Muslim First Names in West Africa

Names carry associations. We aren’t always even aware of what associations our own names carry, let alone those of others. Over time, I’ve done a certain amount of thinking about Muslim names in West Africa. Perhaps what I have to say will be painfully obvious, but I thought I might share a few simple points in case they are helpful to other outsiders working to understand cultural context. What I say below draws heavily on my experiences in Nigeria and Senegal and I hope you will assume neither that these remarks apply everywhere in West Africa, nor that my observations apply only to West Africa (if that makes sense). I talk here almost entirely about people’s first or given names, rather than family names.

The first thing to know is that Muslims often name their children for prominent religious figures. Let’s take a few male names. Muhammad (rendered in many different ways), Ahmad (which derives from the same h-m-d root in Arabic), and Mustafa (Arabic, “the chosen one”) refer, of course, to the Prophet Muhammad. Male children are also often named for other prophets, such as Adam, Ibrahim (Abraham), Yusuf (Joseph), Musa (Moses), Harun (Aaron), Dawud (David), Sulayman (Solomon), and Isa (Jesus). The names of the four men considered Rightly Guided Caliphs by Sunnis are also popular choices – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, such as Hamza, also have many namesakes. A fourth category for names includes those that refer to God by combining the word ‘abd (Arabic for servant) with one of God’s names – ‘Abd Allah, ‘Abd al Rahman, ‘Abd al Razik, etc. Muslim men are also named for the Prophet Muhammad’s family members – his grandsons Hasan and Husayn.

Muslim women are often named for members of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, such as his wives Khadija, A’isha, and Zaynab, or his daughter Fatima. Muslim women’s names also sometimes come from feminine nouns in Arabic, such as Rahma (“mercy”). 

Second, in West Africa, two distinctive phonetic changes may occur to these names. One is that Muslims may pronounce Arabic case endings that are sometimes left silent – for Muhammad, we find Mahamadou; for Zaynab, Zaynabou; for ‘Ali, Aliyu. Additionally, Muslims for whom Arabic is not their first language may alter certain sounds, particularly the “th” as in the English “think.” So for example we find Usman or Ousman or Ousmane for ‘Uthman; or, putting these two phonetic changes together, Usmanu. In Francophone contexts, further spelling changes may occur: Abdoulaye for ‘Abd Allah, Ramatoulaye for Rahma Allah, etc.

Third, a name may stand in for another name. For example, if more than two sons in a northern Nigerian Muslim household are named Muhammad, the first may be called Auwalu (from the Arabic “awwal,” which means first), the second Sani (from the Arabic “al thani”), etc. Muslims who share a name with a famous historical Muslim personage, or with an older relative, may be nicknamed in honor of that person. In northern Nigeria, a Muslim named Usman may be called Shehu (from the Arabic shaykh) in honor of Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio (1754-1817), the reformer and conqueror. In Senegal, a boy named Malik/Malick may be called “Al Hajj” (even though he has not yet completed the pilgrimage himself) in honor of the Sufi leader Al Hajj Malik Sy.

To talk just a little about last names, they can be structured in a variety of ways. Two forms I am familiar with from northern Nigeria are descent-based names and place names. In the first model, a Muslim man’s middle name may be his father’s name, and his third name his grandfather’s name. “Muhammad Ibrahim,” in this format, would be Muhammad the son of Ibrahim. In the second model, we find a place name as the last name. Shaykh Abubakar Gumi (1922-1992), for example, came from the village of Gumi.

I hope these observations are helpful. It is difficult to generalize, of course. My main goal is to get outsiders thinking about the symbolic associations different names carry, and especially the ways that the early Muslim community and the prophets are constantly invoked in Muslim daily life through people’s names.

Guest Post: Interview with Amb. Mouhamadou Doudou Lo

[This guest post comes from Joseph Hammond, a freelance journalist. You can read more of his reporting on the 12th Islamic Summit here. Joseph in on Twitter here. – Alex]

Senegal’s Ambassador Mouhamadou Doudou Lo is one of Senegal’s high profile diplomats. His career has seen postings in a number of Arab capitals and also a stint as Senegal’s ambassador to Brazil. More recently Lo has served as Senegal’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. Lo has subsequently become a key figure in Senegal’s relationship with the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation. Senegal has traditionally played a leadership role in the OIC. Founded in 1969, the OIC is the world’s second largest intergovernmental organization after the United Nations and is based in Jeddah. The ambassador spoke with Joseph Hammond on the sidelines of the of the 12th Islamic Summit in Cairo.

