after 8 days, 40 days, and 120 days in some cases. The number and scale of funeral rites vary with the age, sex, and status of the deceased. Old men and family heads and old women are buried in their sleeping rooms, beneath the floor; everyone else is buried in the space between the houses or by the compound wall. Sometimes graves are built from concrete cement blocks to make them more permanent and keep the memory of the deceased alive.

For other cultures in Nigeria, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


Falola, Toyin, and Akanmu Adebayo (1985). "Pre-Colonial Nigeria: North of the Niger-Benue." In Nigerian History and Culture, edited by Richard Olaniyan, 56-96. London: Longman.

Kirk-Greene, Anthony Hamilton (1972). Gazetteers of the Northern Province of Nigeria, vol. III. London: Frank Cass.

Morgan, William Thomas (1983). Nigeria. London: Longman.

Nadel, Siegfried Frederick (1954). Nupe Religion. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

(1961). A Black Byzantium. London: Oxford University Press.

Temple, Olive S. (1965). Notes on the Tribes, Provinces, Emirates and States of the Northern Provinces of Nigeria. London: Frank Cass.



views updated May 14 2018

NUPE (ˈnjuːpɪ) (formerly) National Union of Public Employees (merged with COHSE and NALGO to form Unison)