Title Origins

Sukur titles have clearly been borrowed and mainly from Bornoan (Kanuri) and Wandala sources (Table 1). The greater number of the former and the chronologies of the Borno and Mandara states might lead one to conclude, somewhat surprisingly, that the influence of Borno was both greater and earlier in this region than that of the later Mandara (or Wanddala) state. However borrowings may well have been indirect and staggered in time. Thus their potential for recovering history remains limited pending a full scale analysis of titles in the Mandara mountains. Sterner (2003: 218-21) provides the groundwork for such a study.

Table 1. Origins of Sukur titles

              (Barkindo 1989)
          (Forkl 1985)
            (Abraham 1962)

*Cama, an envoy sent by the Hidi to other chiefs, is probably borrowed from the Kanuri “Chima,” and there means fiefholder (Benasheikh 1983). Although cama at Sukur may well have been title-holders, the term is less a title than a job description.

Sukur and her Margi and Kapsiki-speaking neighbours tend to share a basic set of titles, some ultimately Bornoan and others Wandala, and some share forms of titles that could be Sukur in origin (Tlyam mbərəm and Mbəzəfwai). Another title, Fatə Tliɗi, translatable as “father of the chief,” occurs in Margi, Kapsiki, Mofu-Gudur and likely elsewhere. Most casted groups have a chief of smiths whose most important ritual function is probably to divine on matters concerning the community as a whole; their presence is also required at many if not all important ceremonies. However at Sukur and in the Margi polities of Sukur origin, the chiefs of smiths fulfil different functions, and like chiefs and some priestly title-holders have hairlocks, though theirs are worn on the back and not the top or front of the head. What is clear is that Sukur has more titles than any other group in the Mandara Mountains.

As titles were borrowed from one group to another, they became disassociated from their original functions (Table 2). Thus, for instance, Tlagama, possibly the earliest Wandala title, was there first an earth priest (Mohammadou 1982b: 132), and later chief minister of state (Barkindo 1989: 122). The Bornoan Midala, royal administrator/inspector, becomes a war leader at Sukur, Wula Mango, Sirak and Muduvu. Similar titles do not imply similar structure of government. The great elaboration of titles at Sukur and their distribution among the kin groups is indicative of their use as an integrative device (David & Sterner 1996). In other cases titles may have been borrowed almost in jest.

Table 2. Comparisons of associated duties

TitleSukurOther (B = Borno; W = Wandala; H = Hausa)
Dzarmachief’s heraldB: bodyguard/administrator
Birimajunior assistant to chiefB: ?
Makarmasenior advisor/supporterB: ?
Midalawar leaderB: royal administrator/ inspector
Dalatəchief of sacrificersB: ?
Bəlamaward headB: indigenous authority of village unit (Benasheikh 1983)
Tlagamabarber/drummer smith, ‘installs’ other chiefsW: priest of earth cult/later chief minister of state
Tləfu (2)1. judge & supporter of chief
2. chief’s personal attendant
W: ?Sultan’s envoy to Gamergu at Isga
Barkumaritual dutiesW: chief of butchers/tax collectors
Wakilichief’s deputyH: representative

Soje Hidi

There is an institution at Sukur that can provide us with a glimpse of how titles are adopted and change. The Soje Hidi, literally soldiers (from the English) of the chief, are neighborhood-based work groups that operate in the same year as initiation, that is every other year. According to some this institution was previously called Hidi mbadlavai (mbadlavai = male initiates).  Each Soje Hidi has a set of titled officers who oversee the organization of work parties for weeding fields amd other matters. The laborers are largely young men, although their wives and other women sometimes take part. The Soje title-holders ensure that beer and food are prepared, that participants’ houses are tidy, and that everyone works hard. The entire process has a military flavour. The present titles, several of them Hausa and others English, are Hidi, Wakili, Alkali (judge), Mufti, Dan Sanda or Inspector (see image right), Doctor, Sergeant, Corporal, Treasurer, Timekeeper, and President (of the junior men). Some have replaced earlier titles that included Dogari, Native Administration Policeman, and Bature, meaning white man in Hausa, who filled the role now played by the inspector.

Left: Soje Hidi clear the northern paved way near the end of the rains in mid-September 1996. Right: the Soje’s “Inspector” .

This institution dates back at least to the 1920s when some Sukur worked on Hamman Yaji’s farms. It may well be much older, and have, as the name Hidi mbadlavai suggests, involved primarily the initiates, who used to be older than they are today. We suspect that they were largely responsible for the building of the paved ways and the house of the Hidi.