Following bilateral meetings on the sidelines Islamic Summit in Cairo, Senegal decided to re-establish relations with Iran. Can you tell us why Senegal chose this as the moment to resume relations with Iran?

We reevaluated the situation with regard to Iran [at the Islamic Summit], the Islamic Republic of Iran is after all a fellow OIC member country and we now realize that it is the time for us to re-establish our relationship[with Iran] because we are moving in the same direction. Thus, our relationship has been re-established in a way that respects our sovereignty and our rights within the framework of the Muslim world and the workings of the OIC.

….As I understand it in 2011 Senegal broke relations with Iran over Iranian arm shipments to rebels in Senegal. Have the issues related to severing of ties with Iran been resolved?

“We don’t want to look backward and on this issue… [from our perspective] it has been resolved. Now we are looking forward and hoping to develop a relationship within the framework of friendship, a forward looking relationship with improved cooperation.

Senegal has been an active member in the OIC since the beginning of the organization. While this was the first time  the Islamic Summit was hosted in Cairo, Senegal has twice hosted the Islamic Summit including the last Islamic Summit held in 2008 in Dakar. What were some of Senegal’s achievements as president of the OIC?

Until the Islamic Summit in Cairo, Senegal had the extraordinary opportunity to hold the presidency of the OIC for an extraordinary 5 years. This is due to the fact that the Islamic Summit was twice postponed before the meeting in Cairo. The last five years during which Senegal has been President of the OIC, have been productive ones. During this period the OIC has seen a number of new achievements including a new logo and the renaming of the OIC from the Organization of the Islamic Conference to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. These are some of the many achievements toward the modernization of the OIC as an organization that Senegal has been a part of. We have also helped in progress toward other goals as well. In particular in the cultural sector, where we held a leadership role in the OIC Standing Committee for Information and Cultural Affairs (COMIAC).

Cultural issues were a big part of the past Islamic Summit. Since the last Islamic Summit, the Muslim world has seen the desecration of a number of historic sites weather in Libya or in Mali. Indeed, Muhammad VI, the King of Morocco touched on attacks on Mali’s “cultural heritage” during his speech to the Islamic Summit. How is the OIC seeking to address this issue?

Historic sites in the Muslim world need to be protected whether in Africa or elsewhere. The resolution on Mali passed at the 12th Islamic Summit in Cairo condemned the destruction of cultural sites in Timbuktu. The OIC must take steps to ensure the situation we have seen in Mali will not be repeated. We must preserve the cultural and historic heritage of [the] world’s Islamic monuments. These are sites important to [the] world’s history and heritage as well.

Senegal: Throwing Stones in Fatick

Fatick (map) is the hometown of Senegalese President Macky Sall and he served twice as its mayor. On Saturday February 9, three ministers (French) in Sall’s cabinet attended a ceremony in Fatick for the launch of the local branch of an activist organization within the ruling Alliance for the Republic (APR). Youth demonstrators (from within the party’s ranks) wearing red armbands appeared, and reportedly threw rocks (French). Why?

The youths who disrupted the rally of APR members demand work. They affirmed their desire to get out of unemployment “in order to help their parents.” These youths reproach local leaders, promised important posts by the president of the republic, for “having done nothing to help youths.”

Given that youth unemployment contributed to the emergence of youth protest movements against Sall’s predecessor President Abdoulaye Wade in 2011-2012, such messages carry political dangers for Sall. Recognizing this, the President stopped in Fatick yesterday (French). He said:

I understand the distress of these youths, I understand their message. And I was surprised when I learned what happened, last Saturday. But very quickly I understand that your cry of distress was a sort of reminder concerning employment, and above all that you would like a greater presence from the political authorities.

Sall appears to retain his popularity even with the youths who demonstrated. After his stop in Fatick, “some youths, among whom some had been at the head of the group of demonstrators Saturday, expressed their support for the secretary-general [i.e., Sall] of their party, whom they accompanied up to the exit from the commune of Fatick.” Despite such support, though, this flash of anger, however brief, will likely be remembered.