Appointment of title-holders, inheritance and the transfer of titles

There is considerable disagreement in Sukur regarding Hidi’s power to appoint and divest holders of offices, some saying that he can change all title-holders except Mbəzəfwai, by which is probably meant all those with priestly functions. When Hidi Gəzik came to power he in fact changed only Wakili, Makarma and the senior Tləfu. The first two represent his “kitchen cabinet”, and the former senior Tləfu had supported another candidate for the chieftaincy. The other title-holders in the supporters category are today of lesser importance than they were in the past.
The following exchange in the meeting held in Buk on 24 September 1992 during Zwaku is revealing. (The account given below represents a précis of what was actually said.)

Midala, who had heard that reports of complaints about him were circulating: “Are we all here who have titles? I have heard that someone else was to be appointed Midala as it was said that I do not do my work well.”
Hidi: “If you cannot do the work and if it is your own wish to choose someone of your clan [Karandu], then so be it.”
Midala: “I have heard that another [Karandu] elder, * * *, has been appointed by Hidi.”
Hidi: “It is not up to me to select anyone of your clan.”
Midala: “Formerly, among the elders of Karandu, anyone who wished to take up appointment as Midala had to bring Hidi a granary of guineacorn, a basket of eleusine [used in beer making] and a small sheep. This confirmed him in his post. I have heard that * * * wants the post. Is he prepared to do this and to move house from Hanjerang [a neighborhood in Gwafak ward] to Duŋgom in order to be close to Hidi?”
* * * : “I am not ready to move my house from Hanjerang.”
Hidi to Midala: “I know you as Midala. If you are tired and wish to give your job to someone else you can do so. I don’t know who has been telling you these things, but it is not me.” (Counselors clap.)

Midala remained in ofice. This exchange is of interest for two reasons. First, it makes explicit that in former times Hidis would expect to be compensated by Midala and, by extension, other title-holders for ratifying their appointments. Second, Hidi’s ruling does not conform with earlier practice as described in oral traditions relating to the Midala title (above) in which Hidi is seen to confer the title first on Bakyang and later on Karandu.

Presently, it is agreed, if a title-holder wishes to hand over his office – expressed in sakun as handing his forked stick of office (jif dlegaw) to another – he might engage in informal discussions with members of his clan, but no clan meeting would be held. Most titles are vested in clans but in practice held by local patrilines (juk), resident in Sukur proper, on behalf of their clans. The office normally descends in the juk along lines of seniority, tempered by the aspirant’s presence on the mountain or willingness to move back from the plain (as happened in the case of Tləduv Ndiho), his desire for office and perceived ability to perform the associated duties. In cases where the title-holder is a member of the chief’s household (e.g., Tləsəku, junior Tləfu, and apparently Midala), the appointee has to be willing if necessary to move to live close to the chief.

Among the retainers, the smiths are tied by self-interest to the office rather than to the person of the Hidi. Others, and in particular the junior Tləfu but also Dzarma, whose office was more important when it included a police function, must be personally acceptable and loyal to the chief. The Tlyam mbərəm are now essentially honorific offices but, before the institution of Bəlama whom the Hidi has been known to change, the chief is likely to have counted upon their input on matters of public policy and opinion. Today, in the absence of specific political opposition, there would be little for the Hidi to gain by divesting such senior elders of their offices at the considerable risk of offending their clan brothers.

As to the title-holders with priestly duties, their functions become less critical to the community’s welfare as more Sukur adopt Christianity. But although it is now very difficult to obtain appropriate animals for sacrifice, it would seem that almost everyone including Christians is keen that they continue their work of protecting Sukur from sickness and evil and ensuring an abundance of children and crops. It is unlikely that any chief would have, or would have had, any reason to remove any of these personages from their offices. Rather it is in his interest by maintaining good relations with them to maintain his own position. Nonetheless, we have little doubt that, by influence rather than decree, Hidi could arrange for a careless or lazy priest to be “defrocked”.

The formal installation of the Ɗai Kərɓa by the Hidi is exceptional, emphasizing the symmetry and fraternity between the representatives of the first and last chiefly dynasties, ɗai (smith) and mbəlim (farmer), and initiating the special relationship of avoidance and respect that will one day terminate with the burial of the latter by the former. However, the installation should be seen as the formal recognition of this relationship rather than as evidence that the Hidi can appoint whomsoever he wishes from the Təvwa clan to the post. This he can no more do than he could in the past have appointed the Tliɗi Ɗai or the senior elder of any other clan.

Title-holders' benefits

Midala’s statement (quoted above) indicates that some if not all title-holders used to pay Hidi for ratifying their appointments. It would indeed be surprising if the process of appointment and holding of titles did not involve an ongoing series of prestations (gifts, counter-gifts and exchanges) between chief and title-holder although this is likely to have been more sustained in the supporter and retainer categories.

In the heyday of the iron trade the chief’s house must have been a busy center of redistribution. The following story was told by a senior elder of clan Dur:

In olden times Hidi owned everything – all the farms, all the mahogany trees. After harvest everyone would bring their grains to a place called Ir Kindək [the Place of Granaries, located close to the chief’s house] and it would be stored there. When people needed grain Hidi would send Dzarma to shout that there would be a distribution and people would come with baskets to be given grain. This went on until one day Tləfu, who distributed the grain, lifted off a granary cap and found the dead, desiccated, body of a man inside with grain in each of his hands. From that time on Hidi said that people should build their own granaries to keep their grain.

We need not accept the literal truth of this tradition, though it is possible that in bad times the chief served as a lender of last resort, but it emphasizes that the Hidi is perceived as having been at the heart of economic activity. The quantities of meat accruing to the Hidi at the greater feasts would have exceeded his and his family’s ability to consume or process. Much redistribution would have taken place and much of it through the title-holders.

In today’s cash economy the Sukur are less dependent upon social relationships and more upon their individual or household production and the sale of foodstuffs, craft items and, especially for the younger men, their labor. The frequency and intensity of prestations linking Hidi and his people, the title-holders in particular, are certainly much reduced but still continue even if nowadays in a more or less token manner. When bulls are slaughtered a small portion is offered to the chief and he in turn redistributes part of it and of animals he has slaughtered on his own account. For example Fatə Tliɗi receives a heart and some other meat.

There is however one major benefit of office that still accrues to certain title-holders: the usufruct of farms (fields) attached to the title. Many of these are in the Hidi’s gift, though of course subject to the qualifications regarding the passing on of offices discussed in the previous section.

In the category of supporters, Wakili and Makarma, and also Midala, are granted such farms, and, amongst the retainers, Tləsəku, the junior Tləfu, Dzarma, Tlagama, Tləgəm and Tlyam mbərəm Jira. Birima, a somewhat menial position, did not attract a farm. Amongst the priests, there are Dalatə, Tləduv and Ɗai Kərɓa, who has the biggest farm of all according to the chief, who also told us that a farm was associated with the Tliɗi Ɗai title. However, while we do not question that farms are perquisites of these offices, we are far from certain that the chief controls or controlled their attribution.

Those with no farms associated with their offices include the Fatə Tliɗi and the Makarma bin huɗ. This is consistent with a desire to avoid a conflict of interest affecting the advice given by the former and similarly to encourage political neutrality in the latter. Somewhat surprisingly the senior Tləfu has no farm allotted to him, possibly because he lives and has always lived too far from Jira, where the fields are located, to benefit from their usufruct; perhaps he was and is compensated in other ways. The same would seem to apply in the case of Tlyam mbərəm Təka. None of the six Mbəzəfwai nor apparently Jir dək’u or Barkuma held farms associated with their offices. Their responsibilities, although important, were limited to certain ritual performances for which most of the materials consumed, animals if not perhaps beer and pwa, were provided by public subscription – or more probably, in the case of sacrificial victims, somewhat arbitrary seizure. We suspect that the titles and the position of influence accruing to the office holder by virtue both of the title and of his seniority within his clan may have been, for the most part, their own reward. We have no information regarding Tləməzui.


The institutional system of Sukur titles can be approached from several perspectives. Read historically in conjunction with other information, for example legends of origin and clan histories, we find that these different sets of data intersect, and that, despite imperfections in our ethnographic materials, they mutually support our inferences and suggest avenues for future study, for example a detailed analysis of the diffusion of titles through montagnard societies. Considered broadly in their political aspect, the title holding system can be seen as an apparently effective mechanism for integrating the exceptionally large number of Sukur clans into a political whole. A closer look reveals how the system is adapted and can to some extent be manipulated to manage a complex political entity in which the chiefly clan is divided against itself but stands together with certain allies against the rest of the community. From an economic point of view, the system is largely paid for through the attribution, whether by the chief or by their clans, of farms to title-holders, but it also provided the structure for a complex of prestations that, certainly in precolonial times though less so today, helped to bond Sukur together economically. Our research is however inadequate to address the question of the relationships, political, economic, social and other, between title-holders and the clans of which they formed part.

Culture Of The Mandara Mountains.