In Senegal, Inauguration of Extraordinary Chambers to Try Former Chadian Leader Hissène Habré

Hissène Habré, a French-educated political scientist, rebel commander, and politician, took power in a coup in 1982 and ruled Chad until rebel forces led by Idriss Déby overthrew him in 1990. Habré has been living in Senegal ever since. Pressure to put him on trial has come from numerous forces: groups within Chad, officials in Senegal and Belgium, the United Nations, the European Parliament, the African Union, and others. For years, however, some observers felt that Senegalese authorities were stalling on the question of whether they would try Habré. Human Rights Watch has a chronology of the case here, an overview here, and a Q&A here.

Today marks an important event in the case: the inauguration of special tribunal called the Extraordinary Chambers, in Dakar. There are a number of points to be made about this event. For one thing, as VOA says, “this will be the first time a world leader is prosecuted for crimes against humanity by the government of another country.” The case will have major ramifications for future attempts to try former heads of state.

Second, there are questions to ponder about how Senegalese politics interacted with the trial. VOA quotes Reed Brody, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch, framing the shift in Senegalese authorities’ behavior on the case as a result of the change in administration from President Abdoulaye Wade (in office 2000-2012) to new President Macky Sall.

“In 10 months, Macky Sall and [Justice Minister] Aminata Toure and the government of Senegal have moved this case more than Abdoulaye Wade had done in 12 years.  Finally, the tenacity and the perseverance of the victims is being been rewarded by this government,” [Brody] said.

What happens next? It’s hard to tell – AFP says that no details are publicly available about when the trial will start. RFI (French) gives a broad timeline: fifteen months (maximum) for investigations; seven months for the trial; and five months for appeals. That could mean that there is no final verdict until May 2015. In the meantime, this will be an important case to follow.

Crises in Mali: Roundup of Reactions from the Region

News is coming fast out of the Sahel these days, so I may default to roundups many days this week rather than attempting cohesive analytical pieces. Today’s roundup is about Mali and the overlapping crises there, but indirectly: the links below discuss reactions, both verbal and physical, by a variety of actors in the surrounding region. Before we jump into regional news, though, one important resource on the situation inside Mali is AP’s timeline of the French intervention.

Regional

  • The Guardian with a regional map.
  • The Washington Post on the regional refugee crisis.
  • Al Jazeera on the January 19 Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) summit in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. More here, with details on the ECOWAS force, its leaders, etc. (The other key acronym to know is AFISMA or the African-led International Support Mission in Mali).
  • Liberte (French) on the upcoming African Union summit in Addis Ababa on January 29, and the question of funding for an ECOWAS force in Mali.
  • Troop movements/announcements/news: Senegal, Benin, Liberia, Nigeria, and Chad (French). Not a comprehensive list, of course.

Algeria

Yesterday, at a press conference on the recent hostage tragedy in In Amenas, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal stated (French) that Algeria “will not send one soldier to Mali” and will concentrate on “protecting its borders and its territory.” Sellal added that Algeria “encourages dialogue among the different parties” in Mali.

Niger

This blog post (French), from a site with which I am not familiar, does a nice job laying out Niger’s attitudes toward the situation in Mali. Key points include Niger’s preference for securing Malian territorial integrity before holding elections, and Niger’s view that the situation in Mali is, for Niger, an internal security threat as well as a Malian problem. You can read an interview Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum gave to RFI here (French).

Mauritania

Al Bawaba depicts widespread opposition to the French operation in Mali, and to the possibility of Mauritanian military involvement there, among religious and political leaders in Mauritania. A coalition of three parties, however, supports intervention in Mali (Arabic, French). Mauritania has placed areas along its border with Mali under military control (French).

Nigeria

On January 19, gunmen attacked a Nigerian military unit in Okene, Kogi State, killing two and wounding five. The unit was preparing to deploy to Mali. The Nigerian military has blamed Boko Haram for the attack. Jama’a Ansar al Muslimin fi Bilad al Sudan (Arabic: The Society of Defenders of Muslims in the Land of the Blacks), a purported splinter group from Boko Haram, has claimed responsibility for the incident, saying that it was targeting the unit because of Nigeria’s involvement in the Mali intervention. IRIN (link above) has more on “JAMBS.” The group’s statement (which was issued in English, from what I can tell) is here.

Any other news? Please let us know in the comments.

Africa News Roundup: Mopti Area Clashes, Malian Refugees, Lake Chad, and More

More on the clashes around Mopti, Mali and on international reactions:

  • NYT: “Mali Government Is Left Reeling After Islamists Take Village Long Held by Army.” The village in question is Konna (more on the conquest of Konna from France24 here). NYT adds, “The Islamists now threaten a major airfield some 25 miles away at the town of Sévaré, which is also the home of a significant army base. And 10 miles from Sévaré is the historic river city of Mopti, the last major town [i.e., in this area] controlled by the Malian government, with a population of more than 100,000.” Information from different sources is still highly confusing and contradictory at times; for example, NYT describes Konna as “a sleepy mud-brick village,” while France24 calls it “a city of 50,000 people.”
  • Al Jazeera: “UN urges swift deployment of troops to Mali”
  • AP: “President Francois Hollande said Friday that France will be ready to intervene to stop al-Qaida-linked militants in Mali who have been moving toward its capital.” According to Sahara Medias (Arabic),  four planes carrying French special forces arrived in Sevare from Chad on Thursday night. More here.
  • Reuters: “France, Nigeria and Senegal are already providing Malian government forces with assistance on the ground against Islamist insurgents, a defense ministry spokesman said on Friday.”

IRIN:

In Mbéra refugee camp in eastern Mauritania, home to 55,000 Malians, just under one child in five is malnourished, and 4.6 percent are severely malnourished – two to three times the national average, according to a just-released November survey by NGO Médecins sans Frontières (MSF).

IRIN again:

Around 800 Nigerien families have been relocated from areas along the River Niger as water levels during annual flooding are expected to rise above normal and last until February.

The river is predicted to rise 540-565cm, which while not as high as recorded during the August 2012 flooding when it rose to 618cm, is above the 530cm alert level, the Niger Basin Authority said in a recent statement.

The flooding comes just a few months after more than 500,000 people were displaced and over 80 killed by floods in Niger following torrential rains in August and September 2012 which inundated thousands of rice farms.

On January 7, a Senegalese man set himself on fire outside the residence of President Macky Sall, and died the following day. “Cheikh Mbaye, 32, apparently said that life was better under ex-President Abdoulaye Wade, local media report.”

Reuters: “Two weeks of fighting in Sudan’s Darfur has displaced 30,000 people who are in need for food and shelter, the United Nations said after some of the worst clashes in the western region for months.” Recent UN News reports here and here.

Horseed Media: “Turkish Doctors to Train Specialists in Somalia”

Two on Nigeria:

  • Bloomberg: “The Nigeria police introduced a code of conduct for its officers to deal with allegations of extra- judicial killings and other abuses made by rights groups including Amnesty International.”
  • Al Jazeera: “Once counted as the largest water reservoirs in Africa, Nigeria’s Lake Chad is rapidly shrinking due to excessive use and climate change. The lake supplies water to four different countries, but it could dry up by the end of the century.”

What else happened this week?

Africa News Roundup: Ethiopia’s Transition, Sudan-South Sudan Summit, CAR Rebellion, and More

Deutsche Welle: “Ethiopia’s PM Marks 100 Days in Office.”

Sudan and South Sudan:

  • BBC: “Presidents Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Salva Kiir of South Sudan are set to discuss speeding up the implementation of a deal reached last September. The talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, follow reports of renewed clashes on the disputed border.”
  • Reuters reports that Sudan’s oil production now stands at around 140,000 barrels per day.
  • VOA reports that South Sudan will likely not resume oil exports before mid-March.
  • Guardian Development Network: “South Sudan is set to resume oil output but revenues are not yet being poured into schools, hospitals, roads and agriculture.”

A BBC video report on the economic impact of Mali’s crises.

IRIN on the humanitarian impact of the rebellion in the Central African Republic.

Magharebia: “Mauritania, Senegal Partner Against Terrorism.”

What else is happening?